Race, Gender, and Material Religion in Salt Lake City’s Utah Jazz Shrine

By May 1, 2018

In the past few weeks, a shrine to the NBA’s Utah Jazz has appeared next to Ken Sanders Books in Salt Lake City. The shrine features a confluence of religious figurines (none Mormon as of this writing), flowers, photos, Jazz memorabilia, and candles. J Stuart and Cristina Rosetti thought it would be an ideal opportunity to discuss lived religion and material religion within Mormonism. The authors acknowledge that the shrine isn’t uniquely Mormon, but we feel that there are some aspects of Mormonism that shine through when examined closely.

JS: I have jokingly referred to praying to the basketball gods for favor in NBA games and playoff series. I loved seeing that someone had actually created a shrine, seemingly to the basketball gods, on behalf of the Utah Jazz. After my immediate basketball nerdery ebbed, my religious studies nerdery surfaced and I thought about how peculiar it was for there to be a shrine to anything in a place as Mormon-heavy as Salt Lake City. Of course there are fewer Mormons in Salt Lake County than throughout Utah, but it still struck me as particularly Mormon. Mormonism is both a lived and a material religion that believes in the “presence” of supernatural beings directing events and people on the earth. Robert Orsi calls these forces “the gods,” as he explains in History and Presence, “Presence is real, but not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, and it is rarely either good or bad, as these words are understood in ordinary social discourse.” Presence is simply taken as for granted for many Mormons. Mormonism began with the apparition of heavenly beings and individual Mormons have continued to report their “presence” to the current day. This shrine is another way for Mormons to acknowledge “presence” in a way that doesn’t contradict what many of their leaders saying about the uselessness of praying for sports teams. What do you think, Cristina?

CR: Full disclosure, I jumped on the Jazz bandwagon two days ago because I live here now and it felt appropriate. I watched friends post photo after photo of themselves at the game and didn’t think much of it. Until I saw a friend post an image of the shrine downtown. I woke up early on Saturday, drove a few blocks and became captivated by the pile of votive candles, flowers, memorabilia, and papel picado. I decided I had to follow the Jazz journey, if not for the sport, for the development of its shrine. Because that’s what shrines do. They make feeling tangible and offer a materialization of an internal state. Coming from southern California, I am accustomed to seeing shrines on the side of roads, off to the side of the altar in Cathedrals, and in family homes. Aside from the occasional roadside shrine to mark a final resting place and the manifestation of flowers under the Virgin of Guadalupe at the Cathedral in December, Utah and Mormon culture isn’t known for shrines.

I think you’re right in that modern Mormonism assumes a presence that is already there and, therefore, doesn’t demand the presence be manifest by temporal beings. But, people like tangible things. It’s why we make objects of veneration and call on the basketball gods. In many ways, I think this shrine fills a gap for many young members of the Church that seek ritual. These are the same young members that attend midnight Mass or participate in Holi.

JS: I’m fascinated by that last paragraph. I’m not sure, though, that it’s only younger members of the LDS Church that are seeking ritual. BCC did an entire series on the premise of building a quasi-liturgical calendar for Mormons. BYU holds a Passover Seder every year. I wonder, though, if the basketball gods are a safe place, though, for Latter-day Saints to engage in religious pluralism. The idea of a singular “true” church that holds all authority can close off the idea of learning more, or even experimenting with, other forms of religious practice. I suspect, though, that many Mormons are interested in how other people worship and then adapt certain aspects of those traditions. But, if the “gods” are too similar to their own, they can become uncomfortable. It’s why thousands of BYU students go to Krishna celebrations and repeat the prayers, but only a few go to Ash Wednesday services. I think many Mormons would be uncomfortable lighting candles to saints, but they’ll light candles in front of Gail and Larry Miller, write down prayers, and place photos of Joe Ingles in veneration. In other words, because it’s something “silly” and not “religious” then participation is fun and reflective. Something that too closely resembles your own “gods” can get awkward really fast. When I lived in Virginia, I saw the same ward member at an Ash Wednesday service and at a Buddhist festival. They felt no shame in seeing me at the Buddhist festival but looked horrified when they saw me at the Catholic Church.

CR: Well, many Mormons think of Catholics as members of the Great and Abominable Church. I think you have something with the idea that the basketball gods are a “safe place.” Learning about the shrine wasn’t surprising because of its subject matter. However, stumbling across a Marian shrine in the same place would have felt shocking. I also don’t think it would still be standing. This isn’t “real” religion, whatever that means. It’s also a devotion with a tangible limit, the end of the playoffs. One of the reasons I bring up Marian shrines as a comparative is the ethnic component of this particular shrine, and the way shrines are often perceived. I mentioned the use of votive candles, papel picado, flowers, etc. Not only are these not particularly Mormon, they also aren’t particularly white. Shrines with these elements are often found at Dia de los Muertos festivals or similar holidays. A beautiful shrine was built in the Cathedral of the Madeleine for All Soul’s Day for this purpose. This is in line with your comments on pluralism. It’s a safe pluralism, but is also raises the question about representation and appropriation. For this reason, I would be curious to learn more about the builders.

Catholic festivals, like Holi, aren’t always clean or easy. Like Orsi mentions, the gods aren’t containable entities. The shrines grow and, as this happens, so does presence. It’s for this reason that I would be surprised by a Marian shrine. A tangible representation of a female force that matters deeply to so many. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this comparative.

