Mediocre Meditations on the Media
The Great Malaise
Few will challenge the proposition that there is a universal malaise in the world today, a restlessness, impatience, insecurity, smoldering anger, explosive violence, etc. We have become a danger to each other. It may be inevitable, for experiments have shown that overcrowding of animal populations has the same effect. Well, what else can you expect? How long do we have to be told that these are the Last Days? But now for the first time few will laugh at the proposition, least of all the more sophisticated who once took the Last-Days syndrome as a quaint and old-fashioned delusion. Not anymore.
Freud made the discovery (which was known to all the ancient poets) that we are all neurotics living by repressions that make it possible to deny the horrible reality. In a new prize-winning book by a worshipful disciple of Freud, we are given what he calls the New Freud, and this is it: “Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality.”1 Freud himself, we are told, was “always unhappy, helpless, anxious, bitter, looking into nothingness with fright.”2
So that is what is wrong with us; we are all scared to death with what lies ahead for each of us. “The iceman cometh,” but today he seems to be drawing closer than ever and young people have a morbid fascination with fatality, a perverse passion for chain saw murders, zombies, guns, and roses, etc. There is a prosperous business in manufacturing realistic trashing, gouging, smashing of bodies with oozing, festering, gory, slimy effects.
More sophisticated adults display an insatiable appetite for blood and revenge with unspeakably vile and cynical crimes countered by mandatory shootouts, car chases, and, of course, the final explosion night after night over almost every channel.
We are like sulky children wrecking and smashing things because at last we know what we really want and we can never have it (“I want it all and I want it now”).3 (What they really want is the gospel, but that comes later.) Today the word to conjure with is career—there is your answer; a career will pretty well take care of everything—security, respectability, the future is yours, and, of course, this is the biggest letdown of all. A career is just once around the track, a carriere. Studs Terkel’s interviews with our most successful men reports the bitterness and disillusionment, because careers must always end and nothing is more forlorn than a has-been. The other response to the perennial threat of the future is the hedonism of Marcuse or Robert Brown, thought to be very modern—eat, drink, and be merry. Alma said it best: Korihor preached of the real world to the people, “causing them to lift up their heads in wickedness, ye, leading them to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead that was the end thereof” (Alma 30:18).
It is the Terrible Question that has us all intimidated and acting like characters out of E. T. Hoffman. And the Terrible Question is: “Is this all there is?” Is there to be an abrupt end of the good life before it is even started? Or of the unhappy life before there has been a chance for happiness? Or as the psychiatrist tells us, are we with our immense endowment and endless capacities to be shut off before we have had a chance to experiment in even one direction, etc.?
The Church Fathers believed in an afterlife but not in a resurrection of the flesh. Are we to settle with St. Jerome with being absorbed into “the nothing from which we came”?
We do hear of ghosts, live spirits; very recently there has been a sudden flood of movies dealing with spirits, ghosts, other lives, and the other world.
But only Moroni has something of real consequence to give us. There is that clinical description of just what he was like and what happened when he came. And then there is that handing over of solid metal plates—we didn’t see them, but they were translated in a work of such staggering prodigality that it may risk challenging to call it the most remarkable achievement of the human mind—that is if Joseph Smith was not telling the truth.
After all, what everyone really wants is “life and that more abundant,” as the Lord says, and not only more abundant than we are getting, but it should be eternal, not cut off in the middle or running down to imbecility the way it always is. “To be thus is nothing,” said a man who had reached the pinnacle of success, “but to be safely thus . . . “4
Only the gospel can offer us that. Today only the gospel even pretends to. It is a shulkhan arukh, a table spread for a banquet, a full-course dinner, and we are sent out to invite the world to a feast. Are we holding back? Are we telling them what they are missing? The guests have failed to appear in numbers in other dispensations: “[But they] that were bidden to the wedding . . . would not come . . . . Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner . . . . Come unto the marriage . . . . But . . . they went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise, . . . but when the king heard thereof, he was wroth” (Matthew 22:3–7). They all preferred the real world—that is the other word by which we conjure today. The king might have said, “The menu doesn’t attract you? Then we will make it a businessman’s lunch or even a prayer breakfast, if you will, and let you order just what you want.”
