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

12 comments for “Seek After These Things

  1. JR
    April 17, 2020 at 7:21 am

    Long ago the COJCOLDS adopted for regular use at least several of Danish Lutheran Carl Bloch’s paintings. It commissioned numerous paintings by Seventh-day Adventist Harry Anderson. The Church adopted a good number of Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist and other denominations’ hymns (texts and music) long ago and additional ones again 1985. Cyrus Dallin, the sculptor of the Salt Lake Temple Angel Moroni was not a member; it appears he was raised Presbyterian. The Church long since adopted the non-Mormon KJV of the Bible. It is well within our Church practice to adopt and use Christian arts from artists and churches of other denominations. President Spencer W. Kimball, after viewing the Christus and Thorvaldsen’s Twelve in Copenhagen declared that “the man who created these statues was surely inspired of the Lord.” Such inspiration was not prevented by Thorvaldsen’s Lutheranism or his long-term relationship with his mistress who was the wife of another man — or by his other loves.

    Your question “How do you navigate the apostasy-restoration narrative alongside recognizing that there is much we can learn from other religions?” reminds me of the similar question I’ve sometimes been asked by ward members who know I occasionally substitute as organist at Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational (UCC), Disciples of Christ, or other churches: “How do you deal with the false doctrine?” My answer: I can ignore it there just as I can ignore the false doctrine I sometimes hear at our Church. It does not prevent appreciation, service, worship, or inspiration

    There never was any good reason to suppose that the apostasy narrative meant that God did not answer prayers or otherwise inspire Christians in arts, thought, or action after the deaths of the New Testament 12 and prior to the restoration. The “long, long silence” cannot have been that kind of silence.

  2. ji
    April 17, 2020 at 7:41 am

    I prefer to think in terms of people rather than religions or other groupings or labels. The monk or whomever in 847 AD or whenever who tried to console any persons mourning for whatever reason in his community in Europe or wherever was doing God’s work, regardless of where he learned theology. If we can find his name, let’s do his work on the temple.

  3. April 17, 2020 at 10:07 am

    Chad, SUCH a good question! No big thoughts on your first question, but re: your second: I’ve really come to love Christian history. I read David Bentley Hart’s “Story of Christianity” last year, which was my first introduction to the broader cast of characters in that narrative. And I’m about a third of the way through Justo Gonzalez’s survey of Christian history. And it’s remarkable. Just remarkable. I’ll admit I teared up a bit when I read Irenaeus’ testimony to the church as he was being taken to martyrdom. Polycarp’s letter, too, is incredible. 1 Clement is LONG but wow, what a gallery of faith that is. The early “apostolic fathers,” who KNEW the apostles and carried on their work, are amazing. I’m excited to turn the page to see who I’ll read about next. (Just checked: yikes, Marcion!)

    One of the interesting parts of the first few centuries I’m reading about is: early Christians asked similar questions to the question you’re asking, Chad. Tertullian specifically said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” And Latter-day Saints are asking, “What has Christianity to do with the Restoration?” The narrative we’ve told in the last century emphasizes, like you say, the intellectual deprivation of the dark ages. But I think we’re coming to terms with the fact that the dark ages were far from dark intellectually, and even spiritually. (The book “Standing Apart” tracks this really well.) A lot of this early narrative, founded by great men like Roberts, Talmage, and JFS, was founded on protestant scholarship and old ways of thinking about history that have not dated well, AT ALL. (And granted, this view was far from universal. I mean, Wilford Woodruff said: “There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world… have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness, and deliver me from the light and intelligence that prevail in our day.” That’s awesome.)

