As I exited the car in the small parking lot at the Joseph Smith Birthplace Monument near Sharon, VT, I was immediately overcome with a feeling that I can only describe as otherworldly… something I knew I had felt before, though in a much different context. It was quite a Saturday’s Warrior moment.

No, it wasn’t the spirit. You see, in the woods surrounding the visitors’ center, they pipe in a constant stream of choral music. Now, I have nothing against the song “My Heavenly Father Loves Me,” choral music, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (quite the contrary, really). However, when brought together in the situation described here, I have to admit that I was a little creeped out.

As I stepped out into what I expected to look and feel (and sound) like nature, I was caught unaware by an ethereal, disembodied soundtrack. I felt like I had just arrived at Disneyland… a sensation only enhanced as the music changed gears from primary songs / hymns to the choir’s Showtime album.

I have always been fascinated by Disneyland — probably more than ever now that I am an adult. I love the zealous attention to detail, the careful engineering of the ambience that makes you feel like you have entered some surreal dimension. I am always intrigued by the smoke and mirrors of the whole spectacle and enjoy noticing how and how well they do it.

Yet, this real-life soundtrack imposed on the Joseph Smith birthplace immediately made me feel uncomfortable and, I admit, colored my entire experience. I was turned off by the unconscious correlation I made with the carefully contrived illusions of Disneyland. I always admire how immaculate and well maintained the Church keeps its historical sites. However, the addition of the music pushed things off a ledge into uncanny valley, casting a false, artificial shadow (of sunshine!) over everything. For example, before I might have appreciated the flowers and manicured paths. The music, however, made them feel false and stage-managed — the flowers appeared misplaced, “transplanted,” starkly out-of-character with the usual “wilder” New England style of landscaping. Before I could have probably just been indifferent to the dozens of Liz Lemon Swindle prints lining the VC walls as not being my style — but instead they gave off an unmistakable Stepford Wifey vibe.

The guide was pleasant (as you would hope a missionary to be) and, to be fair, impressively knowledgeable about the various points of interest around the site and how the history of it all fit together. There was a lot of lip-service paid to ideas like “research” and “getting the history of it right.” We were then led into a room with a wall devoted to scholarly work on Joseph Smith and a long display case filled with about a dozen or so “historical” volumes on the prophet. Now, I didn’t exactly expect to see Fawn Brodie, but I did wonder about the omission of Rough Stone Rolling — after all, it is the most current, major work on Joseph Smith.

As if she were reading my mind, our guide then commented, “A lot of people come in here wanting to argue with us about what books should be included in the display.” Not surprising, I thought to myself, but I didn’t see the point in saying anything and let it slide. However, not a moment later, as I was looking at one of Bushman’s earlier works (published by Deseret Book, I think), she pulled out this gem:

“Bushman has another book out now, but I think you would have to have a pretty strong testimony to read it. I hear it is really controversial.”

I admit that I did raise my eyebrows at that. It was involuntary though — the last thing I would ever want to do do is argue with some nice senior sister missionary at a church historic site. Still, I thought I had demonstrated remarkable self restraint and assumed that she would just drop the subject. Not so:

“What was that? You raised your eyebrows. Don’t you agree?” (Yes, she really called me on it.)

Now, I do agree in the sense that I just don’t go around recommending books like RSR or NMKMH willy-nilly to rank-and-file passers-by at church on Sundays. However, both statements were just oozing such a we-have-been-counseled-not-to-read-such-inappropriate-trash tone (I swear I wasn’t projecting it), that I couldn’t help but respond that I, in fact, did not agree.

This prompted a thinly veiled rebuke about how the display had been approved by the prophet (i.e. we therefore shouldn’t be reading what the prophet has not approved). I said something to the effect that I wondered if the prophet had time to micromanage visitor center displays and deliberately leave books out as an encoded message for those who have eyes to see (though in a much more polite, matter-of-fact way, as if seriously wondering) and let the matter drop. (As I said, this was not a fight I wanted to pick.)

Now, for all I know, the prophet really does micromanage that — I have no idea how he spends his time — but I have other theories:

  • 1) Some guy set up the display years ago, and nobody’s changed it since because they think they need special general authority approval (though the presence of the newly released volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers would seem to discredit this).
  • 2) More likely, they only include volumes published by some arm of the church (a quick survey appeared to indicate this was the case) merely because the church is not in the business of endorsing or pushing anyone else’s books (and I don’t really have a problem with that). Nevertheless, this sister seemed to feel that this historical cross section was as carefully cultivated as the flower beds and as premeditated as the outdoor soundtrack, an attitude I found highly ironic after her sermon on historical fact / accuracy.

Now, I am not bringing any of this up out of any desire to criticize or ridicule this poor sister — I am sure you can imagine just how nice a lady she was — but rather because it so neatly dovetailed with my first, hyper-real, Disney-esque impression of the site.

To cap it off, due to some circumstances that are irrelevant here, we were kindly invited to lunch with some other visitors in the neighboring building (and I say that without a trace of snark or cynicism — it was very kind). As I contemplated the spread of jello salads and cold cuts, I was again struck with the uncanny feeling that it, or I, had been “transplanted” — though probably less deliberately in this case. This is not intended as a slight on stereotypes of Utah Mormon fare — I am not a Utah-hater and it was all very well done. However, as I raised a forkful of an orange, marshmallow-gelatin concoction to my lips, I couldn’t help but hum “Though the mountains divide / And the oceans are wide / It’s a small, small world…”

I’m still a little miffed that I didn’t get my picture with Donald Duck.