During our recent roadtrip in the northwestern and north-central United States, we made a point of stopping to visit Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the “Vatican” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). As someone professionally and personally interested in apologetics–the way in which religious groups commend and defend their views to others and to their own number–I was impressed again at how well the Mormons do things in Temple Square.
One of those things is architecture. Non-Mormons cannot visit inside the Temple itself, but walking around it nicely presents Mormonism as what it is: sort of Christian (the European medieval battlements and spires make that connection clear), but not fully Christian (one of my sons remarked on the sustained absence of crosses in and on Mormon buildings).
The famous Mormon Tabernacle is a strikingly innovative building for its time (19th century), with a rounded roof that perhaps reminds the less-lofty-minded of a Jiffy Pop bag on its way to ebullition or perhaps a large UFO, but inside it is a rather conventional, and beautiful, ecclesiastical space of its time.
The Conference Center, however, is simply breathtaking.
Constructed within the last decade, its postmodern exterior nicely offers a sort of classical-cum-art-deco rectangularity, at once ancient and modern–so appropriate for this relatively new religion that sees itself rooted in the ancient past. Its roof and sides offer trees and water, powerfully refreshing symbols in this hot, arid land–reminiscent in this respect of some of the similarly symbolic modern buildings (notably the Supreme Court building) in another holy city, Jerusalem.
Its interior is that of a lovely, large concert hall foyer and hallways, adorned with a striking combination of modern semi-representational sculpture and fountains alternating with quite prosaic, if competently executed, paintings of Biblical and Mormon history.
The meeting space itself, however, makes the visitor gape. On three levels of 7000 seats each, the hall seats, yes, 21,000 people. And there isn’t a pillar in sight: the whole thing is cantilevered so that unimpeded viewing is enjoyed by everyone.
The Conference Center’s main religious purpose is to facilitate the hearing of the LDS President’s prophetic address twice a year, in April and October. But it also serves Salt Lake City as the site of public entertainments judged edifying and wholesome by the management–namely, the LDS hierarchy.
When people walk up to, and into, that building, they cannot fail but be impressed by what is symbolized: Here is a community that has “made it” in America, that belongs, whose architecture proclaims a sophisticated presence in modern society every bit as much as nineteenth- and twentieth-century neo-Gothic college and church buildings said the same thing in Canada and the United States on behalf of upstart denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists.
The last buildings we toured were the visitors’ centers, with professional displays–including lifesize dioramas of Biblical and Mormon figures (nicely locating an effigy of founder Joseph Smith directly in line with the Biblical prophets, let the viewer understand), and video clips re-enacting episodes in the Book of Mormon. All of this is not only about information, of course, but about plausibility: This is not just what we teach, but our teaching seems both sensible and inspiring, doesn’t it?
Throughout the multiple acres of grounds of Temple Square, inside and outside the buildings, there are Mormon volunteers–generally retired folk or young “sisters” doing their mandatory missionary work (the young men are off going two-by-two door-to-door)–eager to welcome you, show you around, and help you interpret what you’re seeing. Unfailingly friendly and articulate, and (in my two visits here) never pushy, they brim with enthusiasm about their faith and its place in salvation history–as well as in America (which, in Mormon terms, is an important correlation, since their faith depends upon belief that America was visited by Jesus and is itself a holy place of both prophecy and its fulfillment).
This combination of buildings and guides left us traditional Christians feeling confused. Such nice people, in such attractive settings, teaching such strange things. Hmmm…–which is likely how we’re supposed to feel. Temple Square doesn’t push you to convert, but instead it does a lot to do what apologetics is supposed to do: make the faith in question more plausible than it appeared to be before.
Across the street from the Temple is the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The relative restraint of the architecture of the Temple, Tabernacle, and Conference Center gives way to fin-de-siècle opulence in the galleried foyer of this large, multipurpose building with its gorgeous (to some tastes overwrought) meeting rooms and reception halls.
We didn’t have time to linger amid these dazzling colours, however, as we had to drive to Boise, Idaho, by suppertime. So we dashed into the cafeteria (strangely named after Nauvoo, Illinois, a key city in Mormon history where founder Smith met his death) and there we had a simply terrific lunch, including one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve had anywhere.
Lest readers think we’ve descended pretty rapidly from the sublime to the ridiculous, hear me out. What impressed me about this lunch was, well, everything: excellent food, at a reasonable price, served by a cheerful staff, in an elegant room (much less flamboyant than others we peered into on our way out). This was the commercial version of Mormon hospitality, and how does one feel as a visitor at the end of such a meal? More kindly disposed toward the hosts than ever, that’s how.
Many of us recognize the skill and power of Mormon television commercials “branding” the LDS Church as the church that promotes family life. Visiting Temple Square adds to that “brand”: Mormons take art seriously; they take hospitality seriously; they take their teachings seriously; they take worship seriously; they take families seriously (the famous genealogical archives are right nearby); they take bodily comfort seriously; and they take you seriously.
One might still think that much of what the LDS Church says about pre-Columbian history is wildly wrong. One might still believe that Mormon patriarchy, however ameliorated it has become, remains deeply troubling. One might still worry that Mormon theology badly misconstrues fundamental questions of the nature of God, of Christ, of salvation, of the church, and of our global and individual destinies.
But our Mormon friends aren’t wrong about everything, of course. And after you visit Temple Square, you are inclined to think better of them, and their faith, than you did before.
We should all take notes.