JS: I think you’re right. A shrine that not only explicitly venerated a female god (to use Orsi’s term) but that consciously operated on a racial level wouldn’t last long in SLC. This calls to mind the controversy over J. Kirk Richards’ painting of Eve as a woman of African descent. There’s no way to extricate longstanding discourses of race, gender, and sexuality out of any religion, but especially a faith like Mormonism, whose beliefs are codified and standardized across the world. Even with the best intentions, it won’t change what has been said or believed for generations. To borrow a metaphor, it takes a long time to turn around a big boat–one painting or one shrine, no matter how popular, would change global discourse this quickly. Of course, defining a religion by what is printed in its materials can never provide the full picture. In Mormonism, manuals and handbooks reflect what leadership sees as the ideal–it doesn’t take long to recognize that the ideal is rarely carried out in all places. I mean, echoing JZ Smith, it’s about individual meaning making, not the Bear Hunt,.

I loved seeing youth Jr. Jazz jerseys, promotional cups, bobbleheads, written statements, and framed photographs all across the shrine. What did you think about the shrine’s materiality? It’s not a hashtag, it’s a corporeal place where real people have placed real objects as a part of their devotion to the team.

CR: The materiality is interesting and usually tells as much about the community as it does about the object of devotion. As you indicate, the objects are alive and extensions of the people. My friend and colleague, Daisy Vargas, has lectured on folk saints and Mexican Catholicism quite a bit. In her lectures she mentions how tequila is often offered or poured over images of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde. For Malverde, Buchanan’s scotch is key (Waiting for the day this practice makes its rounds in Utah). While these saints and material objects are outside of “orthodox” belief, they represent the people and the needs of the community, often to a greater extent than the institutional Church. Again, shrines exceed the boundaries we try to enforce. The very act of shrine building and maintenance brings the gods to life and reinforces their presence. Materiality studies, like the shrines themselves, bring to light that things aren’t just things. The objects at the shrine aren’t “just” bobble heads or promotional cups anymore. They are sacred and transformed. They carry the prayers, hopes, and dreams of real people who seek a tangible manifestation of the invisible reality they already acknowledge as present.

JS: Presence always exceeds the bounds of religion that is bound by beliefs, liturgy, or creeds (as Hiram Page and William Godbe found out, among others). It seems to me, though, that the “stuff” at the shrine isn’t just important because it has become more than a bobblehead at the moment it’s placed at the shrine. It seems that the objects meant something before they made their way to the alley between Ken Sanders’ bookstore and the furniture shop. They were precious things, seemingly preserved by folks that decided to keep them as meaningful objects. I mean, how long do folks keep promotional cups unless they’re tied by what I like to think of as Ann Taves’ theory of special things? Where people are really hesitant to part with anything they think of as special, even if they can’t explain it? Like copies of the Book of Mormon that end up in thrift stores because people don’t want them but they don\’t want to throw them away, either? Maybe that’s a bad example, but it seems to me that the “specialness” of the object made its donation more sacred, somehow.

Of all the items at the shrine I was most fascinated with the photograph of Gail and Larry Miller. I’m not ashamed to admit that I think that they have done more for Utah than pretty much anyone else in the previous 100 years. But still, the person that placed that photo there knew which one that they wanted to print out, frame, and place at the shrine. Among the 100 questions I have about the shrine–why that photo? It’s not from a Jazz game or a press release. It looks like they’re at home, relaxed, and under no pressure at all. Seemingly the opposite of the Millers’ relationship to the team. I mean, they own the team–I can’t imagine any part of that isn’t stressful. In any case, it’s a personal photo, not something related to the Jazz at all. I know that doesn’t mean that it can’t transcend the liminality of the sacred just because it’s not Jazz-centric, but still. It’s interesting.

CR: Your point about special things rings true. I just realized that I have a souvenir beer cup from the only Jazz game I’ve ever been to. It’s something I’ve kept since October. Why did I keep a beer cup? Because memories are attached to things. I’m probably not going to offer it to the basketball gods. But, if I were to it would have already had meaning before it became part of the sacred. Maybe it’s already sacred and just the context is changing.

I also have 100 questions about the shrine. Like the choices behind which votive candles to offer, which gods are summoned, and the boundaries of what isn’t included. Importantly, I’m also wondering what will be made of this sacred space when it’s over and, much like your Book of Mormon example, the questions surrounding how we dispose of the sacred.

Article filed under Current Events Sports


Comments

  1. I think that the sports superstition is strong enough that even if Mormons were uncomfortable with the shrine, they wouldn’t touch it for fear it would do something to the Jazz. So instead, they celebrate it because positive vibes are better than negative ones.

    Comment by EmJen — May 1, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Interesting conversation. Thanks, guys. I’m interested in what J said about the possibility of this being a way for Mormons to participate in plurality without taking it being too serious. Is treating these religious acts this way disrespectful? Opinions would certainly vary, but it could come across that way. I’m very curious who started this and why?

    At the same time, to me, a shrine to the Jazz says something about the role the Jazz play in Salt Lake City. In a city where religious division has a very long and often strident history, the Jazz often play the role of a unifying force: something the whole city, regardless of religious views, can rally around. Thus a quasi-religious devotional act to the team seems fitting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 1, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

  3. EmJen: I love it. I’m personally not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.

    Steve: I don’t think that Mormons are being disrespectful by incorporating other religious traditions into their own. I think it’s just a form of “lived religion.” But, by certain arbitrary standards, some religions appear more “authentically” religious than others to many LDS. I don’t think it’s fair, but I think that it represents what many LDS think.

    I also like your idea on the Jazz being a middle ground between LDS and non-LDS. I think there’s a lot to that.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 2, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

  4. Catholic festivals, like Holi, aren?t always ?clean? or ?easy.?

    or Catholic.

    Comment by Last Lemming — May 3, 2018 @ 7:54 am

  5. I was responding to your line, “because it?s something ?silly? and not ?religious? then participation is fun.” Some might not like that. Who knows?

    And yes, I imagine spectator sport as religion is a topic of inquiry and it seems the Jazz would be a fruitful topic.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 3, 2018 @ 9:36 am


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