A Little Foam on the Sea of Life

January 5, 2004 | 4 comments
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We just returned from Christmas vacation, which we spent with our families in New Mexico and Utah. Nothing of any consequence happened–we played board games, split wood, and spent a lot of time in the little world of the automobile. Nonetheless, spending Christmas time with family is for me a taste of the Elysian Fields, a sort of hashhashin dream or Pilgrim’s Progress vision of the City from which one awakens to find oneself distant yet, and on an uncertain road.

Stale, flat, weary, and unprofitable are the uses of this world to me! Why must every meeting mean a parting, and why can I only value what I am forced to do without?

As you can see, the price I pay for every familial interlude is the depression that sets in when it ends. Ah, me. But you’ll either understand or you won’t, so I’ll move on.

I noticed, while driving through Salt Lake, a disconcerting sense of being under an alien yoke. The billboards for the strip clubs are prominent, the newspapers and television are as devoid of any wholesome interest as elsewhere, and everything seemed just like anywhere else in America. Nothing said to the weary traveler, you’ve come home, you’ve come out of Babylon. Whether or not Utah is really occupied terrritory or not is, of course, open to dispute. I only say that I felt emotionally that it was. I caught a wash, I think, of that great wave of longing the Jews have long had for Jerusalem and now for their temple, still inaccessible on the other side of the Wall.

So I got to wondering why Utah upset me when Nauvoo, Kirtland, and Missouri don’t? We still own all of our temples in Utah, after all, and it’s never really mentioned in the revelations. In contrast, God himself makes specific references to the other three, and Joseph Smith, the great fountain of Mormonism, lived the events of his life in them while never setting foot in the Great Basin (or, arguably, even really thinking about it). Why is it that Utah has the sense of Holy Land.

Here are some rapid ideas. I think Kirtland doesn’t worry us because it was always consciously a waypoint. Second, the failure there was largely our own, so we have none of that sense of shock and grief. No outsiders drove us out. The same is largely true with Missouri; although outsiders did drive us, our purpose there was to build an actual Zion, at which we had already failed. Like Kirtland, we never were there long enough to put down roots. Like Kirtland, our memory of it is tinged with a sense of failure. Although it is to be the site of Zion, it never was, and no significant buildings or events occurred there. Probably the most sacred site in Missouri is Liberty Jail.

Nauvoo seems a better candidate. We lost it not by our own doing, and we remember it as Beautiful. It had its miraculous foundation (Joseph Smith healing the sick of malaria), its marvelous divine manifestations (King Follett, temple ordinances), and numerous incidents still remembered in stories (the Whittlin’ and Whistlin’ Brigade). What Nauvoo most lacked was probably Time. We simply weren’t there long enough to grow attached.

Or it may be that the sacredness of Nauvoo is in the sacrifice of it. That is, it matters that the Saints were forced out mostly because they chose to remain Saints. Emphasizing the beauty of Nauvoo only goes to emphasize the sacredness of the Saints’ choice to leave. That’s why the most sacred site in Illinois, in my opinion, is Carthage Jail, which represents the choice to give up Nauvoo rather than the gospel.

Just as the Prophet’s sacrifice sacralizes Carthage jail, the sacrifice of the body of the Saints made sacred Deseret. It was there that the Saints went for their faith, their that they suffered, and, the story goes, built a society in inhospitable grounds. We came closer there than anywhere of our dreams of Zion, and came closer there than anywhere of forging an identity as a people. We found a place for Deseret in the scriptures (Mountain of the Lord, blossom like the rose), hymns (O ye Mountains High), and holidays (Pioneer Day, the Sesquicentennial).

Most importantly, Deseret is still ours. Would the Jews have bewailed Jerusalem if the Northern Kingdom had persisted? Maybe I feel the inevitable slippage of Utah the hardest because it is the only place left to us. Maybe, as time goes on and the Church becomes more and more diffuse, Missouri or Nauvoo will again become the object of our longings.

P.S. To be fair, Utah did have 1) a large number of churches and a ghastly subdivision called Temple Shadows, and 2) a disproportionate number of young couples with children. This latter heartened me when I noticed it.

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4 Responses to A Little Foam on the Sea of Life

  1. Renee on January 5, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    Missouri is home to several protestant church headquarters. It is amazing to me how many vulgar signs and businesses dot the interstate landscape there. I-70 is a major business thoroughfare. How sad it is that for this very reason, it is lined with adults stores, casinos and more – to wear down and weaken the trucker and businessman traveling. There are groups who have tried to get them shut down via city halls and protesting – even writing down plate numbers and posting to the Intenet. Unfortunately, once they are open, it’s hard to shut them down. The courts don’t exactly favor morality anymore. In Omaha, we’re dealing with a Dr. John store, this guy evidently has a slew of stores in Utah as well. Nebraska threw him in jail but the store remains open.

  2. sid on January 5, 2004 at 7:08 pm

    Same here in Michigan too – when you drive down the freeway, there are big signs inviting folks to strip joints, casinos, bars, etc. Kinda depressing, i’d daresay.

  3. clark goble on January 5, 2004 at 8:07 pm

    I can’t say that I’ve seen a billboard for a strip club anywhere in SLC. I do notice, however, that they’ve taken to advertising on the radio of late. One thing to keep in mind however is that Utah has strict laws on public nudity. The strip clubs are not allowed to have nudity, so they have to wear “pasties” which cover the nipples. Further no touching is allowed, for what I recall on the news. So they aren’t really strip clubs the way other states have them.

    One thing to keep in mind, however, is that if you allow freedom, people may very well like things you do not. My brother in law was based at Tooela in the National Guard and he said that the out of staters were endlessly complaining about the lack of strip clubs and poor alcohol.

  4. Adam Greenwood on January 6, 2004 at 11:06 am

    “if you allow freedom, people may very well like things you do not.” I’m sure that’s not how you meant it, Clark, but it trivializes the whole issue to think of it as a matter of preference. Strip clubs are a blight.

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