Seek After These Things

There is a part of me that is deeply drawn to the Christian religions that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years.  Perhaps that comes from my fascination with history (particularly the Byzantine Empire), perhaps from beautiful experiences with choral music written by Christians from the Renaissance up through our own day.  Perhaps some comes from spending the better part of a decade involved in the music ministry of a small Presbyterian Church in northern Utah.  And perhaps some comes from my fascination with theology and learning how different people have addressed the difficulties associated with the subject over the centuries.  Whatever the case, there is something in me that longs for the best that Christianity has to offer in transcending this world and bringing humankind into God’s presence.

Yet, on the other hand I feel cut off from that tradition because of my belief in the Great Apostasy. It is one of the ironies of our religion that we seek to be recognized as Christian while simultaneously dismissing Christian religions as apostate.  It is also one of my personal mental tensions to feel drawn to the past and to the best that other religions offer, but to feel unable to fully embrace those things at church without worrying about betraying my own community to some degree.

Perhaps Joseph Smith felt something of that same tug-of-war.  On the one hand, he believed that “<mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament,”[1] and that “we may look at the Christian world and see the apostacy there has been from the Apostolic platform.”[2]  Yet, he also encouraged Latter Day Saints that: “If there is any thing virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praise worthy we seek after these things.”[3]  As he stated on other occasions: “[If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth. embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world [and you will] come out a pure Mormon,”[4]  and that “the Latter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.”[5]  The Prophet Joseph Smith seemed to feel both torn to look for the best among other religions and to reject them as apostate at the same time.

This same tension has surfaced again in the discussions about the new symbol for the Church.  For example, in a discussion thread over at the Wheat and Tares blog, one commenter said that: “So now I guess we say the Church’s symbol is a Lutheran Jesus.  There’s some irony to introduce that on the same weekend as celebrating the First Vision.”[6]  Another noted that “there’s nothing uniquely Mormon about it as the Christus is an iconic Danish Lutheran statue, not an LDS statue at all. … That’s not great from a branding standpoint, but it reveals ideological purity.”[7]  The author of the post joked in response that: “Maybe we will adopt other Lutheran doctrines and practices in coming Conferences. Call it the Uchtdorf Initiative,” which he said would be “kind of like the Avengers Initiative.”  He added that “the Lutheran roots do present something of a conundrum.”[8]  There is, in these words, concern about adopting a Lutheran statue as our symbol.

Perhaps it’s the side of me that feels drawn to embrace older Christian traditions, but I don’t feel like the Lutheran origins of the statue is problematic for Latter-day Saints.  I recognize there is some irony in claiming that we are part of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which … the Lord [is] well pleased” (D&C 1:30) and then looking abroad for icons to use for our church.  As mentioned above, however, Joseph Smith encouraged Latter-day Saints to seek after things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praise worthy” and to “get all the good in the world.”  President Brigham Young also expressed that “we believe in all good.  If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine.  We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.”[9]  If we accept these statements as true, then Dave B.’s suggestion of learning at the feet of Lutheranism (the “Uchtdorf Initiative”) is not so farfetched (at least in theory).  For one example, the Church has (in part due to Elder Uchtdorf) already begun embracing some of the Liturgical calendar in recent years, including the Light the World campaign for Advent and the Hear Him campaign for Holy Week.[10]  Moving beyond embracing truths, however, these statements could be applied to art as well.  As President Young said elsewhere: “All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom.”[11]  With that in mind, Christian artwork that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy can and should be adopted for use in the Church, whatever its origins.