Why do we hang back and temporize? Why the cautious approach, the soft sell? Are we waiting for more favorable conditions? Does not that argue a lack of faith in ourselves?
Just what is it they all want today? It is the things which the two Nephis state explicitly that men should not seek after.
1 Nephi 22:23: Gain, power over the flesh, to become popular, and finally, lusts of the flesh.
3 Nephi 6:15: Power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world.
You will note that this pretty well covers our prime TV and our glitzy advertising. By a singular necessity these are also four attributes of God who is All Powerful, to whom all things belong, whom all things praise, and who rejoices in his world and in his creatures. What they all want (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and the psycho-analysts agree on this) is simply to be like God! Freud admitted that more fantastic than any science fiction was “man’s own inner yearning to be good.” And if you think of it, that is the case. Today even “in the crooked currents of this world,” everyone has a ready explanation for his behavior, which somehow is always made out to be virtuous. It has become one of the great mass products of our time, the stamp of our culture—the easy, ready, earnest, innocent, reasonable explanation, with graphs and charts if necessary to make any outrageous action, collusion, broken promise, betrayal, etc. not only excusable but commendable. We could began with Saddam and Abu Nidal and go right down the list to much nearer home.
Since everyone wants to be virtuous, we should have an easy time selling our products, but it is not so. Consider what we have been born to or accepted: “The Spirit of God like a fire, . . . latter-day glor[ies], . . . visions and blessings of old, . . . angels are coming to visit the earth, . . . the Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding, . . . the knowledge and power of God are expanding; the veil o’er the earth is beginning to burst.”5
Is that the real picture today? Where is the hunger? Why are people so complacent?
The key word to this dispensation is fulness. The word appears sixty-three times in the Doctrine and Covenants and thirty-one times in the Book of Mormon. After all, this is the dispensation of the fulness of times; go down the list:6 “The fulness of mine intent” (1 Nephi 6:4), “received the fulness of the gospel” (1 Nephi 10:14), “through the fulness of the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 15:13), “the fulness of the wrath of God” (1 Nephi 17:35), “may God grant, in his great fulness” (Helaman 12:24), “the fulness of these things” (3 Nephi 16:7), “I will bring the fulness of my gospel” (3 Nephi 16:10), “knowledge of the fulness of my gospel” (3 Nephi 16:12), “my joy is great even unto fulness” (3 Nephi 27:30), “the Father has given me fulness of joy” (3 Nephi 28:10), “the fulness of my scriptures” (D&C 42:15), “which rest is the fulness of his glory” (D&C 84:24), “he receives not of the fulness at the first” (D&C 93:13), “the fulness of the record of John” (D&C 93:18).
The doctrine of the fulness has not been on earth until now. It cannot be received all at once but our obligation is to receive everything we possibly can so that we can be ready for more. The fulness is not that infinity of knowledge stretching into the eternities which we envisage in the eternities, but the fulness of what one is capable of receiving. Not to receive all that one can comprehend is to “reject the fulness of my gospel” (3 Nephi 16:10).
How that word fulness binds and commits us! If we want to know how we should begin to deliver the message, we have all the admonitions of the early saints to go by. It is from the first the voice of warning: “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation” (D&C 6:9).
Nothing but repentance? They are not going to like that: “He that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice [the fulness]; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption . . . . Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save . . . Cry unto him when you are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks, . . . in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening, . . . against the power of your enemies, . . . against the devil, . . . over the crops of your fields, . . . over the flocks of your fields [this is poetry, hence the repetition. Professor Fecht has recently shown that virtually all Egyptian writings are in verse!], that they may increase . . . . Ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness . . . . And now, . . . after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy . . . and impart [not] of your substance, . . . behold, your prayer is vain . . . . Therefore if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross” (Alma 34:16–29).
This a fulsome and passionate appeal, you will agree. But is it not exactly the sort of thing that comes up to the demands of these desperate times? Of course this sort of thing does not go well over the air; it guarantees a swift shifting of channels. Why not try it? Why not a bold experiment just to see what happens?
