The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a curiously defensive Official Statement about the HBO Show “Big Love” and its upcoming episode depicting an endowment ceremony – a statement highlighted at the forefront of the Church website. You can read the statement here:
Ironically, I wrote recently that Big Love was the best show on TV, after watching an episode that I wouldn’t have minded lasting several more hours. In that episode, the family patriarch is seeing his plural marriage family disintegrate in numerous ways. He himself is a cheater seeking to justify indiscretions by adding wives. He is promoting gambling to make money. He seeks to leverage, bribe, and manipulate anyone standing in his path.
During the episode he is told unhappiness is the result of following a false prophet, and he ultimately is on his knees crying out to God saying he has been looking for His presence but has not found Him anywhere. At the same time, his back is turned to the Angel Moroni rising in the background.
It is a powerful depiction.
His back is turned to the Church. That is why he cannot find God. He is not following Church teachings. That is why he and his family are unhappy and disintegrating.
Perhaps some differ in their interpretation, but it seemed to be a powerful promotion of the Church, with a running theme of the show being the problems that arise from following “fundamentalist” teachings.
Now, however, in its statement the Church initially criticizes HBO because “the show’s creators and HBO executives assured the Church that the series wouldn’t be about Mormons.”
What is not said is why that matters.
Some aspect of the show is necessarily about Mormons.
What is not said is that the Church does not want any show associating polygamy with the Church. Fair enough. Except that it was early Church teachings that polygamy was proper which gave rise to the practice, which is still practiced by some fringe splinter groups today.
That history and its repercussions cannot be denied by wishing it away – and that is what helps create some of the dramatic story lines in the Big Love show.
It is not a blurring of the faith and polygamy in the show. Rather, the show uses the fact that there is no blurring to create dilemma after dilemma for the family as they pretend to others to be Mormon but seek to conceal their true beliefs.
The official Church statement also mentions that “Church members are offended when their most sacred practices are misrepresented or presented without context or understanding.”
True. However …
Since the episode of Big Love depicting the endowment ceremony has not aired or been seen by the Church, how can the Church know any misrepresentation or incomplete textual depiction will be made? Certainly no attempt is made in the official statement to identify any misrepresentation, or to give a proper context or understanding to what will be depicted in the show.
Instead of assuming the worst and taking a peremptory shot at HBO that may or may not ultimately be justified, and issuing a statement that seems to be beneath the dignity of the Church, why not simply issue an after-the-fact statement explaining why any part of the TV show has made a misrepresentation or shown something out of context? That teaching would be much more valuable.
It appears to me that the real concern is not what is depicted, but that it is being depicted at all. Is it bad taste to depict an endowment ceremony? It’s not for me to judge on behalf of anyone else.
What is obvious, though, is that the horse named publicity left the secret barn long ago and is never coming back. Anyone can find on the Internet an incredible amount of information about endowment ceremonies and other sacred practices not supposed to be seen by non-Mormons.
Instead of issuing statements condemning such publicity, it might be better to embrace the openness of the Internet. It might be better to work with the HBO producers to ensure that if anything is shown, even if the Church does not want it shown, that at least it is accurate. It is unfair to criticize something, ahead of time, as being inaccurate when it has not been seen and no attempt has been made to address any potential inaccuracies.
The Church statement also mentions that the HBO “characters are often unsympathetic figures who come across as narrow and self-righteous.” That is true. Almost everyone in the Big Love series has problems and personality issues that make them unsympathetic. Especially the fundamentalist characters living in the compound. The compound characters are, frankly, insane.
That is what gives the show some spice and makes it interesting. It is a soap opera. We also need to be ‘real’ in our assessment of the show’s characters. A show depicting everyone of a certain faith as being perfect persons without fault would be even more unbelievable.
The title of the Official Statement is “The Publicity Dilemma.” There isn’t any dilemma. Recognize that a TV show today requires suspense, drama, scoundrels, etc. It is fiction. Not a documentary. A show about a ‘typical’ Mormon family, CTR, and so on, is not something people would watch on television as they can view that in their own lives. Instead of unfairly criticizing an unseen episode, embrace the publicity and seek ways to promote the Church in a favorable light.