Media Briefs: Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A., Rothko Spiritual Icons


Rapper and poet Kendrick Lamar gathered a stunning 11 Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year and Best Rap Album.    The New York Times called Lamar “a rapper with a conscience. Race, poverty, fame, lust, cultural heritage, the direction of America and the trajectory of his career are all on his mind.” Lamar blends funk, spoken word poetry and jazz in what the late David Bowie called the “musician’s pallet.” The music uses rhymes, metaphors, and double-entendres. NY Times Magazine Writer Pharrell Williams likens Lamar to the Bob Dylan of our time. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. You can just see the kid’s mind like a kaleidoscope over a beat.’

According to Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber, “Lamar has long rapped about loving yourself in a culture that degrades you, but he’s exploring that theme more and more lately, it seems.” Lamar’s work is therapeutic as he resists the self-hatred that ensues from a lingering bigotry, much of it going unnoticed by others. The work itself is a means of working through one’s emotions. In Interview Magazine, he says, “Since day one, since the first time I touched the pen, I wanted to be the best at what I do. So I’m just taking it one day at a time.”



Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) blends visual art, music, and a moral plea in her new video, “Borders.”


M.I.A. stresses the virtue of receiving refugees with love and sustenance. A Sri Lankan refugee herself, she lives in England where her work has earned two Grammys and an Academy Award. “Borders” challenges political leaders to act now and features the distraught features of actual refugees. In a recent NPR interview, she asks, “If the West is so deliberate in promoting its brands and using art and culture to inspire people’s dreams, how can the West then turn people away?” Her message resonates with some members of the LDS community as they reflect on Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…”



Icons of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko have gained popularity as spiritual icons across religious denominations


According to Florence Waters in the Guardian, the rectangles of color in Mark Rothko’s art is moving into the sacred domain. “These subtly spiritual works, when properly lit, are thought to offer a similar lofty experience that one gets in a place of worship, like a cathedral. Only their refusal to associate with language, or any period in art history, mean they transcend the specificity of religion,” she said. James Breslin, author of “Mark Rothko: A Biography” states that the artist intended his horizontal layers of color to provide images for quiet contemplation by anyone regardless of religious affiliation.

rothko6With the growing influence of the Rothko chapel, new galleries, shows, and available prints on the Internet, Rothko’s images may some day be universally religious. Few icons represent spirituality in an unbiased sense. Opened in 1971, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX is now a community center that supports humanitarian causes. Visitors meditate on the 14 Rothko paintings that do not bear resemblance to institutional religious icons.

The LDS chapel foyer of tomorrow?

Our choice of “Best Korean Drama” of 2015: “Kill Me, Heal Me”

kill me

Korean dramas are in over 90 countries, and are increasingly popular among LDS viewers. In Kill Me, Heal Me, businessman Cha Do Hyun (Ji Sung) is afflicted with multiple personality disorder: seven to be exact. Keeping them all straight while maintaining a romantic relationship with his psychiatrist Oh Ri Jin (Hwang Jung Eum) as well as staying ahead of his curious brother, makes for a well crafted award-winning comedy-melodrama. The seven personalities teach audience members how to deal with anger, guilt, sadness, and other challenges. Korean dramas are unique in their quick pacing, multiple subplots, and several secondary characters. Through the Korean Wave, streaming is available with English subtitles.



Media “No-No’s” at BYU: Notable Bleeping and Editing. Deciding what constitutes appropriate art and entertainment at a religious university can be dicey business. The following come from friends and colleagues.  According to Michael Hick’s book, Mormons and Music, the Duke Ellington Band was not permitted to perform on campus in 1949, despite student pleas. In 1976, a group of students protested a concert by international rock recording artist Neil Diamond because his hair length violated “university standards.”

With strong opinions on both sides, perhaps the most moral film ever made, Schindler’s List was not shown at the university’s Varsity Theater due to its “R” rating. A showing of Rodin’s famous statue, “The Kiss” was cancelled in 1997 because of the issue of nudity.

In the script of the play, Gadianton, the word, “boobs” is stated in a scene by a Young Women’s organization leader in exhorting her girls to be chaste. BYU officials insisted that the word, “bazooms” be used instead.


“Neil, Say it isn’t so!”

The 22nd Annual MusiCares Benefit Gala Honoring Paul McCartney - Arrivals
LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 10: Neil Young and Pegi Young arrive at The 2012 MusiCares Person of The Year Gala Honoring Paul McCartney at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 10, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)

After 37 years of marriage, singer-songwriter Neil Young and wife Pegi are now divorced. She was a server at a cafe when they met; he ordered just to see her float across the floor. Neil said often that his foundation was his family. Pegi inspired his songs, “Unknown Legend,” “Once and Angel,” and “Such a Woman.” They raised two children, one with cerebral palsy. Pegi was a background singer on several tours over the year, a devoted partner. Even in the Church, we know that marriages don’t always last. While not knowing the specific circumstances, I thought of this quote by Robert Brault: “Love is not about grand intentions. It is about small attentions.”