This being the last time, what is rejected of the fulness will not be handed on but taken elsewhere. Here we should pay closer attention to what is presented by the Lord as a lively possibility that concerns us. As he was about to take his leave of the Nephites for the last time, Jesus told them that there was one last thing of great importance that he must leave with them for the later inhabitants of the land.
“I command you that you shall write these sayings after I am gone, . . . that these sayings which ye shall write shall be kept and shall be manifested unto the Gentiles, that through the fulness of the Gentiles, the remnant of their seed [the Jews and other tribes of Israel], who shall be scattered forth upon the face of the earth . . . may be brought to a knowledge of . . . their Redeemer . . . . And blessed are the Gentiles, because of their belief in me, . . . in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, . . . notwithstanding they have . . . scattered my people who are of the house of Israel; and my people who are of the house of Israel . . . have been trodden under feet by them, . . . smitten, . . . afflicted, . . . slain, . . . cast out from among them, . . . hated by them, . . . to become a hiss and byword . . . . And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel [and they cannot sin against a gospel that they have not first received], . . . and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits [note what vices head the list of horrors], and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders [we lead the world 10 to 1 in that], and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations [BCCI, a contemporary banking scandal, qualifies here]; and if they shall do all those things and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them” (3 Nephi 16:4–10).
That is an unpleasant topic for discussion. Still, it does not have to be: “But if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me, saith the Father, behold they shall be numbered among my people, O house of Israel” (3 Nephi 16:13).
But if they don’t repent, he tells us, “I will bring my gospel from among them” (3 Nephi 16:10), and, remembering the house of Israel, says, “I will bring my gospel unto them” (3 Nephi 16:11).
Readers of the Book of Mormon are puzzled by the long and repetitious fifth chapter of Jacob. I have heard speakers complain of its length and boredom. It is easily one of the most important discourses in the book, laying down with great clarity the justice of the preaching and the policy of distributing it throughout the world to those places where a fulness will be accepted. The Lord of the vineyard is willing to take his prize fruit to whatever patch of ground will receive it. He goes farther than that; he makes every effort to make the precious trees flourish in every part of the globe where it proves at all possible. If it does not work in one place, he takes it to another; if that one turns back, he moves it. If things have improved in a former spot, he goes back to work on that. It is a policy of endless patience, training, adaptation, experimentation, cultivation, grafting, transplanting, fertilizing, watching and waiting, etc.
The Lord instructed his disciples to follow his own practice: “When they persecute you in this city, flee ye unto another” (Matthew 10:23).
Here we have a best case and a worst case. The best case is that the Gentiles repent and are taken in with the rest of the adopted house of Israel. It has happened both with the Nephites and the Jaredites. So we don’t give up hope. The thrust of the message is that the Lord is leaving the door open to the very end. But there are disturbing undertones in the message which has the flavor of the rest of the Book of Mormon—too much of the human tragedy. But still, God is leaving the door open for us to the very end.
The worst case is presented as a distinct possibility; it would not be there or be so powerfully emphasized—delivered by specific command of the Father as the last and most emphatic message to the descendants of the Nephites and the Gentile successors on the land. “And wo be unto him that will not hearken unto the words of Jesus, and also to them whom he hath chosen and sent among them . . . . It would be better for them if they had not been born” (3 Nephi 28:34–35). So ends the message.
No matter which way things go, as I tell myself repeatedly, the admonition of Mormon to his son holds to the very end, delivered as it was after all was lost: “And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness [what happened to Communism?], and rest our souls in the kingdom of God” (Moroni 9:6).
Whether we are spreading the gospel from a permanent center or transplanting it to more fertile soil, it is all the same work. There is nothing said about taking the gospel away from the earth; on the contrary, we are told it is now restored for the last time; but with the fulness it is another matter.
With Fear and Trembling
The ancient apostles had no choice but to give it to them straight, even though that guaranteed mobs and imprisonments. The word imposes an awful responsibility with those who make it their profession.
