With the opening of The Book of Mormon musical in Melbourne and now Australian comedian Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven documentary exploring the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you could say, ‘the Mormons are coming!’
Shaun Micallef was raised Catholic and even considered becoming a priest before he studied law and ultimately ended up in comedy. His latest TV documentary, Stairway to Heaven, immerses himself in various religions all across the world. He began with Hinduism in India and will continue on to spiritualism in Brazil and Christian fundamentalists in Texas, but not before a stop in Salt Lake City.
Departing from Australia, Micallef set himself down to the ambitious task of completely reading The Book of Mormon on the flight. It’s still unclear how that turned out. His journey takes him to Temple Square, General Conference, a day at the cannery, Family Home Evening, a fundamentalist polygamist family (not considered a part of the Church) in Moab and BYU where a white toothed youth shyly admits to sampling nonalcoholic wine. Micallef jokes back that he is well situated to become a Mormon because he already doesn’t drink alcohol, tea, coffee or smoke. The one Australian….
Micallef’s previous work is known to be sharp and clever satire. In Stairway to Heaven he is quieter and more of a dag. (Aussie word for the day: a dag is literally a bit of dried poo stuck to a wooly sheep’s rear end or as described to me, the remains of toilet paper between your cheeks after a less than thorough wipe. In daily terms it’s an affectionate insult to someone who is quirky.) As Mormons we are easy targets for a laugh, but Micallef approaches the religion fairly gently. He keeps an open mind while encouraging critical thinking.
He also got to rehearse with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He’s the one with a beard. (Incidentally, he does get a few facts wrong, like assuming beards are not allowed within Mormonism.)
Perhaps to his own surprise, he enjoyed his time in Utah, describing being a part of the religion as feeling like old time America. “At least from old movies where you knew the neighbors, everyone’s supportive, there’s no condescension, nobody’s sanctimonious.”
While some who have lived in the Church longer than a week may disagree with the latter part of the sentiment, it’s somewhat of a relief that Micallef’s experience was positive.
And yet he makes an interesting comment about light and darkness. In discussions with the Mormons he met, the theme of the saints being a light to the world and shining through the darkness kept coming up. He agreed that it’s obviously hard to navigate in the dark, but “I think, too much light you can’t see anything either.”
To find out how Mormons cope with hard times, he goes on a mini mission to Fiji, which he said was “certainly not a holiday.” While there, he was confronted with the Church’s struggling relationship with homosexuality. He and the sister missionaries visited a home of a woman who lists the things Mormons don’t do, starting with the ten commandments and including homosexuality. Troubled by the seriousness put on the issue, he asked the missionaries. One Elder tells Micallef about a friend of his who is gay, converted to the Church, is happy practicing abstinence, and plans to marry a woman in the temple. It’s an difficult moment when a not quite 20-year-old boy is put in the position to speak for the Church’s complex stance on homosexuality.
The final conclusions of the documentary acknowledge that Joseph Smith stumbled upon an “enormous amount of truth.” And yet, to Micallef, the culture surrounding the Church seems to require faith but not encourage questions, which seems opposite to what Joseph did. He asked and was told not to join any church. Does the fact that he created one go against the simple belief in receiving revelation for oneself?
A common belief today is that it is more important to have a spiritual relationship with God or some being, but not accepting the organization of a church—which will always have flaws because of the imperfect people who attend—as necessary. As members, we believe in the Church more than other religions who attend a church for the community. Does this put us in a position only to revere and not question?