Matt Brandstein

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Matt Brandstein

Matt Brandstein
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January 29
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SEPTEMBER 10, 2008 2:34PM

Mormon Calling

Rate: 17 Flag

Salvation

During seasonal bouts of deeply woven religious anxiety, often emanating from the pit of my irritable bowel, I find fleeting comfort toying with the idea of a conversion away from Judaism to a faith with less schmaltz in the traditional community meals. I'm still undecided whether my heretical religious flirtation is rooted in the speculative fear of burning in a lake of fire and brimstone for all of eternity for not accepting Mel Gibson's Jim Cavaziel personified Christ into my heart or merely the innocent promise of a snazzy Dockers wardrobe to wear to a weekly coeducational pot luck bible study group at the recreational center of my local Y. Maybe it’s just the simple fact that Christian iconography adorned tattoos and medallions embody that invincible tough guy look I'd love to flaunt on the city's grittier streets to diminish my nebbish factor since I am hardly likely to ever master the martial arts side of the Billy Blanks Tae-Bo video that I recently siphoned from a bit torrent in another one of my dim-witted schemes to develop an unstoppable fighting technique that does not require me to leave the sanctuary of my apartment.

Not too long ago, during a commercial break from a riveting episode of Family Feud, I found myself mesmerized by an advertisement offering a free DVD about living a good life from an organization called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It seems much easier to roll the word Mormon off the tongue than that theological word pageant, but I suppose outside of Utah that particular religious label connotes wholesome thoughts of the Osmond Family, a difficult sell for proselytism among today's culturally savvy heathen, assuredly stoned on drugs to willingly sit through a daytime rerun of a mind deadening game show like Family Feud.

Within moments of calling the toll free number to place my order, the technological force behind Caller-ID forever sealed my place inside the Book of Mormon's conversion contact list. I greatly appreciate phone calls from telemarketing strangers on a daily basis to quell some of my exquisite loneliness, especially when those callers are selling a more conversation worthy topic like deliverance instead of long distance services. However, there is no spiritual excuse worthy enough for calling during the sacred 8 PM dinner hour as has been frequently happening since my induction to the list.

The DVD took nearly four months to arrive, but like the emergence of a miracle, its golden cover, encased in gleaming shrink wrap, stood boldly apart from the day's other mail, which included such treasures as a Valu-pak coupon kit, an IKEA clearance catalog and my synagogue's thoughtful gift of multicolored Chanukah candles, more than half of which had been sadly pulverized to waxen dust in shipping.

Forsaking pressing domestic routines once inside my disheveled apartment, I nearly cracked the disk in half tripping over a growing pile of dirty laundry during my haste to load the film into my video player. I was in such a terrible rush to discover the potential for my conversion away from Judaism because the arrival of Chanukah candles flared my worst imaginations of an accidental menorah sparked building fire.

Despite my initial repulsion upon hearing the film's saccharine overture that accompanied the ornately gilded Old English text of the DVD's menu track, I decided to engage an open mind towards the filmmaker's blatant intention of spiritually transforming his audience. So I forced my film school snobbery to take a back seat to the repressed component of my psyche that is strictly governed by the sublime naiveté of a lobotomee. This thinking-cap-less screening method just seemed the wisest choice of suspending my disbelief towards unfamiliar religious hype. It was last successfully employed during my early childhood, when I devoted all of my religious efforts to worshiping the rock gods Kiss after having viewed their spectacular film debut in the paranormal thriller KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially sanctioned film version of their prophet Joseph Smith's life, The Prophet of the Restoration, is chalked full of much greater narrative fuel than Gibson’s theological opus, and unlike its theatrically released blockbuster contender, I found special favor with the manner in which this straight to video religious epic didn't contain any overtly anti-Semitic themes to stoke my easily accessible cringe-ability or fear factors.

For what is obviously a big budget independent film with lots of special effects, lavish sets and authentic 19th century period wardrobe, The Prophet of the Restoration producers would have been wiser to have spent the money on hiring more competent actors, especially to help better sell the supernatural aspects of their story. I suspect their religious convictions overtook their artistic vision to settle on a finished product that Northeast of Utah has the unintended potential to develop a Rocky Horror Picture Show like cult following that celebrates the movie as genuine camp more so than for its maverick religious message. But this really is the ultimate compliment for the Mormon Church’s cinematic religious outreach efforts because as all of humanities revered religious scriptures have proven for centuries, supernatural virtue is the ultimate camp archetype, and most often met with the least amount of logical resistance.

