Latest from Mormon Land: ‘X-Files’ star David Duchovny delves into the world of Mormonism

Also: New LDS films take center and a longtime Tab Choir director and a trailblazing Latin church leader die.

(Omar Vega/Invision/AP file photo) David Duchovny arrives at the season premiere of "The X-Files" at the California Science Center on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Los Angeles. The actor's new novel tackles Mormonism.

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

From paranormal to a not-so-normal Mormon

“X-Files” watchers know that “the truth is out there,” and David Duchovny’s Latter-day Saint fans should know that so is his new novel, which includes hefty helpings of Mormonism.

Released this month, “Truly Like Lightning,” the latest creation from the Ivy League-educated actor turned writer, centers on Bronson Powers, a former Hollywood stuntman who converts to Mormonism (and its earlier teachings) and homesteads off the grid with his three wives and 10 children on the desert near Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park.

“Seduced by the faith’s outsider-ish, independent spirit, [Bronson] adopts an originalist interpretation of the religion,” states a Washington Post review. “...Bronson’s undiluted Mormonism gives Duchovny a metaphor for American reinvention.”

The book offers “a heartbreaking meditation on family, religion, sex, greed, human nature, and the vanishing environment of an ancient desert,” says the Amazon description.

In an appearance on KCRW’s “Bookworm” podcast, Duchovny credits Harold Bloom with piquing his interest in Mormonism. As a graduate student, the actor-writer studied under the legendary Yale professor, whose 1992 classic, “The American Religion,” examined the Utah-based faith and other U.S.-born denominations.

In a previous novel, Duchovny also waded into the world of religion. “Holy Cow,” a fun-loving fable, follows a cow, a pig and a turkey as the barnyard animals undertake their own spiritual journeys to India, Israel and Turkey.

‘Murder Among the Mormons’

It has been more than 35 years since notorious “Mormon bomber” Mark Hofmann rocked the religious world by planting explosives that killed two Utahns in a deadly plot to cover up his forgery schemes.

But the infamous crime still captures interest — and will do so again next month, when a three-part Netflix documentary revisits the case.

“Murder Among the Mormons,” which starts streaming March 3, was directed and produced by Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame along with partner Tyler Measom, who co-directed “An Honest Liar.”

On Oct. 15, 1985, Hofmann deployed bombs that killed Steve Christensen and Kathleen Sheets, the wife of Christensen’s business partner. Five years earlier, almost to the day, on Oct. 13, 1980, Hofmann sold the church a phony copy of the “Anthon Transcript.”

“The church made it their duty over the years to collect and own their history, no matter what it is,” Hess told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And, as we spoke with people directly involved, they want to get the material and research it to find out the context before they would bring it out into the public.

“But from a different perspective, that looks like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re buying stuff so that you can bury this controversial past. There’s definitely two sides to it, and we touch on both.”

Eventually, Hofmann’s peddling of fake documents — many tied to early church history — unraveled, and he was sentenced to life in prison. He is now 66 and still behind bars.

The reel thing

The shows will go on.

The 20th Annual LDS Film Festival, screening documentaries, full-length movies, short flicks and music videos, will run through Saturday at Orem’s SCERA Center for the Arts — with COVID-19 safety guidelines in force.

Feature attractions include “Witnesses,” directed by Mark Goodman, which tells the story of the foundational Latter-day Saints who swore to the coming forth of the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

For the schedule and full lineup, click here.

This week’s podcast: From Mars mission to LDS mission

(Photo courtesy of Michelle Amos) John and Michelle Amos oversee the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Michelle and John Amos are both converts. Both are graduates of Southern University, a historic Black college. And both are high-powered engineers.

Michelle worked for NASA for 30 years, including as part of the team that developed the Mars 2020 rover. Her husband, John, after a two-decade career with the Navy and Navy Reserve, became an engineering director at the global company Siemens Energy.

Now the Amoses are overseeing more than 200 young Latter-day Saints as they lead the church’s Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission.

During this last week of Black History Month, the couple talk about their conversion (she was Baptist; he was Catholic) their careers (including last week’s thrilling Mars landing of the Perseverance rover) their mission (and the challenges of guiding young Latter-day Saint proselytizers during a pandemic) and their perspectives about racial issues in their faith (especially since they grew up in the South).