A phenomenon viewed with solemnity in what are traditionally the two most ancient writings in existence, the Shabako text of the Memphite Theology (though transmitted in a nineteenth Dynasty text, it is of predynastic content), and the Sefer Yetzirah, which was held by most of the earliest rabbis to be the world’s oldest book and a composition of Abraham.
Both writings tell of the seven openings of the head, the seven orifices or receptors—two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. The Egyptian account tells how these receptors receive impulses, energy quanta from the world outside, organize it in the brain, give it meaning in the breast where values are imparted, the thymos of the Greeks, the seat of emotion. When the individual has thus composed images and impressions of the outside world he is prepared to communicate to others.
What comes in by seven receptors goes forth by the one powerful projector, which is the sacred word of mouth. The logos is more than a myth; it is actually the only way with which we convey our thoughts and beliefs and convictions to others; the only way in which they can have any image of the world we are experiencing. By the word alone we make a common universe of discourse.
So we can easily see why we should watch our words with fear and trembling, and why a lie is the most heinous of all crimes. Joseph Smith said that the devil will tell a thousand truths to put over one falsehood because that one falsehood can disrupt and destroy the whole structure of truth. To distort my picture of the world by a lie is to render real communication impossible and human relationships the hopeless morass they have become.
We risk lying when we exaggerate and misrepresent any product. Should we treat the gospel as a product? Should we strive to make it attractive to an indifferent public? Or preach the straight gospel to the few who will listen?
When surveys by the Wall Street Journal, cover stories by Newsweek and Time,7 expose us as a nation of liars, we can take it as an invitation to go against the stream. But that way you will never sell anything. And that is the problem.
The ancient Apostles did not break the news gradually. What they had was the best possible news, and they came right out with it even if that meant getting mobbed and thrown in jail. Their policy was to give the whole message and let those susceptible to it react: “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” (John 10:14).
If we saturated the air with the straight gospel, some would certainly hear it and might even take action. But what would happen to the ratings? We have never risked trying to find out.
What put Brother Edwards onto my trail, he has told me, is an article I wrote thirty-five years ago on ancient rhetoric and its ravages.8 It destroyed ancient society. Defined as “the art of pleasing the many,” it followed public taste and therefore always pushed downhill—rhetoric cannot lose: It is the ever victoriosa loquacitas, but the civilization that accommodates and adapts itself like a chameleon cannot win. Rhetoric is not to be cured of its vices by any technical or electronic refinements, for those vices are its very nature—the healthy cancer cells are the ones that kill, and rhetoric is a cancer. An example of this skillfully adaptive parasite is the manner in which commercials follow styles. Many of the big ones now have strong religious undertones. Recent commentators have noted the strong leaning toward spirits, ghosts, revenants, postdeath experiences, and the like in popular movies. In advertising the trend has been to sensitivity—a lengthy illustrating of heroic and climatic moments in the life of Winston Churchill culminating in celebrating those same sterling qualities of character animating the Southern Bell Telephone Company. We are now told that life simply cannot get better than following up some minor achievement, such as making a sale or winning a game or contemplating the future of one’s children as successful doctors with a visit to McDonalds. And the point is that they really think that is the best that life has to offer. Babies are exploited shamelessly, with a crooning, husky, cracked, affectionate, slightly choked-up voice of an elderly gent to sell the product, which can be a truck, or a tire, or a power mower—somehow the baby shames you into buying it. The key word is message. What all these pitch-men have for the world is a message. It necessarily works by the principle of perverted values, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mountain reflected in the lake; the less necessary an object is, the more it must be praised to sell it so that those who watch thousands of ads end up with a complete reversion of values, the most important things in life being deodorants, manageable hair, a sexy car, things to eat and drink, and, above all, the achievement of an absolutely perfect body without which the individual can never cease to be a reliable customer. This is what the Book of Mormon calls being carnally minded, the mainstay of all public relations. If you are perfect, then carefree is the operative word. To be youthful, beautiful, and at the beach where nobody does anything and nobody wears anything has become the common denominator. It is also the perfect Freudian escape to be free from the anxiety of age and death. What we want is a Paradise, and that is what Madison Avenue is out to give us.