President Howard W. Hunter was an inspired Prophet and musician; he loved popular music, particularly jazz. On Sunday, January 3, 2016, a high priest group leader of the Laie, Hawaii Fifth Ward that wished to remain anonymous, said that President Hunter played three Elton John songs, “Rocket Man,” Candle in the Wind,” and “Daniel” on the piano at his home during a visit to Oahu. Then, he treated his guests to a solo jazz performance on the saxophone, according to the group leader. President Hunter was visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center during the mid-1970’s to conduct affairs for the Church.

new-york-doll-20060413050110011-000Tenth Anniversary of film, New York Doll evokes memories of the rare intersection of Mormonism and popular culture. In the 1970’s, Arthur “Killer” Kane was bass player in one of the most notorious punk rock bands, The New York Dolls, living a life of drinking and drug addiction. When the band dissolved, his life made a turn for the worse; at one point he jumped out of his second-story apartment breaking a leg. Then, he found the Gospel and a spiritual worldview.new_york_doll01

Before his death in 2004, Arthur’s home teacher and Bishop made it possible for him to attend a reunion concert of the New York Dolls in London. In a touching scene, Arthur offers a prayer with the band before they go on stage.



Musical “Rent” Returns to Broadway in January
Original cast members of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning  musical Rent will reunite for a 20th anniversary of the show. It’s primary theme of making everyday count made it a hit at the Nederlander Theater starting in the mid-nineties.  Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega are among the stars who will celebrate the ground-breaking musical that changed their lives. – See more at:

Church in Berlin holds Star Wars Mass

A Star Wars religious service was held in Berlin; parishioners donned costumes and priests waved lightsabers to illustrate Biblical tenets. A film clip was played during the service.  Attendance was estimated at about 500. Protestant pastor Lucas Ludewig explained that Star Wars draws on religious themes and “that the Bible and the Church are part of our culture.” The theme song was played during the ceremony.




Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” Disappoints, but Child Actor Alyvia Alyn Lind Shines. It’s as light as angel food cake on the Christmas table. Unfortunately, the holiday TV special is confection only, no nutrition, not much to mull over except “Don’t stand outside the church during services like Pa.”

Even savvy adolescents will fight back yawns during this maudlin tribute to Dolly’s story of the coat of many colors, a loving gift from her mother that the school kids make fun of. This is surprising since it looks cooler than what the others are wearing. Peculiar is no discernible connection to the Biblical story of Joseph’s coat. If this airs next year, opt for the “The Christmas Story.”

The best line is, “Mountain people music has the sound of angels.” Amen to that!


The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger still resonates with staff members of the Huffington Post. With the recent ninety-fifth anniversary of the author’s death as well as a new biography, Huff Post writers took time


to reflect on the novel’s influence not only on their teen years, but the present as well. Dominant themes include: (1) You’re not alone in your frustrations, (2) Social niceties aren’t always phony, (3) Excellent writing can transport you, (4) Growing up means channeling your frustrations towards something productive, and (5) Beauty is rare, and worth holding onto.  DawnKrenn, blogger with Teen Ink, says that, “The novel is still relevant to America’s youth. It’s their story. It is their museum, and it does not need renovation.”


James Taylor makes history on Austin City Limits with songs from “Before this World,” his first studio album in 13 years.


In addition to a performance of “You can Close your Eyes” with  Shawn Colvin, he played well-crafted new material, laying to rest the “oldies-only singer” label. Debut songs treat themes of salvation, regeneration, and moving-on; they held their own next to the old tunes in terms of depth and his familiar rhythm. I was taken aback by both mood and melody of “Angels of Fenway,” and “Today, Today, Today.” The classic, “Fire and Rain” was missing from the set, but I was glad: J.T. has turned the page of a story that continues to amaze.

A self-identified agnostic, Taylor was heavily influenced by Episcopalian hymns in his childhood. His affinity for the populist  American folk style is  not lost on the new CD that is about to earn his first number one album on the top Billboard 200.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art Draws Lawsuit from New Yorker Claiming Paintings of the White Jesus are Racist and Discriminatory

According to the New York Post, Justen Renel Joseph, 33, filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court: “I’m suing a public venue which by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can’t discriminate on a protected basis.”


According to The Post, Joseph struggles to feel the divinity of the Christ given that the depicted child’s complexion does not match his own. This incident reminds me of my good colleague Jorge Schement, Professor of Communication at Rutgers University, who, after a guided tour of the paintings in the Temple Square Visitors Center said, “Thank you for teaching me about Mormonism, especially that Christ was Scandinavian.”


