Pushing Toward the Temple

September 21, 2007 | 22 comments
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A while back, Dave asked about possible narratives to structure 20th or 21st century Mormons. Another way of thinking about this question is how we bridge between modern experience and our historical narratives. We need not only new stories but also ways of maintaing continuity with our old stories. Consider the two images below.

The first one was painted by the nineteenth-century Danish artist C.C.A. Christensen and shows hand-cart pioneers pushing their way toward Zion. (The painting is autobiographical, as C.C.A. was himself a hand-cart pioneer.) The second is a photograph of modern Mormons in west Africa, pushing a mini-bus through the mud of washed-out roads on a trek to the Aba, Nigeria Temple. Each image in its way is very much a product of its time. C.C.A.’s painting might be thought of as a document of 19th century migration or American expansion across North America or the poverty of mid-century Scandanavia. The African photo might be a document of the post-colonial implosion of west Africa or the challenges poor infrastructure or the perils of mini-vans on muddy roads.

Yet the same images can be seen using transhistorical stories as well. Both of them capture the sanctified and strenuous effort — “The world has need of willing men! Put your shoulder to the wheel!” — that is such an important part of Mormon spirituality. We think that religion ought to be about work, not just — or perhaps not even — belief, contemplation, or the cultivation of personal virtue. Indeed, we often speak of our faith simply as “The Work,” as in “The Work in the Hampton Roads region needs all of our efforts.” The two images share more than simply effort. They also share similar destinations. Both groups are pushing to take themselves out of the World to reach a sacred and sanctified space where they can draw closer to God. In the case of C.C.A. it was the Zion of the Great Basin. For the west Africans and their bus it is the temple. Indeed, there is a sense in which the temple is the end toward which both images push, the sacred and peculiar core of our faith that endures despite its adapatations and the changes of time and circumstance.

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22 Responses to Pushing Toward the Temple

  1. Steve Evans on September 21, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Excellent, excellent stuff Nate. I would argue that it is the transhistorical element, the commonality of that push, that makes those pictures greater than the sum of their collage. Similarly, narratives that transcend mere generational preferences will likely be the ones of real worth. Of course, this raises the question: what are those narratives? You cite the quest to reach the temple, which I think is a good one. I would also say that pioneering, whether in terms of physical treks or scientific or humanitarian aims, would be another. But the search to discover these narratives is in itself a narrative, one that seems increasingly powerful to me. Joseph Smith discovering the narrative of the Nephites, Leonard Arrington and others narrating the Saints, poseurs narrating gen X bloggernacles…

  2. Ray on September 21, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Wow! The juxtaposition of those images is striking. I wonder how many members here in the US would get out and push their car to the temple amid the mud and the muck. Thanks.

  3. Mike Parker on September 22, 2007 at 12:07 am

    The story of the Cameroon Saints’ trip to the Abu Nigeria temple can be found here:

    http://www.bsmarkham.com/mission/Africa/Aug%2005/aba.html

  4. Dave on September 22, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Wow — my post, new and improved, with photos. It strikes me that temples fit into not only some larger LDS narrative, but they also provide the basis for a thousand or ten thousand personal narratives about going to the temple. Those fellows pushing the truck out of the mud will be talking about it for years. But almost everyone can tell a story or two about getting there. Sort of an assemblage of parallel personal narratives that we all share.

  5. Melanie on September 22, 2007 at 1:26 am

    #2– I’ve heard members make similar comments… I knew a woman who over many years had amassed a room full of food storage (seriously… she served me 27 year old potato pearls… they were very tasty). She was extremely proud– in a spiritually accomplished way- of the store that she had built up that had fed her family (and her children’s families) during hard times. To her, that room was sacred space– it represented obedience and so many blessings that it would seem there was no room for any more. I think we too find ways to push our hypothetical cars through the mud, though the imagery might not be as overt.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the imagery of the handcarts & vans too… and well, I don’t have any pictures to put side by side that would be quite as potent.