Here is a surprise. What the gospel promises is exactly the same. Joseph Smith has given us in the Standard Works the news that should make millions deliriously happy. As a matter of fact that has been the actual effect that the message has had on almost everyone who has accepted it. Why are we then holding back? Why do we offer sitcom family skits, meet the Mormons, Mr. nice guy. It is a bid for acceptance and what people most accept is the ordinary. They are, in Kierkegaard’s expression, seeking refuge in the trivial. Refuge from what? From the gospel, from the culture shock of bonding with eternity.
The uncompromising nature of the gospel makes it impossible to play around in this manner: “Wo unto him . . . that wastesth the days of his probation, for awful is his state” (2 Nephi 9: 27). We used to sing the old sectarian hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” in which we expressed awareness that the blind heathen desperately need exactly what we have—and can we hold it back? Can we deny it to them? They don’t know how badly they need it. But today the need is becoming desperate.
For us, seeking comfort in the conventional, it is above all acceptance of the big-time. I have a son who once worked in the Church medium who had a friend working with Carl Malden as his personal assistant. To help Mike out, he asked him to send his manuscript to him in Hollywood and he would send them back to Utah with a Hollywood postmark. That would make them acceptable to a reader, for, as Mike said, those in Salt Lake were completely cowed by the industry. He calls it our helplessness, and it is very crippling. For example, when they got Jimmy Stuart to play in a Christmas drama, everybody thought that we had arrived—there was just one catch—the film itself was dismally amateurish. What could be done about that? Must we prove that we are slick and professional? Does the typical Priesthood or Sunday School manual carry the impact of the Scriptures with a dozen or so disconnected excerpts for four or five minutes discussion in a half-hour lesson? Must we go into ecstasies of self-congratulation any time the outside media take notice of the Mormons? Many were thrilled when Time Magazine recently characterized Mormons as spending their days praying, having children, and making money.
Recently, a speaker at Ricks College told his audience how to sell the gospel. He had his guitar and he sang jingles; the jingles had no merit and made very little sense, but he did not apologize for that for the point of his talk was that in selling the gospel the only thing that really counted was the Barnum principle—to have something stick in people’s heads no matter what, that would remind them of your business.
When I started writing things down years ago, Richard L. Evans used to admonish me to follow the rule he always followed: “Always think of yourself as addressing the tiredest farmer in Koosharem.” It was the equivalent of Napoleon’s advice to one writing military dispatches to make sure that the stupidest corporal could understand them—only then were they really clear. I am afraid I have not followed Brother Evans’s advice, though I admit it is the general rule in the Church.
But how can we possibly avoid these tried and true tricks and devices? The way one of my sons did. He had a good job teaching filmmaking at BYU discussing the merits and weaknesses of various films, naturally the most significant ones. But one day he received an order never to show or even discuss any R-rated film in his class—no matter how eminent the drama or how unqualified the judges. I hasten to add that this restriction did not come from any department in the BYU or the University itself. Some student had written home complaining that an R-rated movie was discussed, whereupon his parents had written to someone in Salt Lake, and you know the rest. What was he to do? He promptly resigned his good job, family or no family, because to him the issue was instantly clear, and I have never known a more honest person. I had a niece who gave up a job in the media when it became clear that she would have to assist in doctoring a documentary.
Through the years I have seen many changes in teachings and practices in the Church. All have been in the direction of convenience, efficiency, accommodation, taste, fastidiousness. It was exactly such accommodation as the great church historian Louis Duschesne showed which turned the ancient church into a popular world-church to which it had only distant resemblance.
Can the media be led to the honest in heart or must missionary contact be eye to eye, spirit to spirit, mind to mind? From the very beginning in the days of Adam the written word was revealed to implement the spreading of the gospel. Then why not the broadcasting of voice and image? Hear O Israel! Is it because the speaker does not really come into your home? He does not see you and you do not look at him reading from the teleprompter.