A Good Guy after all? J.K. Rowling Discloses why Harry Potter Named his Son after Snape 


For days, Snape haters and lovers have been tweeting their arguments. Rowling chided readers for making Snape a flat, one-dimensional character in a message on Nov 26 tweeted @BeACartoonHeart: “Snape is all grey. You can’t make him a saint: he was vindictive & bullying. You can’t make him a devil: he died to save the wizarding world.” After weighing in several times, Rowling finally retreated from a debate that raged on without her. He could have saved himself, but Snape “died to expiate his own guilt…Snape’s silence ensured Harry’s victory.” Not only was Rowling’s clarification unexpected, but the enduring role of the book in public discourse continues to intrigue critics.


Film Directors say Utah Life a Struggle for Polynesians in Documentary, “In Football We Trust.”Director Erika Cohn said, “Tongans and Samoans are highly misunderstood in Utah, due to an underlying racism.” Responding to questions after the BYU-Hawaii screening of their movie, “In Football We Trust,” Cohn and co-director Tony Vainuku elaborated on the struggle of these groups to feel accepted while preserving their sacred traditions. They elaborated on the complex interplay between football and Polynesian culture, which according to the film, has played out in uneven ways. The screening drew a large crowd November 19 in the university’s McKay Auditorium. The documentary was featured at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.


donaklddd-700x343Donald Sutherland Explains Meaning of The Hunger Games Books and Subsequent Movies
In a Nov 28 article in the website The Mind Unleashed, Actor Donald Sutherland who plays the sinister character President Coriolanus Snow in the Hunger Games films, says the following about what the stories mean: “If there’s any question as to what it’s an allegory for I will tell you. It is the powers that be in the United States of America. It’s profiteers. War is for profit. It’s not “to save the world for democracy” or ‘for king and country.’ No, bulls**t. It’s for the profit of the top 10%, and the young people who see this film must recognize that for the future ‘blind faith in their leaders,’ as Bruce Springsteen said, “will get you dead.”

 New Book, “Amazing Ourselves to Death,” asks whether Neil Postman’s Classic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is Relevant in the Present Information Age
Professor Lance Strate at Fordham University and former student of Neil Postman, author of perhaps the most influential book on the social impacts of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, puts Postman’s ideas to the test in the new media landscape. Postman’s claim that television lowers vital political discussion to the trivial is put to the test by Strate in Amazing Ourselves to Death along with other ideas such as whether certain media are capable of the sacred and other’s aren’t. Postman’s work drew worldwide reaction when it was published 25 years ago. Tom Brokaw and Yoko Ono had it on their recommended books list, and Roger Walters of Pink Floyd recorded the album Amused to Death inspired by Postman. Elder Dallin Oaks H. Oaks also asked the question, “Are we amusing ourselves to death?” in a conference talk referring to the allure of triviality.

Novel on the Consequences of a Faithless World Stirs Controversy in Europe, Earns Praise from Critics

Michael Houellebecq’s novel, “Submission” is about Francois, a middle aged professor at the Sorbonne; he is aloof and mostly alone with his books. Friends are few, and relationships with the opposite sex fleeting. So salient is his detachment that the novel yields comic elements (i.e., microwaved dinners and binge TV viewing). The larger comment, and the one drawing attention from critics is Houellebecq’s skillful though despairing a society’s lack of faith leading to hollow institutions. Steven Poole writes in the Guardian, “… Submission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire — as in his previous novels — is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise.” Francois’s indifference to the world coincides with “…an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted faith…” according to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New York Times book review.

Fargo TV Series Turning Heads as Most Compelling Drama about the War between Good and Evil
Based on the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning film, Fargo the TV series revolves around sinister drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) who wreaks havoc on a Minnesota town. The police are on his trail. Superb acting and nuanced writing make it a compelling morality tale. Roth Cornet says in IGN: “Fargo ultimately revealed itself to be a refreshing tale of good versus evil. It’s a rare thing to find a story this rich and nuanced that also takes a definitive stance about the nature of morality.” The show is in its second season after winning a Peabody, Golden Globe, and several Emmys.





Carly Simon’s New Memoir

by Danny Stout

Living in Princeton, New Jersey, we got all the New York TV stations, and thus concerts live from Central Park. One summer night I was watching a broadcast with my friends. Art Garfunkel had just performed, so had George Harrison. My teenage buddies were getting restless. Then, a tall woman strolled out in a ravishing red velvet dress, taking her seat at the piano, her shoulder-length chestnut hair shimmering in the spotlight. “Who is that?” one of my friends inquired. She looked more like a Broadway star than the other hippyish performers. “I’m going to sing a song I heard on Jones Beach today, it’s kind of a weird song about marriage.” Seeming timid and almost embarrassed, she slumped a little, managing the biggest smile I’d ever beheld.  Yet the grin did not match the melancholy she filled the park with:

