From time to time LDS.net will review movies or other pop culture. Ordinarily these movies have a specific religious angle, which will interest our readers. But Latter-day Saints often watch movies or TV that is not explicitly religious, and yet our uniquely LDS world view affects the way we experience these works.
Now I am a complete and total English nerd, and I love my literary analyses. If you’re not familiar with the world of literary analysis (which would place you in roughly a 99.5% majority) there are lots of ways to analyze pieces of art. And while there are “Feminist” “Marxist” and “Post-structuralism” analyses, there has never been a coherent view of what a Mormon analysis would look like. So while Mormons have scriptural commandments to find the best art, we’ve never really had a way to identify what that is.
Before, I go on, let me answer your concern–what does this matter to anyone who isn’t an English major with no social life? It matters a lot. We experience analysis all around us every day. Every time you read that a movie got a thumbs up, or a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, you are experiencing artistic analysis. But many of these critics are simply sharing variations on the same point of view. Sure not everyone agrees on a single movie (well except for Toy Story 3), but generally critics feel a movie is good if the actors perform well, the dialogue is believably written, and the themes are moving. You might really like this style of analysis, because you want to see movies with good actors, and moving themes. You might also be like many of my friends who dismiss “movie critics” because they want to see movies with cool special effects, and a plot line that draws them in. What they don’t realize is that they are then engaging in their very own movie analysis, just one that views what makes movies good and bad through a different lens.
What I’m proposing to do is the same thing, but through yet another point of view–this time through the point of view of Mormons–an idea I got from my friend Jack Harrell. True, not all Mormons agree on what movies or books are good, but neither does any other group. What we’re looking for is the artistic point of view that Latter-day Saints have in common. I used the 13th Article of Faith as a starting point:
1) Honest & True
Good art is essentially honest. This does not mean that all good art is non-fiction, but rather that it is artistically honest, that the deeper point it strives to reach tells the truth about the beauty and consequences in the world. James E. Faust said, “Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling.” Truth telling can be difficult, but seems a requirement for great art.
Chaste has two essential definitions within this context. The one we’re probably most familiar with is sexually circumspect. Latter-day Saints understand the power and essential nature of sex, so when art trivializes sex, it violates an essential part of the LDS world-view. Chaste has a secondary definition that was in particularly large use at the time Joseph Smith wrote the Articles of Faith. It means without excessive ornamentation.
3) Benevolent, Virtuous & Doing Good to All Men
When looking at works of art we have to ask ourselves how they inspire the audience. What are the themes undergirding the work, and how do they affect behavior. If art acts to make us more selfish and less kind, it’s fundamentally flawed. No matter how skilled the acting or beautiful the special effects, it is not the best use of our time.
4) Tempered Optimism
The 13th Article of Faith has these two nearly contradictory ideas, “We hope all things, we have endured many things.” Latter-day Saints are optimistic because of their joyous theology. Everything turns out all right in the end, and yet that doesn’t change the fact that things are hard now. John Gardner outlines two main lies we often see in art in his book “On Moral Fiction.” The first is that life is easy, the second that life is hard and it’s not worth it. Gardner concludes that the only moral story we can tell is that life is hard and it’s worth it. Latter-day Saint doctrine seems to agree.
We rejoice in beauty, and art can be full of beauty in many forms. Beauty serves as one of the primary goals of art, and when art fails to reach beauty it can’t be considered great. This beauty can come from wonderfully designed sets, or delicious diction. “Men are that they might have joy,” so art needs to please the senses. This is what separates good art from a good sacrament meeting talk.
6) Of Good Report & Praiseworthy
On one hand these items simply encapsulate everything that has gone before, but I think this idea is also broader. We should pay attention to what experts feel is good and the reasons why. Sometimes we will have to reject those reasons when they go against the other more fundamental ideas, but often people who are experts in music, literature, and film understand much of the craft, and can help us see greater beauty.
7) Age appropriate
This last item does not come from the 13th Article of Faith but seems worthy of mention. Progression is an idea deeply ingrained in LDS belief, and child development is a matter of divine counsel since we know children reach an age of “accountability” at eight years old. This means that certain pieces of art may contain complexities that are inappropriate for children, and which may confuse or horrify them. That does not mean these same things are inappropriate for adults. In fact these works of art may be the best for adults based on the other measures.
As you can see, this approach to movie criticism is not trying to tell you if a movie has immoral material in it like other media watch dogs, rather it looks at a movie as a whole to see whether Latter-day Saints should consider it among the “best.” The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet says to “choose wisely when using media.” Many movies are perfectly moral, but that doesn’t make them good. When I analyze films, TV, books, and other art on LDS.net, I will use these guidelines as the point of view through which I analyze.