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Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

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From the Archives: Sex Scandals, Feminism, and Touring the States

13 Aug

For the last couple of weeks, I have been doing research at Girton, the first women’s college in Britain.  Located just outside of Cambridge and surrounded by acres of grass, trees, and gardens, the college was founded in the 1860s by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and a host of other Victorian feminists who were dedicated to the education of girls.  The buildings are made of red brick and are a bit drafty, even in the midst of the British summer.   The other day I found in the papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes a bit of information related to Mormonism.  Parkes and her father were discussing a sex scandal involving one of their friends Emily Faithfull.  Faithfull had been forced to take the stand in a divorce trial, in which she was accused of having improper relations with both the husband and the wife.  Perhaps the oddest story to come from the trial was that the husband had crawled into bed with Faithfull and tried to have sex with her, while his wife was sleeping just inches away in the same bed. Continue reading

Fallen and Renewed

7 Jun

I wrote this in February, posted it, and took it down. It was infinitely too personal at the time. Somehow, it isn’t anymore. I can accept God’s will for me and the closeness with God to which I am being called.

Turmoil perhaps best describes the state of mind I am in. Some days I feel as though my head is screwed on upside down or oblique to my spine. I gratefully took refuge at home after a traumatic two and a half years that challenged some of my core beliefs (albeit quirky ones; I won’t regale you with details here) and opened me up to new avenues of thought and belief. After the first year of divinity school I felt completely deconstructed with no reliable tools with which to put myself back together again.

My existential angst has once again intensified with a strange twist. I have been considering going on an LDS mission. Continue reading

Interesting CFP: Interiority in Early Cultures

8 Sep


The Group for the Study of Early Cultures at the University of California, Irvine invites submissions for its Third Annual Graduate Student Conference:

Friday & Saturday, January 21-22, 2011
Keynote Address by Paul Strohm (Anna Garbedian Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University)

Our contemporary understanding of interiority is tied to a sense of domestic life, personal psychology, and the separation of public and private spheres, all which suggest a model of human existence and interaction that hinges on the delineation of what is ‘inside.’ This conference revitalizes notions of the interior in premodern contexts, ranging from the ancient era, through the medieval and early modern periods, and into the eighteenth century. We define “interiority” loosely as any terrain, such as conscience, mind, psyche, soul, or spirit, that positions itself within a subject. Given this openness, we invite papers across a variety of disciplines that investigate interiority in any of its manifestations­ literary, historical, visual, dramatic, legal, spiritual, or philosophical ­in early cultures. Fundamentally, we seek to question and mobilize the borders between the interior and exterior as vital spaces of containment and definition. Continue reading