Big Love, which spurred a lot of pre-emptive worry in the Mormon church before it premiered, is now being criticized for a scene in Sunday’s episode that depicts a certain sacred church ritual, apparently for the first time on TV. HBO, in response, has issued one of those I’m-sorry-if-you-feel-that-way apologies but will air the episode as is.
The subject of the flap is the re-creation of an endowment ceremony, a ritual affirmation of faith which is allowed only to be witnessed by church members in good standing. Why this differs from numerous other pop culture depictions of sacred ceremonies—say, the famous baptism scene in The Godfather—appears to depend on the church tradition of keeping the ceremony closed to outsiders. (The producers say they relied on extensive research, including the accounts of an ex-Mormon, to re-create the ceremony.) But as the Salt Lake Tribune notes, some church members disagree among themselves on how secret the ceremony should be.
All this circles back to the eternal question: how obligated are outsiders to follow the traditions of a religion they don’t belong to?
Religious traditions about representation are often strict and absolute—that, in part, is the point of them. Like dietary laws or other religious-cultural traditions, they serve to keep the group cohesive by drawing bright lines between it and outsiders.
The question is—as with the controversy over cartoons of Mohammed, which broke Islamic rules against depicting the Prophet—why and when people outside the religion should be expected to stay within those bright lines.
Now, as a wholly secular person—and a Big Love fan—I may be too biased on this for my opinion to even matter. To me, the issue is execution. I think artists should be able to depict Mohammed; but to do it only to provoke people and prove you can, with no greater point, is still obnoxious. Likewise, if Big Love portrays the ceremony in such a way that it thoughtfully serves its characters’ stories—which, as a fan of the show, I’d expect it to do—then I’d say it’s justified. But I wouldn’t expect LDS church members to agree with me.
But that’s the problem when art meets religion: agreeing to disagree has its limits when you’re dealing with absolutes of faith. So far the official church, while disapproving the episode, has pointedly not called for boycotts or other action, mirroring the mostly low-key approach it took to the debut of Big Love. Back then, a major concern in the church was that the series would make today’s LDS Mormons look like polygamists and erase the distinctions between mainstream Mormonism and the fundamentalists. But the series—in which the intense rifts between those groups is a major and constant issue—has done anything but that.
Now, I’m sure the LDS church would not like how some of its members—like starchy hypocrite Ted—are portrayed, but it’s not as if Roman Grant and company are a picnic, either. And in any case, I’d argue you’d have a hard time watching the show regularly and not realizing that the LDS church and the compound fundies are far, far different entities.
The fact is, if dealing with religion in art or entertainment required treating it only in ways that most members of that religion would approve of, it would be hard to treat religion substantively at all. Who’s to draw the line between respect and offensiveness? Who’s to say they can’t exist in the same work?
Maybe the best example of that was the South Park episode on Mormonism, which treated the religion searingly—mostly, by literally dramatizing its actual founding story. And yet—after Stan rejects a new Mormon kid in town because he finds his religion ridiculous—it ends by giving the kid what is, by South Park standards, a powerful and even moving last word on tolerance:
Maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life. And a great family. And I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up. Because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.
I’m guessing the Big Love episode will have a different tone, but still. I’ll be curious to see what the church has to say about the episode after it airs, if any of its representatives end up watching.