Tuesday, March 17, 2009

After the Broadcast of "Big Love"'s 'Outer Darkness' Episode

In a previous post, I considered the issues at stake for Latter-day Saints in having their sacred temple endowment ceremony depicted in the HBO television series, "Big Love." Having now viewed the ‘Outer Darkness’ episode—yes, that's what they named it—I find that the episode is very revealing, not so much about the LDS temple ceremonies as about the producers’ motivations. Below, I consider what the episode's lapses in internal logic and so forth suggest about these motivations—and what the LDS will likely do about them.

(Of course, being a Latter-day Saint who has experienced the temple ceremonies myself and vowed to hold them sacred, I will not address the matter of the technical accuracy of the producers’ depiction of the endowment. However, this is the least important issue to be concerned with in considering this episode.)

About 5 minutes of this episode’s action is set within an LDS temple; of this time, the depiction of the endowment ceremony takes up 2 minutes. To be more precise, the focus of this portion of the episode is the depiction of what is supposed to be the last 1 minute and 45 seconds or so of the endowment, which in real life is the climax of the entire, roughly 2-hour ceremony. As I warned in my previous post, depiction of a tiny element of the ceremony, in isolation and without context, would lead to misunderstanding and confusion; this is so whether the producers’ depiction is technically accurate or not.

Before the episode was broadcast, the producers stated that the depiction of the endowment itself was necessary for dramatic purposes. When I saw this portion of the episode, I had two reactions.

First, without any context or interpretive framework, I failed to see what dramatic purpose was fulfilled by showing this portion of the endowment. The discussion of the character Barb with her mother and sister in the Celestial Room of the temple did further the dramatic narrative (although it was utterly unnecessary to place this discussion within the temple, a place where, in real life, people rarely reveal terrible secrets, as Barb does in the episode). However, the section of the endowment shown—especially without any context as to what was going on or what any of the purported symbolism meant—would be difficult to understand and confusing for someone not acquainted with the temple ceremony already (which of course would cover well over 95% of the viewing audience).

Second, it was clear to me that the producers were striving to be as shocking and provocative to the LDS community as possible. The real-life portion of the endowment corresponding to the portion depicted by the producers is, as I mentioned, the climax of the endowment; what occurs then is considered exceptionally sacred, to be given the greatest and most solemn respect, and never to be treated lightly or casually. Although depicting this section of the endowment would not be dramatically enlightening to the viewers as a whole, and might not even make much of an impression on them, it would be enormously offensive to the LDS.

Look at it this way. Let's say that you are visiting at someone's home, seated on one of their couches, attending a Super Bowl party or some other sedentary, television-watching social gathering. Someone passes around some cards for you to use in taking notes regarding the TV commercials you like or dislike. Someone else passes you some sort of cracker. Yet another person passes you a beverage. How offensive could this behavior be?

Quite a bit, if one were a Roman Catholic—and the cards were consecrated relics taken from a scapular (a sacred depiction of a saint worn around the neck under one’s clothing by some devout Catholics), and the 'cracker' were a consecrated Communion wafer, and the beverage were consecrated sacramental wine. In a Catholic context, the appropriation of these objects as part of an entertainment event would be outrageously, heinously offensive. What “Big Love”’s producers did was the television equivalent, as far as offending the LDS are concerned.

I have come to believe that this was intentional. That is, the producers depicted the endowment, not to further a dramatic purpose (as if that would be sufficient justification!), but rather specifically to offend the LDS.

The episode produces other evidence for this contention, because several aspects of this episode logically would not or even could not have occurred in real life:
  • Once a temple is formally dedicated, admission to the temple requires the individual to possess an individual recommend signed by church officials. In a scene before the temple sequence, Barb begs her mother and sister to give her one or the other of their two recommends, because she does not possess one herself. Yet, we see Barb in the temple Celestial Room, sobbing with her mother and sister, one of whom presumably gave Barb her own recommend—without which, that person (either her mother or sister) could not have entered the temple herself. For that matter, both the mother and the sister would have been aware that lending one’s recommend to another is punishable by excommunication; temple recommends are non-transferable, like a passport, and ‘lending’ a recommend is treated as a serious offense. As faithful Saints, Barb’s mother and sister simply would not have just lent their recommend casually. In sum, the producers did need to place Barb, her mother, and her sister in the same place for dramatic purposes, but that could have been anywhere. The producers chose to place the three of them in the Celestial Room of the temple, although this would have been impossible in real life, at least as the producers depicted the meeting.

