Recovering from my colonoscopy yesterday I watched the movie Latter Days, which was recommended to me by my friend Brian. I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected a movie much more shallow than what this film turned out to be. It is basically a gay romantic comedy featuring an LA party boy and a Mormon missionary. It was well done, not nearly as one-dimensional as I expected after reading the blurb on Netflix.
Soon after the movie, I began thinking about the Mormon missionary custom and the Amish Rumspringa, which pastor Jeff Edwards wrote about in his play, The Great Confirmation Play. The Mormons have this tradition of sending young men, between the ages of 19 and 25 to places far away from home, often overseas, to go door to door proselytizing. The Mormon missionaries spend this entire time in pairs with another member of the faith, always under the watchful eye of their “missionary companion”. They are prohibited from dating or having any relations with women. After two years of full-time missionary work, the young men return home and marry, usually within the faith, and settle down. The Rumspringa is a custom in some Amish communities where young men, between 16 and 18 years old, are encouraged or allowed to go out into the “English” community and experience a bit of life outside the strict restrictions of their religious order. Some use this opportunity to immerse themselves in drugs, alcohol and sex, but the vast majority return at the end of this period to be baptized into the faith of their birth and marry within the community. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Both of these faiths spring from the American utopian tradition. American history and the American landscape are covered with examples of utopian communities and sects, among them the Shaker Communities of New England, New Harmony in Indiana, the Chautauqua Movement and the hundreds of hippies communes that sprung up in the 1960s. Many of these communities engaged in communal living, alternate familial and sexual norms such as polygamy, polyandry or free love, abolishment of private property or other extreme forms of socialism. Most also collapsed through a combination of outside pressure and internal dissension, some such as the Branch Davidians (Waco), The People’s Temple (Jonestown) and The MOVE Organization (Philadelphia) did so quite spectacularly. But the Amish (founded 1693) and the Mormons (founded 1830) have outlasted many utopian sects, but have retained many of their utopian characteristics, including a tendency to remain separate from the wider society, and both practice a form of shunning, where members who stray from the norms dictated by their religion are cut off from the community and their families.
In the movie Latter Days, the young Mormon missionary experiences this fate, but in the process finds a new “family” who sees him as a whole, healthy gay man. His biological family simply disappears from the picture, literally and figuratively. It reminds me of a visit my friend Bill and I made to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, Alaska. In the center we had the opportunity to see Bald Eagles and a Snowy Owl and to hear how the center works with injured birds to heal them and return them to the wild. The guide at the center explained how the birds, when set free, show no appreciation for all the hard work that goes into their care and rehabilitation. They simply fly away. Later that day we happened on a team at a local college campus preparing an eagle for release. The bird was chased back and forth across a field while held on a leash that was secured to a wire that ran a hundred yards or so along the ground. The bird had been doing this for several weeks and was now ready to be released. When the leash was finally removed and the bird chased once again across the field it instinctively started to come back to earth, but much beyond the length of the leash it had been attached to. It then began to test to see how much “run” it had. Soon it realized there was no leash it wheeled around and soared back across the field. I watched as the immense bird shrank to a tiny black dot and disappeared into the horizon.