Upon its conclusion, I was struck by a twinge of the same earth shattering religious resonance underlying what I had experienced after a screening of Joe Esterhaus' camp piece de resistance Showgirls. Having viewed nearly every film in the Netflix catalog, I feel seasoned enough in the more esoteric complexities of film language to rightfully determine that Saved by the Bell's Elizabeth Berkley's sensational portrayal of showgirl Nomi Malone has the same prophetic, ne'er messianic redemptive qualities as the more modest Mormon religious order's founder, Joseph Smith as portrayed rather blandly by a forgettable newcomer in The Prophet of the Restoration.

In spite of their polar opposite lifestyles, the spiritual parallels in both Nomi and Josephs' respective struggles and ultimate triumphs are undeniably kindred. But as a narrative, I am far more drawn to the transformational lessons of a runaway stripper, headlining Vegas showgirl, feminist vigilante simply because this protagonist has more compelling reasons for spiritual renewal than a decent Christian boy, coming from an honest hard working family, whose greatest conflict, as revealed in the film version of his life, seemed to be his indecision about which church to join. If only the fictional Nomi Malone had actually lived to found a religious order, I suppose I'd have a much more persuasive argument to ditch my Jewish faith.

Fortunately, my prayer to constructively criticize this fairly obscure Joseph Smith biopic with someone that through divine providence also had the opportunity to view it would not go unanswered. One of my regularly telephoning Mormon outreach representatives, an affable guy named Jim, who claims to have "loved the film," was more than enthusiastic to begin a conversation about it. Unwisely, I opened the discussion with my thoughts on the redemptive themes shared by his holy prophet and my silver screen anti-heroine. This revealed a cultural impasse that would soon put the kibosh on our cozy telephonic interfaith film forum.

"I'm sorry, bud, but I don't watch any R-rated movies. It’s not something we’re allowed to do," he told me proudly in protest to my respectfully salacious comparison to his holy prophet.

This was the first time in my life that I carefully pondered the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system as a censorship meter. It never dawned on me that people actually use ratings to avoid seeing certain ideas in the movies they watch. Ever since childhood, I always assumed the ratings system was just a base film synopsis for those less cinematically inclined.

Rated G indicates cliché ridden misogynistic Disney content and/or excruciatingly boring. Rated PG is worth seeing only on a long transcontinental flight to pass the time. Rated PG-13 offers a mildly entertaining rest-stop for cable couch surfing. Rated R guarantees breasts and/or a nuclear explosion for multiplex popcorn chomping. Rated NC-17 promises a three second clear view of genitalia, in more than likely, a non sexual context and/or cannibalism in an art house cinema with crappy seats and a small, disintegrating screen. Although I am still unable to distinguish the differences between Rated X and Triple-X, and have yet to discover the double-X, these grades all seem to mark the holy grail of the ratings system, when the sacred promise of all orifice penetration is fully realized on the smaller consumer based video playback device.

Still determined to win me over for round two of my Mormonification challenge, Jim decided to send me a copy of the Book of Mormon. If only I could send my Mormon friend the Showgirls V.I.P. wide screen limited edition DVD in return, I know he would be much closer to feeling something more tangible than those spiritual highs he's been trying to sell me. I did not have the heart to mention that the door to my future conversion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints slammed permanently shut during our chat. I could never choose salvation over R rated cinema.

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"I suspect their religious convictions overtook their artistic vision to settle on a finished product that Northeast of Utah has the unintended potential to develop a Rocky Horror Picture Show like cult following that celebrates the movie as genuine camp..."

I attended a RHPS showing costumed as Dr. Von Scott, with my wife as Magenta, pushing my wheelchair. When I threw off my plaid lap robe to join the dancers in the aisle for a rousing chorus of Time Warp, my garter belt and black net opera hose were the hit of the evening. Ah, the memories.

BYW. Do you suppose Joe Smith ever pushed a rival down a flight of stairs?
My husband had a dog, a german shephard. She would growl at anyone who came at the door, and stop immediately when he told her to. When the mormons came, he didn't tell her to stop. The mormons asked if they could come in.

"Sure you can," he said. "If she'll let you."

The mormons gave up. My husband's dog got an extra treat.
This reminds me...I must write a blog about the time I was on Family Feud years and years ago. Yes, my lips have touched Richard Dawson's. I'll keep you all in suspense about whether or not we won.

You are right to say you have to choose between salvation and R rated movies. There was a time you couldn't drink Coke. But then the CHURCH bought stock in Coca Cola, so they changed the rule.

And then...all those cumbersome undergarments.
Bizarrely enough, double X movies require the presence of a rooster ("or some plausible looking hen made up to look like a rooster") in every scene and the the adult entertainment company has been at loggerheads with the livestock industry over royalty issues for decades. If the bird flu hits, you can forget about ever seeing a double X movie in your lifetime.
Mormons at the gate.

