One of the highlights of my trip to New York a few weeks ago was an evening with my friend PR. PR is one of the reasons I love Facebook--we have truly delicious arguments there about all sorts of things, and a few people have told me that any time they see PR's name on a thread I've started, they read it, because they know it will be good. It had been ten years since I had last seen him, but we are much better friends now than we were then, and it's all thanks to Facebook.
PR is getting a PhD at Yale in early medieval religious history (6th to 9th century), so of course we talked about religion. He grew up black and Episcopalian in New York, and over martinis I asked him if he liked going to church. "I did," he said. "I liked taking time for the sacred. And you could tell it was sacred because you could look around at the building you were in and the clothes the priest was wearing and you could listen to the music being played on some magnificent organ and you could notice the rituals you were engaging in, and it all obviously wasn't profane, so it had to be sacred."
"That's an incredibly good point," I said, "and it helps me understand part of my dissatisfaction with Mormonism. Because you could look at everything in a contemporary Mormon worship service, and it clearly was profane, so it couldn't be sacred."
This actually upset PR, and he insisted I elaborate. "Have you seen an LDS meeting house?" I asked. "From the outside, they look like they could be post offices or middle schools, and they look about the same from the inside. Actually, I'm going to with the middle school thing. Inside the actual chapel in most meeting houses, there's absolutely no religious iconography--Mormons are thorough protestants--and even though there's a rostrum at the front, it's so plain and utilitarian that it might as well be part of a middle school auditorium. There's all this cold, exposed brick, and almost no windows or natural light--don't want those seventh graders looking out the window and daydreaming. And then, when you consider how deadly dull most of the talks are--lectures about the evils of profanity, or the importance of paying tithing, it's all about as conducive to worship and contemplation of the sacred as a lecture on not running in the halls.
"Then there's the fact that most of the building consists of classrooms with white board and folding chairs, and that the center of the building, its heart, is a basketball court...."
He started laughing. "What?" he asked. "A basketball court? You're going to have to draw this for me."
So I did. I got a cocktail napkin and a pen and sketched out for him how the inner sanctum of the meeting house is a carpeted basketball court. "This explains a lot about Mormons," he said.
We never got around to discussing the relief society room or the kitchen, and the whole funeral potatoes thing. I did complain about how uninspired the landscaping at most LDS buildings is, while it's downright non-existent at others--and I mean non-existent, as in no land, just asphalt. (One reason I so mourn the chapel I grew up attending church in is that it had BEAUTIFUL landscaping, including a pecan grove, a canal, a courtyard, and lots of flower beds. But that church burned down in 1981, and was replaced with one of the post-office-type buildings.) We also never get around to discussing all the crayons and cheerios a typical sacrament meeting involves, given the Mormon penchant for having lots of kids, really quickly.
But I think PR was right and that our buildings explain a lot about us. We are a profane religion. We don't really care about the sacred. Even our vision of heaven is one where our profane lives just continue forever. We'll still be married and have bodies and kids and callings and jobs, but we'll wear white robes while we do those jobs, and they'll last forever. No harps, no clouds, no praising something glorious. No. Mormons' idea of paradise is family obligations and work, for all eternity. Our idea of the sacred is just to have to transplant the profane to a part of the universe called Kolob.
I's just so damn depressing. Of course, it wouldn't be quite so depressing if Mormons' profane existences weren't so limited, so circumscribed, so small, so goddamn correlated and thus so devoted to the mediocre and pragmatic, and so indifferent to the beautiful and transcendent. All you have to do is look at the hideous correlated cookie-cutter buildings we construct to realize that we have no visual or intellectual vocabulary for beauty.
A blog I really like these days is LDS Architecture. (I admit I like it partly because most days it's just a photo and a quick caption, so it's very easy to get it out of my reader. My two other favorite photo-and-caption blogs are Unhappy Hipsters and the Daily Levitation.) It provides photos of interesting and unique meeting houses--many of which have been sold, and replaced with awful correlated buildings.
Beauty might be uniform and symmetrical, it might involve patterns and repetitions, but it's not correlated. Beauty requires something unique, some spark of genius, and genius can't be correlated. Nor can transcendence. It can be courted and cultivated, but it can't be correlated.
However individual Mormons might feel about transcendence (personally, I think a lot of them are starved for it; I know I was), the brethren fear it because it can't be correlated. So they eschew it, try to kill it.
And that is why Mormonism is the most profane of religions.