Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?

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are out of touch in their declarations, that they don’t know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times.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.

18 thoughts on “Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?”

  1. This fine article brings to mind a statement from Elder J. Golden Kimball- “If the Lord Jesus Christ can’t manage the running of His own Church, why in the hell should I expect to be able to do it?”

    Anyway, thanks for the excellent insights.

  2. The difference seems to be that artists and critics become part of the World and the prophets warn against the World. Therefore, the world lauds the former and sometimes seeks to silence the latter.

  3. Jettboy,
    As you said, prophets warn against the world. But so have the best of artists and writers. When both roles are fulfilled to their fullest, they both ought to be mirrors to those who gaze upon them.

  4. I understand what you are saying, but am much more cynical about artists and writers. From my observations MOST artists and writers are more mirrors of the times rather than a warning of them. You are correct about the Very Best, but there are so few of those.

  5. I think Mahonri is talking about Mormon artists and writers, not writers and artists in general. Maybe Jettboy is right about artists in general, but in my view, Mormon artists are not simply mirrors of “The World.” That’s probably why they aren’t very successful as a group. (Which is, of course, a huge generalization with plenty of exceptions.)

    Mahonri I find your observations eloquent and somewhat insightful, but I had a hard time getting into this simply because I don’t know anyone who likes to disparage the brethren like you seem to know. Maybe one or two real examples would help.

  6. Sorry, JKC, I took to a general blanket statement for a reason. I did not wishing to cite individuals or organizations, because that would pass from general principles to judgmental gossip. Sorry that I don’t feel comfortable getting more specific than that.

  7. Mahonri,
    I absolutely loved your article. Recently I have struggled reading and discussing views and opinions of LDS members, including artists. I have been amazed at how easily some toss the guidance of Prophets aside as an encroachment of free agency and personal freedom, and denote their teachings to mere opinions. Recently I have seen a division within the Church I didn’t know existed. It has saddened me. Your article conveyed my feelings perfectly. I appreciate you taking the time to address this topic. I am going to link to this article on my blog.

  8. You are an extremely eloquent man, Mahonri. You are, of course, correct in your assertions. There is no need for an artist to disparage leaders of the church, and indeed those who do may be cut off from the Spirit of the Lord. That is a sad thing, for the Spirit provides badly needed inspiration for our mediums.

  9. Fair enough. But isn’t it possible to get specific without revealing identity? Or to take a cue from psychological literature and create a fictional character that is a kind of amalgamation/composite of the experiences of many real people? I don’t mean to harp on this (like I said, I like your observations), but if you simplify/generalize too much then we’re left with a blanket condemnation of disparaging church leaders, which is fine, but not something that anyone would really disagree with. When you give me an example of what you consider disparaging, then I can apply that to myself and see where I may be doing that. Otherwise, I’ll just read it and think, “yeah, those other people that talk badly about the prophets are bad.”

    However, having said all that, I do think you’re right that it is bad to talk badly about the brethren.

  10. I agree that we should not be unduly critical or otherwise uncharitable to church leaders. And I share your optimism that artists can both enjoy full and harmonious church fellowship and produce excellent art.

    However, I do think that you gloss over many difficult realities. Sometimes church leaders are wrong. Some church leaders may be unduly suspicious of and uncharitable to artists. Mormon culture in some ways is hostile to fine art and artists.

    The challenge is to navigate our way through these and other difficulties without becomming bitter or willingly sacrificing our places in the kingdom.

  11. Mahonri,

    Overall, I agree with your post. I would say, though, that we probably ought to be careful about drawing too strong a connection between loyalty to the church and great art or artists in the church. Collectively, mormon artists are a good lot. In fact, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a better group of creative souls on the planet. So the question that comes to mind is: should we assume that Bach was a better person–a more spiritual person–than the most virtuous LDS artists today?

