My experience at the annual AAR/SBL meeting last November got me thinking about an interesting new area in Mormon Studies. Looking over the agenda of sessions and speakers, there were a couple devoted to ritual studies. None of the participants or sponsors was Mormon. On its face, this is not entirely surprising. Most of our public rituals (baptism, the sacrament, etc.) are fairly unremarkable from an academic perspective, at least in my opinion, and they have only a brief history (from an outsider’s perspective). The most interesting rites, and the ones most ripe for study, are secret (or sacred to follow the typical Mormon response)- the temple rituals.
My question, then, is: does this need to be so? I think that we can do a better job of delineating what parts of the ritual are necessarily kept from the world and which can be revealed in a way that contributes to an outsider’s familiarity with those rituals and can help members of the Church educate our own in preparation for their own participation in the temple ceremonies. As a matter of public relations, revelation of some of the temple ceremony could go a long way toward helping to evaporate notions of cultish behavior in our temple rites. Having grown up in the South and being the only member in my family, I have heard all of the weird temple rumors- orgies with bishops, sisters doing naked clogging, members being paid by the families of the deceased for the vicarious work done on their behalf. Shedding a little light on what is actually done in the temple might lend some credibility to our frequent and emphatic disavowals of “anything weird.”
My own sense is that we are obligated by sacred covenant to keep certain matters secret, particularly in the endowment. However, as a matter of practice, we keep far more of the ceremonies secret, even if we have not promised to do so, simply because we are wary of crossing lines.
Because I myself and unsure where these lines ought to be drawn and for the protection of the sensibilities of my readers, I will not speak in particulars. I will go far enough to say that clearly some of the gestures and passwords of the endowment are to be kept under strict confidentiality, based on explicit instruction. How much does this extend to the filmed drama of the ceremony. I find its allegorical or metaphorical nature fascinating, but if that part of the ceremony is to be kept secret, I am not sure what is the origin of such an injunction. Likewise with the liturgy of the sealing ceremony, I am unaware of any commandment that the words of the ritual have been sealed as secret by the Lord, and are thus to remain unanalyzed.
I am genuinely interested in seeing some of these things opened up for study, at least where it is possible to avoid offending divine mandates. But I am too wary to say confidently that I know where all the lines ought to be drawn. Any ideas? Or ideas for where ritual studies within Mormonism ought to go?
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