March 13, 2009

A few reasons I think we can all calm down about "Big Love."

For notes, discussion and description of the episode which aired on March 15, see the footnotes below.

HBO's series "Big Love" features a contemporary family of polygamists trying to cope with living in contemporary society. This week it was announced through a TV Guide article that the next episode will depict aspects of the LDS temple endowment. When I first heard about this I was a little upset, annoyed, and downcast about it. Then I remembered this isn't the first time something like this has happened regarding the endowment, or LDS temples in general. There have been videos and books almost since the beginning attempting to portray the endowment (Think The God Makers, for example, in addition to many 19th century pot-boiling exposé publications we've long since forgotten about). One fascinating example of the infringing upon LDS sacred space occurred when a disgruntled member snuck into the Salt Lake Temple at night and took photographs, then attempted to blackmail the Church for the pilfered pics. Instead of paying up, the Church commissioned James E. Talmage to write The House of the Lord, and included beautiful color photographs in the book, thus taking the wind from the sails (sales?) of the sneaky entrepreneur.1

Still, this feels like an invasion of privacy, uncomfortable, sad, upsetting, unjust, inconsiderate to many members of the Church. As news about the upcoming episode spread I soon received several chain emails urging a boycott and invitations to Facebook groups to shout out in opposition.

Here's the way things work: Big Love wants a ratings boost so they decide to pull the ace from the sleeve so to speak and do something controversial. They release this "story" to TV Guide, which is basically nothing but a PR publisher itself (no offense, TV Guide, but I really don't care for you!). TV Guide doesn't take much time, I imagine, in looking into the ramifications of the article and picture they published, but follow the lead of those who sent the press release to them. They just want to fill the space in TV Guide and keep the ad revenue coming in; I don't believe anyone there is out to do harm. The PR folks try to drum up as much noise as they can to generate interest, hoping for some juicy controversy to fill some news pages and reports (hopefully reports on HBO affiliated news outlets). In news and PR, as my journalism professor says, "follow the money."2

The Church soon released a statement in response called "The Publicity Dilemma." For the most part I liked the statement, there were only a few things I'd change about it. It says, in part:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series. As Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Robert D. Hales of the Council of the Twelve Apostles have both said recently, when expressing themselves in the public arena, Latter-day Saints should conduct themselves with dignity and thoughtfulness.
Some have criticized the Church for making this statement how or when it did. I have mixed feelings about it myself, but I believe (especially considering the above quote) the release was meant as much (if not more) for members of the Church. Don't raise a stink, don't act outraged and shake your fist, the statement seems to say. 

A second purpose for such a release deals with the way media outlets tend to operate. The statement  provides media outlets with an official statement rather than Public Affairs having to field a bunch of phone calls and requests for interviews and statements. Had the church made no statement, or even something specific and short like "no comment," that would become the news. Again, Big Love is trying to drum up publicity, this is a PR driven campaign to get viewership, and some journalists love controversy, even if they don't really understand what the circumstances are. The Church's silence would become the story, just as the Church's statement has.

BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson described a positive way to view the situation:

Incidentally, I would hope that members of the Church will see this Big Love episode as an opportunity rather than as purely negative. To the extent that it creates conversations about the Church in the workplace or in our neighborhoods -- and my suspicion is that its impact will be relatively minor -- it will create opportunities for believing members to talk about their faith. That's not a bad thing.

It's far better to be talked about, on balance, than to be ignored. Even negative publicity is better than apathy. Dr. Karl G. Maeser, effectively the founder of BYU and of the Church Education System, became interested in the Church after reading a piece of hostile anti-Mormon propaganda in his native Germany. The first wife of Leonard Arrington, the prominent Mormon historian (and official Church Historian), became interested in the Church after reading Vardis Fisher's quite-negative novel Children of God. And I personally know a few people whose conversion stories followed a similar pattern.

Will this episode damage our image among many viewers? Possibly. But we're never going to convert most of the people in the world, anyway. Will it create curiosity in some viewers? Inevitably.

