The Sacred Parking Garage Effect

By June 5, 2012

I get dibs on this clunky coining, but I wanted to articulate something that I’ve noticed in the way many non-academy-trained Mormons approach history. You probably have recognized the same phenomenon under a different name (and I’d love to know what you call it).

When I was in 9th grade, my English teacher had a room with blackboards on opposite walls and he assigned to each of them a mutually exclusive phrase, a pair of extremes (they were: “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost.”) We, of course, had to either list to one side or the other, or endure the liminality of the space between, trying to reconcile the truth of both statements. In Mormon history, particularly in the Gospel Doctrine and lay-lesson-giving type of Mormon history, the two blackboards might as well be: “Liken all scriptures unto us” vs. “the past is a foreign country.” Or, perhaps to say it another way: “God is the same yesterday, today and forever” vs. “God works within the culture of the times to bring forth his purposes.” If something makes no sense culturally, God is unlikely to find someone who will be receptive to it as a message, symbol, or concept — but at the same time, there are essentials of human biology and psychology that make some things (but which ones?) part of the universal experience of people encountering the numinous.

As an academy-trained historian, naturally I favor the latter of the two statements. My preferred conception is that the past is a parking garage of vertically stacked eras, each one occupying the same temporal footprint as the ones above and below, but representing an entirely distinct context, cultural toolkit, and way of being human. However, I find that most Mormons are much more comfortable with the former of the pair. They tend to collapse historical eras and obliterate historical specificity like that same (hopefully empty) parking garage collapsing in a large earthquake, pancaking each level on top of the one below it, until it is essentially one indistinguishable mass. They do this even if, intellectually, they might recognize the distinctiveness of former eras. This is something more worrisome than mere presentism (which would be equating the top layer with a lower one): it is the denial of the very existence of other layers.

I’m not entirely sure why the need to collapse the past is so pressing in Mormonism and why it seems so comforting in stories, testimonies and artwork to make “them” seem “just like us.” Having paintings in which white Anglo-Saxons play all the important roles is no doubt reassuring, at least to white Anglo-Saxons. In part, it must have to do with restorationism and its explanatory power in removing the stigma of the new/radical by giving it the patina of the old/familiar. Also, the sacred post-earthquake parking garage is just simpler, since one needn’t account for all the intervening layers and the complications therein. I’m also not sure what to do, now that I’ve named this phenomenon and see and hear it often in church contexts. I tend to think that even though my job is to explore the garage’s levels, my calling is to remain charitably quiet while people testify to what they believe. Still, it needles me that for a people with such a commitment to documenting and connecting to the past, we have precious little nuance in how we think and talk about it in everyday discourse.


Article filed under Memory Reflective Posts Scholarship at Church


  1. Love this, Tona. I plan to use the sacred parking garage analogy in my BYU classes this summer.

    Comment by Ben P — June 5, 2012 @ 7:42 am

  2. This is very interesting. I’ve thought about this a lot as well. I really like your parking garage analogy too.

    Comment by Jack Ply — June 5, 2012 @ 7:50 am

  3. As always, the question is how far to push the analogy. At both ends of every floor in that parking garage there are long, smooth ramps — no floor is so distinct from its neighbors that it’s easy to tell exactly where one ends and the next starts. Also, all floors share common rules: drive at a set speed limit, follow the arrows, park between the painted lines.

    When non-academy-trained Mormons approach history, we emphasize the common aspects of different eras because that’s what resonates with us. What you notice, though, are the relatively few occasions when we forget that there are differences between floors, and we drive over the edge of the 6th level as if we were on the ground floor pulling off safely onto Main Street. Not pretty, and we definitely need to be cautioned — maybe have stronger barriers built — to prevent those disasters. But please do appreciate that we’re trying to drive safely and to obey the rules that we assume (often correctly) apply on all levels of the garage.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 5, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  4. Great metaphor, Tona. I believe that many Latter-day Saints fail to recognize an underlying concept of the Gospel: God may not change, but people do, and being a just and merciful God, He gives us all the light and knowledge that we can receive within our cultural context.

    Comment by Christopher Rich — June 5, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  5. Love it!

    Comment by Trevor Price — June 5, 2012 @ 8:43 am

  6. I’ve called it temporal flattening historically, which is much less interesting than your parking lot. (interesting that it’s an image tied to Western-style high-density urbanism, highlighting the specificity of communication).
    I think it’s a broader cognitive phenomenon about attempting to reconcile complexity and simplicity. It seems important to the notion that God is the only perfectly faithful being in the universe.

