Wednesday, January 05, 2011

My underwear is sacred!

On last weekend's PostSecret, there was a postcard that included a picture of Mormon "temple garments," special underclothing that devout Mormons wear under their regular clothes. (The secret says, "If you weren't Mormon… we would have gotten married.")

It's a picture that's already been all over the internet for years, but displaying temple garments is a big taboo for Mormons, and apparently a number of them e-mailed the site's owner, Frank Warren, and asked him to take down the postcard. Frank published two of the e-mails on the site, and another defending its publication.

On the site's Facebook page, he asked, "The postcard exposing the sacred/secret 'Mormon undergarments' is causing controversy. Should I remove it?" There are over 4,600 comments as of this writing. Of course, I haven't read most of them, but a large majority argue that free expression of "secrets," including many taboos, is the point of the site, and censoring it in that way would conflict with that purpose.

Anyway, all that got me thinking about temple garments in general, and particularly the idea of "sacred underwear."

The church explains temple garments like this:
Like members of many religious faiths, Latter-day Saints wear religious clothing. But members of other faiths — typically those involved in permanent pastoral ministries or religious services — usually wear religious garments as outer ceremonial vestments or symbols of recognition. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, garments are worn beneath street clothing as a personal and private reminder of commitments to God.
That sounds kind of reasonable, if you don't automatically exclude religious ideas from your definition of "reasonable." I mean, Catholic priests have their collars, Jews have their little hats, Sikhs have their turbans, and so on -- why shouldn't Mormons have special underwear?

Obviously, I don't have much room to talk; I wore temple garments for 26 years. I mean, not the same set -- I changed them every day (well, mostly) and bought new ones when they got old, just like with regular underwear -- but that was my underwear for 26 years.

And of course, all of us, even atheists, cling to some irrational beliefs. For example, for each of the past 41 Septembers, I've thought "This could be the year the Chargers win the Super Bowl." It's probably hard to get much more irrational than that. (Stupid Chargers.)

So I don't think Mormon temple garments are all that strange, relatively speaking. But here's where Mormons run into trouble:
Garments are considered sacred by Church members and are not regarded as a topic for casual conversation.
In other words, "My underwear is sacred." Unfortunately for Mormons, the very idea of sacred underwear is hilarious.

Underwear is funny in American culture. It goes on right over your naughty bits (which are also funny). That, I suppose, makes underwear funny by association. Sure, it's juvenile and silly to laugh at underwear, but there you are. Underwear is funny. We laugh at it often.

So when a religion or its members come forward and say, "My underwear is sacred," the contrast between underwear = funny and my underwear = sacred creates an incongruity between the concept funny vs. the concept sacred. And, unfortunately for Mormon sensibilities, incongruity is the basis of a lot of humor. So Americans laugh at the idea of "sacred underwear."

I don't think there's any way around this, to be honest. Outsiders may feel sympathy upon seeing the earnest pleadings of Mormons regarding their deep offense when their sacred underwear is displayed on the internet and so on, but that very earnestness and depth is itself incongruous versus underwear and therefore funny. Whatever sympathy one feels can come only after stifling laughter.

I hope Mormons will understand this. We're not laughing to be mean; we just can't help it.

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