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Point: It’s just art

Hezekiah didn’t consult with artists or historians before destroying the bronze snake Moses had made. He didn’t even try to preserve it somewhere else for its cultural value.

Art won’t save you. Great art can be used to promote awful things. I say that as someone who likes art, particularly religious art. Religious literature, religious music and the cathedral as Gesamtkunstwerk have all inspired a great deal of awe in me. I’m certainly not an iconoclast. But maybe, to a certain degree, the iconoclasts had a point.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the temple after a year of temple closures and while temples are still not yet fully open. That required a four-hour drive in each direction on roads that could be hazardous if the weather didn’t cooperate (and at times it didn’t). Our temple is one of the newer and smaller ones, and the design is not unique. But with the temple open only to those attending for their own ordinances (and just enough guests to fill out a socially-distant session), this was a rare opportunity for a dozen people.

People leapt at the chance. Not me; family history isn’t my passion, and I would have been happy to let someone else have the opportunity. But since it was my own child attending the temple for the first time, that wasn’t an option. I don’t dislike the temple—every time I’ve gone has been a profound experience, and it was again this time, too. We encounter God in the temple in a way unlike any other in our spiritual practice.

Our temple doesn’t have any murals or distinctive artwork that I’m aware of, but I’ve certainly enjoyed discovering murals in other temples. If it were up to me, I’d put murals in all the temples. But in terms of priorities for going to the temple, “admiring murals” is far down the list, and dispensable. The people who seized the opportunity to make the long drive to the temple that day weren’t there for the artwork.

The brazen serpent, no mere work of art, had been instituted by Moses himself as an implement of salvation from death in which we see a foreshadowing of Christ’s crucifixion. But Hezekiah demolished it anyway because it was becoming an object of worship in itself. I don’t think anyone’s about to burn incense to Minerva Teichart’s murals (although in light of some reactions, one does start to wonder). I’m glad to hear there’s a plan to preserve them. But compared to the temple ordinances, the murals are unimportant. They’re just art. Teichart created murals not to be displayed in the temple, but to serve the temple. They were created for a space in which art could never be equal or even comparable in significance to the sacred ordinances conducted there. Moved to another space, we can still imagine Teichart’s murals in their original setting. But to make the murals inseparable from the sacred space that housed them would not only undermine the purpose of that space—by hindering the alignment of the temple with new needs and updated ordinances—but also undermine the artwork’s original intent to serve that sacred space.

There is value in art, but we can’t let art become the basis for a hierarchy of temples: large versus small, central versus periphery, historical versus modern, architected versus iterated. The temples are not houses of God: the temple is a house of God. In a real sense, the temple ordinances bring us to the same place, no matter which temple we may be physically present in. If magnificent artwork and exquisite restoration of original craftsmanship are obscuring that fact, then we should pluck them out—or at least move them to an appropriate museum space.

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Check back tomorrow for Chad’s counterpoint. Aspects of the temple not for public discussion are not particularly relevant to this topic, but please consider yourself reminded. I’m also not interested in cranks, crackpots, conspiracy theories, or insults directed at people or things I care about, and I will delete comments along those lines without a second thought or a trace of remorse.

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