          My father sits at night with no lights on

          His cigarette glows in the dark

          I walk past the living room, no remarks

          I tiptoe past the master bedroom door

         My mother reads her magazines

          I hear her call “sweet dreams,” but I forget how to dream

The song, “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be” was the saddest tune I’d heard to that point; it was a lament to a broken marriage and a couple’s painful routine. Not until I read Carly Simon’s new memoir, “Boys in the Trees,” did I realize it was autobiographical. Since that concert, I followed her career, relishing the ballads, “You Belong to Me,” “Anticipation,” “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” and, perhaps her most famous, “You’re so Vain.” (Ending decades of speculation, she recently disclosed that the first verse refers to actor Warren Beatty). Most intriguing were the up-tempo melodies you catch yourself singing, failing to grasp their sadness or at the very least incongruously moody lyrics. simon 2Years have passed, but in this book, she’s eager to self disclose. The backstory of her repertoire is teased out, enhancing the listening experience and enjoyment. She carries a backpack of sadness since the James Taylor days, but is a bright figure. How much is a facade. James Taylor hasn’t spoken to her since 1983. “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be” is ever more relevant in her life than her parents, it seems. “Boys in the Trees” is an ocean of disclosure.  Taylor was not faithful in their marriage. Then, she returned the favor for spite. You’re invited backstage almost to the point of uneasiness. If I had written this volume, I would have frantically called my editor crying, “Is it too late to take some things out?” The book is an ocean of disclosure, and a well of comfort to those feeling alone in their worriment.

Transparency is a gift, and the author is commended for getting beyond the superficiality of several recent rock memoirs by Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, and I hate to say it since I’m such a fan, Neil Young, who admitted “Waging Heavy Peace” was financially motivated. Simon dissects the myths of her personal life as well as assumptions regarding wealth and fame, which is enigmatic. The book’s dedication reads: “Dedicated to the first Orpheus, Richard L. Simon, my father, my beloved hero, understood too late for our peace to come during our lifetime.” Personally, I know that one can love an absent parent deeply. The refrain, “we would if we could,” keeps love alive. Independence is both blessing and woe. This paradox is a dominant theme of the book with Simon thoughtful on the subject.

There’s an interplay between maturity and loneliness. Time with dad was fleeting, so she filled in the cracks with ambition, assured that he adored her in his mind, and through kind knowing smiles. Her mother carried on an affair with her children’s babysitter for nine years, and, needless to say, resentment was deep and communication superficial. Richard Simon was partner and owner of Simon & Schuster, one of the largest publishing houses in the world. simon 3Wealth was her world: Manhattan apartments and homes in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. She had splendid opportunities, close friends, and interacted with impressive people. Simon attended Sarah Lawrence, and performed with sister Lucy from an early age. Lucy Simon, unknown to many, wrote the score to the Broadway musical, “The Secret Garden.” They were a folk duet in Grenwich Village as teens.

I simplify too much, but two lines of thought should interest LDS readers. First, Simon developed a life theme through music despite affluence and adversity. Life themes imply more than skills. She was after a life of import. Music provided feedback she didn’t get elsewhere. Perhaps we steer children away from special paths wanting them to conform. Not everyone is drawn to Boy Scouts, some want to master the violin instead. Music could move others and this fulfillment was highly sustaining.

The weakness of the book is that as much as she tries, fame remains important.  She relates countless affairs with celebrities (many are named in detailed stories), and although she’s clearly moved on with a strong bond with her children, the story of former husband and singer James Taylor crosses the disclosure limit in my view. It’s as if this will matter to her readers fifteen minutes after finishing the book. Time is better spent talking about her craft, which she does with less depth than the rock enthusiast would hope.

I most enjoyed the parts about her children, and the great role model and teacher she is. In a way, she finds the elusive family tie she missed early on. That is a story worth telling.

Documentary Chronicles Keith Richard’s Legacy and Gift to America

by Danny Stout

Keith Richards lived a hard-drinking, drug-abusing life, yielding unequaled rock and roll, blending American blues, jazz, and even country. With the The Rolling Stones, he shaped the character and direction of rock music. When mainstream bands emulated the Beatles, the Stones were edgier and nonconformist; they refused to wear coats and ties. Neil Young says, “There’s two kinds of rock and roll: Beatles and Rolling Stones.” The beat and rhythm of classic rock are there, but with angst and artistic depth folded in. “Under the Influence,” the new documentary on Richards is as easy going as his autobiography, Life published last year, “Second only to the Bible,” he says with a raspy chuckle, the residual of lifelong-chain-smoking. Richards wore out his life for a purpose; this film elucidates that cause.

Richards 1

The hard-living and self abuse is past; Richards is committed to family and reconciled a 20-year estrangement with his father; they have grown close. In the film, producer Steve Jordan chastises him for uttering the word, “retirement,” because like most 72 year-olds, Keith’s energy is waning. But, he fights it off, “You’re never grown up until you’re six feet under. You’re never grown.” His proclivity to music is inherited, he argues, music in the Richards household was something you just did. “Music is the language of the centuries; it’s indefinable.” His insights on the evolutionary role of music makes the film worth watching.

