Despite possessing the distinct stench of desperation to fill summer timeslots, the strange special Mass Moon Wedding is classic TLC—a reality show that explores a subculture through the lens of an unconventional wedding tradition. In this case, the culture in question is that of “self-proclaimed messiah” Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church (full name: The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity) in South Korea in 1954. The basic tenets of the religion are relatively similar to more widely practiced sects of Christianity; it’s the guru-style, all powerful leader, strict rules about smoking, drinking, dating, and abstinence, and idiosyncrasies of daily practice that capture the imagination. The most publicly off-the-wall of these practices is a mass wedding that takes place so that the reverend might bless every marriage within the faith personally.
The show follows three devotees of Reverend Moon, children of those who converted in the 1970s, as they prepare to take part in a mass wedding in Seoul, South Korea. Toby, a nerdy 21-year-old American youth pastor who unconvincingly brags about rebel days drinkin’ and datin’ before coming back to the church, has been paired with a bubbly young girl named Sunny, who is apparently okay with Toby’s bad boy past because he is still a virgin. Réamonn, a long-haired, soft-spoken U.K. musician is paired up with Argentinian-born Lisa in the course of the show, allowing viewers to come along on their first date. His dad is also there—after all, so why not? Fellow Brit Elisa has known her fiancee, a Czech dreamboat named Andre, for a few months and is thrilled to marry him but seems to have issues with blending into a group on her wedding day.
The structure of the show makes it feel as though it’s just zipped through the good stuff; couples already know each other, like each other, have accepted their parents’ choices for them despite having grown up in cultures that are frequently at odds with their minority beliefs. (Unlike some relatively recent Christianity offshoots, followers of the movement don’t cloister themselves away from the rest of society or even tend to congregate in one country or region). In the case of Réamonn and Lisa, the one couple who meet over the course of the show, the camera follows them to the airport, fifth-wheels it up on one date to the ice skating rink, and then “Poof!”—three weeks later and they have decided they’re down with the nuptials. Lisa sounds so wince-inducingly neutral about the whole thing it is impossible not to wonder what led her to this decision; perhaps she found her answer during those three lost weeks. Réamonn must share these concerns because shortly before the show aired, he put this video on YouTube, which voices criticisms that the show “is limited in explaining the reasons we decided to take part in this event, and what it actually means to us. It doesn’t do such a great job of showing our individual decisions.”
What is more fascinating about the Mooninites than the mass wedding—something that occurs in other cultures for reasons of tradition or logistics—is the fact that Reverend Moon not only encourages couples to be paired up by their parents, but also hopes for international marriages in the belief that they promote peace. Genius. He is creating a post-race breed of super people I am convinced will eventually evolve into the elite mutant fighters known as The X-Men. If the congregation of the Unification Church ever suddenly triples in number and decides to take up arms, batten the hatches because they are going to be beyond the silly recessive traits that plague less diverse gene pools, blindingly attractive, and speak like four languages apiece.
The highest honor among followers is to be paired by the good reverend himself, even though that means being assigned to a complete and total stranger. People like Naomi, (who’s featured in a little bonus segment of the show after marrying her fiancé of three days), are agreeing to something beyond even what the conventional understanding of arranged marriages consists of. In cultures around the world people might be fixed up by their parents, but it’s based on background, family connections, etc. In general, these are “good on paper” matches. When Reverend Moon matches two people together, it’s based on… looks? Faith? Feelings? I have no idea, really. It is one of the most fascinating aspects of the religion and its marriage rituals, but one the show hardly gets into.
At one point Elisa mentions her high school friends assuming she was a lesbian due to her religion-requisite premarital virginity, which brings up questions about the place of homosexuality in this culture. The Moon religion is still rather mysterious on U.S. shores and, according to the show, deeply misunderstood, so a more straightforward exploration might have answered more questions like this one. TLC’s bread and butter is wedding and marriage shows—Four Weddings, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, Say Yes To The Dress, Sister Wives—so it makes sense that the documentary approaches the topic through the marital prism. However, it often feels that intriguing broader facts and deeper philosophies of the religion and its followers are shoehorned into wedding gown trials and giggly hand holding because the mass weddings are the most famous/infamous aspect of the Unification Church, and TLC knows that world.
This show should have been called A Brief Introduction To Life On The Moon; it conveys just enough bewildering facts and figures about the religion’s marital practices to spark interest in what the Unification Church is all about without actually providing that information, particularly when it comes to beliefs beyond marriage. What it lacks in sensitivity and detail it makes up for in intrigue that booted me down a rabbit hole of frenzied Googling. Do you know the Unification Movement is the largest U.S. sushi-restaurant owner, manages the top Asian ballet company, and was once the largest foreign investor in China? No wonder followers all get married at once; one big wedding is all they’ve got time for.
- Mass Moon Wedding by the numbers: There are 2,000 couples from over 54 countries at the wedding featured on the show, all of whom have to pay $3,000 for the all-inclusive ceremony. Brides are squeezed in about 8 to a room, and couples have to wait 40 days after marrying to consummate. The Unification Church says the divorce rate among their members is just 17 percent.
- Despite the reported having 7 million Unification Church followers in dozens of countries around the world, the producers of this show focussed on three white Westerners. How much more exciting would it have been to follow, for example, Lisa from Venezuela, Andre from the Czech Republic, and just one, perhaps more relatable to American audiences Yank to this mass wedding?