    My tentative re-do of the narrative is that the apostasy primarily refers to the loss of priesthood, something a few Latter-day Saints have suggested elsewhere. Joseph Spencer also makes a good case (in target=”_blank”>one of his books) that a part of the apostasy was misreading the Bible by forgetting the centrality of the Abrahamic covenant for Christianity. I think the Restoration was primarily about fixing this, as well as expanding the idea of covenant. I think something like this allows us to recognize that, while God stopped short of direct intervention to restore priesthood for most of history, his Spirit still moved in and through a variety of people and they–doing their genuine darndest–sought God’s will as they adapted to hellenization, imperial rule, the fall of empire, the medieval world, the enlightenment, globalization, etc. And I’d LOVE to Latter-day Saints who study the Church fathers (something Givens has tried to lead out on), or early creeds (i.e. like Lincoln Blumell has discussed), or the medieval eras–not to diss them, but to show respect and admiration for them, using the best (and newest) scholarship to shed an LDS perspective on (what does this look like from the vantage point of the Restoration?) and to mine it for gems and amazing stories of faith. Which I think we can do, if we’re open to re-writing the narrative, which–as you suggested–we seem to be doing implicitly by adopting things such as the liturgical calendar.

  4. April 17, 2020 at 10:24 am

    I think the new symbol is beautiful. My only problems with is come from (for lack of a better phrase) “branding theory”. Using artwork from non-LDS artists is great, using sermons from non-LDS theologians is great, using something that’s owned by another church as your primary symbol, not great. Branding campaigns don’t work if the people your “advertising” to come off thinking that you’re advertising for someone else. I suspect that many members have an LDS only or bust approach to religious knowledge, so I love those Joseph Smith and Brigham Young quotes. I still think that the choice of icon is problematic. Not only do I think that it’s problematic, I still know that the church is true.

  5. Chad Nielsen
    April 17, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Bryan, you’ll have to let me know how the Gonzalez books are once you’ve finished them. I’ve had my eye on them for a while, but haven’t gotten to them yet. One of my favorite reads on the subject was Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Christian history is such a fascinating topic, and I feel like there is so much richness there available that we can draw on. I’m planning on delving into the early Church Fathers more (possibly after I finish my current Book of Mormon literature binge)–I’m particularly interested in reading more of what Origin of Alexandria had to say.

    jader3rd, you do bring up a good point. My hope is that given how much the statue has been used at temples, temple open houses, and visitor centers, that it is still fairly recognizable as being associated with the Church, but still not the best approach to branding. Perhaps it will be a stepping stone to a more uniquely Mormon image of Christ in the future.

    JR and ji, I like your perspectives and tend to agree. While I was involved at the Presbyterian Church in their bell choir, I didn’t always agree with what they believed or taught, but I still felt the Spirit and drew closer to God through their worship services that I attended. I also don’t think that God would just leave the earth alone for that long, but continued to work in a varieties of ways among His children.

  6. Wayfaring Stranger
    April 19, 2020 at 6:05 am

    From the time I was in first grade and my Lutheran teacher invited my class to participate in her church wedding to second grade to when I read a true story about a Jewish family who lived in New York at the turn of the 20th century that made me want to learn more about Judaism I’ve been interested in learning about and understanding the teachings of other religions from an early age. Our next door neighbors were Irish Catholics who fascinated me with their rosary beads, crucifixes in every room and their celebrations of Advent and Lent. My favorite book at school was “The World’s Great Religions” which I would check out over and over again. (Nobody else had ever done so before or after me.) As a young musician in jr. high, high school and at BYU and since then as a professional musician I’ve been blessed to participate in a large variety of Christian and non-Christian worship services through my music. Early on in jr. high I became bothered by Joseph Smith’s claim that all other religions were abominations because the sermons that I listened to, with a few exceptions, were exactly the sort of thing that I would have heard in my own ward-except that they were generally a lot more interesting. When I heard Sunday School or seminary teachers bragging about how “only we have the truth” in class I’d raise my hand and share my experiences regarding attending the worship services of other faiths with the class and how much of our beliefs matched. The reaction was always the same. The adult teachers would either tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about because what I was saying ran counter to Joseph Smith’s teaching which then implied that I was either a poor dupe or was already treading the path to apostasy (real words from one teacher!), or else they would ignore my comments and act as if I’d never even spoken. Members of the Church should not only use the art and music of other faiths when appropriate, but it would be helpful for all members to have a basic knowledge of early church history after the the death of the apostles as has been mentioned above as well as an understanding of the beliefs that we hold in common with other faiths. I’m quite sure that the average church member would be exceedingly surprised by the number of basic beliefs that we have in common with our brothers and sisters of other faiths. In this day and age ignorance of such matters does our church and the members no good. We come off looking either very backward or else full of ourselves. Neither is a good look for a worldwide church.