Listen here.

Friend to Friend’s many friends

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Ten-year-old Payson Inkle and 7-year-old Brianna Villsnil host the Friend to Friend program on the rotating set at the Church’s Motion Pictures Studio in Provo.

The church’s English-speaking Friend to Friend broadcast for Primary children has racked up more than 185,000 views on YouTube since its Saturday debut.

The interactive show, co-hosted by 7-year-old Brianna Villsnil of Salt Lake City and 10-year-old Payson Inkley of Centerville, featured songs, arts and crafts, brief messages from top church leaders, children from across the globe and a splashy 360-degree rotating set.

“We have been reminded that each of us is a beloved child of God. Please remember that fact,” church President Russell M. Nelson counseled his young audience. “If you never forget that one pure truth, you can face any problem with faith and courage.”

General Primary President Joy D. Jones urged kids to find ways to serve as Jesus did and pointed to Latter-day Saint children who helped in their communities.

“I want to mention Shiloh from the Philippines. He reaches out to new friends to help everyone feel included,” she said. “Eleanor from the United States helped her neighbors after a hurricane.”

Although geared toward children ages 3 to 11, the 44-minute broadcast drew compliments from “kids” of all ages.

“Best thing I’ve watched in a while,” wrote a YouTube commenter, “and I’m 15.”

“This is amazing,” said one dad. “My wife, five children, and I had so much fun today.”

Just believe, apostle says

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Neil L. Andersen and his wife, Kathy Andersen, speak at the first of six area devotionals for young adult Latter-day Saints ages 18 through 30 on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. These virtual events are being held in February and March 2021. When completed, the six apostles’ devotionals will have reached Latter-day Saints on virtually every continent.

Apostle Neil L. Andersen’s overarching message to young adults: croire.

That’s “believe” in French and what the church leader encouraged his French-speaking audience to do in a Sunday devotional, according to a news release.

• Believe in God.

• Believe you are children of God.

• Believe you can pray to God.

• Believe that his kingdom is rolling forth.

• Believe that others will embrace Christ.

• Believe that Jesus is the Savior.

“As your friend and fellow disciple, with no motivation except my love and respect for you, I assure you that your faith in Jesus Christ is not in vain,” Andersen said in French. “You will see him again. All the world will know he is the Son of God. I have come to know him and feel his presence. I witness with certainty that he lives, that he is resurrected, and that his love for us is beyond description.”

Andersen’s YouTube appearance, with that of his wife, Kathy Andersen, is the first of six through March that will feature apostles speaking to members in various parts of the world.

On March 7, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé and Young Women general President Bonnie H. Cordon will address members in Europe and Africa.

On the same day, senior apostle M. Russell Ballard, general authority Seventy Brent H. Nielson and general Relief Society first counselor Sharon Eubank will speak to North Americans.

Longtime Tab Choir director dies

(Tribune file photo) Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley at a rehearsal with his group at the Tabernacle in October 1999.

Jerold Ottley — who directed The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for a quarter century and led the renowned singing troupe to even wider fame with tours to dozens of nations and performances at presidential inaugurations — died Friday of complications from COVID-19.

He was 86.

“I have heard from many people that his [1974-1999] tenure was their favorite iteration of the choir,” daughter Allison Ottley told The Salt Lake Tribune, “and frankly I have to agree, but I’m not biased at all.”

Ottley, often recognized from his shock of white hair, is credited with making the group a more spiritual organization, requiring members to have temple recommends. He made auditions more structured and implemented an attendance policy. He also helped develop the all-volunteer group’s sound with the goal of appealing to a broader audience. Under his baton, the choir produced dozens of commercial recordings.

“The choir would not be what it is today without Jerold Ottley’s contributions,” said choir President Ron Jarrett, who sang as a tenor under Ottley. “...He was a visionary who put in place protocols that refined the choir organization and ensured its future success.”

Trailblazing Latin leader dies

Angel Abrea, an Argentine who joined the church at age 10 and went on to become a mission president, temple president and the faith’s first general authority from Latin America, died Feb. 13.

He was 87.

As a young man, he tutored students, including Maria Victoria Chiapparino, whom he later baptized and married, according to a family obituary. He worked as an accountant and accepted a number of lay church positions, including a stint as president of Argentina’s first stake.

