You can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project (including a link to the text of the book Approaching Zion) here.
Interestingly enough, this chapter seems to be less focused on Zion and more focused on the Church more broadly. Still, Zion sneaks in, even discussing the Church. As always, a couple things I found interesting:
The Third Dimension
Nibley talks about how our world is a flat, two-dimensional world, unless we have experienced the “indispensable third dimension to the gospel” (154). Art, he says (including the sublime art and architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica) provides the illusion of the third dimension, but fails to actually achieve it.
And, to the extent Nibley’s right about that, it puts inordinate pressure on us. Because St. Peter’s Basilica is stunning. It is a marvel, designed to turn our thoughts and hearts to heaven, to Jesus and His sacrifice. There is nothing flat about it, or about the art that fills it.
And, speaking of art: today, after four years teaching at Loyola, I finally went (with my family) to its art museum. Unfortunately, we missed the Chagall exhibit (though his America Windows grace the Art Institute), but we were able to see the permanent collection, with its Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque religious art. And the art elevated me; these artists’ conception of Jesus, of Mary gently cradling him, or of Satan and death being crushed beneath the cross offered me new ways to perceive and think about religion. The best art does that.
So if even the best art provides only the illusion of the third dimension of the gospel, that third dimension must be something spectacular. And it must be something worthy of our time and effort. Because two dimensions can be remarkable of themselves.
“Grim Commercialism and Ugly Litter”
Nibley bemoans the changes in the Utah landscape between the 1940s, when he first arrived, and 1979, when he delivered this address. He talks of Utah as a joy and delight, but says that “no my friends no longer come on visits as they once did, to escape the grim commercialism and ugly litter of the East and the West Coast” (158).[fn1]
To which I must respond in two ways: first, there’s an attitude I’ve seen, especially in New York, but also in Chicago, that I find unproductive and unhealthy. People sometimes move there and here grudgingly, and mark time, actively waiting until their current job is done and they can move away from the hateful (grim and ugly) city and back to Utah.
Now let me pause here and say, I don’t mean this as a condemnation of Utah or Utahns. It certainly isn’t unique to Utahns—18-year-old Californians who go to school at BYU often enter Utah with a chip on their shoulder,[fn2] and New Yorkers are notoriously insular with respect to the rest of the country.[fn3]
The problem with marking time grudgingly is, you don’t actually live life, you don’t contribute to the community you’re in, and you don’t let the community contribute to you. Even a temporary residence gives you enough time to give and take, while many temporary residences have ended up lasting a whole lot longer than expected.
The second major problem: calling the East and West Coasts grimly commercial and littered is, frankly, uncharitable and inaccurate and does a huge disservice to the coasts.
Look, I get that he loves the look of Utah (or, at least, Utah from the 1940s). That’s a perfectly fine aesthetic judgment; it is not, though, an objective one. Me, I love the rolling hills and vistas of Southern California. My wife, on the other hand, who grew up in South Carolina, loves densely forrested land, with brilliantly green trees that impede the view. (Though, frankly, if anything could sell me on densely-wooded, super-green land, it would be New York’s Hudson River Valley. Because wow.)
I’ve not been sold on the Midwestern landscape; like I said, I like rolling hills and vistas. But Chicago is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve seen, especially if you look at the downtown over Lake Michigan or drive past it on Lake Shore Drive.[fn4] Or go to the West Loop and look across the Chicago River.
That is, I’m fine that Nibley really, truly loves the Utah of the past. Many people—people with impeccable taste—do. But you can get similarly unspoiled beauty in plenty of other places, and man-made beauty in plenty of other places (although I’m partial to the architecture of Chicago, New York’s a pretty cool city, too, Kent!). I don’t know that there’s any spiritual superiority to the beauty of Utah over the beauty of New York, California, South Carolina, Chicago, Italy,[fn5] or whatever your beautiful place is.
- Interestingly, as Nibley proselytizes his views on consecration, he also urges charity toward our fellow Saints. Although he’s quite convinced that his reading of scripture is right, he says, “What about Brother So-and-So or President So-and So [sic]? He is free to do as he pleases [in keeping his covenants]; I did not covenant with him! I knew quite well what I was promising to do and when and where I was to do it, and why—now it is up to me!” (170-71). This, I believe, is a healthy and charitable approach. Nibley may well believe that his covenants demand that he eschew the pursuit of wealth. He may even teach it. But in the end, what he has covenanted to do is between him and the Lord; concomitantly, what President So-and So has covenanted to do is between him or her and the Lord.
- Nibley wonders, though he claims not to care, if the Law of Consecration (by which he essentially seems to mean Kirtland’s United Order is realistic and practical. From a tax perspective, it just might be; remind me, sometime, to post about section 501(d) of the Internal Revenue Code.
- Nibley writes, “The St. George Temple is now lost in a neon jungle and suburban tidal-wash of brash, ticky-tacky commercialism” (157). I can’t read “ticky-tacky” without thinking of Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,”[fn6] Was Nibley a Pete Seeger fan? They do share certain views toward capitalism and careers, and it would make a lot of sense that Nibley got the term from Seeger. On the other hand, maybe “ticky-tacky” was a common (derisive) phrase in the 60s and 70s.
- I’m uncomfortable with Nibley’s views on other religions. But, of course, we now live in an era where the Church is much more interested in dialogue with other religions, and in which we acknowledge that all religions offer good things, if not everything, to adherents. It’s a generational change I’m very happy with (see, e.g., above, where I talk approvingly of St. Peter’s and of a Catholic university’s art museum as being spiritually edifying).
- I find some of his history, especially as it relates to other religions (especially as it regards charismatic performance), to be suspect. But, of course, he was speaking almost 35 years ago; we have access to more information than he had access to.
Please note that I don’t mean the final two points as criticisms of Nibley. Attitudes and knowledge change generationally. I suspect that, had Nibley been delivering this address today, its message would be the same, but its details different. Which is to say, I’m not interested in criticisms of Nibley the person in the comments; I am, however, interested with engagement with his (or my, or your) ideas.
[fn1] I’ll assume he would have said the same about the Third Coast.
[fn2] Or, at least, 18-year-old Californians who went to BYU almost 20 years ago. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.
[fn3] Though interestingly enough, Utah made the map.
[fn4] I wanted to put up a picture I’d taken the other day, but it turns out that my family’s in the foreground, and, although I love blogging, I also love maintaining their privacy. So instead I chose a picture that doesn’t entirely do justice to Chicago, but comes close to what I wanted to show.
[fn5] Actually, Italy may trump most of my examples.
[fn6] Yes, the link is to Walk Off the Earth’s version of “Little Boxes,” Not Seeger’s. Sorry.