We should be alert to take advantage of this opportunity for the building of the Kingdom.3
In May 2007 Richard Bushman participated in the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, discussing Mormonism and politics. The temple came up, and Bushman provided some interesting thoughts:

All right, shall we talk about the temple for a minute since that came up? This goes along with this "secret life" of Mormons... What do they do when it comes down to it? Do they shun people and beat them up and so on? That has always been part of the story of Mormonism – you know, the "hidden horrors" of Mormonism – these advanced doctrines, and then the temple, because Mormons insist on saying it's sacred, not secret – but it is secret. Mormons do not talk about what goes on in the temple outside the temple, even to each other. Inside the temple they will talk about it, but not outside. There will be glancing allusions, but never a full-fledged description.

The way I put it comes out of a conference we held when the Manhattan Temple was dedicated in 2004. We wanted to have a scholarly conference to mark that occasion, so we got Jonathan Z. Smith, a very distinguished scholar of ancient religion, and others to come, and we talked about it. Smith talked about how we call this a sacred space. How do you define a sacred space?

That's a very interesting question: How do you create a sacred space? The theme of the conference was, how do you do it in the modern city, where there are all sorts of groups? Just like time is set aside on the Sabbath devoted to God, can you have space set aside that's devoted to God? Mormons have become very good at that. Before you can go to the temple, you can't simply be a member of the church. You have to see your bishop. Every two years you have to talk with your bishop who will ask you a set of questions. Are you committing adultery? Are you honest in your dealings with people? Do you believe in God and Christ? And so on down the list. It's a worthiness interview, and you have to have a recommend to get past the front door of the temple. Once you get past that door, you immediately go to a changing room where you shed your outer clothes and put on special white clothing. In the temple you speak in whispers. You don't speak aloud. And then outside the temple you don't talk about it at all. Some people think of this as secretive in the sense of hiding things. But for Mormons, it's all part of the process of creating a sacred space. When you walk in there, life is different. You just feel things are on a different plane.

When you come out, it's not usually an overwhelming vision you have experienced, but you feel elevated. It becomes very important for Mormons to go into that space, just like practicing the Sabbath, keeping it holy, has an exalting effect on human life. So that's the way I look at the temple ceremonies.

Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It's all there. So it's not like it's hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don't talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.4
So, this too shall pass. And in the meantime it gives us members a chance to talk a little more about the Temple, and hopefully it will also make us think a little deeper about the temple as well.

Finally, the Church posted this video on, and I think it's a nice way to end. Take a look:

Kent Walgren, “Inside the Salt Lake Temple: Gisbert Bossard’s 1911 Photographs,” Dialogue 29 (3) Fall 1996: 1-43.

Some have speculated the move was also a little bit of "payback" due to the furor over California's proposition 8, an initiative involving gay marriage. See David Banack, "Big Love hits below the belt,", March 11, 2009.

Daniel C. Peterson, posted to the message board, March 13, 2009.

Richard Bushman, "Mormonism and Politics: Are They Compatible?", Pew Forum, Monday, May 14, 2007. Bushman touched on the same thing in March 2008 at Weber State University in a talk called "The Intellectual Prospects of Mormonism."

Kevin Barney at By Common Consent liveblogged during the episode. See "Liveblogging Big Love." A transcript of sorts was done at Mormon Mentality by DKL. See "The Controversial Big Love Episode." From the sound of it, the show was rather inaccurate on several levels and rather than being an artful, respectful portrayal (despite what Big Love folks said) the piece was clearly pejorative. Some noted it was the other aspects of the episode that bothered them more than the endowment depiction; the way church leaders were portrayed in a "Love Court," the impossibility of the situation even taking place, casting the Church in a fearful-of-the-truth light from the top to bottom, etc. Guy Murray at Millennial Star blog pointed out some problems, "Big Lies on Big Love." Blake Ostler said HBO's actions are "morally equivalent" to pornography. He has some strong words for HBO, but check out his reasoning: "Big Pornography."


Chino Blanco said...

Tom Hanks puts this brouhaha into perspective (and waxes prophetic) at the 3rd season premiere of Big Love:

"There's gonna be lies, and secrets, and discoveries, and problems. Television!"

I'm A said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I have gone back and forth between annoyance that people can so nonchalantly flaunt what others find sacred, and amused at the blatantness of what exactly Big Love was trying to achieve (media attention and controversy) by including Temple ordinances in their show.

I agree with you. Everyone needs to chill. People love to get so worked up over things such as this, and maybe rightly so. But, people tend to forget that this information is readily available online. Big Love isn't releasing any deep, dark secrets (although I'm sure they would like to say they are). I think that the fact that this could open up some conversations with people who maybe don't know as much about our church is a very good thing. And as members of the church we have a chance to, once again, handle these situations with grace. We have dealt with these types of situations before and we will continue to do so.

