Those that leave the Church can’t leave it alone. So goes the saying about individuals who, for some reason or another, stop practicing Mormonism. And as much as it pains me to admit it, this is 100% the case for me. Even though I don’t attend church or believe, I still find myself engaging with Mormonism in one way or another. Lately, it’s been watching Mormon faith-based movies, some of which not even faithful, practicing Mormons like. What can I say? I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
So at noon on a Monday, I found myself in an empty Utah movie theater watching The Fighting Preacher, directed by TC Christensen. You may know his work if you’ve ever visited Temple Square and watched that Joseph Smith movie. Or if Mormon missionaries have ever visited your home and showed you the movie about white Jesus, aka Finding Faith in Christ.
As a disillusioned Mormon, it’s very easy to be dismissive and glib about these films, which often pale in comparison to million-dollar Hollywood movies, in terms of production value, acting, writing, etc.
To my great surprise, I actually enjoyed my time with The Fighting Preacher, more than I expected at least.
I respect director TC Christiensen as a technician. His films always look great, probably due to him working as a cinematographer before transitioning to directing. He loves to saturate his frames with light, lending his films a pleasantly bright and uplifting quality. He, along with his collaborators, also put a great deal of care in recreating the historical periods in which many of his movies are set. This movie, for instance, takes place at the beginning of the 20th century. But unlike some of Christensen’s past work, this film mines a lesser-known gem from Mormon history. The Bean family’s church mission to Palmyra, New York, the birthplace of Mormonism.
The characters and the story of this film are what mostly charmed me. Although the central performances aren’t the strongest, they’re pretty decent for an independently made Mormon movie.
There are even some great jokes. And not the “We Mormons sure do love Jell-o and having lots ‘o’ babies’” type of stereotypical in-jokes you usually see in these type of movies. One gag that comes to mind relates to the main character not understanding how to speak on the telephone, a brand new invention at the time.
What ultimately vexes me about this film is its central message: Kindness, service, and love can conquer unfair prejudice and bias. The film preaches this idea from one side of its mouth while enjoying a lite revenge fantasy with the other.
See, the Bean family isn’t treated fairly when they move to Palmyra, New York. There is a lot of fear and negative feelings towards Mormonism and Joseph Smith, who began establishing there. Willard Bean, the protagonist, does his best to be positive about his family’s mission to re-establish the Mormon church in Palmyra. But after some unfriendly encounters, he resorts to striking his provokers, something he does well as a former middleweight boxing champ.
Eventually, he learns that he should try being nice to his haters, instead of punching them square in the jaw. The town is won over, and the movie ends happily. But every previous sequence where Willard hits his unkind neighbors is played for laughs. The musical score gets silly, Willard makes some sarcastic remark, and then he knocks his opponents out cold. For real. It’s implied that he hits them so hard that they pass out. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to cheer and celebrate his violent acts.
The film perfectly reflects the Mormon ideal of love and compassion while indulging the persecution complex many Mormons carry with them. Unfortunately, early Mormons were treated very poorly in almost every state they tried to settle in. The founder Joseph Smith was even murdered by a mob in the Church’s infancy. Eventually, church members made their way across the plains to Utah. And a lot of us who were raised in the church still have a chip on our shoulder. Even though the LDS church is a pretty powerful billion-dollar institution, we can’t help but feel we have been and are treated unfairly.
Growing up in North Carolina, I was bullied for being Mormon. Southern Christians don’t see the LDS church as a legitimately Christian. I was often told my beliefs were invalid, silly, or weird. It hurt. And the best way to deal with hurt feelings as a teenager is to be very angry. Like Willard Bean, I’m sure there were days I wanted to punch someone who was giving me shit about my religious beliefs at that time. Alas, I wasn’t, and will probably never be, a middleweight boxing ace.
Fast forward about 10 or so years when I stopped practicing Mormonism and had begun letting go of the resentment I felt. After all, when I moved to Utah, where the predominant religion is Mormonism, I learned that the bullied can also be the bullies.
Watching the Fighting Preacher was a fun yet weird experience. It was fun to engage with Mormonism on a level I feel comfortable (i.e., not going to church and pretending that I believe that the institutional LDS church is infallible). But it also reminded me of that old Mormon persecution complex I used to have.
I think we need to tweak that phrase I mentioned at the top. You can leave the Church. But you can’t leave your complicated feelings about it alone.