This is a legacy film. Richards aches to have his contribution known. “I’m steeped in American jazz and blues; that’s what America has given to the world, much better than H-bombs.” Richards claims the Rolling Stones introduced Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy not only to British audiences, but “we turned America back on to its own music” making American kids aware of it. In a poignant anecdote, Buddy Guy tells the story of Howlin’ Wolf being rejected by the TV show “Shindig,” but Keith Richards made it happen. Observing this performance is a moving moment in the documentary.

Once the Stones had the blues, it diffused into their rock songs in an astonishing style. “American music derived from Celtic roots so when I hear Lead Belly I felt echoes of my past. It was easy to build a bridge to my ancestry” he said. Like a cab driver, Tom Waits, says, “Keith has all the knowledge.” He learned Spanish guitar as a boy, sought out the blues makers in the American south, and studied reggae in later years.

Richards did something great for America, and the world for that matter. One gets the feeling he’s panicked he’ll be remembered for “Satisfaction” or “Under my Thumb.” He tells his story convincingly, however, earning him a deserved bravado in populist music history. The Rolling Stones is the best of rock and roll, and Richards, as anthropologist, synthesized blues, jazz, and country.

richards 3

Considering our realm of heroes within the LDS faith community, perhaps “Under the Influence” will implore us to cast a wider net. Keith Richards may or may not regret certain periods of his life. That’s his business. Yet none of us go through life unscathed, and it will be tragic to dismiss this artist as a mere drug user as I’ve heard him characterized in LDS circles. A deep and thorough examination of Keith Richard’s life uncovers greatness where it counts. Hopefully, his legacy will endure in the way he articulates it in this documentary.

Ex Machina: Will Sunday School Teachers be Robots?

by Danny Stout

The protagonist, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is invited to an isolated laboratory where clandestine artificial intelligence (AI) research takes place. A programmer, he meets a super computer that seems to have “conscience.” It’s not just that he “isn’t in Kansas anymore,” he’s unsure whether Dorothy, in this case a robot called Ava, has a soul. Caleb is unsettled; he’s torn between the unknown and the possible. The tension thickens when Nathan, Ava’s creator, describes her construction and abilities. “If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the greatest in the history of man but of Gods,” Caleb declares.

 He converses with Ava on the origins of language. She’s stumped. “I don’t know,” she responds assertively. ex machina 3When Nathan inquires, “How do you feel about her?” Caleb is taken aback. Why should he have feelings for an android, and is that even possible at any meaningful level? In past AI movies such as Blade Runner, the human impersonator is uncovered when emotion is inadequately simulated. But, Ava has advanced simulated feelings. She tells Caleb, “You ask circumspect questions about me, but I know nothing about you. That’s not how friendship works.”

Physically, Ava is both attractive and peculiar. A strikingly beautiful face, but much of her body is a transparent shell revealing computer boards and circuitry. Her legs are alluring nevertheless, and Caleb is smitten in a way he doesn’t quite understand. There’s the hang-up, again. How can one be smitten by a system of metal and wires? The movie’s dominant theme is clearly computers’ capability of consciousness, and less techno-viewers will wish they had a course in A.I. before seeing the film. Audience members are not handed glossaries to discern the technology jargon used so freely throughout.

Caleb shakes off insinuations that Ava is anything but a machine, despite Nathan’s declaration, “If you think you’re talking to anything but a machine, it must have intelligence.” Ava’s reading of eye movements and subtle communication cues gives her emotional assessment at some level, thus further intriguing Caleb. She says, “I’d like us to go on a date, the way your eyes fix on me your micro-expressions are communicating discomfort.”

 He discloses details of his parents’ death in a car crash. Her concern is a segue into insights about Nathan. This part is compelling: she has a strikingly sophisticated level of discernment: “Do you like Nathan? Are you good friends? ex machina 1You’re wrong about Nathan: he isn’t your friend. You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” Such disclosures set up action elements in the conclusion, inevitable in much current cinema.

As Caleb is left with questions, so are we. Professor of International Cultural Studies at BYU-Hawaii, Chad Compton, teaches A.I. and the global Internet. Mathematician Joel Helms is also interested in A.I. Recent conversations turn to religious implications, with Helms inquiring about Ava: “Does God hear her prayers?” to which Compton responds, “How can He if there’s no ‘her?”

We will inevitably confront Compton’s query. At our deaths, will we leave behind supercomputers perpetuating our identities for the benefit of future generations? And a question of my own: Now that robot nannies are available, will such androids teach gospel doctrine class in Sunday School? Philosopher Jacques Ellul posits: “(Technology) never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.” It’s likely that future discussions of “media effects” in the LDS faith community will inevitably broaden to include such matters.

