This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. But first…
A recent episode of the Salt Lake Tribune’s Mormon Land podcast discussed the announcement of the removal of murals from the Salt Lake and Manti Temples, along with the end of live renditions of the endowment ritual. The guest for this episode was Jody England Hansen. A profound voice in Mormon culture, Jody is worth interviewing for many topics. For this episode, she speaks as one who volunteered in the Salt Lake Temple before it closed for renovations. The Church’s decision to remove the murals and end live performances apparently came as a surprise and shock to her. Here is a link to the podcast summary and audio file:
What the Salt Lake Temple loses with renovation | Episode 173
The decision to remove the artwork irked me, but I have abstained from temple worship for many years. Better to point you to Jody’s observations and reflections. This is a significant moment of transition in the Church’s approach to temple worship, as well as how/if it will prioritize preservation of its own religious art. I appreciated Jody’s take and hope you will consider it too.
Now, about this coming Palm Sunday.
Earlier this week, I visited with some Christian friends about Palm Sunday. It commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. For so many, his arrival seemed triumphal. Yet, only days later, Jesus was crucified and the purpose and potential of his movement cast into doubt. Those who looked to him as a political savior were probably the most disappointed. The leader of our discussion spoke of Palm Sunday as a lesson in faulty expectations.
To me, Palm Sunday is a bit like the ritual of entering the boxing ring, a procession depicted with great fanfare in every Rocky movie, as well the recent Creed movies. These are penultimate moments. They set the stage for the thing we really came to see: the climactic showdown. However flashy such moments are, I usually wind up saying to myself, let’s get on with it.
Inclined to contemplate in story terms, I am tempted to come at Palm Sunday in the same way. It’s almost like I want to skip over Palm Sunday and go right to Good Friday. So when the discussion leader of the fellowship group framed Palm Sunday as a cautionary tale of faulty expectations, it gave me pause. We are in a season of spring, of vaccination and hope. We are not fools to hope, but we risk setting ourselves up for great disappointment.
I’m reminded of the chorus of a song written by actor/playwright/songwriter Jeff Daniels. The song is called, “If You’re Comin,” in reference to the hoped for Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Though rendered in easy-going Midwestern speak, the chorus could as easily have been sung two millennia ago by someone standing in Jerusalem, palm branch in hand, waiting for a king to show up and make everything better:
Oh, I fall to my knees and I raise up my voice,
I weep at the altar at the church of my choice,
But I can’t help but wonder what’s takin’ so long,
if you’re comin’ Jesus, come on.
Questions for Discussion
What artwork informs your spirituality? Why?
What, if any, significance do you derive from Palm Sunday?
Credits: The song “If You’re Comin” is from the album titled Jeff Daniels Live and Unplugged to Benefit the Purple Rose Theater. This post’s featured image was acquired from Pixabay.
I’m not sure why, but it popped into my head that maybe it’s best expressed the way that we shout at race horses coming down the stretch, “C’moooon, Easter!”
What a wonderful reminder of what Easter should be about. It means far more than tramping around the yard in sweatpants and crocs looking for colored eggs.
Compelling post. Of all art, at least visual art, Caravaggio informs my spirituality the most. He demonstrates a unique and compelling understanding of how our lives are just as full of darkness as they are of light and that the real struggle is to find a way to balance those two impulses and try to do something meaningful with the time that we have here. His “Supper at Emmaus” is probably the most moving painting I’ve ever seen. Caravaggio presents a human, fleshy Christ; 0ne who is seated at a table to eat a meal and who invites us to do the same. Caravaggio’s Christ is one that I feel I could talk to, unlike many other representations of Christ, both within and without the LDS art world. Also Walter Rane’s portraits of nude bodies either descending from or ascending to heaven. Rane does some “standard” LDS pieces, but those other dynamic portraits are really unique and compelling (see his painting “From Light” for example, if such content does not offend you). I suppose these works of art affect me so much because I have always believed that we process both the experiences of others (via emotions and empathy) and the divine through our bodies and I really like the idea of divine beings who can relate to me in that way.
I derive no significance from Palm Sunday.
I did like how the Church’s latest announcement about conference and all focused on Easter and preparing for Easter and the remembrance of Christ.
This is a sore spot for me. Palm Sunday reminds me that we speak very little of Holy Week, and can’t be bothered to move General Conference off of Easter Sunday.
I should say that any effort is appreciated. It is. But today my mom’s ward sang “Firm as the Mountains Around Us” and had talks about the Book of Mormon. Our ward was F&T, so no particular effort made to inaugurate the week. If the Church wants us to observe Holy Week, it needs to send a detailed message to the wards.
Brother Sky, thank you for introducing me to Walter Tabe’s works, especially From light. Powerful.
