Monday, September 01, 2008

The Significance of Mormon Ritual

During my recent trip to Sunstone Symposium a couple of articles in Sunstone magazine caught my eye in that both dealt with ritual in Mormonism. Ever since my research into the issues of sacred space, anthropology of pilgrimage, and ritual in connection with the Mormon Miracle Pageant at Manti, Utah, I have been interested in the significance of various aspects of Mormonism that are often neglected by evangelicals, particularly ritual. The ritual element of Mormonism goes far beyond that which takes place in the temples, and evangelicals can learn quite a bit about this faith through exploration of this area.

One of the articles that caught my attention is titled "Saving the Dead: A Comparative Study of Post-Funerary Rites in Japanese and Mormon Culture" by John Dewey Remy from November 2006. Remy explores the common emphasis on the maintenance of continued relationships with the dead in both Japanese culture with the influences of Buddhism and Shinto, and contrasts this with the ritual work on behalf of the dead done within Mormonism through temple work.

The second article is "Gordon B. Hinckley and the Ritualization of Mormon History" by Hugo Olaiz which appeared in the April 2008 issue. In this piece Olaiz builds a case for understanding Hinckley as "the Great Ritualizer." Olaiz follows the lead of Davis Bitton in defining ritual as "forms and symbols whose function is not primarily communication of knowledge but rather the simplification of the past into forms that can be memorialized, celebrated, and historically appropriated." With this definition in mind Olaiz points to various historical reenactments like Pioneer Day, and monuments like "This is the Place" as examples of ritualizing in Mormonism.

Connecting the dots to my interview with "Aquinas" not long ago, it seems to me that if evangelicals want to be more effective in not only understanding their Mormon neighbors, and in communicating with them, then we have to be willing to move beyond propositional forms of theologizing in the dialogue process in order to engage other means of meaning-making such as ritual. The social and religious significance of ritual in connection with sacred narratives as a less formal process of theologizing can then be connected to doctrinal issues to provide a more holistic means of understanding and communication.

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