This episode features two wonderful and creative thinkers and religious souls whose lives have been deeply influenced by Joseph Smith. But here is the kicker: neither are Latter-day Saints. Jane Barnes and Rob Lauer view Joseph through eyes we don’t often (if ever) encounter within institutional Mormonism. Perhaps very few outside some who knew him personally were attracted by what most fascinates and enlivens them.
Jane was the primary writer and researcher for the 2007 PBS/Frontline and Helen Whitney produced documentary film, The Mormons. During her time working on the film, and even earlier, she came to appreciate Joseph as a dynamic, creative, prophetic figure, and she even had a “conversion” experience in which she understood him as a key figure in her awakening to her own spirituality. Ultimately, her experiences led her to write a much-celebrated memoir, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet (Tarcher/Penguin, 2012).
Rob encountered Joseph Smith in his teens, and connected deeply with him in a way that led him to join the church. As he encountered the disconnect between how he saw and encountered Joseph versus how the church and its culture had tamed him and bleached out of him most of the color and life that he had been attracted to, he left Mormonism. He re-joined for a while, even co-directing the Hill Cumorah pageant for seven years, before he felt Joseph’s teachings led him out of the church again—but not because he didn’t embrace them any longer but because they empowered him to see his being gay as an essential part of his deep spiritual identity, while also seeing that the church wasn’t capable of sustaining him as a gay man. To this day, however, he still says his is a religion “of” Joseph Smith (meaning he believes his key and empowering insights about humans, gods, and life’s highest call).
Interestingly, both Jane and Rob encountered Joseph Smith first through Fawn Brodie’s book, No One Knows My History, which is generally thought by members as anti-Mormon. For them, however, they found a powerful figure on a unique journey, with gifts and creativity, that became a catalyst for their own spiritual walks.
Notice as you listen to this episode how taking a fresh look at Joseph from outside the “boxes” we in the church so often put him in and want to limit him to can allow us to see him in much more vibrant detail. As writers and artists (novelist/filmmaker and playwright/television producer/newspaper editor), they see Joseph as bold and imaginative as well as good and kind, but also as broken and full of contradictions, many of them that are very unappealing. Still, they see him as a “prophet” in the larger sense of the word rather than the limited view we in the church have cultivated as we have idealized the term, turned the title into a “president” of an institution, and shied away from representing him in all his humanness. It’s this very humanness that leads them to love and appreciate him in ways that feel, at least to me, to be much more powerful than the level of encounter of most Latter-day Saints.
Please listen and then add your ideas and questions in the comments section below!
Jane Barnes, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet (2012)
Rob Lauer, Digger (1982). Winner of the Mahew Prize for Drama
“Faith within a Mormonism that Points Beyond Itself,” Mormon Matters podcast, Episode 367–368, February 2017