P.S. I really like the show. It is hilariously inaccurate and ridiculously off-base but entertaining all the while. I love me some Chloe Sevigny. She is the PERFECT polyg.

Check it:

BHodges said...

Yes, Tom also unfortunately called the Church "un-American," and later apologized for that statement. I don't think Tom Hanks is calling the shots about what will be put in the episodes. As an Executive Producer that wouldn't really fall under his role. Seems like he's doing the regular old hyping people do for their various projects.

BHodges said...

I'm A: I've only seen bits of Big Love, so I can't weigh in myself, but I know another close friend who has generally enjoyed the show as well. Interestingly, a recent issue of BYU Studies recently published a review of seasons one and two by Kent Bean.

He doesn't trash the show. He has some criticisms, but it's an interesting review.

BHodges said...

Here's what I consider to be a weak news story:

It starts out with "ever since Big Love went on the air 3 years ago, many Mormons have disliked it."

This, in my estimation, is a poor introduction as it is unsubstantiated throughout the entire report. Who are these "many Mormons," how have they made their "dislike" known? I'd wager that not even a majority of Mormons are even aware of the programs existence. Perhaps something the report could have mentioned is how unimportant the show is, generally ignored, by most Mormons, rather than vaguely saying "many Mormons have disliked it."

It shows a few brief comments from members of the Church who note they are offended, another saying all HBO is doing is "making fun" of it. (I don't know that I agree with that, myself.)

I think taking umbrage is generally not a flattering or particularly graceful way to handle the situation.

Also, the report chose one line from the Church press release that says "certainly Church members are offended."

This is the report trying to build the case of Mormon widespread offense.

The report ends with "despite the protests, HBO will continue..." such and such.

I don't believe the story established there were any considerable protests occurring.

A poor news story fluffed up a bit to burn some time, in my estimation.

Chris said...

I've received the same emails and face book invites, but i'd always ignore/delete them. Your post really adds the flesh to the bones of my thinking. Very well said.

BHodges said...

Well, if you get more, pass it along.

I'm A said...

This is just silly: "ever since Big Love went on the air 3 years ago, many Mormons have disliked it."

I personally do not know ANYONE who has seen even one episode of Big Love (besides myself and a few friends.)

I'm sure there are some offended LDS members out there although I am yet to meet anyone. In fact, I agree with you. I doubt there are many members out there who have even paid the show any attention.

I have never felt that HBO was trying to poke fun at Mormons through the show. It's not even ABOUT Mormons. And it's definitely not an accurate portrayal of polygamists either.

It's an HBO drama...not a documentary. It's full of gun fights and polygamists trying to poison their prophet and racy sex scenes and darling 3rd wives out scouting for even cuter 4th wives and all sorts of awesomeness. And therefore, my general reaction over the news about the endowment scene (or whatever) was more of amusement than anger.

BHodges said...

I think my reaction has reached a point of "ponderous resignation." :)

Don Kauffman said...

thanks, Blair. I really appreciated your comments. Made me more hopeful that something good will come of it.

BHodges said...

Thank you, Don. What did you think of the news story I linked to?

Papa D said...

"I think my reaction has reached a point of 'ponderous resignation.'"

That pretty much sums it up for me.

Christopher said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Blair. I generally agree with you, and "ponderous resignation" accurately describes my own feelings at this point, I think.

I'm A: here's a tip. If you want your own religion to be treated with respect, don't denigrate others by referring to them with highly-offensive nicknames (i.e. "polyg").

DR said...


Big Love is THE most Spiritual Show on Television. The portrayal of the typical "Utah Mormon" is dead on the money. That makes alot of Utah Mormons uncomfortable. Nevertheless your article confuses me. I am not really sure what it was about. While well-written I didn't really find a clear-cut theme. Was it about Big Love, or Media, or Temples/Temple Ceremonies in general? True the ceremonies are online but I don't believe it makes them fodder for mockery. But, and this is a HUGE But I would wait to see how Big Love incorporates it before judging what the motivation behind it is. I have felt the spirit move me more times during 10 minutes of Big Love then the last 10 times I have been to Church. We can definitely agree to disagree but the fact that Temple attendance is left in the hands of wayward bishops is much more offensive to me then ceremonies being discussed on TV...especially when no one knows how they are even being portrayed/discussed. I love you my friend we must talk more on this soon.


