What Quentin Tarantino Taught Me About the Temple

I attended the temple for the first time on February 26, 1994. It was an icy day in Idaho Falls and I was home for the weekend from Utah State University in order to “take out my endowments,” as my tribe is wont to phrase it. Although I was raised in the church and have church ancestry going back to 1830, I never liked attending LDS meetings. Never. Every Sunday I would endure the three hour experience and, as I went home to consume the Sunday roast, breathe a sigh of relief at having made it through one more gantlet of boredom. When it came time for me to attend the temple for the first time, I was anxious, but not expecting to enjoy it. Much to my surprise, I was completely enraptured by the experience. The richness of the mythology, the mysterious movements, the utter strangeness of it all appealed to me. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had actually had a “spiritual experience.” After that first experience, I made a habit of attending the temple as often as I could. I frequently made the walk down the hill from my dorm at USU to the Logan Temple. I read everything I could about the temple because I had this feeling that there was a lot going on in there that I was missing. But I found only hints in the books that the church produced. I vividly remember watching General Conference that April, thinking “Those guys know what the temple means. They know the mysteries.”

I continued attending the temple as often as I could, and began to find meanings in the symbols. But I also noticed that the symbols were multivalent. They conveyed different meanings to me at different times. One day, as I was thinking about this phenomenon, I happened across an interview with Quentin Tarantino. Someone in the studio audience asked him what was in the infamous briefcase from the movie Pulp Fiction. With his usual goofy enthusiasm, Tarantino responded that the briefcase contained whatever the viewer needed it to contain. Not what the viewer wanted it contain, but whatever she needed it to contain. I didn’t hear the rest of the interview, because my my mind turned immediately to the temple. Suddenly it struck me that, in a church that correlates everything, that tells us what everything is supposed to mean to us, that disseminates a curriculum that actively delimits theological speculation and scriptural exegesis, in the midst of all of this dictation, the temple stands as the glorious exception. There is no manual that tells us what the temple means. Its symbols are there for us to interpret as we need them, when we need them. Occasionally, I will hear well-meaning temple workers or others attempting in the Celestial room to explicate the symbols and the mythology of the temple to the less experienced. On these occasions, my heart breaks a little. I say a silent prayer that this newly endowed fellow saint will resist the urge to reify, concretize, and ossify the temple experience. I pray that they will learn to let the temple mean what they will need it to mean, over and over and over again.

Comments

  1. Yes.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Love it.

  3. Senile Old Fart says:

    gantlet

  4. Nice.

  5. Excellent thoughts.

  6. Thanks everyone. #3, fixed

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff. Your BCC baptism is complete.

  8. Sharee Hughes says:

    So true. Thank you.

  9. Awesome. My experience is a lot like this. I don’t know that I never enjoyed a church meeting, but I never felt completely at home in them. I felt instantly at home in the temple. It’s a little too bad you started after the 1990 changes. There were some amazing things in that older endowment which are no longer there, things that I still draw on. (Not saying that some of the changes weren’t good, and probably all necessary.)

  10. Perfect. Yes.

  11. Perfect.

  12. Thanks for this post. It really resonates with me.

    I have enjoyed many church meetings all my life, but I’ve always been “different” than most of my fellow congregants in the way I see things (or, at least, my willingness and desire to express and hear others express different viewpoints) – and that is due largely to my natural tendency to look for multiple meanings in things, my embrace of uncertainty and my gravitation to the symbolic over the literal.

    I love the temple for allowing me to let my mind wander the universe in a setting of quietude and peace, as the familiar happens around me. I love being able to let my body go through the motions, so to speak, while my mind goes wherever it is taken by whatever thought crosses my mind as the play unfolds countless times. I haven’t learned new things from the wording in the ordinances for a long time, but I’ve learned new things in the temple on a regular basis.

    That has been and continues to be very liberating and delicious to me.

  13. Brill.

  14. Excellent stuff. And I agree with RJH; if we were to publish it, twould be worthy of Brill, which would likely charge $200+ for the two hard-back pages it was printed on.

    “The richness of the mythology, the mysterious movements, the utter strangeness of it all appealed to me.” This, incidentally, is why I can’t listen to MoTab. It’s too banal, accessible, comfortable, lacks mystery, awe, or depth. Give me Russian or Greek Orthodox liturgical music from 300 years ago.

  15. drbrewhaha says:

    Nicely put – both the OP and #12.