Church leaders seem to have felt that this was the case when they procured a copy of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus and have continued to feel so since that time.  As the 19th century Latter-day Saint George Reynolds expressed, it is “a very dignified example of the conventional idea of the appearance of the Redeemer when he tabernacled in the flesh.”[12]  More recently, Elder M. Russell Ballard stated that: “This stunning work of art captures the loving, benevolent spirit of the resurrected Lord, His arms outstretched, kindly beckoning all to come unto Him.”[13]  With those statements in mind, the statue certainly falls within the bounds of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s calls to seek after lovely or praiseworthy things. When architect George Cannon Young began designing a new Bureau of Information at Temple Square in the 1950s, Elder Richard L. Evans complained that “the world thinks we are not Christian … they see no evidence of Christ on this square.”[14]  Elder Stephen L. Richards, who had seen both the original statue and copies of it, obtained a replica of the Christus statue and donating it to the Church in hopes that it would become “one of the outstanding points of interest on our Temple Square.”[15]  The statue was placed in the North Visitor’s Center in the early or mid-1960s, while a second copy was used to great success at the Mormon Pavilion of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, showing that the “pavilion is centered around Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures.”  Since then, tens of millions of people have seen copies of the statue at Latter-day Saint visitor centers and temple grounds around the world.  The Church’s ongoing use of the statue has been so prominent that it has become recognizable to some non-Mormons as being associated with the Church, even through it is an iconic Lutheran statue with replicas around the world.[16]  Despite its Lutheran origins, the statue has become one of the Church’s most effective tools for convincing the world that we believe in Jesus the Christ.

Thus, I do not think that it’s a problem to adopt artwork or styles of Lutheran (or other faiths) as parts of our symbol.  Thorvaldsen’s Christus has been used so extensively by the Church during the last half century that it has become, at least in part, identified with our religion.  In a way, that makes the statue one of the few Christ-centered symbol readily available for branding purposes that is already associated with the Church.  Early Latter-day Saint leaders also expressed a desire to embracing all that is good in the world as part of our religion, and the dignified and stunning Christus statue falls under that category.  Finally, the statue stands as a symbol of our efforts to lay claim to our Christian heritage and as an olive branch extended to all Christianity, acknowledging the common ground we share despite our claims to being the one true religion.

 

Possible Questions for Discussion:

  • Do you agree that it is appropriate to use a representation of Christ originally made for use by Danish Lutherans as the centerpiece of the symbol of our Church? Why or why not?
  • How do you navigate the apostasy-restoration narrative alongside recognizing that there is much we can learn from other religions?

 

Further Reading:

Matthew O. Richardson, “Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christs: a Mormon Icon,” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 29, No. 1, 2003 66-100.

Catherine Gines Taylor, “An Art Historian’s Perspective on Christ in Triumph,” Maxwell Institute of Religion Blog, 12 April 2020.

 

Footnotes:

[1] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2

[2] “Letter to Noah C. Saxton, 4 January 1833,” pp. 15-16, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-noah-c-saxton-4-january-1833/3

[3] ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 710, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/5

[4] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition. The brackets are added from clarity, and the longer sections added are taken from the History of the Church rendition of the sermon.

[5] Cited in Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude.”

[6] bdb, 7 April 2020 at 6:00 p.m. comment on Dave B., “Conference Recap: What Was Said and What Was Not Said,” Wheat And Tares, 7 April 2020, https://wheatandtares.org/2020/04/07/conference-recap-what-was-said-and-what-was-not-said/.

[7] Angela C., 8 April 2020 at 12:54 p.m., comment on Dave B., “Conference Recap.”

[8] Dave B., 7 April 2020 at 6:41 p.m., comment on Dave B., “Conference Recap” and Dave B., 9 April 2020 at 3:01 p.m., comment on Dave B., “Conference Recap.”

[9] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 13:335.  Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 16, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-2?lang=eng.

[10] I mention President Uchtdorf’s influence because he has been one of the most vocal general authorities in discussing the idea of observing Advent and Holy Week (see, for example Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Seeing Christmas through New Eyes,” 2010 First Presidency Christmas Devotional, December 5, 2010 and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Way of the Disciple,” CR, April 2009.)

[11] Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 16.

[12] George Reynolds, “The Personal Appearance of the Savior,” Juvenile Instructor, August 15 1904, 497-500.  Cited in John G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 269.

[13] Julie A. Dockstader, “Festive Lights Reflect Love of Christ,” Church News, 1 December 1990, 7, https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/1990-12-01/festive-lights-reflect-love-of-christ-147853.

[14] George Cannon Young’s collection in George Cannon Young oral interview, transcript by Hugo Olaiz, cited in Turner, Mormon Jesus, 270.

[15] Cited in Turner, Mormon Jesus, 270.

[16] See Matthew O. Richardson, “Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christs: a Mormon Icon,” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 29, No. 1, 2003 66-100. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1040&context=mormonhistory

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