Foreignness and otherness at the Helsinki temple open house

Kim Östman has an M.Sc. in communication microelectronics and is a soon-to-be Ph.D. candidate in comparative religion at Ã…bo Akademi University, Finland. Tentative thesis topic has to do with using the label “Christian” as a boundary maintenance device within Christianity. He is also a co-founder of the European Mormon Studies Association and has published at BCC Papers.

A public open house at the new Helsinki Finland temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was held between September 21 and October 7, 2006. A total of just under 56 000 visits were logged at the temple, situated in the city of Espoo, Finland. Some of these were naturally Latter-day Saints who visited even multiple times, but in any case some tens of thousands of Finns visited the temple of a religion often thought of as foreign in the Finnish religious landscape. Of Finland’s 5.2 million inhabitants, only 4 500 are Mormon.

The church’s own goal was about 25 000 visitors. Personally I thought even 15 000 would be good, knowing how Finns feel about public religion and especially some minority religions. So looking just at the numbers, the open house can said to have been a resounding success.

The open house and the temple was dealt with fairly broadly in various media. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Mormonism in Finland has never received so much publicity in this short a time. According to a database I’ve put together there have been over 100 articles or stories in the radio, on TV, and in newspapers and magazines around the country. Some of these were notices distributed by the Finnish News Agency (STT) to various newspapers, others were original articles and stories.

In general it is interesting to note how ideologically and geographically wide the spectrum of publications is. In addition to general newspapers, there was coverage or commentary for example in spiritual magazines, a professional magazine on stone masonry, and even an article in a magazine for cleaning professionals.

Publicity is very important for churches and religious movements. In this way they can share information about themselves and seek to construct a familiar and safe image of themselves. On the other hand, publicity is a two-edged sword for churches and movements that are smaller in membership numbers and that have come from abroad. The LDS church is one of these. Because these movements are easily construed as being foreign and because of the “average Finn” nature of many journalists, the movements are often dealt with in ways that implicitly or explicitly mention and promote an image of otherness. On top of that, the image that the media gives of smaller churches is easily neutralized in a reader’s or listener’s mind, if he or she doesn’t have another point of contact with these churches. Thus churches themselves have a special interest in using the media to diminish their foreign image.

The reporting around the open house at the Helsinki temple is pretty versatile. I will here take up a few examples through short quotations. The discourses represented by the quotations can be seen as the media promoting otherness and as the Latter-day Saints tearing down an image as “the other”. At the same time it must be mentioned that other kinds of discourses can also be found in the publicity around the temple: the media may for example emphasize the “normal” traits of Mormons, while the Mormons themselves may sometimes distance themselves from other churches. Thus the examples below should not be thought of as a representative selection that would give a full picture of the perspectives of the various actors. The quotations have been translated into English from either Finnish or Swedish.

The general media
———————-

“On top of the trees is something like a church tower, but on top of it there is a golden angel.” (Horisontti, Yle Radio 1 [nationwide], 24 September 2006)

“By the way, the temple doesn’t, to the surprise of many, have any large hall as our churches do, Lutheran and otherwise.” (Ylen aikainen, Yle Radio Suomi, 3 October 2006)

“Americans are very good at dealing with large crowds punctually and efficiently … [the group of people] is kept in control very well, and the atmosphere is upheld in a really professional style.” (Ylen aikainen, Yle Radio Suomi, 3 October 2006)

The whole is “undeniably ‘American’ and has little in common with cool Nordic or austere Finnish design.” (Hufvudstadsbladet 20 September 2006)

Religious media or actors
—————————-
“Duplicit ecumenism” (Sanansaattaja 40/2006)

“But the thing which makes Christian truth superior [to Mormon teachings] …” (A letter to the editor by a Free Church pastor in Espoo, Länsiväylä 22 October 2006)

“An American faith is conquering Finland” (Guest column, Kristillisdemokraattinen viikkolehti 40/2006)

Latter-day Saints themselves
——————————

“One of the world’s fastest-growing Christian churches.” (A press package distributed to journalists, p. 5)

“We do for example use makeup and watch TV, we do normal things.” (Helsingin Sanomat [nationwide] 21 July 2006)

“There is nothing secret there. We think there are sacred things there, and now we have the chance to show it and tell about it to people.” (News, Yle TV 2 [nationwide], 19 September 2006)

It is “essential that there is a high, strong tower on Finnish churches.” (Päivän Peili, Yle Radio 1 [nationwide], 19 September 2006)

What kind of thoughts do these otherness-promoting or otherness-diminishing statements generate? What kind of an opportunity to promote or diminish foreignness, otherness, and stereotypes are Mormon temple open houses?