What artwork informs my spirituality? To me, art is spirituality, that part of spirituality on the very cusp of learning, change, phases, etc. Art (especially visual and performing art) precedes and leads political and religious transformations. It’s why art is always a target of censorship. When Elder Packer led the battle against non-correlated hymns in church and created “rules” of musical style all lds should obey, he was actually censoring powerful tools of grassroots voices which could easily threaten and compete with SLC’s leadership. (The folk song army, Pete Seeger, and others were on the other side). Remember, Packer specifically targeted the musical styles popular among the young crowds? The Catholics similarly targeted art and music during the counter-reformation (the 16th c version of correlation on steroids) as they struggled to regain control from the ideological threat of reformation. While some of the “approved” art from that era was inspiring, the bulk of it was canned, constrained, and forgettable. Many great works were lost, shelved, or destroyed during this period. Remember the socialist realism style the Soviet Union institutionalized? Yeah, again, there were a few amazing pieces, but the bulk of it was artistically, pretty crappy and belongs in trash piles if it weren’t for it’s historical significance. And least we throw too many stones from our glass house, need I say the words “Mormon Kitsch”?
First Presidency recently banned art in foyers and meeting houses- leaving us with a list of 28 hand-picked “approved” pieces most of which are in stark realism. It isn’t a coincidence that they’ve destroyed pioneer art in every pioneer temple, and are re-doing the hymnal (globally). It’s a strategic and coordinated reaction to enforce conformity and control the rank and file (who are currently hemorrhaging away from the church).
I used to fret about which artworks were targeted, which stylistic rules were unleashed, which buildings were bulldozed, which songs/lyrics were erased, etc. Then, I realized there isn’t a formula to it. These bans are about control and the institution flexing authority by culturally removing (or editing) the voices of the masses- regardless of what they are saying. The masses shouldn’t be doing the speaking. Art is power. And in a hierarchy that feels the threat of rising non-religiosity is going to harness its tools- including its art- to encourage conformity and to control the message- to stay on point (in marketing terms).
This is a time of censorship and destruction- symbolized by pioneer murals being bashed in and strewn in powdery pieces on the floor- to be swept into construction trash bins. It’s a time of control. If history teaches us about this reflex, much collateral damage of art is yet to come. Sadly, the loss won’t be relegated to the historic works that are destroyed, but to future art that will be culturally stifled for a few generations. This is not the environment that will grow the Mormon Shakespeares, a Mormon Mozart, Van Goghs, etc. it’s the exact opposite- the doldrums of conformity and control.
How do I feel this Palm Sunday?
“Oh, I fall to my knees and I raise up my voice,
I weep at the altar at the church of my choice,
But I can’t help but wonder what’s takin’ so long,
if you’re comin’ Jesus, come on. “
I bought the song. Maybe my pennies can help one artist speaking his truth.
Mortimer, I generally agree. But Packer did not specifically target only the musical styles popular among the young crowds. He also targeted Bach and anything else classical that isn’t in the hymnal or isn’t Handel’s “Messiah.” After his infamous BYU speech on the arts, one faculty member calmed some irate faculty down by remarking, “Remember, they’re general authorities, not specific authorities.” I have seen and experienced a wide variety of general authority tastes in music. I suspect it exists in the visual arts also. Individual GAs seem to feel authorized to impose their personal taste whenever/wherever it suits them — sometimes contrary to the Handbook. While there’s definitely a lot of correlation going on, I think much of the destruction of historic architecture and art is initiated by the bureaucracy and given cursory approval (or not) by the potentially relevant ecclesiastical authorities.
The blog www dot keepapitchinin dot org has a recent post about the loss of temple art. “Our Best For The Glory Of God,” March 17, 2021.
The third comment on that blog post discusses the directive temple presidents were given to cut up handmade altar cloths as temples were no longer using them.
For many female members in the twentieth century, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the completion of a handmade altar cloth was a deep symbol of their devotion to God, an undertaking that in many cases, depending on the type of intricate workmanship, may have taken decades to complete. These women viewed it as a labor of love and a symbol of their faith.
The thought that these altar cloths completed by our great grandmothers were simply cut up without any thought to the work that went into their creation is horrifying. The lack of respect shown for the efforts of these women, granddaughters of pioneers, who worked long hours doing tedious work in hopes of creating something of lasting value and contributing to a work they were deeply committed to is too painful for me to consider.
I stand corrected. Packer specifically targeted not just modern trends, but non-LDS works. Censorship. Controlling the message. Correlation.
I’ll give you a big “amen” in agreeing that GAs seem to feel authorized to insert their personal taste whenever it suits them. And let’s be perfectly clear, we have to go back a long time to find a professional artist/craftsman in the Q15 (was Brigham one of the last ones?) They are all businessmen, attorneys, scientists. I can’t name one artist during my lifetime. None currently live in architecturally interesting or historic homes (have little/no appreciation for that). None of their opinions have been academically studied or spoken from the lived experience of a professional artist (as opposed to an amateur).
I agree that GAs and local leaders have always felt the need to insert their personal opinions and preferences about art. But I don’t think it’s accidental or simply a situation of unintended consequences. Too much is happening and has happened to think it is anything but completely strategic. Our top leaders are known for methodological planning, not for their “whoopsie-doodles”.
