I tried to ask this question earlier, in the context of The Passion, but it pretty quickly got lost in another round of beating the moribund R-rated movies horse. So I’ll ask again, without the attempt at pop-culture referentiality.
How has Mormon Christology changed in the last half-century or so? And why?
My sense is that there is not only a new emphasis on Christ, but also a shift in the aspects of Christ’s role and maybe even his personality that are privileged. I haven’t done an analysis of General Conference sermons, but I have spent some time looking at the Jesus Mormon children learn about in Primary songbooks. (I know–when I talked about the research of this summer’s Smith Institute Fellows, not one commenter expressed interest in my paper; I am now forcing you to be interested!!)
In 1951, when The Children Sing was published, there were 16 songs about Jesus in the songbook. Of these, many were rather vaguely about “the Lord;” the ones that were specifically about Jesus dealt almost exlusively with either Christ’s kindness to children during his earthly sojourn or about his life as a pattern to be followed (e.g. “Jesus Once Was a Little Child.” Sing With Me, published in 1969, added 11 Sacrament Songs (for Jr. Sunday School) to these 16. However, even the sacrament songs don’t refer specifically to Christ’s death–only three mention that he died, and only one contains the word “cross.”
The 1989 Children’s Songbook, in contrast, contains 49 (!) songs about Jesus, many of which are quite specific about Christ’s death, even describing the wounds in his hands, and even more of which teach about the atonement–the role of Christ’s death in the plan of salvation.
It seems to me that this example (and I feel certain that an analysis of GC talks, Ensign articles, etc. would demonstrate similar trends) reflects a real change, perhaps not in the fundamental doctrine of the Atonement, but certainly in our understanding of its centrality. Also, it seems to me that we are much more comfortable with talk about the cross and about grace, which used to seem too Catholic and too Protestant, respectively, to fit into Mormon discourse. It’s hard for me not to think that this change makes a big difference in how people are talking about “The Passion of the Christ” and in how many Mormons will see it. Even the Church-produced “Lamb of God” is hard to imagine in the Church of the early 70s. As late as the 80s, we made “Easter Dream,” which was all about families and the resurrection, and kind of skimmed over the crucifixion.
So, I’m interested in your speculations about where this change comes from (if, indeed, you agree that there is some change). Is it just a refinement of our understanding, the natural progression of a young church? Is it related to our missionary program, either an attempt from our direction to reach out to other Christians in a way they will understand, or, from the other direction, an assimilation of the understandings of converts to our church? Is it actually doctrinal change, or does it grow out of the means of cultural production? That is, does the fact of artists and poets and filmmakers being drawn to the cross make a difference in how the rest of the church membership perceives the doctrine?