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."