I saw two examples of church-produced media in recent weeks; one was nearly perfect in every way and the other was . . . the opposite.
First, this infographic called “Timeline of Christianity.” Virtually every word is problematic:
The timeline begins with “A.D. 00.” But there is no “A.D. 00.” The year after what we call “1 BC” was “AD 1.”
The next entry is “A.D. 32 Christ organizes his church.” The first problem with this is that three of the four gospels are completely silent about when Jesus organized his church. Only John presents what might be read as a ministry spanning the 30th to 33rd years of Jesus’ life, and even that is debatable. I realize that there is general consensus the the LDS Church that Jesus’ ministry went from his 30th to 33rd year, but it is worth pausing to realize that the actual evidence for this is very slender. But, even if the 30-33 time span is completely correct, virtually no one thinks that, between the calculation of the calendar and the timing of Jesus’ birth, Jesus was actually 32 in AD 32. The arguments surrounding this issue are long and complicated and I’m not going to go into them here (go here if you want more info). (Also, this is a picture of the Sermon on the Mount. Are they really suggesting that Jesus organized the church during the Sermon on the Mount?) The next entry suffers from the same dating problems.
I’m going to cut to the chase and just point out that the label “the dark ages” is not something most historians look kindly upon, that the church and the empire were linked well before Constantine, that many people other than the reformers “change[d] the course of Christianity,” contrary to what your first grade teacher told you, the Pilgrims did not come here for “religious liberty” (I realize that that is part of our national origin myth, but they had all of the religious liberty that they wanted in the Netherlands, they were just ticked off that their kids were assimilating.), and I doubt you can spend five minutes thinking about Mormon history and still think that the Bill of Rights “secured” religious freedom. This infographic has all of the nuance, sophistication, and historical awareness that I would expect from an elementary school history poster that was ignored until the night before its due date.
What I find so disappointing about this infographic is that whoever wrote it and then pushed it out as an official church production picked a dozen fights where not a single one was necessary. It makes no difference whatsoever to the truth of the Restoration whether Jesus established his church in AD 28 or 32 or 39 or 46, and you could make (and LDS thinkers, and others, have made) reasonable arguments for several different dates. There is nothing to be gained by having an “official” church document come down on the side of AD 32. This is most emphatically not the hill we want to die on. It just becomes another stumbling block for the investigator who knows some history or the member who takes her first graduate-level history class.
I’m also going to quibble with the title a little: Are you saying that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and “Christianity” are two separate things? (How did that ever get approved?)
I guess what makes me saddest about this infographic, though, is that its last line (“A.D. 1820 Joseph Smith is visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ”) is 100% true. Yet I doubt very many readers of the infographic will trust that statement, given how badly the creators botched virtually every other line.
On the other hand, we have this video:
A few of the reasons why this is nearly perfect:
(1) It is darned good storytelling to get four complete narratives into three minutes and twenty seconds.
(2) I think one of the major concerns that people disinterested in religion have is the inability to see the relevance of ancient texts to modern life. This video is pretty brilliant in its ability to appropriate and approximate the story of Esther in three very modern situations. Showing each woman preparing for her day underlined their similarities; showing each woman preparing differently highlighted their unique circumstances.
(3) I know that “political correctness” is everyone’s favorite punching bag, but for those of us under a scriptural mandate to teach that all are alike unto God (see 2 Nephi 26:33, for example), we have an obligation to show that gospel principles apply equally in the lives of middle class married white mothers, elderly widowed Latina women, and single professional African-American women, not to mention the 1% of ancient Persia!
(4) We do not pay enough attention to scripture stories about women, especially women in non-traditional roles. So a video about a courageous woman is a win all around.
(5) It is fairly easy to talk about being courageous with one’s life (Esther) or being courageous by standing up to an unethical boss, but a little harder to show the kind of courage we are more often called upon to show in real life: the kind where the ill woman walks to the bus stop with her kids or the lonely widow gets out of bed on yet another empty day. I really appreciated these non-traditional but more realistic examples of courage.
(6) You are probably so used to the Male Voice of Competence that you don’t even notice it anymore, but think about every ad for a household cleaner you have seen in your life: a frustrated, ignorant woman complains on camera about her inability to keep things clean and then a disembodied male voice announces the simple solution to her problem. This video did not do that. The women themselves explain what courage is: not the absence of fear, but acting in faith.
(7) My one hesitation in this video is the portrayal of make-up. I suppose the most hostile reading would be: “you can be as courageous and faithful as you want, but you’d still better meet Western middle class beauty standards, missy!” But another way to look at it, brought home to me perhaps particularly in the case of the elderly woman applying lipstick, is that each of these women thought of herself as “worth it.” I have a very hard time personally parsing the cultural meaning of beauty regimes (not having worn make-up myself in all of my adult life), so maybe I’m not the best person to ask here. But I did get a sense that these women were not primping so much as preparing for battle. And that was kind of awesome.