In the early 1980s, church President Spencer W. Kimball picked the 47-year-old Abrea, then leading the country’s Rosario Mission, not only to join the First Quorum of the Seventy but also to oversee the yet-to-be-built Buenos Aires Temple.

“The temple is a dream come true for all of the Saints in Argentina,” he said at the time of his historic call as a general authority. “Fifty percent of the units in Argentina have already met their assessments for the funds. To be the first president of the first temple …”

After 22 years of full-time church service, Abrea received emeritus status in 2003.

“He continued to officiate at many temple weddings for friends, family and ‘his missionaries,’” his obituary noted. “He loved catching up with returned missionaries from the Rosario Mission….Some of his final thoughts were to discuss the principle of faith in Christ with his children at his bedside.”

A RootsTech record

This week’s RootsTech Connect promises to be the biggest ever.

More than 433,000 participants from 235 countries and territories have signed up for the family history extravaganza — all virtual, due to COVID-19, and all free for the first time.

“The pandemic will be remembered as the greatest accelerant,” Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International, said in a virtual news conference. “People are turning their hearts to their family, whether it’s past, present or future.”

The event, which runs Thursday through Saturday, includes a slew of speakers from around the world and hundreds of live and on-demand sessions on a range of topics.

“This is not just a genealogy conference,” Rockwood explained. “This is not designed for those that are interested in genealogy, although, [to] those that are going, this is their Disneyland. What this is really designed for: People that want to connect. This transcends political borders, it transcends oceans, it transcends race.”

Relief efforts

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Leaders look on as church missionary displays donation kits in Botswana.

• The church donated more than $225,000 worth of personal protective equipment to Botswana to assist in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Edwin Dikoloti, the health and wellness minister for the African nation, expressed “profound gratitude” for the disposable scrub suits, face shields, gloves and heavy-duty aprons, a news release noted, along with 8,000 masks sewn by members themselves.

“As a church, as a people, as a nation, we must ask ourselves a question: Who is our neighbor?” area Seventy Clement Matswagothata, said in the release. “Our neighbor is everyone. It is … what we truly are: God’s children.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saints and full-time missionaries of the church help clean up fallen trees and debris caused by a tornado in Alabama, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

• Elsewhere, Latter-day Saints helped clean up debris and provide emergency supplies after a tornado struck communities in Alabama; contributed 100,000 protective masks, 20,000 medical aprons and 5,000 food baskets in Manaus, Brazil; and donated 48 wooden benches for health clinics in central Peru, according to a news release. Meanwhile, members served Friday meals to homeless individuals in Brisbane, Australia, and Young Women in Calgary assembled nearly 200 birthday bags for children in need.

“Research has shown that children can miss holidays like Christmas or Easter, but not being able to celebrate their birthday has longer-term ramifications,” Calgary Food Bank communications representative Shawna Ogston said in the release. “This will go a long way for kids to build their resilience and to become amazing members of society.”

Temple updates

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) crews are removing and cataloging many of the stones on top of the Salt Lake Temple so they can be cleaned and then returned to their proper places

• How is the four-year renovation of the Salt Lake Temple progressing?

Well, crews are removing and cataloging many of the stones on top of the iconic structure so they can be cleaned and then returned to their proper places, a news release explained. The roof also is being prepared for a seismic upgrade.

For more photos and the latest updates, click here.

• Fourteen temples are in Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan, offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a news release.

Most other temples are in Phase 2, providing “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Starting next week, 10 temples will be in Phase 1, allowing only marriage “sealings.”

Meanwhile, nine temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”

See this list for the status of all temples.

Quote of the week

“‘We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.’ … [A friend said] ‘Usually we say the 11th Article of Faith is telling us that we should respect the different ways people worship in other churches. But it’s also talking about people in our church. It is OK if people in our church don’t worship the exact same way that you do.’... This [friend’s] interpretation is inclusive. It creates space for people on the margins. I love that this reading honors the conscience of individuals, no matter what the shape of their belief looks like. ...I love that this framing gives me language directly from the LDS canon that is able to advocate for diversity within the church.”

Kaylee in an Exponent II blog post

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.