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In The Land Of Seagulls and Gingham

Posted 11-06-2009 at 12:11 AM by Reggo

In The Land of Seagulls and Gingham
By Lewis Black
From his book, Me Of Little Faith

I haven't had a lot of contact with the Mormon Church, or as they call themselves, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sure, I remember Donny and Marie from their seventies variety show. I knew one of them was a little bit country and the other one was a little bit rock and roll and together they were nothing less than horrifying as they created the musical equivalent of nausea, but those were TV Mormons, and they therefore never seemed that real to me. I even went to high school in Maryland with a few members of the Mormon Church, but I think they new better than to try to convert me.

And the Mormons are BIG on converting folks. They send our their young men for two years of missionary work. As a result, at this writing, they are one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet.

I don't understand the appeal myself. But what do I know? Maybe they give out free health-club memberships. Or, more likely, they are growing by leaps and bounds because a church member can convert a dead person to Mormonism.

I will repeat that. Mormons convert dead people.

That's right, they believe that they convert people who aren't alive anymore. I guess they figure if the dead can vote in Chicago, the dead can also change their minds about the religion they no longer practice.

Imagine you're wandering around heaven and you get called to the supervising angel's office and are told you are now a Mormon.

"But I'm a Jew," you might argue.

"No," you are told, "take off the skullcap. The Mormons just drafted you."

The one Mormon I actually spent time with was a guy named Richie. I first met him in Little League, where he was a hell of a fastball pitcher. I couldn't hit that thing for shit. He's the one who made me realize that my career wouldn't be in baseball.

Later, when we were in high school together, he invited a bunch of us to play basketball at his church. I thought he was going to use it to pitch the Mormon way to me, but he didn't. He did, however, run the spiel by my friend Ray, complete with Book of Mormon tableaux featuring Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the always good-looking Mr. Jesus Christ.

The poor man's multimedia experience did little to move Ray. Maybe he sat through the lecture so we would have a place to play basketball.

As it turned out, the building was quite an interesting place, as the church's sanctuary actually turned into a basketball court. Which, if I were truly crazy for basketball, might have been reason enough to convert. But, impressive as I find multitasking architecture, I wasn't ready to attend services there on Sunday. It did, however, give us a place to go on Thursday nights, which was nice.

The Mormons certainly know about interesting edifices. They were responsible for one of the more extraordinary sights one could see in my homeland of suburban Maryland. In 1974, they built, in Kensington, a massive white temple with a golden man blowing a huge horn on at the top of it. So as you drove the Beltway, it appeared in the distance like a Mormon version of Fantasyland.

This temple was also one of the places a married couple in very good standing in the church could go and, in a room I imagine just like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, be married for all eternity. This seems like a hell of a gamble to me--50 percent of all marriages in the US barely survive here on earth, and the Mormons are pushing for forever and ever amen. With all the souls dwelling in eternity, isn't it more than possible that you might actually find a better soul mate there, or at least a change of pace? And who knows? Maybe God allows polygamy in heaven.

Speaking as someone who was once married for about five minutes--which certainly felt like an eternity--the concept of being married forever makes my heart stop. Wouldn't you just get slightly sick of your partner after, say, six or seven hundred years? I know I did.

My parents have been married for sixty-five years, and as far as I can tell, the only reason they accomplished this remarkable feat is that they can't hear each other.

Now, before I forget, I want to take a moment to thank the Marriott family, an extremely prominent and successful Mormon clan. They are the owners of the hotel chain bearing their family name. They also used to run a chain of restaurants called the Hot Shoppes, one of which was conveniently located near where I grew up, and my high school friends and I would gather there after running amok on Saturday nights. It is there that I learned the consummate joy of a plate of French fries with gravy. It was my first sense of what, on a very basic level, could be called gourmet food. It was a completely fulfilling and transcendent experience. If, at the time, I had known this was the creation of a Mormon family, I would have been a lot more receptive to their religious pitch, as long as the fries and gravy kept coming.

Of course, that was back in the day. Now it would take a lot more than a potato product au jus to pique my interest. Let me explain.

Not too long ago, I spent ten weeks shooting a movie in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Vatican of the Mormon religion. It's not what I would call a vacation kind of town, especially if you like a bit of a drink every now and then, and who doesn't during a vacation? Still, if you are thinking about visiting there, remember that it's a big wide wonderful world and you might want to save Salt Lake City for last. Like after you've toured Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm talking about when you are in your late eighties and you have seen everywhere else.

Read that again. Everywhere else.

but back to the ten weeks I spent there. With a little due diligence, you can actually find a cocktail.

For instance, if you want to drink at a bar, first you have to pay an entrance fee to go in. I have no idea why; maybe it's some kind of state law. I would ask every time I paid, but I wasn't told anything that made any sense to me. It's the Mormon way, I guess. Once you finally get in the bar, the bartenders don't even give you a legitimate shot. It's a little less than a shot; my guess, it's a Mormon shot.