A friend once told me about his his old aunty who kept an American flag by the door, and when the twin saints came pushing Watchtower and Awake she would wave it in their faces and say, "You salute this flag and I'll buy those pamphlets."
So while I made a joke about some of the tenants of Mormonism, let me add a different note. I had a client who came out of the Mormon religion. This was huge. She was a direct descendant of Joseph Smith. She had been married in the Mormon Tabernacle in St. Lake City. Her husband was abusive. She left her husband and she left the religion. She is now considered an outcast by her family and friends. A heavy price to pay for staying true to oneself, but a necessary one. An excellent read by Martha Beck,
Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.
Matt, your writing is very good. In fact it is elegant.
With any luck, you will be a candidate for baptism by proxy, meaning the Mormons will get you through the gate even though you watch the thermonuclear theater and remain in your faith tradition.
I've already given them permission to proceed with my baptism. I'm a big believer in hedging when it comes to eternal bliss.

-sa
I find fleeting comfort toying with the idea of a conversion away from Judaism to a faith with less schmaltz in the traditional community meals.

Surely you jest -- for me, that is the best part of your traditions (in my limited experience of same)!
I'm happy for you Matt, having dodged the requirement of wearing the "sacred underwear."

Some of the elders are 90-100+ years old. It could be the extra support. In Illinois we have Nauvoo, IL, the town that became a gathering place for Mormons, and where an impressive temple exists today. Also Carthage, IL where John Smith was killed by an angry mob in 1844. Fascinating history!
Matt - I have very similar sentiments. I find the line between "faith" and religious fanaticism to be a very thin one indeed. I would certainly not say that I am a heathen, though a certain family member may beg to differ. I come from a long line of baptised Catholics (myself not included), whose personal opinions on religion in general are very close to yours. I do have a certain cousin, though - let us call her Barbie. She opened a store-front bible-restaurant. Yes, I'm serious. A bible at each place setting -reservations not accepted, so that individuals might get to know one another within their community. Yea - she's pullin' in the Jesus frequencey alright.
I happen to know a Mormon. She fled Utah like a bat out of hell.

Great post; very much enjoyed
I love this. Now, I'll always envision Elizabeth Berkeley in the disturbing straight to video movie--Showgirls 2: Mormon Country.

One of my best friends in the world is this lovely gay man who often talks with tremendous lust about the Mormon undergarments.
Beautiful writing. It's too bad the Mormons can't handle truth. If they had stuck to the facts, the Joseph Smith story would have been much more interesting, even Joe Esterhas could have written the script - drunken rages, pedophilia, murder, rape, betrayal - what more could you ask for?
Very funny post - I get a kick out of the way you choose your religion. I suppose it's as good as any other reason. And I feel the same way about my cinema experience as you do.

I have several friends who are LDS and even more professional associates. They invite me to their parties and family celebrations - of which there are many- and they joke about the size of the families and other issues that non-mormons might tease them about.

I think there's a lot of anxiety about the LDS, probably in part because of their temple rituals which are closed to even many of the church members. It's too bad that the face of the LDS isn't more closely tied in with the actual members.

These are the people that I've found to be honest, hard-working, dedicated and generous with their money and time.
Very funny post - I get a kick out of the way you choose your religion. I suppose it's as good as any other reason. And I feel the same way about my cinema experience as you do.

I have several friends who are LDS and even more professional associates. They invite me to their parties and family celebrations - of which there are many- and they joke about the size of the families and other issues that non-mormons might tease them about.

I think there's a lot of anxiety about the LDS, probably in part because of their temple rituals which are closed to even many of the church members. It's too bad that the face of the LDS isn't more closely tied in with the actual members.

These are the people that I've found to be honest, hard-working, dedicated and generous with their money and time.
Argonne is right.

I cherish my memory of Elizabeth in the Worst Sex Scene in Cinematic History.
Although Joseph Smith never pushed anyone down a flight of stairs, once, while he was being tarred and feathered by an angry mob, he got a foot free and kicked one of the screaming, painted faced guys in the jaw. Yes...I'm a Mormon. I'm sorry, I couldn't resist. And by the way, Wayne Gallant, I'll salute any Grandma's flag, anytime. It's the Jehovah's Witnesses that your friend had us confused with. We love Birthdays, Christmas, Arbor Day, even Chanukah facinates us.

C. Wood has things a bit wrong too, the information about "drunken rages, pedophilia, murder, rape, betrayal" is without source and is probably gotten from some Anti-Mormon publication. Come to any large Mormon function and you will see the wide-eyed, even costumed, picketers and the questionable nature of the source of many of the accusations that have been thrown Joseph Smith's way. I assure you that such "poisoned wells" are where much of what C. Wood has heard came from.