  12. Shawn,
    Of course I recognize that the Church’s authorities are human, too. No debate there. They make mistakes like anyone else, sometimes severe ones. On a local Church leadership level, look at Helmuth Huebner– his Bishop was a Nazi. Literally.
    However, I do stand by my post in the sense that I think we as artists sometimes inflate the situation to an even more difficult level of tension when people publicly start criticizing the Brethren. Like I said to JKC, I didn’t want to cite specific examples, but I may have to do so I can really say what I want to say: let us look at D. Michael Quinn as one such example. I don’t necessarily think he deserved the fate he received because of his writing– but it was what he did after there was some adverse reactions to his writing that I think really got him in hot water. Now I want to make it clear, that I think he is an excellent historian (I own Magic World View) and this is in no way passing a judgment on his character, nor his intentions. However, where I do feel like Quinn crossed a line was when he publicly criticized Elder Packer. When President Hinckley had a meeting with him (then as a member of the first presidency) he was very sympathetic to Quinn’s cause of telling a realistic Mormon history, but then President Hinckley stated the same point I have just made: Quinn should not have denounced the Elder Packer in a public meeting at BYU. Now Quinn is a historian and not an artist, but the same principle applies. Certainly, there is going to be differences of opinion, even among the Brethren. There’s many historical examples of that, from Orson Pratt to President Benson. But when we feel justified in trying to publicly embarass the Brethren, we are really feeling justified in publicly embarassing the Church and giving ammo to its critics. We undermine the principle of living prophets, and instead supplant it with the idea that they are no more qualified to lead the Lord’s Church than the think tanks and pseudo-intellectuals who would love to have the same ability to shape the attitudes of the Church’s membership.
    I agree with Jack that its hard to find a better lot of people than LDS artists and intllectuals. For example, I’ve treasured the time I’ve had with the AML List. They are a diverse lot, and I enjoy that diversity. It expands my vision. They are generally very charitable, full of the Spirit and so, so interesting. That’s why it discourages me when I hear certain people, for whom I normally have a tremendous amount of respect for, suddenly pull out a rapid fire stream of criticisms of the men and women who have literally consecrated their lives at great personal costs to build the kingdom of God. To me, that shoots Mormonism’s chief principles right in the foot. As if they’re saying: A prophet is only a prophet when I’m comfortable with what he’s saying.
    What I think is most tragic is that it does the cause of LDS artists and academics great harm. It raises the tension, not deflates it. Shawn is completely right when he says there is some suspicion from certain Church leaders about certain LDS artists and intellectuals. But when we turn around and, instead of turning the other cheek, instead go on the offensive and take shots at the general or local Church authorities, we are only confirming their suspicions. When a “soft word” would have turned away the wrath, we instead publish an article turning our heels against them, or publicly lambast them in an intellectual conference. That, to me, is not good logic. If we want to show the Church that we ought not to be suspect– that we have many good, godly things to consecrate and contribute to the Church and to the world– then it does us no good to prove to them that their suspicions are indeed correct: that we are more loyal to our “artsitic voice” than to the forward movement of Zion.

  13. Thanks for including at least two examples. Now your point is becoming a bit more clear. I guess my next question is this: why write this now? Is this a current problem in the church? Have you seen this getting worse in recent years?

    I’m not arguing that it isn’t a problem, but I just am not really aware that it’s a big deal right now, at least not any more than it ever was. I want you to convince me that your observations are timely as well as accurate.

    Regarding your example of Quinn as an analogy for an artist, actually, I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that history can be considered an art. The Historian is a teller of stories. It could be said that the only significant difference between a good novel and a good history book is that the history book has to cite to an authority while the novel can be original. Both the historian and the artist feel some loyalty to truth or vision, which is the source of a lot of of the tension that Quinn and others exemplified.

  14. Well, the fact that there was a whole panel with prominent artists (two of whom had been excommunicated or withdrawn from the Church) at the Sunstone Symposium who discussed the issue of tensions between art and the Church make the issue very timely and relevent in my mind, JKC.

  15. Yes, that’s the kind of detail that helps me. I (obviously, I think) wasn’t there and am ignorant about the panel itself. Was there anything said that degraded or disparaged church leaders?

    I don’t want to distract from your intention in this post (which I should emphasize again that I enjoyed reading), but another question that comes to mind is the difference between disagreement, criticism, and outright disparagment? Is it okay to disagree or even criticize, or does that just place us on a slippery slope? On the other hand, if we think that even disagreement is wrong, then how do we distiguish not evil speaking against the Lord’s annointed from papal infallibility? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I think the question lurks behind this discussion.

