The End of Live Endowments: The Church is selling its birthright for a mess of pottage.
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
What a great way to start a Friday morning, by waking up and seeing that the Church decided to destroy our cultural heritage by eliminating live endowments and ripping historic murals out of our Pioneer-era temples.
I've long since known that utilitarianism will be our collective undoing. Efforts to correlate and streamline church operations have been hollowing out our cultural soul for decades. One of our greatest losses was when we started mandating cookie-cutter church buildings instead of hiring local architects to creatively express Mormonism through stone. Roadshows vanished somewhere between my parents' generation and my own. Now our quirky, cringey-but-endearing pageants are coming to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. The most recent outrage was when church foyer art was restricted to 22 bland, staid paintings of an extremely anglo-saxon Jesus. And now, turning our unique historic temples into another run-of-the-mill salvation factory.
Yes, that is the justification. To add more rooms, to increase capacity, to make it easier to be an ordinance worker.
Add more rooms? Increase capacity? Yes, because there aren't 25 other temples in Utah that have endowments starting every half hour. Make it easier to be an ordinance worker? Maybe we've forgotten that nothing of value comes without work, that exaltation isn't effortless, that maybe there's value in a labor of love and the way shouldn't always be easy.
They're worried about people getting freaked out by live endowments? Old people reading lines as the roles of Adam & Eve, God & the Devil? Maybe they should teach people how live endowments descend from the Christian cultural heritage of mystery plays—dramatizations of religious tenants that make them feel real & accessible to ordinary folk, dating back to the 5th century.
But why would the Church teach about cultural heritage when we clearly do not care about cultural heritage? After all, what's most important is numbers, numbers, numbers—pumping the maximum number of people through temples, as quickly and efficiently and generically as possible, because McDonalds is the most popular restaurant in the world, and how else are we supposed to become as the sands of the sea?
By treating us like numbers, the Church is sounding its own death knell. Young people are hemorrhaging from church membership. Yes, a great deal of this is because of the Church's obstinately exclusionary social policies. But I have a hunch that our increasingly anemic cultural heritage leaves modern-day Mormons with little to hold on to. In a desperate bid for mainstream acceptance that began when we were kicked out of the United States 175 years ago, Mormons have been trying to mold themselves into model American Christians ever since. (A moment of silence for the Angel Moroni logo, a casualty in our desperate plea for Christians to let us join their club.) As we inch closer and closer to being just another Protestant sect, what is the point of staying here? When so many other, more inclusive Protestant sects are right there?
At least, by destroying the historic murals in our temples, the Church is following the cultural heritage of Protestant iconoclasm!
I hate being a Protestant sect. It didn't have to be this way. You know what we could have been? We could have been like Catholics, who have been preserving church buildings for 2000 years. They understand the combined power of art & religion. They understand the value of melding their religion with local culture to create unique and engaging art & architecture. But Mormonism? We haven't even lasted 200 years before cannibalizing our artistic heritage. Small gains now undermine large gains in the future. A house without a foundation cannot stand.
I know the power Mormon cultural heritage can have. In my two years running the ARCH-HIVE with Laz, we have met so many people who find great meaning in the unique parts of Mormonism. Even people who no longer consider themselves mainstream believers or church members at all can still hold a soft spot in their heart for Mormon quirkiness, and feel ownership & kinship for the broader culture, if not the religion. Whether it's delving into folk magic, quips about green jello, or riffing on hymn lyrics, people really do find meaning in this culture that is ours—OURS—and it hurts me immensely to see decisions from the top eroding our heritage.
The ARCH-HIVE feels more important to me than ever now. We will never have a Mormon Shakespeare if we rely on the institution to foster any sort of artistic achievement. Any significant Mormon art must come from grassroots communities. But what a tragedy! We used to send artists to Paris to train with the greats—and now to thank them, we are tearing their labors from the lath-and-plaster walls.
I am disgusted by this short-sighted, selfish decision to eliminate live endowments and destroy our historical murals. But maybe it was inevitable. Every religion begins in mysticism and ends in legalism. Visionaries die and are replaced by businessmen. But it makes me cry to think that in Mormon temples we used to play music and dance, and now we watch slideshows in silence.