New TV Series Depicts the Postmodern Angel

Angels are embedded deeply in Mormon theology; they accompanied the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and were present when Jesus was born. They are both joyous and forceful in declaring truth. In both religion and literature, they are our guides and protectors, standing with us through our mortal journeys. The TV series, Angel from Hell premiered this week, extending what has been a long string of angel depictions in popular culture, Touched by an Angel, Angels in America, and Michael. Angel from Hell, however, may be the first series where the angel has more problems than those she serves.

935a7d236bc46040cf311fafdf6fcc5948faf069Amy (Jane Lynch) is the angel sent to watch over Allison Fuller (Maggie Lawson), a dermatologist with a frenetic lifestyle forever in search of the optimal life. In the vein of shows such as The Book of Daniel, where the Jesus figure (Aidan Quinn) is an Episcopal priest hooked on prescription drugs, and Joan of Arcadia, where God can be anyone around us, and the more recent Hand of God, where the main character is encouraged by God to pursue vigilante justice, Angel from Hell depicts a heavenly being that’s the typical person you’d meet on the street. All three shows insist that God or angels are entities we should identify with. Those in denominational religion are too distant, and difficult to relate to.

What makes Angel from Hell so amusing, if not peculiar, is that many of her values fall below Allison’s, her assigned mortal. Yes, Allison is uptight and needs “a quirky friend,” but Angel Amy smokes and hangs out in bars. But, she’s got Allison’s back in terms of the big picture. She stands for honesty, persistence, and bombards her with questions designed to elevate her maturity. She exhorts “lighten up,” repetitively, and tells Allison: “What is your sole purpose is to be happy, and I’m the one to take you on that journey.” “What?” Allison responds incredulously. “I’m your guardian angel.”

Amy is a secular version of “angel.” She’s aggressive with a machine-gun speaking style. The show is likely aimed at the expanding group the “Unaffiliateds,” that believe in God, but are not in the rosters of an organized church. The show equates more with friendship, than with religious concepts of angels. To the show’s credit, it succeeds in slowing us down to appreciate the important things. It is certainly “religious lite,” with no reference to church attendance, prayer, or significant rituals.

I started to enjoy it when I decided it was a comedy, and not a religious show. At that level, Allison is fun to watch as someone out of the blue challenges her choices in life. Nothing heavy here, but audiences may give it a try for a season. Will Amy end up saying anything of real value? It’s probably too early to tell.

Then there is the “pop culture leap” phenomenon. Some may watch and become intrigued by the angel idea, and seek out institutions for deeper understanding. Touched by an Angel was certainly successful in this way. Finally, there is the question that there might really be angels like Amy. That’s a tougher one for Latter-day Saints. We expect something more sacred, and most are uneasy with the topic handled in such a light, off-handed way. We’ll no doubt preserve our concept of angels within the walls of our churches. But, for Millenials, cultural categories are breaking down, and in the same way that news is now entertainment, angels are now “quirky friends.”

To read about the LDS concept of “Angels,” see:

Angels – The Encyclopedia of Mormonism

When Do the Angels Come? – Ensign Apr. 1992 – ensign

Angels We Have Heard – Ensign December 2014 – ensign

Paintings of Angels common in Mormon museums and buildings.





Oscar Winner, “Revenant” – The Nature of Frontier Morality


by Dan Stout

Revenant, based on Michael Punke‘s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge is a multi-layered experience — and in many ways several films in one. Watch these ragged, crude frontiersmen of 1823, battling relentless cold, feuding about whose in charge, and weighing human life against animal pelt profits. Evoking Michael Polan’s idea that humans are not in control nor the center of the universe, it’s darkly pleasurable to observe these jesters assuming the role of king, as nature, steady and constant, reduces them to small players in the grand scheme.

“Revenant” means returning person, and in French, a reappearing ghost. In life, people, alive or dead, keep coming back to us. This can bring great joy or, in some cases, haunt us to our demise as in the case of revenge. Revenant reminds us that significant people fade away, but inevitably reappear. On the frontier, some are prepared for this moment while others meet their demise; it may be a ghost or person of the flesh, but we all come face-to-face with unfinished business. Thus Revenant is both a revenge film and a reflection on life’s un-mended affairs.

One such revenant is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose native-American wife is killed by white men, leaving him to carry on with his son, Hawk, who is looked upon skeptically by the other trappers. Conversely, Hugh, is dubious of his cohorts, any of which may have murdered his wife; they carry the banner of “survival of the fittest” at the expense of friendship and family bonds. This is no more apparent when the Powaqa Tribe kills 30 men in their party, leaving a handful of survivors fleeing over the mountain to a fort and safety. Sarcastically, a backwoodsman inquires of Hugh, “What keeps you out here on the edge?” to which he simply responds, “I like the quiet.”