  • In the scene before the temple sequence where she begs her mother and sister to supply a temple recommend, Barb says that she wants to ‘take out her endowments,’ that is, to experience the sacred ceremony and bring down its accompanying blessings upon herself. However, as any Saint with temple experience could tell you, one can only ‘take out’ one’s endowments once, with a special recommend. However, Barb is trying to go through on her mother’s or sister’s recommend. Barb’s mother and sister had clearly been through the temple previously. A person who returns to the temple after her own endowment must go through the temple ceremony as a proxy for someone who has passed away. (I went through the temple for my own endowment in August of 1978. When I went through the temple in January 2009, I went through on behalf of Robert L. Barham, who was born in January 1879 in North Carolina, and who died some time ago. This is normal temple practice, which the “Big Love” producers and their advisors presumably know.) This is not just a fine point. Even if Barb were to go through the temple on a swiped or loaned recommend, she would not be receiving the temple blessings for herself, but as a proxy for someone else. She would receive no endowment blessings for herself, and she would know this ahead of time. Thus, depicting Barb as trying to ‘take out her endowments’ is not just dramatic license. Rather, it is dramatic lying. Presumably, the producers brushed away these considerations to justify putting Barb in the temple, for reasons other than dramatic effect or accuracy.

  • Certainly Barb would know that excommunication cancels all temple blessings. Thus, even if she were trying to take out her endowments and receive those temple blessings, Barb would know that this would be a totally futile exercise.

  • In the church court scene, the bishop asks Barb whether she is wearing her temple garments; Barb responds by asking whether the bishop is inquiring about her underwear. There are two problems with this scene from a logical point of view. First, in the episode, Barb has just gone through the temple on a borrowed, hence invalid, recommend; she has not been through the proper interview process to obtain a valid recommend at all. As far as the bishop knows, Barb has not been through the temple, even under false pretenses (an excommunicable offense in itself, by the way), and so Barb should not be wearing the temple garments; thus, the question of whether Barb is wearing these garments would not even arise.

  • Second, although it is no doubt titillating to most of the viewing audience to think of the bishop asking Barb about her underwear, this rings particularly false for an LDS audience. Yes, LDS who have been through the temple do wear a special garment, which is an outward expression of an inward commitment (as one LDS leader put it; read here or here). However, this is not considered regular underwear or lingerie. It is considered to be ceremonial clothing, which temple patrons are required to wear throughout their lives; it is accepted among the LDS that the bishop will inquire, during a bi-annual recommend interview, as to whether or not the LDS temple patron is fulfilling his or her covenants by wearing the garment. Thus, Barb’s reaction is false for someone who is concerned about receiving temple blessings, although it certainly serves to ridicule the church in the eyes of those who do not know the temple or its customs.

Other aspects of the episode also demonstrate that the “Big Love” producers are seeking to irritate, embarrass, or ridicule the church:

  • In that ‘begging for a recommend’ scene before the temple sequence, the producers have Barb’s mother state that ‘it was only a few years ago’ that the temple ceremony was changed, and that previously temple patrons were threatened with disembowelment if they spoke about the temple. This is a frequently encountered libel. I went through the temple endowment for the first time in August of 1978, and most recently (as of this writing) in January of 2009. At no time during this period have I ever encountered in the temple any sort of language that threatened temple patrons with disembowelment or any other physical punishment for revealing the temple ceremonies. Anyone who has been through the endowment, who holds a valid temple recommend, and who thinks they heard otherwise is welcome to bring up the matter with me within the temple itself (the only place where I can discuss specifics). The producers are simply spreading false information here, although their falsehood surely puts the LDS church in a bad light.

  • During the episode, the polygamist cult’s prophet’s son specifically refers to the LDS church in derogatory terms, as haughty and condescending.

  • Bill the polygamist portrays the LDS church as unwilling to bring forth a letter that purportedly gives a version of history that embarrasses the church, even though producing the letter would save the life of a kidnapped child.

All in all, it is clear that the producers wish to offend and insult the LDS church. The depiction of the endowment is clearly a slap in the face to the church, and it is only that; it serves little or no dramatic purpose, and the producers bend logic and the reality of church procedure in order to show their depiction of the endowment. The producers also go out of their way to depict the church in negative terms, as I illustrate above.

So, having said all this, what will the LDS do about it all? Other than spread the truth and correct falsehood, precisely nothing. The LDS church leadership has already said that it will not call for any kind of boycott, and it encourages the membership to respond with “dignity and thoughtfulness.” (See their statement here.) Simply put, the Church has bigger fish to fry: spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as they understand it.

I, on the other hand, have just one more thing to add to this discussion. It involves a statement from the temple ceremonies themselves. I offer it to the producers of “Big Love” as food for thought. These producers have gone out of their way to treat the LDS temple ceremonies, and the LDS people, with great disrespect. They should be told that a portion of the temple ceremonies is relevant to such behavior.

The producers of “Big Love” claim that they had the assistance of anonymous experts who assisted them with their depiction of the endowment. Perhaps they can ask these experts if I am correct in stating this, the one sentence of the temple ceremonies that I am willing to reveal publicly. It is a sentence that explains why the LDS have to do precisely nothing to settle accounts with the producers of “Big Love,” because we are assured that the ultimate Authority on the temple ceremonies will take care of that—for, in the temple, we are told this:

“God will not be mocked.”

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