"The Sacred on TV: Reaction to Big Love’s ‘Outer Darkness’"

Lindsey Hulet

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 2009)






When HBO first announced it would be including representations of ceremonies performed in the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Big Love's episode airing March 15, 2009, the news spread like wildfire through Latter-day Saint circles. Emails and invitations to Facebook groups flew across the country, containing announcements of the upcoming episode and feverish implorations for action.

The controversial episode has aired, and almost as quickly it entered the spotlight, it left. An analysis of reactions to the episode in LDS and non-LDS circles yields some interesting observations about the line between respect and offensiveness. Big Love's "Outer Darkness" episode certainly presents new challenges, not only for LDS public relations, but for all religions of modern societies. Big Love is most likely just the beginning of what will become an increasingly visible pull between the secular and sacred, as well as issues of privacy and freedom of expression. In a world that will continue to subject religions and religious individuals to intense public scrutiny, church members can learn valuable lessons from the HBO incident, and will know how to react to future offensive or insensitive portrayals of sacred and deeply personal religious practices.

Pre-Show Reactions

After I heard the initial rumors about the episode's content, a quick search on the internet pointed to dozens of anti-Mormon websites where former Church members and non-members alike were gleefully gloating over what they considered to be a welcome "exposing" the Church's true teachings. A few days later when credible news sources corroborated these rumors, such comments were also seen appended to online articles next to comments from church members who obviously reacted to the news with a combination of hurt, confusion, desperation, and even outrage.

As the Church's official press release stated, "certainly church members are offended when their most sacred practices are misrepresented or presented without context or understanding." [1] From the Church's statement it would appear that being disheartened, saddened, and even offended are justifiable reactions to HBO's actions. Panic, anger, and fear, however, are out of place. In fact, the panic-inducing viral emails encouraging Latter-day Saints to write to HBO or the FCC seems to have done little more than increase media exposure to the controversial episode, increasing the show's ratings as a result. In fact, the Church's press release states the reason the Church did not call for boycotts of the channel or parent company was that "such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series."

It is somewhat ironic that the very activities members undertook hoping to prevent the offensive episode from airing actually increased the dreaded publicity. Perhaps the lesson here is that members should avoid these types of emails and other activities encouraging the expression of anger, thereby ensuring that such television shows receive the little attention they deserve. When aspects of Mormon faith or practice are discussed in public, members can treat such instances as opportunities to clarify our beliefs and share spiritual feelings with those not of our faith.

Does this mean we should never attempt to defend what we hold sacred for fear of increased publicity? How then should we react to inaccurate depictions of our religion, or even accurate depictions of what we feel should not be depicted in the first place? The Church's position: with "dignity and thoughtfulness" [2], carefully weighing the potential risks and benefits of crying foul and raising up arms versus quietly going about doing good and being "an example of the believers." [3]

Post-Airdate Thoughts

As Latter-day Saints accustomed to unfair portrayals of our faith in the media, we often assume that such portrayals are done out of less-than friendly motives. Big Love creators claimed that the few minutes of scenes set within the temple were vital to the episode's plot and the development of the episode's main character and were respectfully and tastefully done. After viewing portions of the "Outer Darkness" episode I would agree that the portrayal was respectfully done, as the character in the scenes is visibly touched by the spiritual strength provided by the ceremonies. There was nothing about the general tone of the scene that was mocking or disrespectful. This observation might be irrelevant, however, because any portrayal of temple ceremonies, no matter how respectfully done, is inappropriate to members.

I do not presume to know exactly what the show's creators were thinking when they decided to film these scenes. I do not believe their motives were entirely sinister or entirely innocent but rather somewhere in between. I still am of the opinion that the temple scenes were not essential to the episode plot (as the temple could have still remained a general theme in the episode without depicting specific clothing and ceremonies).  Additionally, certain elements of the scenes before and after the temple experience lead me to believe that the show's creators were not wholly concerned with being accurate, and were not being completely truthful by stating that the scenes were not filmed for shock value. [4] 

Now that the episode has aired and the media has moved on, Latter-day Saints may still be mourning their trampled pearls. As we move forward, how should we as members react to and feel about a world where the sacred is no longer off limits to public exhibition?

Why Big Love is Different

Some might ask if Big Love's controversial episode is even worthy of discussion and analysis at all. Does the recent incident really indicate a significant change in American society, its respect for religion, or its treatment of sacred beliefs and ceremonies? Or is this just another incident in a long history of difficult Mormon public relations, such as the examples listed in the Church's press release? In my opinion, the answer is 'yes' to both questions.

Anti-Mormon literature, written mostly by former Latter-day Saints, has attempted to "expose" the Church's unique beliefs and practices since the Church's inception. Additionally, the content of the temple ceremonies has long been available to the general public through unofficial channels, increasingly so with the widespread use of the internet. From one point of view, it seems that the only aspect of the HBO incident that is new is the medium through which ceremonies were depicted – national television. While that may be true, I would argue that in the past, the trivializing or inaccurate portrayal of Mormon beliefs and practices has been conducted largely on an individual basis. HBO's decision to air the controversial content implies complicity, not only by BigLove's creators, but also by its actors, producers, directors, as well as HBO executives. All of this reflects a much larger issue at the institutional, rather than just the individual, level. Whereas past attempts to belittle the LDS Church have been conducted by individuals disaffected by so-called Mormonism, the recent HBO event is indicative of Americans' increasing disaffection with religion and ritual on the whole.

