On the Sacred and the Profane

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.

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9 Responses to On the Sacred and the Profane

  1. Odell says:

    I agree with your thoughts. I think that the LDS church has hurt itself and its members by insisting on secrecy of the temple rituals. The secrecy makes it look cultish – like Scientology.

    I think HBO is actually helping the LDS church do what it will not do for itself – present the temple endowment in a respectful way to the public. I suspect after an initial “gee the is kind of weird moment” most non-LDS people will not care about people dressing in robes with green aprons making handshakes and signs.

    I have always thought that if the LDS church is to survive it must become a more open institution. HBO is openning the most secretive LDS beliefs open for it.

  2. Kameron says:

    Great post.

    As a Mormon who never entered a temple on Official Business, I’m not really qualified to comment on the endowment ceremony. But I agree you’re correct about someone at Big Love wanting to give a middle finger to the LDS church. And I think Big Love is a good show, well worth watching simply for the writing and performances.

    I’ve always suspected the secrecy (or sacredness) of the temple rituals is part of their appeal. Entering the temple is often presented as a reward, as something people must earn. When something’s earned too easily, it can seem of limited valuable. But to participate in temple rites, you must maintain a certain standards of behavior for at least six months (or is it a year?) — and then maintain those standards for the rest of your life. You must have a series of interviews. And finally, you’re only supposed to discuss the reward in certain contexts. All those hurdles, I suspect, create a mindset where the temple rites are seen as a reward. And people are often loathe to give up something they’ve earned through hard work.

    Incidentally, when I was a kid (under 10 years old), I though “temple work” was the literal building of temples. As if everyone was expected to contribute a few hours a month to drywall installation, electrical wiring or painting. Given the vague talk about temples, and my bring distracted by thoughts of comic books, my idea made perfect sense to me.

  3. I’ve avoided reading the endowment script, if only because I do feel bad profaning something that someone else finds sacred. But I’m a fan of Big Love, so I’ll probably end up watching it over the normal course of the show.

  4. Lone Danite says:

    I find it intersting that HBO is taking so many cheap shots at Mormons. What do you think the chances are of HBO ever doing a documentary where they show the prophet Mohammed? I’ll let you in on a little secret, HBO doesn’t have enough Man-Mojo to show Mohammed, instead they will just go after easy targets like Mormons. You heard it here first folks.

  5. runtu says:

    I don’t know, Wes. A cheap shot would be mocking or misrepresenting the endowment. As I said, I can see how presenting the endowment on TV is offensive, but I’m not sure it’s a cheap shot.

  6. Simeon says:

    When the Muslims unite as a whole to deprive a certain group of their rights, and HBO happens to have a show revolving around a quasi Muslim family, you can expect them to slam them. Until then, what’s the point. Also, in answer to your question, it would not be in documentary form. Neither is Big Love though.

  7. TxAgQ8 says:

    Howdy from West Central Texas, where a strange liquid substance has been falling from the sky for three days.

    For the first time in like…..8 months. I went to San Angelo last week and couldn’t believe how dry it was.

    Hope all is well with you & yours.

    Just wanted to throw my $.02 in on the “temple on TV” deal.

    Jews, Catholics…even semi-fundamentalist Texans like my self are appalled that Mormons would have the audacity to declare our religion wrong and have someone baptized for us after we are off in the great perhaps and have no say in the matter.

    The business about “it has to be a family member submit a name” is bogus. My dad was an only child and there are no Mormons on either side of either family. But….somebody decided without consulting my dad that his pop’s frontier Methodism and his mama’s devotion to the Church of Christ were non-starters, and they have both been baptized by proxy in to Mormonism.

    If the Mormons want folks to avoid profaning their religion…..they need to quit profaning other folks’ religions. I realize that two wrongs don’t make a right (but two rights make a left)…..but this is a classic case of pot meet kettle.

    Haven’t had any missionaries come by lately….there’s still a couple of ’em working our little town but when I answered the door with “what is wanted” they elected not to stay very long.

    Take care and stay in touch//GWF

  8. […] And many people were inspired to share their own temple experiences, see here, here, here, here, here, and […]

  9. When pressured to join a while back, I certainly did some Internet searching to protect myself. When I had discovered that part of the washing and anointing required removal of clothing and being anointed/touched on various body parts by a stranger, I was quite distressed and wanted no part of that at all. I imagined it as a terrible experience for someone who had been abused in the past, and thought it would feel like being manipulated and abused all over again. Reading about this ceremony made my heart sink in fear; I did not feel the peace, joy, and freedom I would have expected from a practice that was supposed to be spiritually uplifting. …Then again I find the practice of a groom hunting under the bride’s dress to retrieve the garter and then toss it to the single men in the room to be a very creepy tradition too. So maybe I just have very sensitive sensibilities.

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