But the book is something else. All you need is a smooth surface and something to scratch it with, and you are in a position to communicate to the ends of the earth and the end of time. As Galileo said, no other invention can compare. We believe it began with Adam as a gift to Adam. By it the most delicate nuances of thought, the subtlest feelings, the profoundest insights can be conveyed over any span of time and space from one thinking person to another. The only catch is that the message must be read. And here the media do their greatest disservice. Even where broadcasting rules it is simply the script, the written word, that is being conveyed.
One hears increasing complaint, e.g., via Sunstone, of the shallow and insipid nature of our teaching materials today. Actually, it has always been that way. Joseph Smith laid it on the line: “How vain and trifling have been our spirits, our conferences, our councils, our meetings, our private as well as public conversations—too low, too mean, too vulgar, too condescending for the dignified characters of the called and chosen of God, according to the purposes of His will, from before the foundation of the earth.”9
It is quite inconceivable that the gospel should ever be under condemnation though the Church has been from time to time. They are not the same thing. The one is a teaching. The other an organization to foster that teaching. Is the organization free to adjust and control the doctrine? Can it decide on the basis of public relations what would be most appropriate for what audience and for what occasion? What to emphasize and what to play down? Does any organization through its officers have that discretion? This is where the fulness comes in.
When the time full, or the cup is full, or the fruit is fully ripe, we must accept it in that condition. Nothing can be added because it is full. If ever there was a single package, it is the gospel teaching we have heard from childhood: faith, repentance, and baptism. The first includes the Articles of Faith, the second includes all our moral precepts and practical covenants, the third is the passage from one condition to another, one world to another, one life to another. All accept the great scenario in its fulness.
The principal guide is certainly the Book of Mormon. The divinity of that work can be sustained by one argument alone, if that were all we had, namely, the sheer prodigality of the thing. A tapestry unequalled in all the library for its richness and detail, an inexhaustible well of knowledge, and the prophetic book of the age.
Even the Book of Mormon confesses limitations: “O that I had the voice of an angel!” Some consider the miraculous powers of the media to come close to that condition. What then would the angel say? What angels always say when they appear to men. First, don’t be afraid, fear not, I bring good news. This is necessary because the gospel always has that culture-shock when our collective consciousness runs into the brick wall requirements of righteousness.
Psychotherapy can cure you of the neurotic lies you live by to block out the real horror of your condition—we are all hiding in the broom closet. Freud said he could liberate you from that but only to face a worse horror—your actual condition. So that is the content of the media.
But we offer a third way—one that the world knows not of. Let us not withhold it from them any longer out of fear of offending sensibilities. When the prophet Elijah appeared to announce the restoration of the glorious work for the dead, his first words were “The time has fully come!” It is folly to pretend that it is not simply because we are frightened of the obligation. Yet we know that everyone will stall and “rather bear the ills they have than fly to others that they know not of.” Yet everywhere the message is matched to the capacity to the hearer to receive it, leaving all as the Lord says “without excuse.” No one may say, as we still tend to do today, “Come back later and we will consider your offer.”
What would it take to convince me if I were an outsider? I spend my days thinking about evidence. Have I absolute proof of the gospel? Not that I can thrust my testimony upon you, yet there are things that I can assert with absolute certainty. It has nothing to do with people who have turned their lives around, found happiness, a new life, new success—Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen, the cloudless skies are all serene! The things we talk about in our conferences and journals are the common fare of all churches, but ours must go beyond that; when we ride off into the sunset we will be riding off into the darkness.
It is comforting to know that the Lord is doing his own work and that his agents improving the time regardless of adverse conditions of spreading the gospel around the world, moving on a broader front than ever before. They are fulfilling the plans of the Lord of the vineyard, transplanting the gospel in its fulness, leaving behind them a trail of the Standard Works, ready to fulfill the saints and expand their minds until they can receive more. We see this principle of expansion when Christ instructs the Nephites (3 Nephi 17:2): “I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words . . . . Therefore go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow.”
A fundamental rule of the Rhetorician has always been to put over your point any way you can; turn every situation, accident, device, and contraption to your advantage and make use of it.
Thus Paul takes advantage of a special situation on the Areopagus, just as Jesus does in the Temple, or on the seashore, preaching from a boat.