    Again, Mahonri, thanks for your post. I think you’ve generated a good discussion on this.

  16. Papal infallability? We don’t have Popes. We have human beings who happen to be called to represent God for the Church on diverse topics, but who are also men who express their own opinions on matters when they aren’t speaking for the Lord. Figuring out when they do which and whether if when they give the Lord’s general council it applies to us – which we can determine through meditation and prayer – is the trick. I recently heard someone quoting one of the brethren saying “A General authority is someone who gives general council on general matters”. That means it’s a matter of discerning where and how their council applies. Just this past conference one of the brethren stated that they are aware that many people are in situations that make an exception to council and that those people don’t need to write to the brethren but can trust to the Lord to guide and sustain them. Does this mean weighing everything the brethren say with so much cuation that we’ll seldom follow a step in line until we’re convinced it’s all good council? I don’t think so – I’d rather follow unthinking than think too much and not follow – while on the other hand, it’s nigh impossible to get any man to move until he’s made up his mind that something is right 😉

    Also, there are many points of doctrine and commandment in the scriptures and from the apostles to which there is almost never or never exception.

    It is my view that one point of “doctrine” was given by many successors of Joseph Smith in disagreement with what seemed Smith’s own philosophy – way up until 1977, when the matter was settled. I think it possible the same could continue on other points today. If so, the Lord was willing to bear that, and if there are other points of error, He may be willing to bear those. In a sense, that nobody in the Church is asked to presently totally live the Law of Consecration might be seen as just such an error – evidently too few are prepared to live it.

    But let me say this: following the brethren will never lead one soul to hell and only lead every soul back to God. If the brethren make mistakes they are the mistakes of men and not of God – and for that matter, a lot of men regard the council of God a mistake and folly. Those two facts are put forward in the Book of Mormon in reference to the book itself, and as that was a book given of the spirit of prophecy and revelation, it follows that the same standard may be applied to the men who today guide the Church under the spirit of prophecy and revelation – which spirit, to come circle to my point again – flows from God to men who are fallible but called and chosen.

    Side note to one of these tangents – it doesn’t help anyone to state that any apostles or general authorities are antagonistic towards artists or art. Prove it. But don’t. Intent is terribly hard to prove and no on is – or no one should be – going to court against the intents of the brethren. Assume they mean well. It is abundantly evident that they do, besides. Also besides which, no one speaks for them but themselves, and I’d be very surprised if they would be happy to hear someone heading into such an argument against them. That’s not appropriate, I think. I might recast it as simply saying they may not understand or appreciate art as much as a lot of artists – just as I don’t understand or appreciate the professions of tracking money with computers and books.

  17. Thank you for that passionate and sincere statement. I feel moved by it. I think about Chaim Potok, and his wonderful novels about the constant tension between orthodoxy and the conscience. “Some people think the law is a cage, and others think a cage is the law” is the statement in his book (in which a woman habitually went to the synagogue for the early morning prayers, which were held in a small basement room, so they had to build a tiny box around her so that she would not be sitting with the men, which was the law). Far from depicting the orthodox view as an outmoded dead-end, though, he also had his reform-minded character say “we cannot sing and dance as they do”.

    Does God intend for there to be a dynamic tension between orthodoxy and the consciences of (or spiritual guidance he gives to) the body of faithful members? I’m not sure. It seems that our scriptures speak of one heart, of us being one. “If you aren’t one you aren’t mine.” And yet, oneness must imply that every element contributes and is heard. The cells of my body are joined to be as one, and yet, if my feet ache, they send the message to my brain, and I sit down and elevate them. If I ignore the message for too long, then they die and must be amputated.

    What are the nerves of the church’s brain? By what means do the pains of the members get conveyed to the central authority? I have to believe that art is one of those channels. Nerves that only report “all is well” despite the true situation, are not useful. They don’t report the truth. I think it is crucial in the body of God’s church to have nerves that speak the truth.

    Do my feet say “Brain, what are you doing? why are you putting us through this ordeal?” All the time. Does the brain listen and heed? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the circumstances.

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