Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, August 15, 2016

Press Tour of the New Philadelphia Mormon Remple



   Last week I participated in a press tour of Philadelphia’s new Mormon temple. On the way to the event I thought of my introduction to Mormonism as a teenager.
   After a Mormon family moved into our neighborhood, I quickly read the only Mormon book in my high school library: Joseph Smith’s No Man Knows My History.  Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church (established in 1830), claimed to have had a visitation from an angel who showed where to dig to find the ancient religious history of American civilization on a hill near Palmyra, New York.  That history was engraved on metal plates and became The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon purports to be the story of Jesus Christ’s presence in the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
   One other memory concerns a trip I made with my parents to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Here I saw a number of religious sites, such as the Vatican Pavilion, a Russian Orthodox chapel, and the Mormon Pavilion. What stood out for me in the Mormon Pavilion was the famous copy of the Christus statue (by Thorvaldsen) in Copenhagen
     The tall, imposing white statue of Christ was conceived by the Mormon Church for the 3 million dollar Pavilion. Its sheer size and dominance not only commanded attention, but it helped put the Church into the popular consciousness. The Christus statue followed the accepted Mormon practice of representing Jesus as striking and extraordinarily handsome. Mormon Jesus’ were not dark and swarthy Rembrandt likenesses but cleft chinned, blue eyed, well built golden or auburn haired model gladiators.  This is the Jesus of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, not the thin, ascetically inclined Jesus in Pier Pablo Pasolini’s wonderful, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. 

   The New York World’s Fair, in fact, was a pivotal moment for the Mormon Church. “…The  huge leap forward initiated by the Mormon Pavilion must be considered a seminal event in the evolution of the Church’s use of media in spreading the gospel message to the world,” writes Brent L. Top, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University.  “From that time to the present day, the Church’s outreach through its use of technology and media has increased steadily and exponentially.”
   I’ll say. 
   This fact was clearly in evidence during the Philadelphia Temple’s first media tour. 
   The press group of about 22 people included print and broadcast media. A Fox News reporter was there along with her camera crew. There were other unidentified camera crews and a number of photographers although no pictures were permitted inside the temple itself since it is considered the House of the Lord. The press met in the less than inspiring Robert A.M. Stern-designed Meeting House, the place for Mormon Sunday worship, since the Temple is reserved for marriages (and the “sealing” of those marriages for eternity) and for the baptism of the deceased. The tour was to last 2 hours with light refreshments at the end. 
  There are 112 operating Mormon temples worldwide. At times the building of a temple or a Mormon institution caused some controversy. In 1984, when ground was broken in the Mount Scopus area of Jerusalem for the Brigham Young University Jerusalem campus, all hell broke out. Ultra Orthodox Jews saw this invasion of Mormons from Utah as a proselytizing threat and sought to have construction halted. The Mormon Church had to hire security guards to proceed with the project.  A famous ultra Orthodox pop star, Mordechai Ben David, even composed a hit single titled “Jerusalem is Not for Sale.”
   Jerusalem is not for sale!
   Voices, crying, thundering throughout our cities,
  You better run for your life, back to Utah overnight,
   Before the mountaintop opens wide to swallow you inside.

 Today the BYU Jerusalem campus hardly raises an eyebrow although students there must sign a contract promising not to missionize.

     Our Philadelphia Temple tour guide was the Harvard educated Larry Y. Wilson, who serves as Executive Director of the Temple Department in Salt Lake City.
   The silver haired Wilson had a sleek ‘Father Knows Best’ demeanor. He took us from the Meeting House to the Temple entrance where coverings were put over our shoes. The shoe coverings were to keep street dirt off the meticulously clean Temple floors and rugs.
    Inside the Temple, Wilson described the furnishings and the commissioned art on the walls, including several original murals. He also explained how the Temple’s features were aligned to fit a southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia theme, right down to the temple’s main door and frame with its bas-relief mountain laurel “Pennsylvania” blossom design. “We believe that the founding of this country was divinely inspired,” he said.  
      The interior of the temple is an extravaganza of quality craftsmanship. Nowhere will you find flimsy/cheap construction materials that you see in new construction all over town. There are no thin walls or doors that weigh a few ounces. One astonished journalist asked how the temple was able to ward off the sound of outside traffic. Wilson replied, “With very thick walls.”