Amalickiah takes advantage of the media when he spreads his war-mongering talks from a series of towers. But an even more sophisticated use of media was Benjamin’s address from the tower, augmented by written leaflets circulated among the crowd beyond hearing range.
So the Latter-day Saints have taken advantage of such opportunities—as when Joseph Smith stood on the scaffolding of the new school in Far West to preach a resounding sermon.
Needless to say, in more recent times the authorities have been quick to consider the opportunities offered by new advances in mass communication.
My point is that these have done more harm than good because they block off more than they convey. Consider the seven sensory passages and the single projector, the human voice. Modern electronics have made the former more sensitive than ever and amplified the voice at infinitum.
But has this made any change in content? It has, as all students admit, by reducing the message to the lowest common denominator. That is natural and inevitable. But it has had disastrous effects. It would seem that the mass media is a broken reed to lean on, especially where the gospel is concerned.
Here is an article less than a month old by a specialist in public communication: “The broadcast television networks appear to be dying right before our glazed eyes. Revenue is sinking, their once enormous audience is deserting them for the expanding competition and what viewers the networks do have keeps zapping in and out of the wretched shows. Last season’s hot TV trend, ‘creativity’ . . . didn’t work, and the network programmers seem to have no idea what to do next. The news this season is that the hour-long TV drama is as moribund as the news documentary . . . . So what? Who cares if they all stop broadcasting? Network programming is usually so stupefying that it’s not even worth pausing to criticize it.”10
But the author confronts us with a dilemma. Without TV, he says, “We’ll have nowhere to turn for a unifying culture. Television is our common cultural ground . . . . If you want to address Americans in general, and you want to be understood by as many of them as possible, you are safest taking your subject from the tube. If you doubt this, why don’t you attempt, say, a scriptural allusion sometime and see how many people know what you are talking about?”
And that is where we come in. Who’s going to recognize the Book of Mormon over the air? This author believes that the appeal must necessarily be to separate types of audiences. “People make their own cultures; you can’t design one for them.” In the future, he writes, “Different demographic groups will likely be spending much of their time with programming targeted toward them and only them: Sports fans with ESPN, rock music fans with MTV, older audiences with The Lifetime Network, ethnic groups with material produced specifically for them, etc . . . . The result threatens to be increasingly discreet subcultures that are rarely if ever exposed to the stuff of each other’s subculture. The stuff of American life is going to be niche-marketed.” And to which of these groups will our Latter-day Saint message be directed? “Each targeted audience will move into its own TV neighborhood, rarely to emerge. Why should it? It’s comforting to be addressed continually in one’s own terms; it’s annoying to deal with challenges.”
These have always been the great obstacles to broadcasting the gospel effectively through the media. The great days of Hollywood are past. Most of those products of the thirties, except the great ones, seen quaint to us now. How incredibly artificial the acting was, the sets, the lighting. The fabulous success of Hollywood depended entirely on the commitment of the audience, and this was obtained by subtle titillation of the senses, the Oriental splendor of the gigantic movie mosque—or medieval castle, Egyptian temple; the colorful prologues of Barnum and Bailey proportions, and above all the musical accompaniment put the thing over. Alexander Schreiner moved to Portland from NÅ¸renberg when he was nineteen years old and became the organist at the Page Theatre. Whether a movie was a hit or a flop depended in no small part on his performance; his business was to put people into the proper mood. He let me play the organ sometimes and it was awesome. Those weren’t silent movies at all, the Wurlitzer never ceased its relentless manipulation of our emotions. And after that came the full size symphony orchestra which never let up during any major production.
That world has vanished. Who misses it except sentimentally? Does the gospel lend itself to such manipulation and presentation? The Byzantine tricks of Constantine’s successor may have worked on some barbarians from the Steppes, and the baroque approach properly impressed the German peasants, but I have never heard of anyone being converted by the glories of St. Peters. One thing is certain, the First Vision will not lend itself to any amount of hyp—any attempt to sell it that way will fall flat every time.
