'Big Love' Shows Sacred Rite, Stirs Controversy
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The HBO TV series "Big Love" has provoked controversy from the start. The show focuses on polygamists in Utah, and many Mormons complain that the writers sometimes blurred the distinction between those fundamentalists and the LDS church, which neither condones nor practices plural marriage.
Now on its on most recent episode, "Big Love" outraged many Mormons by dramatizing a ritual which they believe should be secret. It's called an endowment ceremony, which symbolically describes creation in the fall and prepares the most faithful Mormons to leave for a mission or for marriage.
Participants where white ritual robes and speak words intended to be sacred. Outsiders are not invited. After controversy erupted, HBO issued an apology, but still aired the program and continues scheduled rebroadcasts.
Are some things too sacred to be shown on TV? And where do you draw the line? Our telephone number, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the "Battlestar Galactica" finale. Fans sent us an email about why you loved it. Npr.org is our email address. Plus, later, Michael Lewis joins us to talk about the dramatic impact of the financial crisis in Iceland.
But first, NPR rural affairs correspondent Howard Berkes joins us from his office in Salt Lake City. Always nice to have you on the program, Howard.
HOWARD BERKES: Thanks for having me back.
CONAN: And let's begin with whether this is a First Amendment issue or not. Are Mormons arguing that HBO should not have the right to have done this?
BERKES: Well, if Mormons are arguing whether HBO has a right or not, I think we'd have to consult with some constitutional lawyers to determine whether there is such a right. There's certainly a moral obligation that people have generally - to respect the faiths of other people. And I think that's what really offends most Mormons here who are upset, is that these - you used the term secret in your introduction to describe this ceremony - Mormons would say it's not secret, it's sacred.
And that's a distinction they draw about everything that takes place in the Temple, which is the most sacred of Mormon buildings. It's where the most sacred practices take place and only the worthiest Mormons can enter because these ceremonies are considered sacred.
And to me the issue really comes down to is what is sacred. And are things that are sacred, can they be exposed to the rest of the world? And is that a fair thing? Is that - does that dishonor the sacredness of that faith?
CONAN: And this is, of course we're talking about Mormons here, but nevertheless, there have been plenty of other churches that - other faiths that have seen their ceremonies and their rituals, some things that they might prefer be kept quiet or private - exposed in the media.
BERKES: Yes. I mean, Mormons feel very strongly about these sacred practices and about non-Mormons or unworthy people knowing about them. But I think what "Big Love" has done has exposed to a broader audience practices that they place in a temple, practices of a faith that many people still consider to be a cult and consider not to be Christian.
And I think what the episode does is it raises the risk, I guess, for Mormons, that they'll be perceived as odd, as distinct, as different, as not conventional Christianity. Because the ceremonies that were depicted are not really - don't match ceremonies that you would see in Judaic Christian tradition.
CONAN: Yet, I think a lot of Catholics felt the same way about "The Exorcist."
BERKES: Oh, and there is great sensitivity to this. And as a reporter who has traveled to many Indian reservations around the country, you can't always record a ceremony, you can't even witness a ceremony. I've been told I can't, you know, enter places because I'm not indigenous, I'm not native. And we usually, you know, we understand that and usually we respect that.
But I think when it comes to the Mormon faith, because there is this question that continues to linger about whether this is a truly Christian faith, about whether it is a cult, some people feel they're sort of fair game. That they might, you know, expose the sacred ceremony for Mormons, but they wouldn't make that same choice, necessarily, for Native Americans, for example.
CONAN: And how big a deal is this amongst Mormons?
BERKES: Well, none of my neighbors, my Mormon neighbors are talking about it, but the Mormon blogs are really buzzing about it. And I do know that this is a very sore point for members of the faith because these are the most sacred practices.
They do believe that they're not to be shared with anyone. And in fact, you know, there's some kind of punishment if you do share it. You swear not to, you pledge not to share this with anybody who's not worthy. So for faithful Mormons, for Orthodox Mormons, it's a very serious thing.
CONAN: And another question, I guess, is - was the depiction accurate?
BERKES: I'm told by Mormons I know well and who know these ceremonies that for the most part the depiction was quite accurate. And the writers of "Big Love," from what I've seen, and I've seen every single episode, do their homework. It's easy to find these ceremonies, by the way, described on the Internet.
"Big Love" is not the first to expose them to a wider world. But and some of the writers of "Big Love" are former Mormons themselves. But I'm told, yes, for the most they're accurate. There were some quibbles with the color of some of the garments that people were wearing, but otherwise I'm told it was quite accurate.
