Thursday, January 11, 2007

#159 - Evolution of a Testimony

I've been meaning to address this for some time now, but events have overtaken us here in Woodyland and I can only claim extreme distraction as my defense.

Mark Hansen, who blogs over at "Mo' Boy Blog," wrote a piece back in November that discussed the evolution of Richard Dutcher, the one-time "king" of Mormon cinema. The piece talks about Dutcher's apparent journey into spiritual confusion after making one or two films that had, at the time, gigantic spiritual impacts for many who saw them and appreciated his "testimony on film" work.

Dutcher has evidently shifted now into someone whose testimony has become the sort of nebulous worldly philosophy that so many artists seem to acquire over time. He is ambivalent when asked about his Mormon roots. He claims to have taken a "more universal" view of religion and now believes that Mormons have "no special claim" on heaven.

These are sad things, to be sure. In the Church we tend to go through a sort of grieving process whenever someone falls away into any sort of personal apostasy. The higher profile the individual, the harder the grief. I remember when Elder Lee of the Seventy left the Church many years ago over the Church's teachings regarding the Lamanites. It was my first experience with someone who was ostensibly in a position to "know better" leaving the Church because of some perceived offense. At the time there was quite a stir among Church members. This was the sort of thing that happened in the earliest days of the restoration when even members of the Twelve were (frequently, it seemed) found lacking of the faith required to endure to the end.

Then we got over it. After all, we all have our own testimonies to look after, no?

Since then, I've watched the LDS arts community with only limited interest. I'm acquainted with plenty of LDS performers. I suppose I could even consider myself to be one, although a very, very minor player. LDS artists have for some time been attempting to create a sort of LDS pop culture that would offer itself as the logical antidote to the worldly pop culture that seems bent on destroying anything and everything of value in this life. From my view, the results have been tepid, at best.

Probably this is more because I personally have been raised and trained into the classical genre from my youth, and the "pop" elements of our culture (either the LDS culture or the worldly culture) just haven't caught fire with me. I'm far more interested in what Mack Wilberg is up to these days than anything that guys like Mark and his peers might be up to. Mrs. Woody has more of an ear for that sort of thing, and so I really don't mind it whenever she's in a mood to tune in and listen. For the most part, though, it just doesn't speak to my soul like classical music and the anthems of the Church always have.

The Dutcher case, then, is only interesting to me as a study in what happens when we try too hard to immerse ourselves in artistic pursuits without paying more attention to our own spiritual development. And I say this as one who has occasionally considered himself an artist first, and a spiritual being second. Life is not pretty whenever I've been in that mode.

In their purest form, the arts are expressions of the dreams and passions of the performers. We perform the work that we feel best reflects our view of the world around us. Whether that view is realistic or notional really makes no difference. If I perform a piece of music, I want that music to lift and edify. I'm not interested in glorifying any of the ugliness in the world around us. What's the point? Don't I get enough of that from the news and/or 90% of the drivel that Hollywood produces?

I think, in the beginning, Dutcher's intentions were not so different from my own as I've just stated them. He was a gifted filmmaker who was battling the odds to produce high quality entertainment that the LDS community could both enjoy and take some pride in. Hey, look at what we just did! We made a film, and it's cool! It seemed that here we had someone who had finally taken President Ezra Taft Benson at his word and attempted to tell the LDS story through the arts. Producing films loaded with a common testimony of the gospel seemed just the ticket.

Since then, unfortunately, Dutcher seems to have bought into an almost stereotypical artist's perspective on life. Suddenly it's less about one's belief in the pure gospel of the restoration, and more about influencing his audience through his own work. In other words, he wants to sway the audience's opinions through the film, rather than letting the Spirit do that work in conjunction with the film.

It wouldn't have been an overnight process. It would have been the glimmer of an idea, supported by his own successes, and the pride he felt in his work would have shifted from a humble gratitude to a more self-centered reliance on his own genius. If true, this would go a long way to explaining Richard Dutcher and his current "crisis of faith." A crisis even he can't acknowledge might exist.

For the rest of us a valuable lesson is had. It's part of the world that we live in, but should keep ourselves separate from, that we watch our celebrities and make them the barometers for our own lives. When we do that, we lose sight of the most valuable barometer ever given to man in this life; the gift of the Holy Ghost. It should make absolutely no difference to my own spirituality that a man like Richard Dutcher (or George P. Lee, or Paul H. Dunn) should struggle with his testimony of the gospel. If I feel anything for Dutcher it would be a feeling of one who is concerned with someone else's spiritual journey, just as I might for one of my home teaching families. My faith will not suffer just because Dutcher claims his own testimony is one that Mormons like me wouldn't really understand.

The arts are valuable when they lift and edify. The Lord and his prophets throughout time have always understood and taught that. We should not turn the arts into substitutes for a true testimony of the gospel. It just isn't done that way. The testimony should come first, and the arts should then reflect that. Not the other way around.

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