  7. JR
    April 19, 2020 at 7:22 am

    WS” “the sermons that I listened to, with a few exceptions, were exactly the sort of thing that I would have heard in my own ward-except that they were generally a lot more interesting.”

    Exactly my experience also in years of serving as organist in many different denominations. My limited experience in objecting publicly to caricatures of other faiths in our Church classes has not always met with the same reactions reported by Wayfaring Stranger. Perhaps I’ve been blessed to encounter some teachers who can acknowledge their incomplete understanding and apologize for denigrating others.

  8. anon
    April 19, 2020 at 8:33 am

    A few years ago, my mother-in-law, an admirable and remarkable person and/but a life-long, dyed-in-the-wool Mormon, had to spend some time with an elderly couple who were Episcopalians. Afterwards she reported liking them very much. “They believe in a lot of the same things we do,” she said with enthusiasm, meaning things like the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, etc. This evidently came as a surprise to her– which is not such a surprise given the descriptions she’d heard during all her years in the church. I think we’re gradually getting better in that respect, although there was something of a reversion in the last general conference.

  9. Not a Cougar
    April 21, 2020 at 8:47 am

    If the point is to signal that we are Christians, then I fully support simply adopting the cross as our outward symbol. I have to admit I’ve never been sold on the main explanation I’ve been taught for why we don’t use it as a symbol (our “focus on the living Christ” which really just assumes other Christians somehow skipped the Resurrection altogether).

  10. Tiffany Dawn Wacaser
    April 23, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    One argument you’ve used is that Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue is a symbol of Lutheran Christianity. I lived in Southern Sweden (Skane) for several years. Skane was hotly contested between Denmark and Sweden for many years. Skane’s culture is an interesting mashup of Danish and Swedish traditions. I’ve been to many churches around Southern Sweden and a few in Copenhagen. I would argue that the Christus as a symbol is unique to Thorvaldsen and the church where it stands, rather than Lutheran Christianity as a whole, which spreads across different countries in Europe and in the United States. Most churches I’ve been in Denmark and Sweden show the crucified Christ on the cross as their main symbol. I think most Christian denominations use the crucified Christ on the cross as their primary symbol. Additionally, Var Fru Krykan in Copenhagen is unusual because it is so white and bright, compared to the wood and dark interiors of other churches in Southern Sweden. The point is that both the Christus and the church are unusual and not the standard in the Scandinavian region in regards to Lutheran church buildings.

  11. April 23, 2020 at 2:32 pm

    In terms of books that discuss the broad sweep of Christian history, I’ll put in a plug for Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years. Yes, you only get half of the story, but it’s incredibly well told and very digestible. And lots of attention paid to places that are often forgotten, such as Ethiopia and China. I’ve used Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book sometimes, but it is a heavy lift.

    Could one draw an analogy between Protestant churches’ view of the Catholic Church and Latter-day Saint views of all other churches? In other words, a shift to a much softer understanding of apostasy.

  12. Chad Nielsen
    April 23, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    That’s good to know, Tiffany, thank you. To be honest, in my mind, I was trying to say that statue is well known and is of Lutheran origins rather than trying to say that it was a symbol of all Lutheranism, but your point is taken and I apologize if I wasn’t clear on that in the OP. That’s also some interesting information to know.

    jgturner52, I’ll have to read Wilken’s book too when I get the chance. Thanks for the suggestion! Could you elaborate on what the view of Protestant churches towards the Catholic Church is that you have in mind? I’ve heard quite a few different levels of intensity in antipathy towards the Catholic Church at different Protestant churches and probably have some gaps in my education on that subject.

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