Comments

  1. I think you have astutely observed how desperately the LDS want the public to perceive the temple as Finnish, but that the media isn’t buying it. It’s unfortunate that the radio said “Americans are very good…” when I presume the majority of those involved in the grunt-work for the open house were local Finns. I guess it’s the prominence of the Americans (missionaries etc.) that gives this impression. I remember showing a friend of mine a picture of the Preston temple. His first remark? “Wow, how American does that building look?”

  2. Question:
    Does the Helsinki temple fly a Finnish flag? For reasons that are inexplicable to me, the Preston and London temples do not fly the Union Jack? Little things like this…

  3. Well, it’s true that temple architecture has nothing in common with “with cool Nordic or austere Finnish design” or any striking design traditions, for that matter.

    It’s not suprising that the entire venture is perceived as “american,” either, especially for a religion that places so much importance on the U.S. as being of “divine” importance.

  4. Jon in Austin says:

    Re: 2

    You should start protesting. I can attest that the Sao Paolo temple proudly flies the Brazilian flag.

  5. I’ve never noticed an American Flag flying at any temple in the US. Is this because I am a lazy American, or are they not there?

  6. Thanks for the write up. I, just this weekend, went through my missionary pictures. I happened to serve during the pioneer sesquicentennial and had several pictures of Belge folks re-enacting pioneer treks (along with some newspaper clippings). That would be an example of media attention that is incontrovertibly classifying us as “other.”

  7. Thanks for the comments, all. It was indeed mostly local Finns who handled the grunt work of the open house, and thus it is interesting that the radio guy spoke about Americans being good at this and that. It may of course be that it was stereotypes about Mormons coming through in his mind. Then again, the instructions for conducting the open house came from the US.

    I don’t think the Helsinki temple has a Finnish flag up. However, I think the flag was flown during the open house. Unfortunately I haven’t paid attention to this interesting little detail.

    In any case, flag-flying is a bit different in Finland compared with for example the US. Here in Finland the national flag is flown only on special days and occasions, not as daily routine. So even if the temple here doesn’t have the flag up, it is probably more due to local cultural (and perhaps even legal) norms than anything else.

    On a note somewhat related to foreign flag-flying in farflung countries I must say that I thought it curious that the request for putting up Christmas lights at the Helsinki temple was denied in SLC.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    The Christmas lights denial seems odd in light of the massive lighting of Temple Square every year.

  9. jothegrill says:

    They just don’t want the competition.

  10. They also light the temple in Manilla and in DC every year. odd indeed.

  11. Perhaps; after all, Finland already claims Santa Claus!

  12. A similar request was turned down for the Preston temple.

  13. I am an American living in Finland who was around during the open house. While most of the guides and such were local members for a majority of the open house, during the VIP days and the media day, there were more Americans around, specifically PR people and leadership from SLC and Frankfurt. While they did not necessarily give tours (although I think some GAs gave tours to very high-profile types, like the PM), there is something unmistakable and easily detectable about the American man in a suit. And the outside of the temple does look markedly American. I would argue that there are details on the inside that seem Finnish, but I think the ostentation of the celestial room and sealing rooms got a lot of notice.

    The response of the public was fascinating, especially the range of people who were there and the general sense of reverence and politeness. On some days toward the end, there was an hour wait and it was raining, and people lined up to get in, mostly non-members. There were also an enourmous number of requests for Books of Mormon . . . perhaps a thousand?

    The manner in which guides and other participants were trained was interesting. Endowment rooms were called learning rooms, and no references to veils or alters were to be made. I didn’t feel like it was dishonest, but definitely designed to lower the other-ness of the temple.

    It was an invigorating experience for members, though, and I think it has given many a renewed sense of their place in the community, which has not always been a positive.

  14. From where do you hail, Norbert? I am in Tampere. Great to see somebody else living in Finland visiting the Bloggernacle.