BERKES: And respectful. Mormons have told me they felt that - some Mormons have told me that they felt that their portrayal was respectful, didn't make fun of it in any way.
CONAN: Or try to sensationalize it.
CONAN: And at the same time, is not this sort of depiction a sign of success? I mean you're doing a broadcast about Mormons because it's a big church, a lot of people are in it.
BERKES: Well, it's a mixed success, I suppose. There's an old Utah song that says, all are talking of Utah, hoorah, hoorah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BERKES: And it comes out of the Mormon pioneer tradition, that song. In other words, well, they're talking about us, so that must be a good thing. But this is clearly a mixed bag. "Big Love" exposes a part of Mormon history that many Mormons would rather not…
Unidentified Man: Peter Piper picked a peck…
CONAN: We certainly lost Howard Berkes and we have somebody else - we have somebody else going on the line. And so…
Unidentified Man: Sure, is this better? Is this better? The weather is great, 80 degrees here in Las Vegas.
CONAN: And that's our next guest. You'll excuse me, we're hearing the warm-up from the studio in Las Vegas. So we'll have to - bear with us just a moment. In the meantime, we'll continue to discuss this. We've lost contact with Howard Berkes in Salt Lake City.
In the meantime, let's get a caller on the line. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. Basically, are some things too sacred to be broadcast on television, exposed like that? Let's begin with Allison(ph). Allison calling us from Salt Lake City.
ALLISON (Caller): Hi there. My comment is just I was raised in the church. I left it a long time ago. And they sort of hold these things out to you, you know, as a carrot to get you to stay worthy and to stay true to the church and all that stuff. And then if you fall away, you don't get to see all those secret ceremonies.
And I just think it's kind of, I mean, I for one watch the show. I love the show. I love seeing this stuff sort of exposed on TV because I just think it's, you know, there is a reason that people think the Mormon church is cultish, and this is exactly why.
CONAN: And nevertheless, if it's offensive to a lot of people, shouldn't the writers and the producers of the show taken that into account?
ALLISON: Well no. Art is art, and art should be shown for what it is. I think artists have a right to express themselves. And if it's offensive, don't watch it. That's exactly how it should be taken. If it's offensive to you, don't watch it. Don't talk about it. Don't go on the Mormon blogs and discuss how, you know, L.A. is going to hell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Allison, appreciate it.
CONAN: Joining us now is Dan Stout. He's at the studios of member station KNPR in Las Vegas, where he's a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He teaches religion in media in particular. Nice of you to join us today, Dan, appreciate it.
Dr. DAN STOUT (Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, University of Nevada Las Vegas): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And should this kind of religious - is it appropriate for this kind of religious ceremony to be exposed, when so many people in the church think that's a very bad idea?
Dr. STOUT: You know, this is a topic that I explore with my students. We talk a lot about media ethics, and I think that artists are not excused from these ethical responsibilities. And artists have to think thoroughly and as much as they can about how their depictions of certain groups might, may play out.
And I know that - and then, by the way, let me say that I feel like "Big Love" is well done in many ways, well written, but - and some have said - and the artists have said that they've depicted the temple ceremony respectfully, but the fact that they've depicted it at all has raised some uneasiness with Mormons because of the sacred nature of it.
And I think that artists have to say, how much do I need to depict of something sacred? And there are some disagreements about whether the writers made a right decision there.
CONAN: I understand that there's some disagreement. Is anybody quibbling with the artists' right to do that under the First Amendment?
Mr. STOUT: Well, I think that the artists have a right to do that. In terms of a legal question, they have a right. In terms of an ethical question, they have a responsibility, let's say, to think about the effects of these depictions.
Mormonism is growing. It's progressing towards being a worldwide church, but yet it is still a religion that's misunderstood, and so these kinds of depictions - well, let me say that many people will learn about Mormonism through the media. And if these - if "Big Love" is a primary source of their information about the church, there may be some misunderstandings.
CONAN: It's interesting, though, if you Google "Big Love" and polygamy, the first thing that comes up is a Web site that directs you to the Web site for the Mormon church.
Mr. STOUT: Yeah, that's interesting because the LDS church has tried rather hard to distance itself from polygamy.
CONAN: Oh yes.
Mr. STOUT: But "Big Love," of course, has - even though the writers have tried to clarify the distinction between the official LDS church and other fundamentalist groups, there - in the narrative, in the story - there is some blending.
