I grew up without a clear visual picture of Book of Mormon battles. The stories did not analogize well to the little television that I watched. Arnold Friberg’s illustrations lent my only visual reference points; imagination provided the rest.
My children, however, will almost certainly perceive large portions of the Book of Mormon — particularly the battle stories — through the cinematic lens of Peter Jackson.
For better or worse, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is a fixture in our house. Balrogs, orcs, hobbits and Gandalf — all receive daily play. “You shall not pass” is invoked frequently by everyone. The boys have sword fights with imaginary orcs, and they argue about who gets to be Aragorn. Three year old Indigo gets lost in some of the story lines, but she loves the little hobbits, and walks around telling everyone her favorite joke — “which hobbit had a little lamb?” (Answer: Merry).
The battle scenes are scary, and the kids watch them peeking out from behind the couch or under a blanket. But these are the scenes that, I’m sure, will form the mental images that my children will adapt as they process the Book of Mormon. For example, we read in the Book of Mormon:
And in this year they did come down against the Nephites with all their powers; and they were not numbered because of the greatness of their number. And from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun. And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come down against the city Desolation; and there was an exceedingly sore battle fought in the land Desolation, in the which they did beat the Nephites. And they fled again from before them, and they came to the city Boaz; and there they did stand against the Lamanites with exceeding boldness, insomuch that the Lamanites did not beat them until they had come again the second time. And when they had come the second time, the Nephites were driven and slaughtered with an exceedingly great slaughter; their women and their children were again sacrificed unto idols.
When I read that as a child, I had a vague sense of the dread the Nehpites felt. I imagined high walls, beseiged defenders, the fear and dread of the advancing Lamanite army. It was a scattered collection of images and ideas, none of them particularly prominent.
Reading the same passage now, it is hard not to think of the battle of Helm’s Deep or the assault on Minas Tirith. And why not? These are spectacular battle scenes that truly bring to life the fear felt by the city defenders. They paint in breathtaking detail the terror of the populace looking out over plains alive with hundreds of thousands of enemies. They convey the sense of hopelessness in a powerful way. Is there any reason not to bring these ideas to vivid life?
Perhaps; I’m really not sure. The broad threshold question is this: Is there something lost or distorted if my children view the Book of Mormon battle scenes through Peter Jackson’s lens? I’m not sure that the answer is yes, but neither am I sure that it is no. The following thoughts occur to me:
One possible concern is that the movies may invite comparison to the Book of Mormon, and perhaps Tolkein’s heroes outshine the Book of Mormon heroes. Ammon was a great warrior; he slew one enemy and disabled several more. But how can that stack up to Legolas the elf, who slays dozens with his arrows, and manages to take an impromptu snowboarding (?) detour in the process. Does Legolas make us think less of Ammon? Do we wonder, “if Ammon were really a prophet, why couldn’t he have done more?”
A second, more limited concern is that the movies may reinforce possibly incorrect ideas about Book of Mormon battles. Peter Jackson’s battles are fought with swords and cavalry and high fortified towers. They mesh well with a particular conception of the Book of Mormon — the Friberg conception. They do not mesh particularly well with the more recent (and perhaps more correct) FARMS approach. To the extent that the Lord of the Rings reinforces the Friberg conception, it may further set up my children for a fall, if (when) they realize the lack of evidence that such a world existed. However, if this is a problem, then the LoTR is a very small part of it — Friberg and the CES are much more important factors.
Third, the Lord of the Rings world portrays a truly inhuman enemy. The enemy amassed on the plains below Minas Tirith is orc or Uruk-hai or Nazgul. (Yes, there are corsairs and Southrons and others involved, but they play a relatively minor role). As non-humans, they may be hated and despised. Such an attitude would never be proper with the Lamanites. Will LoTR make my children less sympathetic towards the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon, and more likely to perceive them as less than human?
Fourth, there is the danger that the children will come to associate all such massive battles with the idea of fiction or myth. It is possible that the children will outgrow LoTR. If the story is tied to their conception of the Book of Mormon, such a shift could impact their views of the Book of Mormon.
I don’t think that any of these are particularly problematic consequences. They don’t seem particularly likely to occur. Still, I wonder if I’m missing something.
Another concern occurs to me, similar to a statement made in JP’s recent comment on the Narnia thread: “There is no substitute for a good book and a good imagination. . . . The producer has limits, my mind does not.”
Perhaps the real concern here is the mental homogenization of the Book of Mormon experience. Left to imagination alone, each child will construct a mental Book of Mormon worldview that resonates with her. But with too much help, she is likely to be steered into the same corral as everyone else. And I wonder what is lost as we collectively retreat from our own individual visions and fantasies, to delegate to others the duty of imagination.
This critique does not apply solely to Peter Jackson’s Tolkein. It applies equally to CES movies, and to a lesser degree to Friberg and Teichert and the well-loved “Book of Mormon Stories” books. So perhaps I’m overstating the case. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply that the uniquely imposing vision of Peter Jackson casts these concerns into particularly sharp relief.