         Press questions about the Mormon religion began early on. This was to be expected, given that much of the tour included references to Mormon theology and doctrine. These references were woven into descriptions of the temple’s Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, the decorative lighting, flooring, the outside fence, walkways and the landscaping.  “We believe that this is the Lord’s House,” Wilson reiterated, something that many Christian denominations might ascribe to in theory but that in practice falls short, especially when one considers those Protestant sanctuaries that are used for services on Sunday but on Tuesdays are transformed into jazz festival arenas or concert halls.  
      Emaneul Swedenborg, A Swedish scientist, mystic and founder of the Swedenborgian Church, wrote that heaven is filled with cities and houses of many different types. There are mansions and simple homes, lavish communities and humble communities.  We reap in heaven what we sow in life, meaning that those who were terrifically good in life live in afterlife mansions of marvelous splendor, while those who lived mediocre lives on earth inhabit less than spectacular ‘heavenly’ neighborhoods.
   In Mormonism, there’s a belief that non-Mormon ancestors in the after life are free to accept or reject the offer of baptism into the Mormon faith by living relatives or friends.  A yes answer, however, would transfer the deceased to a Swedenborg-like greater heaven. 
    In the Philadelphia temple, each floor is designed as a stairway to Heaven, so as one goes higher the furnishings and the chandeliers on each floor become more elaborate until one reaches the apex, or the Celestial Room, the most scared and beautiful room in the temple.
   In the Celestial Room the hanging chandelier fans out into the room like an exploding comet. Visiting Mormons in good standing (Mormons must get a recommend pass from their bishop or stake leader in order to enter the temple) pray and meditate here despite the fact that this room, as well as the entire temple, tends to resemble a lavish Ritz Carlton Hotel with a lot of pictures of Jesus.
   The press’ fascination with Mormonism came to a fore at the Baptismal Font. Generally, a concerted design effort would be necessary to transform a baptismal area into a secular looking space, but one can see elements of that here for it is not hard to imagine someone perceiving this space, despite its sacred nature, as a hot tube of the highest quality, perhaps a faux Disney recreation of the baths of ancient Rome. Still, ‘spectacular’ doesn’t begin to describe the Font area that had journalists gazing into the pool of water as if lost in the bliss of hypnosis.  Like characters in a Robert Altman film, we journalists formed a long line along the circumference of the curving marble barrier that overlooked the oxen accented pool as questions about Mormonism ricocheted back and forth like tennis balls.
    The Baptismal Font was to me the highlight of the tour, although later in the marriage sealing room, where couples kneel facing one another across a small altar to have their marriages sealed for all eternity, things got a little dicey.
  A journalist inappropriately dressed in shorts, a tight T-shirt and a frayed baseball cap, asked Wilson if same sex marriages are preformed in the sealing room. 

     The question seemed to come across as a triggering device, designed to set off a series of consecutive explosive comments from other members of the press, all related to same sex marriage and engineered to put Wilson on the defensive.

   Perhaps it was possible that a reporter in this day and age had no clue about the Mormon stand on same sex marriage. Americans, after all, are tremendously ignorant about religion. This is why the wife of one visiting Mormon Elder told me that people who should know better mistake her for a Mennonite or Amish. “But would an Amish woman wear these kinds of heels?” she asked me, showing me her feet ensconced in the brightest of the bright Frederick’s of Hollywood heels that would attract a thumbs up at a Philly Style magazine party.
   As for that baseball capped reporter, his question did set off a few same sex marriage follow up comments, although the ever savvy Wilson was able to defuse whatever small bomb lay hidden in the reporter’s initial inquiry.    




The DNC in Philadelphia


Thom Nickels

     The Democratic National Convention is now history. City streets are quieter, the traffic less daunting, and there’s finally a sense of being able to breathe easy. Though a national convention may be good for a city’s PR image, sometimes for residents the going can get rough. An overcrowded Frankford Market El and Broad Street subway filled with swat teams and wall to wall people is not a pretty experience. 
    But on Monday, July 24, the first day of the convention, expectations were bright. That’s when I headed to the Jill Stein for President Green Party protest in front of City Hall and got an eye full. This protest reminded me of the Occupy Philly protests a few years ago and of certain demonstrations I participated in the early 1970s. I will always feel a connection to grassroots protest even as some of my political views evolve.  

  The Green Party’s ‘Power to the People’ 2016 platform is attractive enough. The Green vision it to end world poverty, put a moratorium on pesticides and institute community control of the police rather than the other way around. The Greens also want to terminate unconstitutional surveillance on American citizens. These are noble goals.
     I remember what happened to the Greens in 2008 when their presidential ticket, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested and handcuffed to a chair for 8 hours for attempting to participate in the Hofstra University Obama-Romney debate. Stein and Honkala should have been included in that debate.  Thirty years ago presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. That’s when any third party presidential candidates on the ballot in enough states were invited to debate the Republican and Democratic nominee for president. 
   In 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship of presidential debates because of the demands of the two party system. League President Nancy M. Neuman said at that time that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” and that “the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.” 

   It was fascinating to hear Stein supporter Chris Hedges from Truthdig and then observe the Green protestors (of all ages), some of whom were in costume, like the woman dressed as Hillary, the Queen of Death (based on Hillary’s reputation as an interventionist with a fondness for starting foreign wars).Large Green Party flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze as activists from the 60s chanted the same chants anti war protestors chanted during Vietnam War sit ins.
    I heard lots of ‘up’ talk in the crowd about Bernie pulling a fast one during the convention. No, he would not capitulate to the corporate Clinton, but he “had a surprise in mind,” some said. Utopian dreams die heard. I kept my mouth shut and did not share my belief that Bernie had nothing in mind except…capitulation.  
   A band of youthful drummers caught my attention with the following chant:
                  Communist Revolution is the only solution 
   The Communist Revolution wrecked havoc in Russia and ended in failure. The French Revolution, as Jonah Goldberg has written, was “the first fascist revolution to turn politics into a religion. Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a "secular" faith.”