  16. On one hand we don’t want to get too strict about forcing interpretations on every symbol but I also think we don’t want to go too far the opposite direction and claim that the only meaning symbols in the temple can have is whatever the beholder reads into them and nothing more (and I’m not saying this article is claiming that). Otherwise, Pulp Fiction could be the film played in the temple and people could read their own Mormony meaning into the briefcase.

    I also think that, yes, part of the purpose of them is so that we *will* ruminate on them over long periods of time, but when that rumination is guided by the Spirit then we will come to understand certain gospel realities that the Lord is leading us to understand that will coincide with the experience of others, while also retaining an individual component to the experience.

  17. I thought it was well established that the briefcase contained a shiny, gold McGuffin.

  18. #16, “I’m not saying this article is claiming that.” I’m glad, because that wasn’t my intention. The symbols are obviously bounded by narrative and ritual context and therefore are not infinitely variable. But I don’t think there is nearly as much danger of temple goers assuming that the symbols can mean anything as there is that they will assume that the symbols mean only one thing. I didn’t think I needed to explicitly acknowledge that, but perhaps i was wrong. Also, I want to emphasize that there is no authoritative source (beyond our own impressions of the Spirit) to tell us what any of those symbols mean, which is a rare thing for us.

  19. Well, you can’t force an interpretation of a symbol. Symbols by their nature are like portals behind which lie a virtually limitless space of insights. That doesn’t mean that they can be made to say ‘whatever we want.’ A symbol whose meanings can be strictly narrowed is not a symbol but a sign. A stop sign does not symbolize the idea of stop, nor anything beyond stop, it literally tells you to stop. One of the reasons we are not good at learning through symbols, and hence misunderstand the Temple, is that we are constantly seeking these kinds of signs. But the Temple ceremonies are exhaustive, you cannot limit their meanings, any more than you can limit the infinite set of possibilities that a person might encounter in this life and the next. This is why it is important to see that the symbols in the temple are insight-portals through which we can gain information concerning a limitless set of personal situations. It has been a very wise course that has historically turned away the idea of teaching ‘what the symbols mean.’ We largely want to be told what to do and think – and at least partly because we desire it, we get that kind of direction in abundance. But the Temple cannot become another case of this without undermining its power and purpose.

  20. I’ve had some of those well-meaning people try to explicate the Endowment to me, and I’m always amazed at how banal their interpretations are. Here they are faced with this strange, mysterious, and frankly somewhat weird narrative and all they can come up with are the most boring ways of looking at the world. That’s not to claim that my meanings are any better than theirs, but I make no claim that mine are definitive, while I’ve heard some people claim to have been given *the* meaning by general authorities, temple presidents, etc. If that is really what their leaders are claiming then I am a little sad that they seem to see so little.

    If they could really reduce the Temple experience to those meanings, then it would be an irresponsible God who would make this complex way to understand something so simplistic.

    The nice thing about the Temple is that it *isn’t* an obfuscation of something else. It is what it is. It is irreducible. As you observe, it contains what it needs to contain, and that means that one day it will contain one thing for me and on another day it will contain something else entirely. When I think back about the things I found moving almost twenty years ago versus what I find meaningful now, I’m struck by how different they are. And the things I see as profound today would have been incomprehensible to me then. (That’s not to say that they are deeper, but rather than my concerns have changed so much.)

    Now that I live outside of the U.S. and the nearest Temple requires a multi-day trip, I have not been in many months. I miss it and hope that we’ll be able to make it again soon.

  21. melodynew says:

    Lovely and hopeful.

  22. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent.

    I wonder what it signifies when we get inspiration about the temple from a movie that is rated R?

  23. #22 Good question. I wouldn’t know, though, because I got the inspiration from an interview with the director, not from the movie.

  24. #20, Thanks for your thoughts. Of course, I wouldn’t expect any less from my old friend and former home teaching companion. I hope you get to the temple soon

  25. Joshua Trawick says:

    Interesting to me is the diversity of reaction to initial endowment experience. While on my mission, I would ask as many of my fellow missionaries how they viewed their first experience in an endowment session. Overwhelmingly, the response would be that their experience had been a confusing one and it would be difficult to for them to relate to me how exactly they felt. They didn’t necessarily feel bad about it, but their feelings were a bit cloudy. To me, I, like you, was awestruck by the singularity of the ordinance. I had never before experienced such depth to my religion and sought occasion to return to the temple as often as circumstances would permit. Later on, finding out exactly what the experience meant to me has really helped me define my faith. I love that the endowment is truly a ritualistic experience. It is a large part of what keeps me going.