What's more, you can't get a real drink--and by a real drink I mean a double. Instead, you have to order what used to be called a sidecar--a short shot in another glass, and you have to pour it in yourself. I guess because that's the way Jesus would have done it.

And God forbid if you order a martini. The olive is always higher than the gin of vodka, depending on your pleasure. And I'm talking a regular-sized olive here--your standard olive from a jar--not some mutant Mormon creation.

One of the more sobering moments I had while in this land of Mormons was with a young Indian woman (as in the country, not Native Americans). She drove me to the set the first day of shooting and told me she was going to school at Brigham Young University, where she was majoring in film.

Wow, I thought, she must be a Mormon. I had never heard of anyone attending that particular university because of its film school. UCLA and NYU, yes. Brigham Young, not so much. I asked if she was, in fact, a Mormon. She said yes.

I just had to ask, "Are your parents Mormon as well?"

"Oh, no," she replied.

I was stunned. How does one go from the background of an Indian culture of Hinduism or Islam, so clearly non-Christian (they don't even have potluck suppers) to the all-Americanism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? She said her parents allowed her to examine all religions and to find the one that appealed to her. She chose to become a Mormon. She told me that if I found that odd, her brother had chosen to join the Jews for Jesus.

The conversation rendered me speechless, a condition I rarely find myself in. I wanted to say something. I just had no idea where to start.

Compared to her brother's, her choice almost looked like a smart one. And it makes you wonder what her folks are like. I wanted to ask her about them, but my brain wasn't up to the task. I did, however, have the wherewithal to ask her to drive me to the big church in town.

If you do ever find yourself in Salt Lake City, I suggest you take the tour of the Mormon Tabernacle. If you are going to be in a city run by Mormons, it's good to know what they are up to.

On the day I was there, there were about twenty of us on the tour and we were led by a young girl in a gingham dress. This was quite exciting, because you don't see gingham anywhere anymore--unless you spend all of your free time at craft fairs.

On the tour, was saw the actual first Mormon temple built in Salt Lake City in the 1800's, entirely out of granite. The guide explained how far away the granite quarry was and how hard it was to get the stone overland and that it took forty years to complete. I half-expected to hear her say that three thousand Jews died in the process, but she never said anything about that.

You rarely find much humor in any religious type of tour.

So there I was, staring up at this extraordinary structure, with its magnificent spires jutting straight into the sky. I was truly overwhelmed by the size of the structure and the hard work and faith of the people who had built it.

That's when it happened. I thought I was thinking it, but I actually said it.

The words "Jesus Christ" came spilling right out of my mouth.

Everyone with in earshot turned to look at me, and the crystal-clear, stone-cold silence of the judgment descended upon me like the wrath of God.

This was a huge faux pas in that community. I had blasphemed in their temple. I wanted to stop the young girl in gingham and explain to her that, as a Jew, I wasn't actually taking his name in vain. It was merely an expression of my excitement. And I thought it was a nicer way of expressing what I was really thinking, which was, "Fuck, look at that son of a bitch."

Lesson learned. I should have just said, "Wow!"

At the end of the tour, our group went up a flight of stairs and sat in a semicircle in front of a twelve-foot-tall animatronic Jesus who spoketh unto us-eth. It was a collection of the usual Jesusisms: "Love thy neighbor as thyself"--that type of stuff. I have to say, as a Jew, it's not going to get any better than that. I don't do drugs anymore and I still wanted to spend the whole day with the guy. It was that amazing.

Even on a nonreligious level, it's very weird to have Chuck E. Cheese Jesus speak to you. It would be like if you were a Catholic and went to Mass on Sunday and the Jesus up on the crucifix turned to you and just started talking. "Hey, how's everyone doing? What a nice crowd, and, may I say, a good-looking one to boot. Remember, it's Bingo Night next Friday, and I know you love that. And don't worry about a thing, I'll be down in a minute." It's kind of fascinating and freaky.

After the tour, I took the young girl in gingham aside and asked her, "Was Jesus really that tall?"

"Metaphorically," was her icy reply. I was amazed she answered at all.

Though if Jesus was really that tall, it would certainly explain Christianity. Back then people were about five foot five, and if there was a twelve-footer around, they were going to follow him everywhere and listen to everything he had to say. I know I would have. Definitely.

If Jesus Christ were to return to earth today and went on the Mormon Tabernacle tour and saw the twelve-foot version of himself, he would probably say, "Turn that off! He doesn't even have my hair color!"

As impressive as the twelve-foot Jesus and the granite temple and even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which I have heard on occasion, are, they're not enough to sway me toward the Mormon way. A huge stumbling block for me is the concept of polygamy, which was practiced by the first members of the Church until the rest of the country cracked down on what they considered to be nonsense and contrary to Judeo-Christian principles. A number of sects broke off from the LDS, because they believe it is an important tenet of the Mormon faith. I find it tough to believe that God wants man to be polygamous. I think it takes a guy to come up with that idea. Though how you make a concept like that work is beyond me. Most men aren't equipped to deal with one woman, let alone several at the same time.

