Is the Church lying to us through its art?

Is the Church lying to us through its art? February 19, 2019

 

Perugino, Peter, Jesus, and the Keys
“Christ Handing the Keys to Peter,” Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, by Pietro Perugino (1481-1482)
Incidentally, this isn’t a Latter-day Saint painting and it may not be 100% historically accurate.  (Wikimedia CC public domain image)

 

I doubt that there’s any room left in your bulging Christopher Hitchens Memorial “Religion Poisons Everything” File, but, just in case there’s some area in which to cram some more, you’ll find a rich abundance of blood-curdling evil in this thing:

 

“2018 LDS Charities Annual Report”

 

It should actually have been titled Heart of Darkness, but — mwahahahaha! — I already own the copyright to that title for my autobiography.

 

If you have only a very little disposable space, though, there’s a shorter piece about it, a summary article:

 

“LDS Charities Releases 2018 Annual Report: Millions served in 141 countries and territories”

 

***

 

A few days ago, President Russell M. Nelson published an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic, at the invitation of the newspaper’s editors.  That article has now appeared in USA Today:

 

“Why have faith now? ‘Nothing man-made can ever approach what God can do for His children.'”

 

***

 

Some will find this interesting, about a Latter-day Saint baseball player:

 

“Bryce Harper Rumors: Phillies, Star Nearing Deal, Will Receive More Than $300M”

 

I’m a “Mormon apologist,” it’s true.  I admit it.  But, improbable as it may sound, that’s even more than I make.

 

***

 

I’ve often seen the claim over the years that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is misrepresenting its history by means of its commissioned art.

 

I understand where the claim comes from, but it seems to me misguided.

 

First of all, I would like to know who, exactly, “the Church” might be.

 

We don’t have a professional clergy or clerical caste, separated from the laity by years of divinity school, a distinct job choice or professional career path, celibacy, priestly vestments, or residency in a monastery or a parsonage.  In a sense, the highest ranks of LDS leadership aren’t even separated from “laymen” by ordination; priesthood ordination is extremely widely distributed in Mormonism, to any male above twelve years of age who’s been determined worthy.

 

The top leadership are, in a fundamental sense, just like the rest of us — or just like the rest of us Mormon men, anyway.  They were baptized, went through Sunday school and youth programs, served missions, were called to elders quorum presidencies and bishoprics and high councils and stake presidencies, worked in the welfare cannery, helped people to move, led Scout trips — and then, at some point, almost certainly out of the blue and to their considerable surprise, were sustained to full-time Church service.  They live in ordinary communities, are married, have normal families, and, when they can, attend the normal local wards to which they belong.

 

At what point, exactly, do the critics imagine that these men became experts on the early history of the Restoration and the Church?

 

It wasn’t at theological school.  Like Peter, James, John, and the other early apostles of Jesus, they haven’t received formal training for the ministry.

 

Was historical expertise bestowed upon them when they were ordained bishops?

 

Plainly, no.

 

Does the typical bishop — busy with the myriad demands of running a local congregation and attending to the needs of his flock, on top of his own family responsibilities and his job as a businessman or lawyer or accountant or high school English teacher or wheat farmer or dentist or shop foreman — suddenly receive historical expertise at his ordination?  Is he suddenly given a grant of additional daily hours beyond the normal twenty-four, in which he can pursue deep historical and theological research?  Is your bishop an authority on early Mormon documents?

 

Perhaps that expertise is granted when he becomes a stake president, or a mission president?

 

Hardly likely.

 

But, a critic might say, the General Authorities are full-time.  And, surely, that provides them the opportunity to burrow down into the archives and learn the full (and, in some critics’ imaginations, the sordid) truth about Mormon origins.

 

Anybody who knows what the actual lives of General Authorities are like will immediately know the unreality of this scenario:  The life of a General Authority is an endless round of stake organizations and reorganizations, committee meetings on Church finances, approving bishops, counseling with local leaders, assigning missionaries, responding to national and multinational legal issues in all of the nations where the Church has members, calling mission presidents, traveling around the world, dealing with the most difficult questions of Church discipline, attending to diplomatic challenges, managing translations, administering a worldwide organization with properties and schools in scores of countries, supervising humanitarian aid, and so forth and so on.

 

None of this automatically confers the equivalent of a doctorate in early American religious history.  None of it — however demanding and mind-stretching it may be (and is) — functions as graduate training in systematic theology.

 

In other words, and I say this without in any way wanting to condescend to them or demean them, the leadership of the Church tend to represent very closely, to “track,” the attitudes and the level of historical and scriptural expertise of the most committed elements of the general membership of the Church.  It cannot be otherwise, because our leadership is drawn from our general membership.

 

Let me be very careful and clear here:  As it happens, I know many General Authorities.   But that only strengthens what I’m about to say.  It doesn’t weaken it:  I hold them in the greatest respect, and I value them for attributes quite unrelated to whether or not they’ve been certified by the academic guild.  Their qualifications don’t derive from their scholarly attainments, whatever those may or may not be.

 

Graduate degrees, deep historical studies, and academic sophistication weren’t required anciently, and they’re not required today:

 

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.  (Matthew 16:13-17)

 

Or, as the paraphrastic modern New Living Translation renders that last verse:

 

Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being.”

 

He didn’t learn it from the faculty of Yale Divinity School or Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union or Princeton Theological Seminary.  He didn’t arrive at it via graduate seminars in the history of religion.

 

The leaders of the Church are called to be administrators of a very big and complex international non-profit organization.  But, more importantly and essentially, they’re called to be witnesses, to bear testimony.  Not to be scholars, not to function as academic historians, but to be witnesses.  That’s their strength, as it was Peter’s.

 

And they’re called from within our ranks.

 

They are us.

 

And there is, really, nothing utterly separate from the run-of-the-mill active, believing Latter-day Saint that is called “the Church.”  For better or worse, we “Mormons” are the Church.

 

And precisely the same things can be said about our artists.

 

Posted from Richmond, Virginia

 

 

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