   While we’re at it, let’s not forget this pro-revolution maxim from Thomas Jefferson: “If you discourage mutiny and riot what check is there on government?” 
      Green Party dress was decidedly downtrodden and raw; frumpy shorts, pigtails askew, shredded baseball caps, pony tails and the occasional ‘culturally appropriated’ dreadlocks on tall thin activist white men (some of whom had a man bun on top of the dreads). Unfortunately for the Greens, the numbers of protestors were not large enough to shut down the DNC at Wells Fargo, the original goal of the march. Whole Earth Catalog style post hippie costumes, floppy hats and black anarchist flags would never win over America’s heartland. A cosmetic makeover might be a good first step to start this revolution.   

     Next stop on my list was the Wells Fargo building. I had my US Secret Service photo ID badge and my green Arena pass around my neck. A green Arena pass got you inside the Arena but not inside the actual Hall where you could sit down and watch the convention. Most press organizations sans big names like The New York Times had green Arena passes. Monday night, being the first night of the DNC, the ASK ME volunteers were quite liberal in allowing green ID press into the seating area, but green press passes were essentially useless unless one enjoyed standing for hours, or sitting on the Arena floor like a homeless person in front of 7/11. The DNC was quite stingy in its allotment of Hall press passes. In some ways it seemed to me that the ASK ME volunteers had it better than credentialed press.
    I sat in the upper tiers in the Hall Monday night with my green pass. I was behind the stage so I only saw the backs (and behinds) of Paul Simon, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders.  Two hipster DC online publishers who told me they were conservative libertarians sat beside me. Most of the press did not applaud or cheer the speakers although when Bernie Sanders mounted the podium, very few people did not lean forward in their seats.

   Before each speech, DNC pages distributed banners and signs with a slogan or the name of the next speaker. This was for the benefit of the television audience. Generally, journalists attending political conventions do not show support for candidates, so the props offered by the pages went nowhere in the press section although a few newbie reporters from college newspapers scooped them up, causing one of the libertarian editors to remark, “Those kid reporters don’t know what they’re doing.”

  On Monday night there didn’t seem to be many American flags on the floor. For some people this may not be an important matter, but it did catch the eye of certain conservatives like writer Tammy Baldwin, who noted, “Americans notice things like no American flags on the DNC convention stage. It might be small to some people, but it’s a statement…. After criticism mounted, they added them the second night…” The lack of flags was more than amply made up for by a double tsunami of balloons, some as large as beach balls and small planets, that fell from the ceiling like a plague of locusts over the Clinton-Kaine team during the convention’s closing moments.

      Viewers watched as the Clinton team seemed to walk ankle deep in a sea of rubber. I couldn’t help but notice a dazed looking Hillary bending over slowly, as if in extreme arthritic pain, to pick up a balloon and then throw it to Bill or Chelsea. The balloon extravaganza was clearly the most bizarre moment of the convention and called to mind the antics of that famous clown, Clarabell.
    I found much to admire in the behavior of Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of them came dressed in funny hats, capes and motorcycle gear. The emotional build up to Sanders’ speech had all the tension of a Wagnerian opera. Bernie, however, still had many detractors. Charles Hunt of The Washington Times, wrote:  “During his quarter-century in Congress, Mr. Sanders has been viewed as something of a gadfly with Tourette’s syndrome. Always dressed like a homeless person shambling along the hallways, Democrats felt sorry for him and let him into their meetings. He looked like he needed a cup of coffee and free danishes.”
   Well, whoever said that politics was charitable? 

      On Thursday evening, the night of Hillary’s speech, there were far fewer Sanders supporters on the floor. Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together Crowd’ was out in force: lots of women in black men’s suits and “Planned Parenthood’ bob cut hair dos.
    I got a taste of the privileged political class when I went up the wrong escalator on Hillary night and wound up in a high donor area with special cocktail lounges and restaurant skyboxes serving crab, lobster and cherry filled Manhattans. Culinary security was out in force, so I did not get in. All in all, there were five intense security check points one had to go through before arriving in the Hall.    
    On Hillary night, Monday’s generous press pass atmosphere had disappeared. Ask Me volunteers were now guarded the Hall gateways like 1950s Communist border guards. I tried to negotiate a seat several times, but failed. 
    I made do with touring the (so called) food courts, and noticed right away that Wells Fargo wasn’t doing the Democrats any favors: small bottled water sold for 4.50 a bottle, and a slice of pizza was double that.
    When the “enough is enough” alarm sounded within me, I left for home and watched Hillary’s acceptance speech online.