    There were around three thousand requests for copies of the Book of Mormon. An enormous number, as you said. Interestingly, these have been hand-delivered to the requesters by missionaries, sometimes together with members: The difference between “I want church representatives to visit me” and “I want a copy of the Book of Mormon” on the feedback form was thus effectively nullified.
    Not sure what the requesters have thought about that, although I would suspect that most people don’t mind. There has been some bad press generated due to a youngling being contacted, though.

  15. I’m in Helsinki (Neitsypolku ward).

    They did insist that missionaries/members call for appointments, not do cold drop-bys.

    The real sad story, though, is that the casual service and community oriented approach brought in by the current mission president seems to have been undermined by the dekmand for immediate results from the higher powers.

  16. Daniel Peterson says:

    Very interesting. Thanks.

  17. FWIW, the Swiss temple, just outside of Bern, has a Swiss flag flying at all times (or, at least, all the times I’ve seen it, which have been varied in time of day and season).

  18. Sakari Ylinen says:

    The tours, including the VIP events, and the guide training were all designed, organized and managed by Finns. By the time the Salt Lake PR people showed up everything was ready. Naturally, they were given a polite listen to. I’m sure that some of the Finns organizing the open house had seen it done elsewhere.

    All the VIP’s including the PM, the speaker of the parliament etc. were there as the result of a certain Finnish member of the LDS Church inviting them. If someone thinks there were a lot of Americans present when the VIP’s were there, they simply can’t tell a Finn from an American in business suit.

    Of course, the flag they fly on the Finnish temple grounds is a Finnish flag. Dah! The flag pole is located in front of the visitors’ (housing) building. Every LDS temple I’ve seen seems to have a flag pole somewhere on temple grounds and only flies the flag of the host country.

    The architectural style of the temple building is in the words of the PM “Finnish National Romantic”. Examples of this style can be found both on the outside, as well as on the inside of the temple building. The shape of the spire and its copper covering, the front door and its ornamentation, the granite exterior, just to mention a few examples on the exterior.

    For someone used having only negative press about the LDS Church in Finland, the temple open house publicity, which seemed over 90% positive, would have been too incongruous to believe had one not been there to see it. Just how was that possible? I’ve my opinion on that.

    Just one more thing: What on earth possessed the Finns to stand, (in countless instances) 1h 40m or longer in cold rain just to see a Mormon temple?

  19. Sakari,
    Nice report. Why do you think, though, that the Finnish media (Yle Radio Suomi) believed it was Americans, not Finns, who organised the Open House?

  20. “The tours, including the VIP events, and the guide training were all designed, organized and managed by Finns. By the time the Salt Lake PR people showed up everything was ready. Naturally, they were given a polite listen to. I’m sure that some of the Finns organizing the open house had seen it done elsewhere.”

    Yes, the committee was made up entirely of Finns, but all of the training was done based on videos and printed material produced by SLC/Frankfurt. In the six months before the open house there was steady stream of visitors from Frankfurt. Many, if not all, of the committee members went to the Copenhagen open house, or met with the members there who organized it. During the first VIP day, when I was there directing traffic, there were Frankfurt and SLC PR people, plus some GAs from the area presidency, plus many temple missionary couples. (Most of them speak Finnish to some degree, being former proselyters.) So I’m not surprised some media folk felt there were a fair number of Americans about.

  21. Sakari Ylinen says:

    When the really big Finnish VIP’s were there, more people from Frankfurt and perhaps from SLC were there for two reasons: 1 – “Proper protocol” calls for high level hosts for high level visitors. 2 – Some of the LDS leaders perhaps wanted to see “the famous” Finnish national leaders. A small scale groupie effect perhaps? So my guess is that this larger than necessary contingent of foreign LDS leaders led the media to believe that they, the visitors from Frankfurt and SLC had organized the event, when infact, had only had an indirect support role.

    My comment about the polite listen to had only to do with the opening day of the VIP open house. Some of the PR people, newly arrived from SLC, had suggestions on how to do the event. By then the Finnish committee had everything ready. I know that at least the people in Frankfurt had been very impressed by the Finnish committee’s work and how well the open house went.

  22. Sakari, thanks for your thoughts.

    Regarding the flying of the flag, I certainly never meant that any other flag than the Finnish one would be flown at the Helsinki temple. By “foreign” I simply meant Finland from the US perspective, but I should have been clearer.

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