Things are anything but quiet when Hugh is attacked by a grizzly bear in an animal-human brawl unequaled in any movie seen by this reviewer. Hugh is mangled, bitten in the back, and injured internally before he kills his attacker with a Bowie knife. His son Hawk vows to stay and pray with him, and Captain Andrew Henry pays antagonist, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to care for him until medical help arrives. Fitzgerald quips, “I ain’t got no life, just livin’ everyday.” [Spoiler alert until notified in text] Fitzgerald immediately murders Hawk and buries Hugh alive, claiming they froze to death. A shallowed-soul peasant, Fitzgerald joins the others at the fort, reporting the passing of his companions. Paid his wages, he moves on.

Miraculously, Hugh survives. Unearthing himself from the grave, he kills a horse, disembowels it of internal organs and crawls into the bloody carcass to escape a raging blizzard. Using the animal’s warm blood and organs to quell hyperthermia is practiced in many cultures. (This scene is reminiscent of Jack London’s short story, To Build a Fire where a trapper in the Yukon country attempts to kill his dog to slip his frostbitten hands into the canine’s blood-hot insides.)

The climactic scene arrives when Hugh, the revenant, tracks down Fitzgerald for the face-to-face encounter. “You came all this way just for revenge,” he asks Hugh. “Well, enjoy it, because it ain’t gonna bring your boy back.” To this, and we’ll not give away the climactic moment, Hugh evokes God on how to proceed.

Given Mormonism’s frontier history, Revenant reopens historical debates about revenge in the religious context. Devout pioneers crossed the plains at tremendous sacrifice; they established a base in Salt Lake City that enabled a worldwide church to spring from there.

revenant 1Likewise, not all Mormon pioneers crossed the plains with the best of intentions. According to Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, some Nauvoo settlers were motivated primarily by steady pay, possibly the reason groups of Saints went on to California for the gold rush. Mormon settlements in southern Utah yielded vigilante groups; many poor immigrants anticipated revenants from Illinois and Missouri to take revenge on them. When wagon trains crossed Utah territory, most remained peaceful, letting them pass. Others, including John D. Lee, Isaac C. Haight, William H. Dame, John M. Higbee, and Phillip Klinginsmith, played a role in the tragic massacre of 120 women, men, as reported in the book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard.

There was hysteria about imminent war and poor communication between settlements. This incident recalls many of the questions raised in Revenant: What is it about life on the frontier that provokes fear and aversion to other communities? Is revenge morally justified? The Mountain Meadows Massacre has turned out to be a revenant for those unwilling to confront the nature of the deed. As in the French derivation of the word, it is a ghost that returns until we achieve inner peace.

Few of us live on a wilderness frontier, but the story of Revenant is largely about how retain our values when there are few people around to police them. Sooner or later we all find ourselves in such situations.


Images for northern montana frontier maps

Revenant is rated “R” for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. 

“Concussion:” Do we value football more than life itself?


by Danny Stout

If announced today that 25 per cent of males will experience some level of brain malfunction beginning in early adulthood, nothing short of a frantic public outcry would ensue. While not the case of the general population, former professional football players, will, indeed, experience depression, symptoms of Alzheimers, suicide, and other cerebral maladies. “Concussion,” the new film starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, is a suspense drama where Smith accuses the National Football League (NFL) for suppressing medical evidence about such medical inevitabilities.

Omalu, a forensic pathologist, identifies a pattern of brain trauma among players including Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters. With credible coauthors, he publishes a paper in an esteemed medical journal that NFL officials attempt to discredit with all their muscle. “Concussion” is a polemical film, giving the NFL’s position only thin attention. While not placing a bad connotation on polemics, these are fairly new discoveries in a century-old pastime, and NFL President Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) a soulless flat character initially aloof to the mounting evidence against the league, probably deserves a greater voice in the script, and the sinister background music when he appears is over-the-top.

051222-N-9866B-079 San Diego (Dec. 22, 2005) – The U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen position themselves defensively in preparation for a play by the Colorado State Rams. Navy defeated Colorado State 51-30 at the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Zack Baddorf (RELEASED)

Watching Omalu cogently and passionately lay out his case teaches us both about science and how to present an ethical argument. He uses pictures of birds diving into water to catch fish: “Their skulls withstand 160 g-forces to protect their brains.” Humans, on the other hand can only tolerate 60 g-forces, but collisions on the field are often at the 120 g-force level. Through time, the bombarded brains emit fluids that erode parts of the organ, resulting in traumatic brain disorders.

Not only does Omalu present the facts, but he frames the argument not in a call for a football ban, but simply says, “They (the players) need to know. That’s all I’m saying.” His story is made even more compelling by his drive to honor the dead, a trait taught by his Nigerian culture, and one that shows in his deep devotion to patients.

“Concussion” is an actors’ film. Performances by Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Albert Brooks are first-rate. Much of the movie is dialogue which might disappoint action-fans, but credit writer and director Peter Landesman for riveting discussions that get our attention and keep us interested. The actual film footage of game hits and head-contact provide compelling drama that is at times hard to watch.

