Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Other Side of Heaven

"Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enmity of God." (James 4:4)

Mark Twain wrote that “True irreverence is disrespect for another man’s god.” Not your own god, of course, but somebody - anybody - else's. Some religions seem to invite irreverence.

Every now and then here on my remote Philippine island, I run into Mormon missionaries: young men who look like they're in their late teens or early twenties, dressed in dark trousers, white shirts and ties. I saw them when I was living in Japan and in Korea, where their missionary work must be a good deal harder. Filipinos, unique among Asians, have been Christians for four hundred and fifty years. Only Mindanao remained Muslim, because the Spaniards never succeeded in conquering the sultanates there.

The locals tell me that these missionaries can speak the Visayan dialect fluently. I have to take their word for it because I've never had an opportunity to speak to any of them. The missionaries keep to themselves and avoid contact with the expats here, probably by direction. Since I know what they're up to here, and they know that I know, their behavior towards me isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is that these Americans had to come all the way to the Philippines to avoid their fellow Americans.

Whenever I pass by them in the market or the street, I try to make eye contact, but they always look away. I've had the feeling that many of the foreigners who come here are up to no good, but the Mormons seem to confirm my suspicions. The organization called Survival International might not think that Filipinos qualify as indigenous tribal or "uncontacted" people, but somebody should look into the activities of these Mormons here and elsewhere.

The Mormon faith, which Edmund Wilson once called “a farrago of balderdash”, is ostensibly Christian, but it's a hybrid sect, comparable to the Black Muslims and their Nation of Islam, which is a decidedly New World, quite distorted re-invention of the Muslim faith. Like all Christians, the Mormons proselytize - they seek converts in the unlikeliest places, like in another collection of islands called Tonga in the South Pacific, which is the setting of a curious film with the illuminating title The Other Side of Heaven. Released in 2001, it tells the "true" story of John Groberg, a Mormon missionary sent, like a Peace Corps volunteer, to this outpost of civilization in the 1950s. Groberg is played by Christopher Gorham in the film, which was shot in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Unlike the Peace Corps, however, the Mormons don't go to such places to teach the natives how to read and write or cultivate their land.

The film recounts Groberg's adventures, which he recounts in letters to his fiancée (played by Anne Hathaway). It is an insider's view of his experience, directed by Mitch Davis, whom the credits tell us is "also a BYU grad" (Groberg attended Bringham Young University). This might explain why no one involved in the project could see its premise - another white man "saving" the unwashed pagans in their outer darkness - as disgracefully racist. Stephen Holden in the New York Times remarked of the film that "the movie's vision of a white American zealously spreading a Puritanical brand of Christianity to South Seas islanders is one only a true believer could relish."

Like military recruiters, I imagine that missionaries have their own quotas of converts. Exactly how they go about substantiating such conversions to their superiors is unclear. But the title of the film spells out the conflict that each of us must face, namely having to choose between God and man, eternal life or an attenuated life on this earth. A strange missionary goes all the way to a South Pacific island - a paradise on earth - to lure its inhabitants away from a life in the thrall of nature to a sad, painful faith in a fuzzily conceived paradise that is to come. I had to wince at the spectacle of that young American dipping the natives in the waves, baptizing them, opening their eyes to the terrible knowledge that they were born in sin and will die there unless they forsake their love of the earth.

The film concludes with titles announcing the emigration of some of the natives from their refulgent paradise to ours. It would be difficult to imagine a more inequitable exchange.


Jane Ann Hanson said...

Very thoughtful and restrained, on a subject that drives me to teeth-gnashing despair. My sister is a Mormon convert (& a BYU grad), so I've seen this witless yet seemingly bullet-proof self-assurance up close. The truly remarkable thing to me is that they seem unaware of--at least quite uninterested in--the development of western thought (e.g. the Enlightenment) during the past few centuries, & the notion that they might all have been taken in by a hoax. Since when do you get to listen to voices in your head telling you to, for example, marry a specific individual (my brother-in-law!), & not consider that you might be merely nuts? How can you graduate from college & still think like a 17th century peasant? They scare me more than anything with their certainty about things it is impossible to be certain about, which goes way beyond "mere" faith. And now they've adopted a little orphan girl from China so they can fill her full of crap--GNASH-GNASH!

Dan Harper said...

When JFK ran for president in 1960, alot of people (Republicans) were afraid of electing a Roman Catholic. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, whose church once proclaimed (as recently as the 1970s) that the "mark of Cain" was black skin and thick lips. A black man couldn't become a Mormon minister until such language was removed from the official Mormon liturgy. If he's ever nominated, Romney will run against a president branded with the mark of Cain. I wonder if that will ever come up in debates. It should, but it probably won't.