In a recent review of a book entitled The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News, Reuven Franks notes that we have entered “an age of drastically lowered expectations and drastically lowered budgets.”11 He goes down the list of the great producers, the whiz-kids, and the money managers: “all come off badly. The book is not venomous, however, but dismaying . . . . There used to be a solid, dependable contingent [of news hawks; shall we say news specialists?]. It helps that these newsniks were not raised on television, but instead on print and radio. Today, they are almost extinct.” After all it is the word that conveys the message as of old.
Here is a new book by Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way. It is based on 1500 interviews with 350 people. To quote the reviewer, “The inescapable conclusion of this book is that new technologies and market forces, not greed or stupidity, are killing off network television.”12 Again it is technology to blame. Because of it the author says “Network news began its slow but steady decline into the realm of entertainment several years before the barbarians reached the gate.”13
This gives us pause. Should we try to make our communications with the world entertaining? Every attempt to do so without the skill of a J. Golden Kimball is counterproductive. The author foresees that “Sleazy programs . . . will increasingly monopolize the schedule” given the “dwindling audiences and plunging profits facing network television today.” The book is called “a valuable requiem for a dying industry.”14
A few of the great films of the thirties and forties are seen over and over again. The most persistent deja vue is, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. So what would somebody do but bring Jimmy Stewart to Salt Lake to do it again.
In the case of the Book we have a demonstrable miracle. In fact, God has made it clear, and at considerable length in the Book of Mormon, that he intends to use the Book as the proper means of transmitting the gospel through time and space. Nothing else will do. Years ago I left a 300-year old copy of Appian’s Roman History lying on our front lawn, a hillside in California (the big white house you can still see right at the end of the Normandy). Every day for two weeks while we were away the sun would bake the book, and then the automatic sprinklers would come on and drench it thoroughly, then the sun would break through again and so the process continued. Here is the book and it is in perfect condition. What other equipment could stand up to such punishment?
Quite apart from that even if it were more vulnerable than our hypersensitive electronic gadgets, it is still infinitely more effective in delivering, as Galileo pointed out. Over an infinite stretch of time and space it not only conveys information, but like Homer or the deeply sincere writings of the Old Kingdom of Egypt can still stir in the reader the same emotions experienced by the author. It should be enough to note that the gift of writing was given to man by God for the express purpose of recording his communications with men. Quite recently a number of articles have confirmed what I demonstrated years ago; it would seem that all the earliest known writings are quotations given by the Deity to mankind.
Today a strange situation has arisen. To make a joke one must speak about things the hearer is acquainted with. Gore Vidal recently wrote: “Few Americans have ever been able to cope with wit or irony, and even the simplest jokes often cause unease, especially today, when every phrase must be examined for covert sexism, racism, ageism.” Several years ago I began to notice that my best jokes failed to go over and today, though I teach an honors class of supposedly literate upperclassmen, it is absolutely impossible to get a laugh—they seem to think it is risky; they wonder if they are getting the point, because, to put it bluntly, they are uneducated.
* This address was delivered on 13 September 1991 at Snyder’s Mill in Park City, Utah, to representatives of the LDS Church Communications Department.
1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free, 1973), 96.
2. Ibid., 122, citing Zilboorg, Psychoanalysis and Religion (London: Allen and Unwin, 1967), 242.
3. In “Citizen Kane.” Can that account for the unaccountable sheer vandalism?
4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act III, scene i, 48..
5. “The Spirit of God,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), no. 2.
6. R. Gary Shapiro, comp., An Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Hawks, 1977), 363.
7. Cf., for example, Paul Gray, “Lies, Lies, Lies,” Time (5 October 1992): 32–38.
8. Hugh W. Nibley, “Victoriosa Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else,” Western Speech 20/2 (Spring 1956): 57–82; reprinted in CWHN 10:243–86.
9. TPJS, 137.
10. Charles P. Freund, “Save the Networks! They May Be a Wasteland, but They’re the Wasteland We Share,” Washington Post, 28 July 1991, C1.
11. Tom Shales, “Back When the Networks Were Newsworthy,” review of Reuven Franks, Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News, in Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 12–18 August 1991, 35–36.
12. Barbara Matusow, “Changing TV’s Golden Age into Lead,” review of Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way, in Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 2–8 September 1991, 35.