Much of the panic surrounding Big Love's recent episode is understandably connected with the exposure of ceremony that was never meant for the public eye. A significant barrier has now been broken by placing some of that content on national television. How will we react if or when sacred ceremonies are put on display to a wider audience than the small proportion of US households that subscribe to HBO?

Certainly, we can take comfort in knowing that the meaning of temple ceremonies will forever be hidden from those who lack the necessary context or doctrinal background. The multiple layering of truths is part of what makes the temple so profound, as well as protected. In this way, temple ritual is analogous to parables in the New Testament. When the disciples of Jesus Christ asked him why he spoke in parables he responded, "because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." [5] Such may be said of those viewing public depictions of temple ceremony. To understand temples one must understand covenants, ritual, priesthood, symbolism, and authority. Thus, a significant element of the Latter-day Saint endowment consists of the months and years of preparation leading up to the ceremony itself. Viewing or participating in portions of the ceremony without the proper preparation will never diminish what the endowment actually teaches. Hugh Nibley notes that,

"In the temple we are taught by symbols and examples; but that is not the fullness of the gospel…Ordinances are not the fullness of the gospel. Going to the temple is like entering into a laboratory to confirm what you have already learned in the classroom and from the text. The fullness of the gospel is the understanding of what the plan is all about—the knowledge necessary to salvation…The ordinances are mere forms." [6]

Just as temples have never been about the physical buildings themselves, the ordinances performed in the temple have never been about ceremonies and clothing alone, but the principles and promises behind them. Those principles and promises will be protected from the general public, regardless of whatever else concerning the temple is thrown out to public view.

The Sacred in a Secular Society

In online debates, I found multiple instances of individuals mocking Latter-day Saints for fearing their "weird" beliefs and practices would be exposed to the rest of the more normal world. The great irony in this situation is that fear has been evident in both sides of this month's debates about what is sacred and how it should be treated. Modern, secular society has increasingly demonstrated its fear and suspicion of anything more than casually religious. An insightful essay by the Heythrop Institute for Religion Ethics and Public Life reasons that secular society fears the sacred because "the sacred makes a claim upon us; it sets a boundary, a limit which it is not permissible to pass. Read from the uncomprehending standpoint of secularism this is easily seen as a form of oppression or a limit on freedom which must be challenged and removed." [7]

It is thus understandable why anti-Mormon and anti-religion blog authors and website commentators lauded HBO's decision to take on what they believe nobody has a right to keep private. Big Love creators were in essence waging a war against religion's perceived oppression of freedom of thought and expression. Defenders of the creators' rationale balked at the suggestion that the show's treatment of private religious ceremony was inappropriate, which is consistent with the idea that "the modern secular state looks with incomprehension at the notion of blasphemy as something that is either a hangover from a redundant past or utterly irrational; a threat to legitimate freedom of expression and therefore freedom of thought." [8]

This tug-of-war between secular ideologies and the sacred was apparent in many of the exchanges I observed taking place on public discussion boards. On one of the HBO boards an individual (presumably not a Latter-day Saint) wrote, "I am curious as to why so many are upset about showing a depiction of the temple. It's not like Big Love broke into your temple and actually filmed there. It's just a representation of it…I am not trying to be disrespectful, just don't understand the hype." A second individual (presumably a Latter-day Saint) responded, "The temple is sacred to us, like the image of Mohammad to Muslims, like the appointing of a new Pope to Catholics. It doesn't matter how well done or moving it was. It is hurtful to see displayed to the world like that."

Finding a middle ground on how to deal with what is sacred to others will likely prove difficult. One columnist asks, "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?…How obligated are outsiders to follow the traditions of a religion they don't belong to?" [9]

To the spiritually-minded individual, this is not an unsolvable dilemma for it is easy to respect another man's sacred ritual as such. I have personally walked in many places considered sacred and holy to those not of my own faith. Whether observing the Mecca-directed fervent prayer of a Palestinian refugee, the tearful swaying of a Hasidic Jew at the Western Wall, or any number of other prayers and ceremonies, I have found myself experiencing reverential awe. I am able to respect another's connection to those rituals, and experience what has been referred to as "holy envy." [10] The prayers and ceremonies of other faiths may not have significant meaning to me personally, but my own sense of the sacred is reaffirmed when I observe others lost in the meaning of a particular ritual. I have always felt my freedom to worship who and what I may is fortified when I allow that same right to feel deeply about spiritual things to others. Perhaps if members of our modern society made efforts to cultivate this ability, the line between respect and offensiveness would not be so obscure.