    Comment by smb — June 5, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  7. It’s easy for academically trained historians (including myself) to forget that they had to learn to think historically. It’s not a skill that people are born with. The scriptures themselves in many ways militate against the kind of secular progressive framing of history that the current profession has adopted — scriptural authors often present history in terms of cycles, typologies, and an “eternal now.” A “common sense” reading of scripture, at least one that assumes that Isaiah really was talking about Jesus all along, requires (or at least strongly suggests) a substantial flattening of history. We have to remember that modern historical consciousness is a modern construct that helps us see some things while obscuring others.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — June 5, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  8. In one respect, I think that empathy requires at least some temporal collapse, even if it is different than the broad hermeneutics of the eternal now. I.e., a recognition that these historical people are not the other. At the same time, without a realization of temporal disparity, and seeing the various actors in their own context, it is very difficult if not impossible to truly empathize to any significant degree. It is consequently easy for some to view differences between history and today as aberrancy in values. I think that such perspectives leave people open to have shifts in world-view that are violent and painful.

    I also hope that there is a place for folks like me (amateur historian) to engage the topic.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 5, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

  9. I think your metaphor is brilliant.

    Not being an academy-trained historian, I wonder if I could learn to think historically on my own. Or would my naivety prevent me from recognizing when I am failing to do so.

    On the other isde of this, perhaps the urge to do this is a recognition that the difference between eras is an almost insurmountable barrier. We cross it where we can and draw perhaps spurious connections because they are better for some than no connections at all.

    It would be like converting cash transactions from 175 years ago into modern values. I vaguely recall a story of Joseph Smith doating $5 to someone in need. Those who have limited historical training might need the conversion to understand that was about $150 today. But the realities of how cash was used in the 1840’s would stil be beyond them let alone how that same $5 would be totally different from one person to the next and from Nauvoo to the Utah territory ten years later. In the absense of training, you work with what you have.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 5, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  10. Bruce (and J Stapley), I certainly didn’t intend to valorize (or worse, fetishize) academic training. Patrick is right – it’s a learned/acquired set of skills, and it does conflict with a common-sense reading of the scriptures. So I’m also not saying it’s the better, or only, way to view Mormon history. It’s just the way I prefer & have been trained to prefer.

    Bruce, your example about the money answers your own question in the affirmative whether historical thinking can be self-taught… If you’re looking for places to learn to do this without the agony of grad school see, e.g. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which shatters the (all-too-common) myth that history is 1) something to memorize and 2) something that one is either “good at” or not. Wineburg, et al would love for historical thinking to not seem like esoteric knowledge best left to professionals and I second that!

    By the way, today I’m also listening to the recent Mormon Matters podcast on the Church’s relationship to history and to its historians – good stuff there too, along these lines.

    Comment by Tona H — June 5, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

  11. I long ago decided to say very little in church. I enjoy the silence (sort of a Quaker thing.)

    I also found it interesting in studying the Middle Ages to see how they did their exegesis. To them, the scriptures were all allegorical, the historical setting was of very minor importance (Origen had a major influence on this method). It wasn’t until the Reformation when historical literalism became so important.

    Claude Levi-Strauss called history modern man’s myth. Having always liked Eliade, I’m convinced that religion is all about doing funky things with time.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 5, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  12. As an aspiring amateur historian (I have not yet begun to approach the neighborhoods where Bruce Crow and Stapley live, even though Stapley is in the next stake over), the comment about learning to think historically resonates. Your parking garage analogy works great for me, but temporal flattening somehow sounds more “scholarly.”

    If we exercise faith, we want to see God as fair and just. I often hear (and have said often enough myself) that we are glad not to have lived in pioneer times or some other era and had to deal with the physical hardships, relative poverty, or disease as they did. Surely, though, the thought goes, the pioneers would just as likely not have wanted to deal with internet pornography, the evil influences of rock music, or the other modern problems we perceive ourselves as having to deal with. Therefore, the differences between historical times and our own really are trivial, and not important.

    But if God is fair and just, as I believe him to be, then I have a greater burden to learn how to dig through the collapsed structure and try to figure out why all the cars on one level lack air conditioning, while some levels contain only Ferraris and BMWs. How else can I make sense of what really happened?

    Thanks for the pointer to Wineburg. I have also found Peter Hoffer’s The Historian’s Paradox helpful.

    Comment by kevinf — June 5, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  13. The parking garage metaphor makes perfect sense. I would chalk it up to personal revelation on your part, so most people won’t think of it unless you point it out.

    It’s really a deep subject when you start getting into it, but the parking garage makes it much easier.

    Comment by Bradley — June 5, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

  14. What I wonder is, to what extent does the gospel (whatever you take that to mean) depend on or even require non-historical thinking? It may not matter too much whether Isaiah actually had Jesus in mind when he wrote (though it raises questions about the devotional validity of some scriptures), but what about scholarship that paints a view of, say, Jesus or Joseph Smith, than LDS teachings seem to allow? Not that history must be at odds with religion, but if it’s tough to reconcile Bart Ehrman with Sunday School :). I’m just a history BAR grad but am really interested in the theoretical side of the discipline, so curious how others deal with that.

    Comment by Casey — June 5, 2012 @ 9:15 pm


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