If you are a filmmaker, actor, or swag-hungry hanger-on heading to Sundance next week, may I remind you that there is a more powerful God out there than Harvey Weinstein. Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mitt Romney, and, to a lesser extent, Jon Huntsman, have gifted America a Mormon moment. But on a recent visit to Salt Lake City, I became aware of how little I understood the religion.
On my 7 a.m. flight from New York to Salt Lake City, seated among broad-shouldered men, blond, blue-eyed women, clusters of gentlemen clad in identical black-tie/white shirt combos, and groggy snowboarders, a sense of bliss was all-pervasive. This good vibe soon evaporated when I ordered a beer with breakfast. A judgmental silence engulfed the cabin, as deafening as if I had just pinched Gloria Steinem on the bum and called her “babe.” A steward returned, bearing my alcoholic beverage as gingerly as a hand grenade. “They are not so big on their alcohol where we are going,” my seatmate kindly explained. “Club soda, yes. And on a wild night, Fresca.” Eager to avoid any more faux pas before I even arrive, I mined my seatmate for hard information on the Latter Day Saints. He shrugged: “All I know is that Tom Cruise is one.”
Clearly my education would have to be self-directed. Firing up my iPad, I downloaded a Latter Day Scriptures app and dove into the Book of Mormon. The real one, without the Tony awards. “What on earth would make you read that?” my seatmate asked while retrieving a copy of Suze Orman’s Courage To Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance from the seat-back pocket in front of him. Others can debate whether the Mormon Bible is the “Word of God” or as true as Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, but it is undeniably a rollicking read. The hours passed like minutes as I lost myself in an odyssey from the foothills of Jerusalem to the Americas, culminating in an epic battle between good and evil with a cameo appearance by Jesus Christ. Right here in North America.
My immersion was interrupted by a warning from the captain over the PA system. Wind whipping off the Rockies would send us through “a nasty little pocket of turbulence.” The calmness of his tone belied the instant battering the aircraft absorbed. Insufficient to bring down the yellow oxygen masks, perhaps, but more than enough to make one wish for a re-do of the preflight safety check. My seatmate was no use, fast asleep with Suze Orman laid flat across his face. I begged the steward for a medicinal Scotch. It did not materialize.
At moments of mortal danger, Cat Stevens always comes to mind. The folk singer was once swept out to sea in California. As the currents dragged him farther from shore, Cat vowed that if saved, he would dedicate the rest of his life to God. A giant wave immediately swept him back to safety. Hence Yusuf Islam. As the turbulence continued to pummel the plane, my efforts to emulate Cat’s cool devotion fell short. I elected to shriek like a Justin Bieber fan and adopt the crash position.
Crushing my head against my thighs, I caught an upside-down glimpse of my fellow travelers along the aisle. Our destination might just have been diverted from Salt Lake to the World to Come, but I, alone, was exhibiting signs of fear. Anyone who believed in the afterlife was as calm as at boarding—back in the good old days before I had ordered that beer. Faith, it appears, is an unshakable force.
I calmed myself by scribbling everything I believed in on a napkin. A modest list amounting to Secretary’s Day, Doctor Who, and the occasional stiff piña colada. As the plane stabilized, the steward finally arrived with my Scotch. I raised a silent toast to faith in general, and Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith in particular. Theocrat, military leader, town planner, and polygamist—some of the careers I had considered in my youth and which had not come to pass.