How (Not) to Do Media

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.

28 comments for “How (Not) to Do Media

  1. This is one of my problems with Esther in general: the message appears to be that a faithful, courageous woman can change history — as long as she’s hot, too.

    “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?” Well, Christianity has been around a long time, but the LDS church was organized somewhat more reccently, so the title seems reasonable to me.

  2. Roger Williams would have agreed that the Puritans who governed Massachusetts Bay Colony weren’t much interested in religious freedom. Of course, they granted him the freedom to escape with his life to Providence.

    And the Bill of Rights? Good grief! Don’t they have anybody there who’s had more than a 3rd grade introduction to constitutional law?? Of course, for those of us who feared that whatever freedom was guaranteed by the Bill of Rights had been lost, there’s always the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. So everything’s gonna be all right.

    But I think you meant “uninterested” in your paragraph (2) under the link to the Esther video. At least I wish you did.

  3. Beautiful video. I have to agree, that is an absolutely horrific timeline. Just looking at it increased my blood pressure!
    I also really wish my LDS compariots would come to terms with the true birth year of Jesus: 4 BCE

  4. As a medievalist, I really loathe the term “Dark Ages”. It is very outdated. Is this infographic based on Cleon Skousen’s social studies curriculum?

  5. Your 7) seems odd to me, Julie. The women in the video wore Western middle class clothes and Western middle class hair styles too. Did those things give you pause as well?

  6. I wish there were a good explanation for the wildly varying quality of work the church produces, especially from the newsroom. Some of it is great and some of it is simply unreadable and unwatchable. It is frustrating to see some excellent work, then be disappointed with some sort of laughable dreck.

  7. There’s either too many or not enough entries on the timeline. They need to either stick with the top four or five, or else (if they have to include the pilgrims) include a bunch of other events of similar importance. And who thought ALL CAPS would be a good idea?

  8. Excellent post Julie. Clearly, the right hand does not know what the left hand is producing. Charitably, I’d like to attribute the first to low-level incompetence (some BA graphics designer?) instead of high-level incompetence (multiple BYU/CES people, Apostolic approval, etc.).

    Clearly, we need to work on refining the bolded bullet-points of our narrative.

  9. Let’s be careful about not creating other myths in attacking myths. The puritains did come for religious reasons and did face some restrictions in Holland. The Bill of Rights did greatly expand religious freedom etc. There really nothing new about this chart. It looks quite a bit like the old chart.

  10. True, the Puritans left England for religious reasons, but “religious freedom” as we understand it–the freedom to practice, or not practice, religious belief free of government control–was not one of those reasons. And the Bill of Rights did state principles of religious freedom, but had virtually no practical effect (except that the national government did not “establish” a church) until after the 14th Amendment was interpreted to require state governments to conform with the Bill of Rights. So, the foundation was laid in 1791, but nothing was built on it for a long time.

  11. My point was that this critique lacked the nuance that she said was lacking in the chart. The chart doesn’t say the puritans came for “‘religious freedom’ as we understand it.” Further “nothing was built on it for a long time” is also a big exaggeration. Massachusetts was the last state to disestablish the state church in the 1820s. These things had an impact.

  12. I’m with Steve, the Pilgrims left England for reasons of religious freedom. That they tried the Netherlands first does nothing to change that fact. If I leave my home in some town without a college to go to BYU for a year, decide I don’t like it, and then transfer to BYU-Hawaii, I could still accurately say that I came to Hawaii so that I could get an education.

    Maybe I’m nit-picking, but so are you. Let he who is without nits pick the first nit.

    P.S. I agree that “DARK AGES BEGIN” is laughably simplistic.

  13. Well, I’m going to nitpick my own work: I should have mentioned Luke 3:23 in the original post since it has something to say about how old Jesus was, but then I should have noted that it gets us even farther away from the “Jesus organized the church in AD 32” statement.

  14. Biggest problem for me is the idea that nothing of note happened between A.D. 325 and A.D. 1517. A very parochial view of “Christianity.”

  15. Ok, so the Pilgrims left the religious tyranny of James I/Charles I/Archbishop Laud in order that they could establish a religious tyranny of their own in New England. :) How’s this for a compromise: “1620–English pilgrims land in North America seeking liberty to force others to worship like they did”?