Given the popularity of BYU football and number of LDS high school players, the film will surely prompt discussion. Does BYU do everything it can to assure safety for its players? Has the information in this film filtered down to conversations of coaches, players, and parents, at a level where it’s taken seriously? If not, perhaps “Concussion” will ignite this kind of discourse. U.S. adults say they value human life and safety above all else, but are our actions consistent with this claim?


Jennifer Lawrence in “Joy:” No Free Rides

joy2by Danny Stout

In a quagmire flooded by ultra-action, special effects, and pandering half-witted comedy films, (e.g., Will Farrell fare), Joy, an honest straightforward story is gritty and refreshingly salient. Lightfare rags-to-riches tales serve up more pleasure than pain. In Pretty Woman, Trading Places and The Blind Side, “even the bad times are good,” but Director David O. Russell paints a picture of dreary days, keeping us wondering whether the protagonist will get to the surface for a lifesaving breath, or drown in an ocean of adversity. Since the economic crisis of 2008, keeping the faith is a continuing exhortation in LDS general conference. Many, I suspect will appreciate the no-fluff honesty of Joy.

Throughout her childhood, Grandma notes Joy Mangano’s (Jennifer Lawrence) creativity; she will do something exceptional. By early adulthood, this hasn’t come to fruition with a divorced mother watching soap operas all day, and an unemployed former husband living in the basement. She works as an airline ticket clerk enduring snarky complaints all day. Her sister constantly criticizes her, deepening feelings of failure. Then, her father’s (Robert De Niro) second wife dumps him at Joy’s house: “You take him, I can’t take it anymore.” A pipe breaks under the floor, and failure to pay the phone bill cuts communication with the outside world.

joy 3


Exhausted, Joy has fairy tale dreams where she does well for herself. Determined, she invents a plastic Miracle Mop that’s wrung out without touching the dirty strands, and thrown in the washing machine without rinsing in the kitchen sink. Now, she needs her father’s new girlfriend to lend her start-up money, and dad to arrange the manufacturing. But, Joy can’t sell the mops (they’re too costly to make), and a company in L.A. is stealing her patent. After a surge of optimism, reality seeps back in. According to Director Russell, “If you’re going to live a fairytale you’ve got to go through the goblins.” Fairy tale dreams are “emotional nightmares of your youth,” he says. Like his other films, “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter,” and “American Hustle,” success is a vague concept, earned in the minefields of life; no skipping steps or shortcuts. Do the protagonists make it? keeping us guessing is Russell’s directorial gift. Yet whether Joy makes it big is no consequence; it’s what she becomes through the refiner’s fire that defines victory. It’s similar to Joseph Smith’s “rough stone rolling” self assessment. A powerful element of Richard Bushman’s biography of Smith is the realism of the Prophet’s personal development.

American realism deviates from the instant gratification of rags-to-riches films by shifting the focus from the rewards, in this case millions for mop sales on QVC, the home shopping network, to human development, or how an individual becomes something. How a person is different at the end of the struggle compared to the beginning. Realist moviegoers project their own struggles into the narrative, deriving an idea or emotional uplift. Others have enough pain in their lives; they’re perfectly satisfied with the predictable upbeat The Blind Side. The name Joy is initially deceptive; much of the movie is anything but. However, it stretches the meaning of joy until it’s synonymous with adversity, and the maturity it yields. Still in her clothes, Joy falls asleep on her children’s beds or the sofa. There’s grace in her well-earned slumber and justice in fairytale dreams where she’s earned her grandmother’s loving validation.

Russell calls this “cinema of the ordinary,” implying that real life is high drama, and the players increasingly fascinating as we peel back the layers of their idiosyncrasies and character traits. For Tom Jode in the Grapes of Wrath, it’s the dogged pursuit of justice, and in Death of a Salesman Biff Loman tearfully admits that he’s a regular guy, not the great businessman his father, Willy, has labeled him as his whole life. In a climactic scene, he agonizingly implores Willy to release him from a lifelong lie to finally claim his true identity. Audiences for Death of a Salesman left the theater in silence deeply moved, having been hit over the head with the realization that our dreams may be illusions. American realism continues to confront the dilemmas of life, such as the loss of youthful optimism (American Beauty), loving someone despite their infirmities (Leaving Las Vegas), determining the limits of conformity (Revolutionary Road), and falling out of love (Little Children).

Family is an inevitable element in American realism. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Man and Superman, it’s the obstacle, while Theresa Connelly’s film, Polish Wedding, the pejorative “dysfunctional family” is turned on its head as all members, no matter their problems, draw on the family for sustenance; it’s what gets them through life despite poor decisions. Joy is similar in that when it counts, family, friends, and QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) rally to Joy’s cause. “The family” may be in trouble today, but Joy testifies that it is alive and well despite the flaws of its members.

The cinema has many uses, i.e., entertainment, escape, and education. It can also remind us of the real joy that comes from working through the roadblocks of everyday life.