I was tickled to learn today that actor Ed Harris read and liked Mormonism for Dummies as he prepared for his new role as a Mormon politician. For the movie Virginia (which released on May 18 and also stars Jennifer Connelly, Emma Roberts and Harris's wife Amy Madigan), Harris told Toro that he read up on Mormonism:
Toro: Did you watch any of the old 50s melodramas that seemed to have a major influence on Virginia?
Harris: No, Lance [writer Dustin Lance Black] didn’t suggest that. I did a lot of research into Mormons.
Toro: What did you get out of that?
Harris: Oh god … I read Mormonism For Dummies, which was actually really good. It was written by some ex-members of the church and just outlines what the beliefs are. Out there, man. Just out there. Those guys … whew!
As one of the two co-authors (with Chris Bigelow) I laughed when I saw that Harris thinks the book was written by ex-Mormons. Chris and I were striving always for honesty, balance, and as much nuance as we could possibly squeeze into the preexisting format of a Dummies book. Chris and I are very different Mormons, and I think our disagreements made for a better book in the end.
I'm glad to see it's still being read and has in fact enjoyed a resurgence this year with the Romney campaign. (As a Democrat, that entirely selfish statement is about the only silver lining I can see about the Romney nomination.) However, the fact that Harris thought the book was co-authored by ex-Mormons tells us something about the stereotypes that many people still hold about Latter-day Saints. Those stereotypes exist on all sides: I checked Amazon today and saw that the most recent review of the book gave it one star and called it "typical Mormon propaganda disguised as an impartial guide."
In a nutshell, the idea behind Harris's assumption is that anyone who offers criticism of Mormonism must either be non-Mormon or ex-Mormon, since it is not thought to be a faith that tolerates dissent. The idea behind "a Christian family"'s assertion is that anyone who writes anything positive about Mormonism is being "deliberately dishonest." Both extremes miss the truth, which lies as it always does quite maddeningly in the middle. Mormonism is a complex religion with people and doctrines that are both good and bad, honorable and regrettable.
With Harris calling us ex-Mormons on the one hand and "a Christian family" calling us "deliberately dishonest" propagandists on the other, I'd guess that Chris and I got a few things right. What's sad, of course, is that neither of these extreme views captures at all the many kinds of Mormons that exist and the rigorous internal debates that occur within Mormonism itself.
P.S. Excited to see the movie.