  16. I am fairly conservative in my religious views and am usually the first person to jump up and defend the Newsroom or anything associated with the church on things like this. This, however, is simply not a good infographic for many of the reasons already stated in the OP and comments.

    I really liked emeritus general authority Alexander B. Morrison’s “Turning From Truth: A New Look at the Great Apostasy,” and the view taken there regarding the apostasy. I especially liked the introduction, where he pointed out the fallacy of the term “Dark Ages.” Historical scholarship on the 1st century through the Reformation has advanced dramatically (both in terms of new discoveries and greater understanding of earlier discoveries) since Talmage wrote “The Great Apostasy,” which is, in part, why Morrison wrote the book. In any case, I wish that whoever had created this infographic had consulted Elder Morrison or other scholars on the content.

  17. Great post Julie. That timeline was bad history at its finest. A couple of additional notes. If we are to accept that Christ was born when Herod was alive, then he was born 4-6 BC, not 0AD. John Wycliffe was born in the 1330s and died in 1384, during the supposed “Dark Ages.” He wasn’t a contemporary with Martin Luther, or a post-1517 reformer as the timeline suggests. Good catch on the pilgrims, religious freedom, and Plymouth. Indeed William Bradford went to the Dutch Republic before he went to the American continent. Also the early puritans in the colony of Massachusetts were only interested in freedom from the Church of England, but were as religiously intolerant as the King James I had been with them.

  18. Would it be a fair generalization to say that the church is more likely to devote intellectual energy and resources to present-day lived religion rather than to historical questions, particularly history before 1820?

    In any case, the timeline isn’t good. The entry I actually find the most off target is 325 AD, as there’s no obvious reason that Constantine has any relevance to a Mormon view of church history. His establishment of Christianity as the state religion only matters if you care about late medieval and Reformation-era debates specifically about the papacy as an institution…which we don’t.

  19. The biggest barrier to understanding the LDS view of the Great Apostasy is the idea that the doctrine has anything to do with history or historical facts. In fact, the doctrine is simply a consequence of the Restoration. If there was no Apostasy, there would be no need for a Restoration, so if you affirm a Restoration, your narrative has to include a Great Apostasy, period. Historical facts have nothing to do with it.

    So any LDS approach to early Christian history is likely to be a cherrypicking exercise of fitting convenient facts into the pre-existing Apostasy narrative and ignoring facts that don’t fit the narrative. In other words, the LDS view of the Restoration makes it almost impossible to take an authentic historical approach to understanding early Christian history. So it’s not just the infographic is flawed.

  20. The issue of Constantine, his linking of church with empire, and the Council of Nicaea falls in line with a popular strain of the Great Apostasy narrative (the one made popular by James E. Talmage and advanced by Bruce R. McConkie). It holds that although Christianity had been corrupted prior to Constantine, state powers co-opted Christianity to their own advantages and distorted it even more. Worse, however, was that the state powers insisted on perpetuating distorted Christianity and attempted to stamp out any individual or movement that dared try to undertake necessary reforms for Christianity. This same narrative looks sympathetically upon the early Christian reformers and holds that the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment with their accompanying emphasis on religious freedom were harbingers of, if not preconditions for, the Restoration. Here’s Talmage, The Great Apostasy, 158:

    “Not less marked is the divine permission in the revolts and rebellions, in the revolutions and reformations, that developed in opposition to the darkening influence of the apostate church. Wycliffe and Huss, Luther and Melancthon, Zwingle and Calvin, Henry VIII in his arrogant assumption of priestly authority, John Knox in Scotland, Roger Williams in America — these and a host of others builded better than they knew, in that their efforts laid in part the foundation of the structure of religious freedom and liberty of conscience, — and this in preparation for the restoration of the gospel as had been divinely predicted.”

    Here’s Bruce R. McConkie, “What Think ye of Salvation by Grace:”

    “Nearly a millennium and a half later, during the sixteenth century, as the Reformation grew out of the Renaissance, as a means of breaking the hold of the dominant church, the great Christian reformers lit a new doctrinal fire. That fire, burning wildly over the dry and arid prairies of religious autocracy, is what really prepared the way for the restoration of the gospel in modern times.”