BHodges said...

I'm a Utah Mormon.

DR said...

You are. But I sincerely hope you aren't.

S.Faux said...

Thanks for your provocative thoughts. I am still a little grumpy about this.

You may be interested in my essay "Exposing sacred temple practice violations professional standards."

cinepro said...

As a Temple-going LDS, I'm not as upset about HBO showing something "sacred" as I am just plain embarrassed to have the clothing and rituals of the Temple put out there. When viewed without the "spiritual" lens of the Temple experience, and being surrounded by dozens of like-minded (and wearing) LDS, the whole thing can look rather....?

I'm also concerned about the youth of the Church. The Church has a carefully considered program of Temple emphasis for the youth that involves almost no detail or information about what actually goes on in there. Many people are disconcerted on their first Temple experience, but make it through with the help of their accompanying family and friends. But will youth be hesitant to go if they become more familiar with what will be happening before they get inside?

And if their family, friends and Church leaders can't answer their questions or engage in honest conversation outside the Temple but instead continually invoke the "non-discussion" clause, will that be an adequate response?

I suppose time will only tell as Temple attendance is gauged over the decades. But Joseph Smith himself obviously realized that even among faithful LDS, the less information about the Temple that gets out there, the better.

BHodges said...

I hope it helps foster more engaging discussion of the Temple amongst members and otherwise.

I am Chree-uz said...

Well said, well written as usual, Blairseph.

I for one am annoyed by the whole thing, mainly for the reasons you touched on such as PR exploitation for ratings boosts, etc. But, its true... in reality not a huge deal as far as temple ceremonies go I think. It kinds goes to show how little some Mormons know of their own faith when they get so defensive about it. Too many members could not give you a straight answer if asked the question "why can't you tell people about the temple?"
Sacred, not secret. Das it n' das all.

What's even more ironic, this attempt at ratings boosts for the show will inevitably work, because how many Mormons that had never heard of the show previously do you think will watch it now just to see how far they go? I bet you the main demographic will be Mormons for this episode!

Entertaining television or not, I for one am still not interested in the slightest. Meh...

cinepro said...

I guess the first step would be for LDS to understand that "sacred" and "secret" aren't synonyms. We have no problem with other sacred ordinances such as the sacrament, baptism, or the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost being depicted in pictures or films if it is done respectfully.

And isn't "respectfully" the key point in all of this? Isn't there a difference between a serious drama showing an LDS character and how the Temple has an impact on her at a very key time in her life, as opposed to having a Temple ceremony mocked on an SNL skit or otherwise made light of? I still haven't seen the "Big Love" episode, so I'm not referring to it specifically (it may veer into disrespect or mockery). Would the quality of LDS drama increase if LDS artists were allowed to use the Temple in telling the story of their LDS characters?

Yes, there are certain, specific things covenanted to secrecy in the Temple, but as far as I can tell, that doesn't expand into a blanket veil of secrecy (or Cone of Silence) that covers all aspects of Temple worship.

Anonymous said...

leftfield on that link said:

The claim to have researched everything to the hilt perhaps applies to the ceremony itself, but apparently not to anything needed no construct a remotely plausible storyline. Given the incoherent mass of Swiss cheese that passes for a plot in this episode, the claim that the temple portrayal is essential to the plot is also nonsense.

It’s unclear whether she was supposed to be receiving her own endowment, or was acting as a proxy. Either way, the reasons for her visit to the temple at this point in the story are mystifying, and either way, the plot is riddled more holes than a doughnut shop. Rather than the temple portrayal being essential to a well thought out plot, it appears that the plot was cobbled together after the fact and without much thought other than to find some way to wrap a story around the gratuitous portrayal of the endowment.

BHodges said...

Quotes from Hugh Nibley:

The scriptural injunction to secrecy follows from the stringent necessity of keeping a discrete distance from the world. 'Pearls before swine' is not an expression of contempt [for swine], but a commentary on the uselessness of giving things to people who place no value on them, have no use for them, and could only spoil them. . . . To reveal sacred things is to hold their true value in contempt, to despise and throw away the endowment, the only plan ever offered mankind to eternal happiness. . . . Actually, in revealing sacred things one gives away nothing but one's integrity, though that is everything. It is significant that none of the 'frightful disclosures' of the temple ordinances made in the sensational literature of the nineteenth century had the expected impact--they all fizzled, as indeed they must, since to one who does not understand their significance, these sacred things have no interest at all. Hugh Nibley, "On the Sacred and the Symbolic" _Temples of the Ancient World_ Ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake: Deseret/FARMS 1995): 553, 569, 572.