BYU professor Terrance Olson makes a profound observation about the ability to respect others' beliefs:

"My experience has been that those who respect another's beliefs, especially beliefs about what is sacred, usually hold some things sacred themselves. To have reverence for something suggests an empathy for others who hold things sacred. Whatever we hold sacred, when we live true to those beliefs, we seem willing to grant others the opportunity to reverence their beliefs. When something is considered sacred, relationships among diverse peoples are possible. When nothing is held sacred, relationships, neighborhoods, cultures, and countries may be in conflict and possibly fall apart. Most of the time, it is probably our unwillingness to grant others their sacred feelings, and not the differences in what we hold sacred, that create contention." [11]

Latter-day Saints believe that an endowment ceremony is sacred by its very nature, but we hope that outside observers would also consider it to be sacred simply because it is so to members of our faith. In the case of the recent Big Love episode, creators made a pseudo-apology for unintentionally offending Latter-day Saints and continued with the episode as planned. They felt perception of what was sacred or not sacred was irrelevant. Despite their apparent lack of regard for what is sacred to our religion, "Big Love is just an entertainment; [and] nothing they do will diminish the sacredness of what goes on inside our temples." [12]

Moving Forward

The lack of respect toward what Latter-day Saints hold sacred is proof of secular society's disregard for the sacred in general. This disregard will certainly have ramifications for all religions in modern society:

"A culture which has a sense of the sacred could argue that a culture in which nothing is sacred is a culture in which values are weak – everything can be exposed or humiliated or treated with irony depending on the whim or interests of those who have the power. They can always claim that they act in the interests of democratic freedom and reason. Yet if every action claims this as its defense, then values are always in dispute, the restrictions and boundaries which mark things of value become so weakened that both the public and private spheres suffer devaluation. Everything becomes material for public ownership but, because no one claims or takes responsibility, the public realm becomes a de-valued space. Those who do have a sense of the sacred are made to seem unsophisticated, irrational fanatics." [13]

Of course, in the end it does not matter if religious people who participate in ceremonies that carry personal and profound meaning are made to seem irrational or fanatical, but society loses out as a whole when such individuals are viewed in this way. Already we can see the disintegration and weakening of values in Western society, and that trend is sure to continue.

Yes, the world is changing. Increasingly we find that "nothing is sacred, [and] everything is fair game in conflicts of ideas, attitudes, or behaviors." [14] Certainly we can mourn the loss of a time when a public consciousness of the sacred created boundaries that were considered to enhance freedom of expression rather than inhibit it. The world we will face in the future, however, will have few such boundaries. Spiritually minded individuals will have to be firm in their individual convictions of the truths they hold sacred. For Latter-day Saints, this will require the self-discipline to react kindly to insensitive or disrespectful depictions of our beliefs and practices as well as the spiritual strength to not be ashamed of our status as a "peculiar people." [15] In a world with diminishing tolerance for sacred things, the sacred spaces that are Latter-day Saint temples will be of inestimable value to those that chose to cherish the truths taught within their walls.



[1] Newsroom, "The Publicity Dilemma," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Website, http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-publicity-dilemma (accessed March 18, 2008). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Newsroom, "The Publicity Dilemma." [Back to manuscript]

[3] 1 Timothy 4:12. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Horiuchi, Vince. "LDS Temple Secrets?  'Big Love' TV episode angers Mormons." Salt Lake Tribune, March 12, 2009. Available at http://www.sltrib.com/ci_11874222. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Matthew 13:13. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Nibley, Hugh W. "The Meaning of the Temple." In Temple and Cosmos, volume 12 in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 1—41. [Back to manuscript]

[7] "The Sacred and the Secular." Rapid Response, The Heythrop Institute for Religion Ethics and Public Life, February 17, 2006. Accessed March 18, 2009. Available at http://www.heythrop.ac.uk/index.php/content/view/364/246. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Heythrop Institute for Religion Ethics and Public Life. See note 7. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Poniewozik, James. "Big Love Re-Offends Mormons. Do They Have a Point?" TIME, March 11, 2009, http://tunedin.blogs.time.com/2009/03/11/big-love-re-offends-mormons-do-they-have-a-point/#more-3589. [Back to manuscript]

[10] The term "holy envy" originated with Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School. [Back to manuscript]

[11] Olson, Terrance D. "Is Something Sacred? Meridian's Response to Big Love." Meridian Magazine. Accessed March 18, 2009. Available at http://www.meridianmagazine.com/churchupdate/090310sacred.html. [Back to manuscript]

[12] Card, Orson Scott. "Big Love? Big Deal." National Review Online, March 13, 2009. Available at http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MmJmZDFiYmVkOTdlYjVmZmNiMzhhODEwYmYzMTRlMzg=&w=MA. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Heythrop Institute for Religion Ethics and Public Life. See note 7. [Back to manuscript]

[14] Olson, "Is Something Sacred?" See note 11. [Back to manuscript]

[15] 1 Peter 2:9. [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for This Article: Hulet, Lindsey (2009) "The Sacred on TV: Reaction to Big Love’s ‘Outer Darkness’," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHuletHBO.html, accessed [give access date].

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