If I had to choose between becoming a Latter-day Saint and accepting the infallibility of the pope, I'd have to go with the pope. I guess for starters, it's just tough for me to believe in a religion with American roots (except for those of the Native Americans). Call me spiritually prejudiced, but the fact is, looking at all the varieties of Christian faith, the Mormons and those Baptists who use rattlesnakes during their service really seem to me to be pushing the envelope.

Besides this, I find it really tough to swallow the story that the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, tells--of how the prophet Moroni appeared to him and told him where to find the gold plates, which were buried fourteen hundred years prior to their meeting, and on which was written the text that would become the Book of Mormon. Smith is not instructed to do anything with them yet, but he goes to get them anyway. Lo and behold, the gold plates vanish. Smith says he got greedy. Still, Moroni tells him he'll give him another chance and he should return to the very same spot of their meeting every September 22.

Are you following this so far? I am trying to keep it simple.

So Smith goes back each year and meets Moroni, who tells him what God wants him to do with the plates. But still Moroni doesn't give him a second set. This goes on for three years and then Smith is told that next time, maybe--and it's a big maybe, mind you--he might just get the plates if he does what God wants him to do, which is marry a young woman that Smith just happened to have the hots for.

Okay, here's where the fun comes in. The young woman's father won't grant her hand in marriage. Would you? Who wants their daughter to marry a guy like that? But the daughter defies the irate father and the lovebirds elope.

This seems to do the trick. In 1827, at the age of twenty-one, Smith returns to the spot and Moroni shows up and gives him the plates. Apparently, nineteen folks claimed they saw these plates and eight of them say so at the beginning of the Book of Mormon.

Don't get too comfortable. The story doesn't end there.

Moroni tells Smith that his next job is to get the text on the plates transcribed onto paper. But since it is written in some kind of Egyptian language, Moroni gives him glasses that will allow him to translate it. (By this point, incidentally, I feel as if I am knee-deep in bullshit.)

So Smith begins to translate the text while his neighbor takes down his dictation. They finish 116 pages and then the neighbor loses the manuscript.

For God's sake, make it end.

Anyway, Moroni had taken the plates and the glasses back, so Joseph had to get him to give those sacred items back to him again, even though he has now screwed up for a second time. (It is believed that the neighbor's wife threw the manuscript out, and quite frankly who could blame her? This story is a little hard to swallow.)

But Moroni doesn't give him the glasses, so now in order to get the translation, Smith places a stone in a hat and sticks his head in the hat and puts the plates near the hat.

Finally--big drumroll, please--the words appear in the hat and the translation of the Book of Mormon is complete.

Keep in mind, history tells us this is all the work of Joseph Smith, who had been convicted of fraud after being paid to locate buried coins of silver or gold and was unable to do so. Oh, and he was using the same stone, by the way, during that ill-fated incident that he used in his Book of Mormon hat trick. So I think you might see why this sounds a bit far-fetched to me. (You can find a more complete telling of this tale, incidentally, in Jon Krakauer's fantastic Under The Banner of Heaven, but I pretty much hit all the high points.)

Oh, one more thing. According to this translation of plates done by a man staring at a stone in a hat, a large group of Hebrews left Jerusalem and sailed to North America. Eventually, they split into two groups: one was white, and one was dark (the dark group being Native Americans). No each group was led by one of two brothers, the dark one jealous of the white one, because his father had made the lighter guy leader of the tribe.

Then, who should arrive after his Resurrection, but Jesus himself (I guess he was an avid tourist), and he converts them to his teachings. They live in peace for a while, until the darker ones turn their collective back on Jesus and a war breaks out and the dark ones slaughter all the white guys. (This, no doubt, is why blacks weren't allowed to become priests in the Mormon Church until 1978.)

This all seems like nonsense, and it's incomprehensible to me what draws in converts from around the world. It's an all-American religion, and its roots are very, very, very white. There's something Disneyesque about it. I don't know if it's the Fantasyland Temple or the Davy Crockett aspect of crossing the country looking for new frontiers as they were hounded out of settlement after settlement.

All religions require a leap of faith--I'm not saying that Moses' burning bush is any easier to believe than the gold plates--but this one seems to need a rocket pack to make the leap.

The tour of the temple mentions very little of the history of the religion. It's presented as a Christian religion steeped very deeply in traditional family values.

The girl in gingham was one of the happiest people I have ever met, and even my unorthodox behavior didn't faze her. Faith can bring a real joy to people, but if you don't believe, then you feel like you're in Oz and you're the only one who doesn't believe in the Wizard.
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  1. Old Comment
    Angela Harlem's Avatar
    That was... awesome. Just awesome.

    Please read Stolen Innocence some day. Sure, they're self proclaimed fundies, but you'll cheer at the end. Maybe there is a god or something afterall..
    Posted 11-09-2009 at 08:22 PM by Angela Harlem Angela Harlem is offline

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