  26. Bluegrouse says:

    Excellent. Thank you. I find the same to be true of sincere personal scripture study despite attempts by many to define the one and only “real” meaning for any particular verse or chapter.

    Go Aggies!

  27. Christopher says:

    Nice, Taysom.

  28. mentaculus says:

    the temple means what you think it means. great. so does everything else, so where are we then? does the meaning of the temple change for you when you find out where it comes from? when you find out how it’s changed?

    i find deeper meaning staring at a flower. or helping my brother make apple cider. or listening to bach. seriously.

    the temple makes me feel dark inside. it reminds me of the darkest aspects of human nature — lust for control, denial of reality, manipulation, psychological abuse. is that my fault? or am I okay because that’s just what it means to me?

    there’s nothing wrong with ‘gauntlet’, btw.

  29. #28 – If that’s what it means to you, that’s what it means to you – so don’t go.

    See how easy that was – and I don’t mean that sarcastically or snarkily.

  30. Mentaculus, I respect and understand the fact that many people do not like the temple. For some it has extremely negative associations. There are many reasons for these associations; for some it is the treatment of women, for others it is the various changes that have been made to the ceremony over the years. Still others come to the conclusion that the ceremony is a fraud, and they feel manipulated and lied to. Of course it is not your “fault” that you feel how you feel about it. If you do not accept the temple as being a divinely revealed system, then I would not expect you to find it particularly meaningful. If you have experienced trauma associated with the temple, then it makes sense that you would feel “dark inside.” I’m sorry that anything makes you feel that way. I don’t share your feelings on the issue of the temple, but I certainly do not pretend that there is anything particularly wrong with you or right with me because of our different experiences and feelings.

  31. Yes, I discovered this idea recently myself. When someone asks me why we don’t talk about the temple outside, this is the reason I give.

  32. I went to the Logan Temple for my endowment right before my mission. I had been a member for about 18 months. There was no mission prep back then. My branch president said “when you go to the temple you rent your clothes.” I thought he meant in the OT Jewish sense. Sounded fine to me. What did I know? Then when he told me it costs a couple of bucks, I began to get his meaning.

    Sufficeth to say, I didn’t have a clue as to what was going to happen . When I was done and was walking across the temple lawn, I ran my finger above my knee and thought, “what kind of church have I gotten myself into?”

    But I got through it and am still an active member 40 years later.

  33. Ed, I have often wondered how converts respond to the temple experience. Thanks for your perspective.

  34. daveonline says:

    I really like this articulation of the temple. I also think this same framework works for a possible approach for reading the scriptures and is consistent with a couple of GA visits to our stake where the emphasis was on what we heard being communicated to us individually via the spirit vs. the literal words that were spoken. The two different GA’s accepting that their words could and should have multiple meanings based on the experience and needs of those hearing it. The same nuances discussed in these comments also apply – no this does not mean they can just as easily mean anything or are just a simple Rorshach (sic?) test. Even when they might be most forcefully/easily veiwed as univariate, they can often symbolize something much deeper.For example, the literal announcement yesterday on missions had a deeply meaningful symbolic impact which varied widely in its nuances acorss genders and age groups. At the same time, not everyone will encounter a positive experience and that is not because they are “wrong”.

  35. I’m guessing one was Elder Bednar?

  36. Very interesting. This is a very helpful explanation for me since I often confused when people say they learn things at the temple. I feel like I gain spiritual knowledge in many ways but not really in the way you describe. It is nice to know how others experience it.

  37. #22 — I wasn’t looking for temple interpretations while watching this movie, but I’ve found it helpful to explain part of the endowment to others: Eve chose the red pill and left the matrix.

  38. I don’t know if BCC is still doing it, but #37 get’s a nomination for Best Comment of the Week.

  39. So when I accompany a fellow ward member to the temple for the first time and she’s stopping and staring at the walls trying to look for the ‘hidden symbolism’ that is there, I should just let her? Could she be seeing something in the wallpaper that I don’t? Or should I explain to her that the hidden symbolism is in the words and actions of the actual endowment. I did the latter.

  40. kc, I must confess that I have spent some sessions looking for hidden meanings in the carpet fibers. Never the wallpaper though.

  41. SC Taysom…then the mysteries of the kingdom will forever be hidden from you!

  42. Great blog piece. Not at all what I expected, but the title grabbed my attention and made me curious. I most appreciated your paragraph about the multivalence of temple symbols.

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