In the most recent General Conference of the LDS Church Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated the following:
“Not often but over the years some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don’t know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times.
“As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth. I bear personal witness of how thoroughly good they are, of how hard they work, and how humbly they live. It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it. It is true light shining in a dark world, and it shines from these proceedings.”
There were many things that captured my attention during this last conference, but this statement is one that will stay with me for a long time to come. I don’t know why it is (at least not for a certainty), but there are many an intellectual, many an artist, many an actor, many a writer, (not to mention many a doctor, many a lawyer, many a housewife, many a business man, many a waiter, many a teenager, etc.) who are intent on casting accusing phrases or disparaging implications towards those who are in leadership within the LDS Church. From the Prophet to local bishops, intellectual or societal snipers aim their sites on the biggest targets available to them, for with leadership (especially courageous, outspoken leadership) always comes criticism. And many Mormon artists (being courageous and outspoken themselves) feel put upon when they feel out of sync with those who they term their leaders– when their supposed artistic expressions are disjointed from the leadership of an organization which they otherwise (hopefully) cherish.
But here comes the riddle, the sphinx to Oedipus: Isn’t Mormonism built upon the idea of prophets? Isn’t that one of our most distinctive, foundational principles? And if we’re constantly railing against the very thing which makes us distinct, the very reason our Church exists, then how seriously do we take our claims as a religion? In what way are we truly Mormon?
It was the same in Joseph Smith’s day (and Brigham Young’s and John Taylor’s and Wilford Woodruff’s, etc. etc.) The Church had no shortage of those, even in high leadership, who somehow thought that the Church needed their superior hand to steady the ark. There has always been those who thought their wisdom was requisite for the ship of Zion to keep afloat. Yet time has proved, whether those self important sailors jumped ship or not, that the Lord has always brought forth his winds to blow the Church to its destination, despite the poor weather.
We as writers or visual artists or actors or musicians (or plumbers, or video game designers, or sales clerks, etc.) have the right to revelation in our work. We have the right to call upon God to help us create spirit filled murals or customer service or plays or sinks or bread or video games. We have that right, just as we have that right within our own families, within our own personal lives. We have that right because it is within our sphere of authority, within the sphere God has called us. The prophets have that same right. When God gives them reponsibility over the Church, and they see something, or someone, threatening the Church they have been given to bind or seal accordingly. Even when it comes to something as severe as an excommunication, then that is within their sphere– not ours. We ought not begrudge them the glorious and awful responsibility of that reach. As President McKay once said, “We need your help, not your adverse criticism.”
I can’t speak from experience, but it can’t be easy to be a prophet, or even a Bishop. A lot of eyes are on you (in the case of President Hinckley, 12 million plus! And that’s just within the Church!). Your frailties are exposed, your words dissected, your leadership challenged. I was an Assistant President on my mission, and that microcosm of experience was enough for me to pity the fool who aspires to leadership. I can’t imagine that multiplied by the millions. And yet the fair ship Zion continues to sail towards the arms of God.
Thus when I hear those who disparage the men and women who are fortunate and unfortunate enough to carry the burdens of Chruch leadership, when I hear those who heap insult upon injury, I really wonder what they really are trying to accomplish.
If there is any strategy more proven in warfare than “divide and conquer,” I don’t know of it. And if we are indeed battling a war for the souls of mankind; a war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against false ideas, against erronous lifestyles, against faulty systems, against defilement and impurity, against the adversary of our souls– then we must maintain a united front, a united center, a united back. If we take seriously our own doctrines, our own claim to authority; if we truly, passionately believe Mormonism not only to be a pretty good way of life, but we believe that Mormonism is God’s way of revolutionizing the erronous and re-instating ancient truths; then the last thing we should be doing is in-fighting. The most hazardous thing we can do is to be illegitimizing our generals and lieutenants and captains. For what could be more delightful to that ancient devil Scratch than to see the Prophets of Zion and the Artists of Zion at odds with each other; to see organization and expression competing against each other; coveting each other’s gifts, jealous of each other’s responisibilty and power? Donner Party-esque, what need does Scratch have to bring in outside troops when the enemy is cannibalizing each other.
Prophets and artists need not be rivals, for they generally have the same goal in mind: the dissemination of truth. If the Mormon artist can simply attend to his calling and allow the prophets to administer to theirs– without constantly calling them into question or heckling them– then I think there would be less antagonism coming from both camps.
Better yet, when Mormon artists take seriously their covenants; when they understand their commitments to consecration and avoid turning their heels against the Lord’s anointed (no matter how much they may disagree on smaller matters) then they may find that the Mormonism in their life is an asset, not a liabilty. They may find that by taking their eyes off of the inconsequential muck at their feet, that there is a crown of glory above their heads. Maybe then can we have our Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares, drawing more from revelations of God than from whatever gossip the latest pseudo-intellectual authority may be spreading to undercut the Church leadership. Maybe then we can move beyond squabbling, mincing words, straining our eyes at gnats, fitting through needles, taking out motes; and instead attend to a greater weight of glory. Maybe then we can trailblaze our personal paths to God through artistic expression. We can move further up and futher in, unburdened of judgmentalism.
For when we focus upon our personal connection with God, and leave it to the Lord to steady the ark, then something magic happens. When we cherish our own sphere of influence, our own relationships and promptings and callings and works of art, instead of coveting for the power to shape the whole Church into our own image (or the ward, or the stake, or the university, etc.), then suddenly we find a kind of contentment, yet a kind of progression. Then it is ourselves we our improving. Having lost ourselves we have found ourselves. Then suddenly it is a masterpiece which is being worked under our hands, for the self is lost and the Spirit is wrought in our work.