CONAN: More on "Big Love's" portrayal of a sacred endowment ceremony when we come back shortly. Plus the end of a beloved series, "Battlestar Gallactica," "The Soup's" Joel McHale will weigh in. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
HBO's drama "Big Love" has caused controversy for dramatizing the lives of polygamists in Utah. Now its portrayal of a sacred rite of Mormons has people talking. We want to hear from you. Are some things too sacred to be shown on TV? Where do you draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. There's also a conversation underway in our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Dan Stout, a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. And let's get another caller on the line. And let's go to Jake. Jake with us from Gilbert, Arizona.
JAKE (Caller): Hi there, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
JAKE: I'm listening to the program, and I think it's very interesting. I don't think that there is anything too sacred to put on television, at least on some of the cable shows.
My wife and I are a Jewish couple in Phoenix, and we're surrounded by Mormons and we admire them. We like them very much. We think they have a great social organization. They have good family spirit. They're awfully good neighbors, and "Big Love" gives us an opportunity to look inside the church and to see the types of things that they have to put up with in their daily lives.
CONAN: Are there ceremonies in the Jewish faith that you might think - be too sacred to be dramatized on TV?
JAKE: No, I don't think so at all. I believe that it would make for a better understanding of the people of the world if they would be able to witness different types of religious ceremonies. Let's see them from all different perspectives. It would give us all a different idea of how we all worship God.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Jake. Your phone's breaking up, so I'm going to say goodbye. Thanks.
JAKE: Oh, thanks.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Dan Stout, he's not the only person. We got some emails also saying transparency would be good. It would give people a better insight into the religion.
Mr. STOUT: No, I concur with that. And in fact, I have some colleagues, people I work with that watch "Big Love" on a regular basis and after this episode aired, they approached me with questions.
And I know I'm talking about just a few people, not a random sample, but my sense is that the episode is eliciting a discussion, a buzz. And that while many members of the Mormon Church are concerned about possible negative effects, actually, this could play out in increased understanding.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have, this from Jay Terry(ph). I saw the episode of "Big Love" you're talking about. I found it interesting and educational. While I understand Mormons thought the scene was a violation of something sacred, they should view it instead as an opportunity for others to learn about their religion and break down barriers and negative stereotypes.
I found it sympathetic and compelling, not freaky and strange. It made me view Mormonism more favorably.
Mr. STOUT: Yeah, and you know, it - in a way, it says that the Mormon church has come of age, that when a religion begins to be portrayed in major works of art and entertainment, there's sort of an implicit legitimating action here. It says that Mormons are a part of American culture.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Richard. Richard with us from Orem in Utah.
RICHARD (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Richard.
RICHARD: How are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
RICHARD: Good. Hey, I'm just calling because I am a member of the church, and you know, I've served the mission, and I've been through the Temple, and you know, I do feel that it's too sacred to show those things on air, on TV, but not so outraged by it.
I mean, if members want to be outraged, that's their choice, but you know, the prophet (unintelligible) talked about how, you know, we shouldn't boycott or similar things. The church has faced persecution, it's faced scrutiny from the outside world ever since its foundation in 1930 and before that.
CONAN: And did you watch the program, Richard?
RICHARD: No, not personally. I mean, it's like your previous caller (unintelligible) if you don't want to watch it, don't watch it. And I don't want to watch it. I've been through the Temple, and I know that it's a good ceremony and it's - like a prophet of the church said, it provides the necessary instruction for getting, as we believe, back to our heavenly father.
RICHARD: So it's nothing, you know, secret. It's sacred, and we don't go out and blab about it all day because it's (unintelligible), but if you want to know about it, read the scriptures. It's all through there.
CONAN: Okay, Richard, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
RICHARD: You bet, you bet.
CONAN: Let's go to Caroline. Caroline with us from Little Rock, Arkansas.
CAROLINE: Hi, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Go ahead, please. Yeah, go ahead.
CAROLINE: Oh yes. I'm also - I'm a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I joined the church probably about five years ago. And I attend the Temple very regularly. And I do feel that it's a very sacred ceremony. And I don't have a problem with depictions of Mormons on television.
I think it's a great thing, even if it's a misrepresentation sometimes, but I do feel that it's very disrespectful to show something like an endowment ceremony on television, and I don't really know that there would ever be a reason that would be adequate for that to be shown on TV.
CONAN: And did you watch it?
CAROLINE: I didn't see it.
CONAN: Okay, deliberately not seeing it or just happened to miss it?
CAROLINE: I didn't make a point of seeing it because I don't feel that it's something that I want to watch on television. It's an experience that I have when I go to the Temple and it is something that I hold very sacred. So I save that for an actual occurrence, but…
CONAN: All right, Caroline, thanks very much for the call.