  6. Norbert on September 22, 2007 at 2:39 am

    Would a picture of a car stuck in traffic on the westbound 10 freeway on the way to LA temple work as well? Or a Russian family lined up for a visa to get to Helsinki?

  7. Adam Greenwood on September 22, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Nate O., you’re on to something. I shared this post with my family.

    Norbert, I would love to see those photos too.

  8. Ray on September 22, 2007 at 11:24 am

    What Adam said. Those pictures would be great to see, Norbert.

  9. Bob on September 22, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Nate:I think you are moving in the right direction to: ” bridge between modern experience and our historical narratives. However, I am struck by how many of the above posters feel left out. It’s a very quiet tone, but they want a least a third photo, of the modern American making his way to Zion, to feel the connection.

  10. Janet on September 22, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Excellent stuff, Nate. Storytelling as a means of social identity formation doesn’t receive enough attention in our culture, IMO. We rely on the old stories, and certainly we enact and concretize identity via mythology (the Campbell kind, not “myth = hocus pocus”) but we rarely discuss how to rewrite our stories/selves as we reinvent our cultural identities. And since I have always loved Terry Tempest William’s contention that it is our stories which heal us, I find your post especially provocative. Our stories heal cultural divides which exist within the broader context of Mormon life, or they can. I desperately hope. The link these two images provides across temporal and geographic space knocks my socks off. If I wore socks, that is.

    Thanks for sharing this–excellent stuff to mull over during my weekend!

  11. Adam Greenwood on September 22, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    Janet has the right of it.

  12. Ardis Parshall on September 23, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I’ve really got nothing to add, except that these paired images have been in my mind all day. Really, this is a great instance of recognizing something that should have been obvious, but wasn’t (at least not to me) until it was pointed out. I’m going to be on the lookout for other instances, not necessarily of pushing toward the temple but of modern images that resonate with any classic historic images.

  13. Bob on September 23, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    #12: I play with a lot of photos, old and new. For a quick time trip, change your color photos to a Sepia tone. I had some vacation photos from Yosemite, everyone with that backdrop looked the were a 150 years in the past.

  14. Ray on September 23, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    I taught the HP Group lesson today – “Life’s Lessons Learned” (Elder Wirthlin – General Conference). I began by discussing the pictures in this thread – saints across time pushing their own limits in their journey toward peace in Zion. We discussed Elder Wirthlin’s “keep your eye on the ball” lesson, then went around the room sharing a lesson each of has learned in our own journeys in the Church. The African-American minister who was baptized in early 2006 said the following, almost verbatim: “I have learned that, no matter about race, people is people. We all are brothers and sisters in Christ no matter our race. I never understood that fully until I joined the Church.”

    It’s easy to focus on the racial division of the past, but his perspective touched me deeply.

    Also relevant to the pictures, a former bishop and SP Councilor, a soft-spoken and gentle professor, said about his adult daughter’s unexpected and shocking death: “I have learned that the Gospel brings peace and assurance most deeply in times of great and terrible pain and suffering. I wish I hadn’t had to learn that lesson the way I learned it, but I am grateful for having learned it.” I think that’s a narrative that transcends time and location.

  15. AHLDuke on September 23, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    I think the pictures above are great, not only as an illustration of this common narrative but also a kind of metaphor/allegory (think Pilgrim’s Progress). I agree with both Dave and Nate about the need for some structural narrative for modern Mormons, but at the same time, the narrative of the individual mortal journey is timeless. We are pushing ourselves our of the mud and wilderness of temptation and “this world” into the Promised Land/improved self/temple.

  16. JLB on September 24, 2007 at 11:01 am

    I\’ve never commented before, but wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. Great stuff!!

  17. Jacob M on September 24, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Ray, that last story almost made me cry! This is a great post. I know it was written on Friday, but I’m glad I read it this morning. What a wonderful way to start the week.

  18. Tiffany on September 24, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you! Thank you for those pictures. Just what I needed today.

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