By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
All around me, as nonchalant as though they were yawning, a hundred smiling Mormons in white were drawing their thumbs across their jugulars. It's a testimonial to the thoroughness of my Mormon upbringing that I reacted to this first bizarre moment with only mild surprise.
The God of my Mormon ancestors had always been represented to me as whimsical, in some way human because of his former life as a man. Within this context, eccentric acts on His part were understandable. I had, after all, come to believe at last that He might have chosen me and Monty for each other. I did not expect Him to constantly make sense.
How else, except in terms of eccentricity, could you explain the fact that His interests lent themselves to introducing polygamy into America? How did you explain His capricious standards for behavior, as demonstrated by one of the great object lessons in the Book of Mormon, the murder of Laban? Laban's murder was a slaying that God himself commanded one of his favorite mortals, Nephi, to commit for a cause! The killing had been touted to me from Sunday-school class right through BYU religion courses as an example of how anything is right if the commandment comes from the Lord. The thing my teachers read to me about Laban was the expansive reasoning of Joseph Smith, who had said, "That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'; at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.'"
On the day I went to the temple for the first time, the world had not yet experienced the rash of famous Mormons, from master forger and murderer Mark Hofmann, who blew apart with homemade bombs the enemies who knew he was falsifying historical "documents" of the early church, to impeached Arizona governor Evan Mecham, whose conscience may have been aided during dark acts by the doctrine of priesthood authority that he'd heard since birth. The phenomenon of a conditioned people that believes what it is told, and that sometimes justifies actions beyond the limits of decency set by most of the rest of the world, was still hidden away within temples where I was being asked as a matter of course to protect a secret handshake with my life. Was hidden, too, within the nature of my indoctrinated heart, which believed it should make the promise.
The jarring moment passed, and we all followed along to the next chapel, which was called the Lone and Dreary World room. It was painted with flat faces of desert scenes, with brown vistas stretching endlessly and with prehistoric carnivores battling in the foregrounds. The light in these paintings was stark, so that the hostile animals didn't even cast shadows. We were to believe these were the sorts of surroundings Adam and Eve had called home once they'd left the Garden.
Here the play continued. Satan paid a preacher thousands of dollars to teach Adam about God, and the preacher described a God who embodied the concepts embraced by many Protestants. "Do you believe in a God who is without body, parts or passions; who sits on top of a topless throne; whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere; who fills the universe, yet is so small He can dwell within your heart?"
These ideas were ridiculous, and so Adam shooed the corrupt minister away. Then God sent the ancient prophets Peter, James and John onto the scene to banish Satan. Satan departed, but he wasn't a good sport about it: Before he vanished, he had the last say.
"I have a word to say concerning this people!" he cried. "If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars this day, they will be in my power!"
His threat overtook me with a chill. I was truly terrified. Immediately, I began reviewing the covenants I was making, fearful I would forget one and damn myself.
Now the old-time prophets turned to the congregation and explained, "You are now ready to be instructed in all things pertaining to eternal life." It was the cue for temple workers to turn their attention to teaching us more "tokens" and "penalties--the ritual hand motions and pledges to punish that underscored every temple service, and that were sometimes identical to the "tokens" and "penalties" found in Masonic ceremonies.
We learned the Sign of the Nail. The name seemed to allude to the Crucifixion, and the gesture was a matter of pressing index fingers into each other's palms.
We learned the Sure Sign of the Nail, a handclasp wherein we linked little fingers and pressed our other fingers against our neighbor's pulse. I practiced both of these exercises easily with the happy bride beside me, wondering a little why I needed to know them.
The "penalties" to be extracted for revealing the new maneuvers were by now much harder to get through. My stomach flipflopped as, in unison with my brethren, I acted out cutting out my heart, then a strong slash low on the abdomen to disembowel myself. I didn't understand whether I was promising to submit to death at the hands of someone wielding the switchblade of justice or whether I would be expected to take my own life if I found myself blurting temple secrets, but as time passed I performed these brutal pantomimes with increasing reluctance. Once I even felt bile flood my throat, and I wondered why I was overreacting. No one else was responding to the drone of threats as though it were sinister. In fact, as the macabre instructions from the stage grew more graphic, the smiles surrounding me seemed to widen.