CAROLINE: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And this email from John(ph). Today's commentator has failed to distinguish between showing a fictionalized account of a religious ceremony and showing a real live ceremony. It is fair to show a fictional confession in a Catholic context because this contributes to rational discourse, but it's not right to intrude on real-life confessions (unintelligible).
LDS protests are likely to be grounded in the quite realistic fear that public knowledge of LDS rituals and beliefs will be off-putting to the general public and maybe even to their own members. Is there a distinction, do you think, Dan Stout, between a fictionalized, a dramatized account and a documentary?
Dr. STOUT: I think there is in many ways. I think that that's a very cogent remark because I think by and large, the audience is very active, and the audience is following the story and it's a compelling story. It's a critically acclaimed show. And the story is about the conflicts that people experience between their religious heritage that they've grown up with and making decisions about to stay with it or leave it.
And the characters are interesting, the human drama of it. So I think that when they see that something like the Temple ceremony, probably for many in the audience, that they're seeing that sort of secondarily. The main thing are the issues, the issues that emerge in the story.
And if I could add a quick example, some years ago, Mormons were depicted in the play and subsequent movie, "Angels in America." And we did an analysis of reviews of that production, and while members of the church were quite up in arms about it, actually, 60 percent of the reviews didn't even mention Mormons.
The reviews were more about the political issues involved. So I think our predictions about the effects of something like this don't always play out the way we feel they will.
CONAN: Let's go to Kara(ph). Kara with us from Salt Lake City.
KARA (Caller): Hi, nice to talk to you.
CONAN: Thanks for calling.
KARA: I just wanted to make the point, you know, I am an active Mormon and I attend the temple and take part in the endowment ceremony regularly. I keep hearing people who are interviewed saying that the Mormons are offended by this because we don't talk about the temple ceremony to people who are not worthy or people who are outside of our religion. I thought it was an important point to make that we actually don't talk about it at all to each other even. My husband and I both take part in the temple ceremony and we make a point of not talking about it even in the confines of our home, except very rarely. Even though we both take part in the temple ceremony, we're not supposed to talk about it outside of the temple.
CONAN: So outside of the temple you just don't talk about it.
KARA: Exactly, no matter who it's to.
CONAN: And so it would be - I wonder, Kara, did you watch the program?
KARA: I did not. I've seen most of the other episodes of "Big Love," but I didn't see that one.
CONAN: Specifically for this reason?
KARA: No, I just missed it.
CONAN: Ah, okay. Well, maybe you can catch it on a rerun. It is HBO, after all. I have to ask you, Dan Stout, whether a lot of this controversy is amongst people who have not seen the show.
Prof. STOUT: Oh, I think - no, I think that's true. And I think because of the uneasiness about depicting the Mormon temple ceremony, many Mormons won't watch it. But I do want to mention that there is a discussion group, a million Mormons on Facebook, and I kind of perused some of the posts there, and there are a number of Mormons who are talking about this. And some of them have seen it, but others aren't - haven't. But there is a discussion going on, I think, both inside and outside the Mormon Church.
CONAN: Kara, thanks very much for the call.
KARA: Thank you.
CONAN: And here's an e-mail, this from Earl. Let's see if I can read it. I am a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who was very saddened by the betrayal of our temple ceremonies on television. I feel something very sacred and special to me has been trampled. Excuse me, I think the name is Chanel(ph). I can only compare it to the relationship I have with my husband. It's no secret we're intimate with each other. We're married and have a child, but the nature of our intimacy is sacred to us. We prefer it that way. I feel similarly about temple ceremonies. They are sacred and personal. I feel violated having them exposed to those who don't understand their beauty. This isn't an issue about rights. It's an issue of respect.
And I think she put it in a way that I suspect - well, we've had a lot of calls in that line and a lot of e-mails too. Dan?
Prof. STOUT: Yes. Yeah, I think, you know, in fact my mother is an avid "Big Love" viewer and - you know, I think that - I think that both inside the church and outside the church there's a level of discomfort. And I think this brings us back again to the question which you raised earlier, is where do you draw the line? And I think that the goal of the artist was to convey that Mormons make promises and covenants and they're very serious about those promises. But there are those who feel like that could have been accomplished without the - without so much detail.
CONAN: Dan Stout, thanks very much for your time today.
Prof. STOUT: Thank you.
CONAN: Dan Stout joined us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. He teaches journalism and media studies and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And we appreciate his time.
We were talking about "Big Love," the episode last week which showed the endowment ceremony on HBO. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Tomorrow night, an assortment of freaks, geeks and talk show hosts will gather in front of the television one last time to watch the Sci Fi Channel's final installment of "Battlestar Galactica." Sure, it sounds nerdy, but "BSG" was equal parts sincere philosophy…
(Soundbite from TV show, "Battlestar Galactica")
Ms. GRACE PARK (Actress): (As Lt. Sharon Valerii) You said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive.