    So in essence the timeline, although flawed in some finer details, is not a deviation from Talmage’s and McConkie’s historical philosophies/teleologies.

  21. One more thing, I must add that the idea of a restoration is not uncommon in religions, and it has proven to be powerful in gaining followers. Jesus and his followers claimed in essence to be restoring Judaism from its corrupted state. Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill the law of Moses, not destroy it, and that he was the prophesied Messiah. Hence Jesus’ early followers turned the Jewish Tanakh into the Old Testament. Islam claimed that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all legitimate prophets of old, whose words had been distorted. It promoted the Qur’an as revelation given to Muhammad that rectified the distortions. Joseph Smith claimed that God’s truth as revealed in the Bible was largely lost in translation and because of corrupt traditions, and that he received divine authority and instruction to restore it. History then became a turf on which to defend legitimacy claims. These cherry-picked versions of history and revisionist interpretations became crucial narratives by which to fortify members against cognitive dissonance-inducing counter-narratives from competing religions and philosophies.

  22. One of the things that is questionable in the timeline is associating the date AD 70 with the apostacy and “the last of the apostles martyred”. For heaven’s sake, John didn’t write his Gospel and Revelation until circa AD 90 (for those of us who don’t think they were authored by a different “John”), and he was never martyred, but it is a point of LDS doctrine that he was translated, and never martyred, as the prototype of the three Nephite disciples. Furthermore, why is the illustration showing a stoning (of Stephen? who was not an apostle), rather than the crucifixion of Peter or the execution of Paul by beheading which are the traditions concerning their deaths? It could be misunderstood to imply that Jews killed the apostles, rather than Roman authorities (in those two cases).

    As for the Pilgrims, the Puritans were a larger body who dissented from many of the features of the Church of England, and emigration to New England, mostly from Puritan enclaves in East Anglia, continued for about 15 years, until the Puritan revolution in England led to the execution of Charles I. Basically most of the early New Englanders were descendants of that short initial burst of emigration, which is why many of the early leaders of the LDS Church were all distant cousins. No, the Puritans did not emigrate to America to uphold the general principle of Freedom of Religion, but to enable their own freedom to practice their own particular religion. That was the same reason the Mormons emigrated to Missouri, to Illinois, and then to Utah.

    The prohibition on a Federal established church, and against Federal laws restricting religious freedom that would have been the normal accompaniment to it, was meaningful to the Americans who, like those in Virginia, had already disestablished their state churches and didn’t want a new government church imposed on them. That part of the First Amendment acknowledged the reality of religious diversity among the states, and while it did not disestablish the remaining state churches, its restraint on the Federal government was a major contribution to religious freedom.

    The persecutions of the Mormons in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois did not stem from any state established church. The religious intolerance was personal, not doctrinal, and not based on refusal to pay ecclesiastical taxes or participate in any officially ordained worship. The reluctance of Van Buren and other Federal officials to intervene in the persecution of Mormons by Missouri and Illinois was in the context of the many issues going on in antebellum America over the power of states versus the Federal government, which were only resolved with the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. And even then the constitutional basis for the statutes that outlawed polygamy and punished the Church because of it stemmed from the fact that Utah was a Federal territory where Congress could legislate on matters. like marriage, that were otherwise reserved to the state legislatures.

    Yes, the story of Christianity, America and the Restored Church is much more complicated than the timeline suggests, but also more complicated than some of the criticisms suggest.

  23. The use of the phrase “organizes His Church” seems intended to convey the impression that the Savior put in a place a structure similar to that of the modern-day LDS church. The scriptural support for this proposition is thin, to say the least. The only apparent “organizational activities” referenced in the four gospels are the selection and ordination of 12 apostles and some seventies. Indeed, I can’t find any verse in the four gospels that suggests the Christ ever uttered the word “church” during his ministry. Further, it is apparent that most other offices were added later by Paul, and there is no evidence that geographical units comparable to wards or stakes were envisioned or created. This is presentism at its worst.

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