The ordinances are not deep, dark secrets to be kept as such from the world. It is easy to get a temple recommend and then later apostatize and spread abroad the so-called secrets of the temple. The basic idea of the ordinances from Moses back to Adam is separation from the world. . . Why are these temple ordinances guarded with such secrecy when anyone who really wants to can find out what goes on? Even though everyone may discover what goes on in the temple, and many have already revealed it, the important thing is that *I* do not reveal these things; they must remain sacred to *me*. I must preserve a zone of sanctity which cannot be violated whether or not anyone else in the room has the remotest idea what the situation really is. For my covenants are all between me and my Heavenly Father . . . . I can never share my understanding of them completely with anyone but the Lord. No matter what happens, it will, then, always remain secret: only I know exactly the weight and force of the covenants I have made--I and the Lord with whom I have made them--unless I choose to reveal them. If I do not, then they are secret and sacred no matter what others may say or do. Anyone who would reveal these things has not understood them, and therefore that person has not given them away. You cannot reveal what you do not know! Hugh Nibley, _Temple and Cosmos_, CWHN vol. 12. (Salt Lake: Deseret/FARMS, 1992): 61-65.

Jason said...

Cinepro: To be honest, I think the show did and does more of the opposite than what you feared as far as embarrassing goes. I don't know how deep into the show anyone here is--I love it--but the whole subplot involving Barb and her ex-communication was deeply moving. And the treatment and portrayal of the endowment ceremony was downright reverent (although I agree with anonymous that it wasn't exactly well explained why Barb needed to go to this ceremony in the first place, or really what an endowment ceremony is--I have no clue).

Blair, I think your analysis is generally spot-on. I only differ in that I think a "no comment" would have sufficed, and frustrated the efforts of the PR hounds and media types more than the statement that was released. Any more than that just raises the chances that the media will run with it and try to escalate it. It's a fool's game for institutions to quibble with artists, just in the same way that the Vatican would be well-advised to basically ignore "Angels and Demons" or whatever. (Not that you need it, but my personal opinion is that both churches create more bad publicity for themselves in the wider culture than any schemer could hope to.) At any rate, to most people I'd wager it seems a controversy about nothing, because most people don't care about what an "endowment ceremony" is or looks like (to put it plainly), and any sort of protestation looks--at least to most folks--as silly as the Muslims that complained about those Danish Mohammed cartoons a few years ago.

I'd echo the earlier comments that the show does not treat the faith of its characters lightly. I think some people have this perception of "Big Love" that Mormonism is used as a recurring punchline, but it's just not. Nor is it much about the LDS church, really. I say this as someone that is not a Mormon, and not spiritual, but the scene in the road trip episode this season where Bill is praying about how he fears for his family, or the scene in which Barb is excommunicated by the disciplinary council -- if you care about the characters, it's hard not to be genuinely moved by those moments.

Jason said...

Just saw the footnotes. Wow. "[C]learly pejorative" is overreaction on the verge of hysteria. (The most offensive thing about this was not the actual portrayal, but the naked effort to drum up publicity. Such hyperbole suggests that the "Big Love" folks looking for a fight were smart to play to those always looking for a slight.) I just couldn't possibly disagree more with that view. I highly suggest not taking my--or anyone else's--word for it, though.

BHodges said...


Thanks for your views, it's nice to get feedback from a person in your position. "clearly pejorative" is the sense I believe most Mormons would take the episode, from its depiction of what Mormons view as sacred and secret, to its depiction of Church leaders as grumpy bureaucrats obsessed with "tithing." Above all, the way the episode literally disconnected on so many levels from the way the LDS Church actually works.

To be short, I try my best not to profane the most sacred beliefs of others, and try to confine my profaning to their less sacred aspects. ;)

BHodges said...

it's hard not to be genuinely moved by those moments.

Yes, but usually the move is at the expense of the LDS Church (the ridiculously portrayed excommunication scene as case in point).

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