CONAN: Explosive action…
(Soundbite from TV show, "Battlestar Galactica")
Ms. PARK: (As Lt. Sharon Valerii) Maybe you don't.
(Soundbite of explosions)
CONAN: And deep space coolness…
(Soundbite from TV show, "Battlestar Galactica")
Unidentified Woman: I don't give a frak.
CONAN: And so "BSG" fans, in honor of your support for a series that may have ruined your Friday nights, forced you to explain convoluted apocalyptic plot lines at dinner parties and tested your faith in humanity's very right to survive, joining us now is the host of E!'s "The Soup." Joel McHale is on the phone from Los Angeles. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. JOEL McHALE (Host, "The Soup"): Great to be here and thank you for giving our show legitimacy by being on TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: Our show?
Mr. McHALE: This is NPR. I work in a network where we have three playmates who are, you know, pushed around by an 82-year-old man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McHALE: You don't have that. You've got, you know, you've got sensible programming.
CONAN: We've got sensible programming. In any case, among all those who do the sensible programming there is a hardcore who stays up late Friday nights - you can tell how old we are - 10:00 is late - to watch "Battlestar Galactica." What makes you mesmerized by the program?
Mr. McHALE: It is - I truly - I mean, I make fun of a lot of television, but I truly believe it is one of the finest programs to be on TV in the last 30 years. And it is one of the most subversive, best written shows, I think, of all time. And I don't usually gush about this, about anything. But I think between that show and "Mad Men" - "Mad Men" takes second because it's not in space.
Mr. McHALE: It is just - it's just a terrific show. There's no show with better special effects than this one. But it's mostly really about the relationships of the characters more than anything, and who would think that at the beginning of any sci-fi series, Mary McDonnell's character is a schoolteacher and gets diagnosed with cancer. I mean, nothing has ever started that way. And it's just - I think it was just a terrific allegory for the last, especially the last eight years of what's been going on here.
CONAN: Here are some emails we got from "BSG" fans: I love the sense of desperation that permeated the fleet and the relationships on the show. "Battlestar" took risks where most shows wouldn't, jumping ahead one year, sociopathic officers are on Pegasus, et cetera, and the cast was top notch. I for one will miss the old man, best frakking show on TV.
Mr. McHALE: Yeah. And you know, there's so many shows that just focus on the relationships and that's it, and then nothing ever happens other than people just concerned about the relationships; or it's just procedural crime dramas where everything is all nicely put together in the end, things, you know, things like "CSI" and stuff like that, where it's just kind of - it's just all a formula. And this just blows all those things out of the water because the relationships are so good, but you do have this incredible story being told at the same time.
CONAN: Here's Eric in Oklahoma City. I just wanted to chime in. I enjoy the show for a number of reasons: its complex and dynamic characters, fearless and unpredictable storytelling, and the ability to tackle timely moral and ethical issues - torture, terrorism, the role of government, its relationship with the military, what it means to be human - basically science fiction at its best. Oh yeah, the space battles are pretty awesome too.
Mr. McHALE: Yeah. The only thing, like I still have not been able to get my wife - to convince her that it is terrific just because I think she gets stuck on the word sci-fi, and I will break her down and she will watch it and she will enjoy it. But it just transcends the genre, not that there's anything wrong with the genre, but it's like "Blade Runner" in that way, in that people don't think that, oh, it's a sci-fi movie; they think what a terrific movie.
CONAN: What a terrific movie, yes.
Mr. McHALE: Yes. And the acting, I mean it's just all points. You know, it's so rare when something like this can get through to be on the air. You know, and we show clips from "Rock of Love Bus" and…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McHALE: …and things like that. So it is just, you know, we just flip when we see something we love.
CONAN: Well, Joel McHale, will you come back and talk with us about some things you hate?
Mr. McHALE: How much will you pay me?
CONAN: Nothing at all.
Mr. McHALE: Perfect. I would love to talk about things I hate. Let's make it a new show.
CONAN: Thanks, Joel McHale, we appreciate your time.
Mr. McHALE: Thanks a lot, man.
CONAN: Joel McHale is the host of "The Soup" on E!, the entertainment channel. And of course we're talking about the great "Battlestar Galactica," which exits tomorrow night after, well, I guess three, four seasons on the air.
Coming up, we're going to be talking about Iceland, whose economy has exited after it tried to be a Wall Street unto itself. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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