Praise the Lord (whichever one takes your fancy). Shaun Micallef’s search for religious understanding – Stairway to Heaven – is back on SBS.
First up in this second series (which first aired on Wednesday night), he’s applying his sardonic blowtorch to the Mormon religion – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
We’ve all got our preconceptions of the Mormons – thanks to numerous jokes in TV shows and films over the years, and it’s a particularly timely topic with satirical Broadway hit musical, The Book of Mormon, opening in Australia.
We think of earnest young men and women, exuding kindness and radiating friendship – a personification of the American dream. They turn up on our doorsteps, clutching a blue book and selling a vision.
Micallef wryly notes he’s well on his way to Mormonism because he doesn’t smoke, use drugs or drink alcohol, tea or coffee – all of which are banned by the Church, along with homosexuality and profanity.
He reveals how a massively successful religion (15 million adherents worldwide) was born from the spiritual experience of a 14-year-old named Joseph Smith in upstate New York in the 1800s.
Smith saw a vision, which told him Jesus came to America after his resurrection, to visit an Indian tribe. Not native Indians but Israelites who had moved from the Middle East in 600 BC.
Smith was searching for a spiritual belief to call his own and he believed he had found his answer in the vision. He later wrote the Book of Mormon, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints was born.
Micallef starts his investigation in Salt Lake City, Utah – often regarded as the heart of Mormonism – joining the 100,000 people who attend an annual conference there.
He’s a gifted conduit into their world and it’s beautifully made television.
His gentle, prodding questions don’t cause offense. Talking to the camera, he attempts to make sense of the nonsensical without disrespecting those who clearly have “the faith”.
He spends time with church leader Paul Innes, his wife Laureen and their five children, cleaning up rubbish on motorways and bottling honey.
“This is small-town America, writ large,” Micallef says.
“At least from old movies, where you knew the neighbours, everyone’s supportive, there’s no condescension, nobody’s sanctimonious. I’m very much enjoying being here.”
Every year, hundreds of young men and women travel to Salt Lake City to become Mormon missionaries and Micallef joins them for a missionary makeover.
He has to get a haircut and lose his beard. Mormons can’t have beards without a special dispensation from the Church.
With his new look, he heads to Fiji to work with young Australians and New Zealanders helping communities there. It’s hard work and missionaries are only allowed two phone calls a year to their families.
Micallef concludes that the work in the field is not all about securing new converts. It’s really about cementing the faith of the young missionaries for life.
Throughout the episode, he questions how people can believe the fundamentals of their faith when, to outsiders, it’s so easily challenged.
In the end, they say, it comes back to “having faith”.
“There’s a distinct lack of cynicism,” Micallef says.
In Fiji, he asks Elder Nelson about the church’s outlawing of homosexuality. Nelson says some people “have addictions” and that the Church encourages “abstinence and prayer”.
The church asks Micallef to invite God into his life in the “Sacred Glade” on the farm where Joseph Smith had his vision.
“Alone, Aloud and On Your Knees,” the church PR woman suggests.
“You are talking to a Father, who loves you, wants to support you and your family.”
For Micallef, there is no spiritual awakening.
But he does have a revelation about the Mormon religion and faith.
“What Mormonism does, to a large extent, is to take the Bible and wrap it in American paper so it becomes theirs and they release it to the world.
“That means they own it which is very American.
“So to have faith in this religion, perhaps you also need to have faith in the American dream.”