A lot of believing Mormons are understandably upset about HBO’s decision to recreate part of the LDS temple ceremony, commonly called the “endowment” by Mormons. For those who don’t know what it is, the endowment is a sacred ceremony performed only within Mormon temples. Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, became a Master Mason on March 16, 1842 and then on May 4 of the same year introduced the new endowment ceremony in an upper room of his store in Nauvoo, Illinois.
The endowment incorporated much of the symbolism of the Masons, including signs, tokens, key words, and penalties, but modified them to fit within a story of the creation, fall, and redemption of humans. The ceremony has changed significantly over the years (most recently in 1990 with the removal of the penalties and other elements, such as the long section involving a “sectarian minister”).
Growing up in the church, I went to the Los Angeles temple once or twic e a year to do proxy baptisms for the dead. I knew that, once you were of a certain age, you went to the temple to perform sacred ordinances, the most sacred being the sealing of husband and wife (and children) as an eternal family.
But the endowment was a mystery to me. Unlike most Mormon kids, I didn’t know about temple garments, mostly because my father, although he had been to the temple, never wore them. My mother wore hers, but I never saw her in just her garments. My oldest sister told me recently that she had seen my mom exactly twice in her garments.
So the endowment was a mystery to me. When I was 12, I got a job working at a gas station a few blocks west of the Los Angeles temple, and I remember talking to a young woman who had a BYU sticker on her car. She mentioned she had been at the temple, and I asked her what she had done there. She looked a little flustered and said, “Um, temple work.” I had no idea what she meant.
At 18 I finally went to the temple for the first time. My grandfather met me at the Provo temple, and I went through what at the time was a bewildering and sometimes troubling three-hour (or so) experience. With time I got used to the ceremony, and only occasionally would I feel like I was engaged in something absurd. I went through the endowment (again as proxy for a dead person) hundreds of times over the next 22 years, and I pretty much had the ceremony memorized.
When I left the church, my bishop told me that the best way to regain my testimony would be to attend the temple, along with the usual “pray and read the Book of Mormon.” It didn’t work, obviously, and when I attended the temple no longer wanting it to be true, it was hard to force it into something spiritually uplifting. It was what it was, and it left me feeling rather cold. So I never went again.
So, what to make of the furor over Big Love’s recreation of at least parts of the endowment? If this had happened when I was still a believer, I would have been mightily pissed off. For believing Mormons, discussing specific temple content outside the temple (even among believers) is to profane that which is sacred. As one believer commented, it’s the context of the ceremony that makes it sacred, and you can’t understand the context without the presence of the Holy Ghost. So, for HBO to detach the endowment from its physical and spiritual context is blasphemy in the extreme.
I suspect that the presentation of the endowment in the show is an intentional middle finger to Mormons, probably payback for Proposition 8, though I could be wrong. So I sympathize with Mormons who feel violated, and I understand completely why they feel that way. But on the other hand, the endowment is no longer sacred to me, and it doesn’t bother me much that someone else is interested in it enough to put it on TV.
Some ex-Mormons I know are rejoicing at the opportunity to make the church look bad–and seriously, who is going to watch the endowment and say to themselves, I want to be part of that? Some people obviously delight in profaning what other people find sacred. And in all honesty, I’ve been guilty of that in the past.
But at this stage in my life, I’m not interested in seeing the depiction (I don’t subscribe to HBO), so I probably won’t see it. But I wonder what the reaction from the public will be. Even if they do a completely faithful rendering of the ceremony, most non-Mormons will find it bizarre and maybe a little creepy (but then most Mormons feel that way the first time they go, hence my bishop’s and stake president’s counsel not to worry if the ceremony upset me when I went the first time).
But the genie’s been out of the bottle a long time. On the Internet there are audio recordings and transcripts of the ceremony, photos of the temple robes, and illustrations of the signs and tokens. I suspect that, after viewing Big Love, more than a few people will become curious and hit Google right after the show ends.
For me, though, revisiting the endowment is like watching “classic” sports games on TV. I was on pins and needles in 1988 when Kirk Gibson hit his walk-off home run in game one of the World Series. Twenty years later, the moment has lost some of its luster. It just doesn’t mean much to me anymore.
That’s how I feel about the endowment. It took me years to make myself comfortable with the ceremony, and even longer to find something uplifting and spiritual in it. But now it’s just part of the past, devoid of meaning. And once something has lost its meaning, it’s no longer sacred or profane.