Mr. Brandstein's post is entertaining. I wish I could write like that. However, I just have to say that many of the conclusions drawn on this page, both stemming from the column and the posts afterward, are dangerously hasty and free of fair investigation. C'mon guys, ask more questions before you shoot. I think you'd find a lot to be desired about us, both official and otherwise, if you just listened with an open mind. Thanks for noticing the nice things, Ann Rhys Matthews. Would that all the world were as fair as you.
Hey, Matt;

Edit yourself, willya . . . your message is encumbered by too many words with too many syllables.
But how about those Mormons, huh?
Trying to save your soul . . . what a nasty thing to do!
Tsk, tsk, tsk!

Regards,

l.t. Dravis
Matt:
go to this web page and listen to the NPR synopsis of a new book out regarding the Mormon massacre on this date in 1857. Who knew they were such a war-like group of people? Apparently they ambushed an innocent wagon train heading for California, stabbing, shooting and hacking away at all but the tiniest children so there would be no witnesses to their rampage! http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94509868&ft=1&f=1032
You are wise to NOT let them in your door, Matt. With their history and your predilection for instant toileting upon confrontation...not a good fit at all. Enjoyed your piece as always.
Nic sez:"C. Wood has things a bit wrong too, the information about "drunken rages, pedophilia, murder, rape, betrayal" is without source and is probably gotten from some Anti-Mormon publication.:

I can't address the "drunken rages" issue, as I have never encountered any reference to it, one way or the other. And pedophilia and rape depend on your understanding of "age of consent", so there certainly is some basis for such charges.

The murder and betrayal issues, however, are well documented. Just use whatever resource you choose to investigate the "Mountain Meadow Massacre".
I wonder, I wonder. How well would this post have been received if the video you ordered had been about the Muslim faith?

What if a Christian writer had written something funny but faintly stereotypical about Judaism? How kind would the comments have been?

Good thing most LDS are social conservatives and won't be on this site. Whew.
My intention when submitting “Mormon Calling” was to share a lighthearted chapter of my admittedly flippant exploration of Mormon history via an unorthodox outreach technique. This journey was prematurely concluded by my underlying sense of religious subversion and my spirit of folly, which I would have applied to any religious organization including my own.

I am ashamed that this post has sparked some of my readers to leave comments that lean towards religious intolerance and the generalizations that can ultimately fuel bigotry against innocent people. All religions, including my own, embody a spectrum of traditions and rituals that require faith to avoid seeming illogical in a secular context.

Beyond the religious labels and associations that divide communities, it is my profound belief that we are all part of the same human family.

I apologize and take personal responsibility for any hurt my words may have caused.
My favorite Mormon movie is Tom Berenger in The Avenging Angel. It fits all of your requirements, sex (sort of), violence, death, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. And they hit the nail right on the head with the casting of Charlton Heston as a Mormon prophet in danger of assassination!
Matt, this is great writing. Irreverent, yes, but I don't think it's outright offensive. More like entertaining and insightful.

I'm a Mormon (an anomaly on Salon?), but Mormons know you have to be able to laugh at yourself. Most Mormons understand we are "a peculiar people" and I think as long as what's being made fun of is the Mormon *culture* and not the actual doctrine, which is very sacred to us, most Mormons are okay with it.

The comment comparing this article to one about Muslims or Jews brings up a very good point. As Mormons, we treasure our religion and we hate to hear the Lord's name taken in vain, etc. but we also understand that many people don't understand all that we believe to be sacred, so we take that into consideration when reacting. We will correct the incorrect statement and stand up for what we believe is right, but you can't get too mad at a person who doesn't know. I don't mean that to sound condescending, though I'm sure it does.

Now making fun of the undergarments, which I don't even wear, is offensive, as these garments are very sacred to those who wear them, but I think most Mormons know that people who make fun of those kinds of things don't understand what they're doing. It doesn't mean it's right to make fun of something considered sacred to others, but we know how strange the idea of this undergarment can seem to people outside the religion so we have to be understanding. Often when I was in church I would imagine how the whole meeting would look to an outsider, and yes, it's often strange. We know that.

Yes, the Massacre is a part of the Mormon history, but remember that it was not instigated by any church authority. The Mormons involved in that were absolutely wrong and in no way were their actions ever condoned by the LDS church authorities, or by any Mormons. Because that act was not sanctioned by our church, I feel the person making this comment is reaching for a bad example. Our church membership is made up of humans (Osmond and Romney families notwithstanding), and there are some horrible things that have been done by Mormons. That can never be excused. But the fact that so much effort has to be done to find bad examples of Mormon behavior should demonstrate that, for the most part, Mormons are pretty good people.