Gerhard SpÃ¶rl, reporter for Der Spiegel, surely did not have an easy task. After his editors at the finest German-language news weekly on the planet took notice of a German Mormon apostle and a Mormon candidate for the U.S. presidency, they gave SpÃ¶rl the responsibility for interviewing Dieter Uchtdorf, visiting the church offices in Frankfurt, and trying to explain Mormons and their religion to a million German readers (article in English translation here). SpÃ¶rl also had to wrestle with the signature style of the Spiegel, which seeks to create the illusion of giving the reader a keyhole view on the unfolding of important events. But where is the keyhole through which to view Mormonism? SpÃ¶rl’s editors couldn’t be of much help, as the Spiegel has difficulty reporting on religion, unfortunately. (The regular pre-Christmas and pre-Easter articles can be summed up as “God is dead,” “God’s greatest mistakes,” and “Just who does this God person think he is, anyway?”) While the Spiegel capably handles theology and the politics of religion, it usually fails to grasp belief and religious experience. In the end, the article seems to show Gerhard SpÃ¶rl scratching his head, wondering (mostly between the lines) how a Lufthansa pilot and senior executive and a serious presidential contender could both be Mormons.
Overall, the two-page article is fairly good. Factual errors are minimal. The illustrations show Elder Uchtdorf in front of the Salt Lake temple, Mitt Romney speaking in front of an American flag, growth statistics since 1976, and the numerous offspring of a polygamous clan in the Utah desert, with a row of trailers and snow-capped peaks in the background (the article is careful to explain that polygamists are rigorously excommunicated, and that polygamist sects are associated with various problematic behaviors). But the article fails to find keyhole access to Mormonism, mostly because it doesn’t know where to look. The article visits the European headquarters in Frankfurt, but not any local congregations. Besides Elder Uchtdorf, the article doesn’t mention that German Mormons exist at all. Instead, the article tries to make sense of Mormonism as both exotic and simplistic.
The article notes several odd things about Mormonism: Mormons use strange words, like “stake.” Mormons believe their apostles are prophets who receive revelation, just like in the New Testament. Mormon temple worship is secret. “The history of this denomination is rich in oddities, and therefore Mormons like Romney and Uchtdorf are regarded in part with suspicion, in part with disdain, especially by the established churches, whether Catholic, Protestant, or the evangelical branches, which exercise considerable power, including political power, in America.” Thus the persistent image of polygamists on the wild frontier: although misleading, it captures, strikingly and simply, that Mormons are odd.
The other approach is to describe Mormons and their religion as simplistic: “Their faith has nothing refined, let alone intellectual, about it. Mormons do not, like the Pope, attempt to harmonize faith and reason. Neither do they deal much with theodicy, the justification of God in view of misery here below, unlike entire armies of theologians in other faiths….The Mormons like things simple, so they don’t maintain an elite corps of priests for an elaborated interpretation of the faith….God is for them an originary figure of flesh and blood, and also married, of course….A nice, childish faith….Christ’s return to save humanity is at the door. Faith rarely presents itself so simply….Firm in the faith, they seek expansion rather than a deepening of piety.” Elder Uchtdorf is quoted as saying, “Much in our lives is represented as being complex, but [Mormons’] simplification of life to its core purpose makes sense.”
Some of the article’s observations are possibly correct, while others are misguided. Most, I think, are merely beside the point. Insisting that God has flesh and bones, not blood, will not help matters, but neither will the naive and reflexive acceptance of others’ criticism. If a reporter is looking for a keyhole glimpse at the heart of Mormonism, where should he or she look? If a representation of Mormons as exotic or simplistic is not in our interests, what other narratives can we suggest?
But another essential element of Spiegel style is the ironic or reflective twist in the final paragraph. The article concludes, “It probably helps to see things as they appear to the pilot of an airplane, far above it all, the sun gleaming on the horizon and the earth below, so heart-warmingly beautiful, both ordered and endangered at the same time and perhaps even amenable to salvation.”