I had no idea the alter cloths were destroyed too. A tatted alter cloth can indeed take decades to make. It also takes decades to perfect one’s ability to tatt or crochet something like that. Sacred geometry and unique patterns were often developed for the purpose, often to tie the motifs of the temple or room together. Any incorrect stitches were pulled out and re-done, it had to be perfect.
I feel sick.
“Our top leaders are known for methodological planning, not for their ‘whoopsie-doodles’”.”
Yes, but that doesn’t prevent whoopsie-doodles. If they can happen as they did with the roll out of the 2015 POX and RMN’s presumptuous comments about it in Jan 2016, they can also happen in arts, architecture, curriculum (recently in Come,Follow Me and relatively recently in Seminary materials), music, etc. If the 2015 POX, etc., was an example of their “methodological planning, they are extraordinarily incompetent to deal with anything outside their own little bubble. I’ll go with an unpredictable combination of methodological planning, ignorance, and whoopsie-doodles.
In contrast to Stephen, I was sickened seeing the church website that the culmination of Holy week in the eyes of church leaders is general conference. Easter Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, a time of rejoicing. Not a celebration of the church and it’s leaders, which is more and more how general conference feels each time it rolls around. If they truly manage to make Easter Sunday a celebration I shall be delighted. But on past form, I’m not holding my breath, and I seriously doubt there’ll be any change to format.
By “whoopsie doodles” I mean leadership mistakes that are knee-jerked, improvised, accidental, poorly planned or unplanned . While our leaders make these, its more rare as the corporate process reviews almost everything. We also have a culture of conformity and hierarchical deference, which is a protector against rogue and knee-jerk mistakes. They go big or go home.
These days, when the church finds itself on the wrong side of history, it’s because they are intentionally spinning in a certain direction. Wrong? yes. Accidental? No. Deliberately malicious? Heck no.
I completely agree that The POX and the curricular materials stand on the wrong side of history. But, I’m saddened to admit that these steps were congruous with our blind spots and the execution of a stubborn conservative *agenda* under TSM. They were being over zealous about border maintenance. Sadly, we can see a clear pattern (see the BSA divorce rationale, Julie B Beck’s perpetuation of traditional women’s roles and family conventions, etc.) This all happened in a larger period of retrenchment. Totally strategic.
We were told to take our vitamin pills as the RMN administration began, as many changes were in motion. A correlated cleansing of all our art (hymnal, temples, ward building walls, museums/visitors centers) is in full force. Everything happening right now to our art is strategic. There’s a pattern.
RMN went rogue and off-script in Hawaii when he declared the POX “revelation”’. The consensus of the Q15 and PR Dept had only been “policy” and not “revelation“. In a calculated move, he tried galvanizing it as “revelation” by going rogue – a dare devil stunt his position as President of the Q12 with an incapacitated President afforded him. It’s rare to see this type of behavior in the Q15 as they ruse to power by confirming. I can’t point to any other instance in RMN’s 30 years in office where he’s pulled this type of stunt. The damage of the POX had been done, but he was trying to historically lock it into place. Time and history have shown the POX to have been hurtful and damaging on multiple levels. But, the POX was vetted by all and clearly followed as an extension of the administration’s agenda. And, RMN’s talk in Hawaii wasn’t a gaff, he didn’t accidentally stumble over his words and say “revelation” when “declaration”’or “policy” was meant. He was carrying out a calculated end-run about an issue he felt necessitated the risk of indulging in a total taboo. (Interestingly, Uchtdorf also went rogue during the election season by publicly donating to a presidential candidate and down-stream candidates. He’s never pulled such a stunt on the church and his fellow Q15 before either. He probably felt passionate about crossroad we faced in the fall and wanted to debunk the republican/Mormon stereotype. Recently, he made a public apology, but I’m pretty sure that he had planned on asking for forgiveness instead of permission. My point is- he claimed “whoopsie doodle”, but repeatedly sent a.deliberate signal. (Essentially Uchtdorf was being Maverick in Top Gun, doing a buzz of the tower after hearing the order “negative”.)
Mortimer, There is evidence that the POX was not “vetted by all”. and that the preceding Q15 discussions showed disagreement that was not resolved before the POX was sprung on them with a claim that Monson had approved it.
I expect the RMN speech was calculated as you say, but it is also true that RMN has long proven his looseness with language and his inability to communicate a coherent, analytical position. See, e.g. his Ensign article on “unconditional love.” There is also evidence that Uchtdorf did not go “rogue” but that his family members used an account to which his name was attached. That evidence may not be persuasive to you. Your commitment to your conclusion goes a bit further than I can warrant. Yes, there is a pattern. No, it does not encompass “everything.”
Thanks to each of you for sharing your feelings and observations. Clearly art, like religion, taps into our emotions in a profound way. It seems apparent to me the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints manages itself through corporate thinking. My understanding of art in corporate settings, also with public art installations, is that it tends to be bland or conventional to a fault, a byproduct of needing to be cleared by some sort of committee trying to protect a brand image & culture. Without praising this approach, I’m saying the Church’s approach to art and interior decorating is typical as corporations go.
All the more reason for us to be proactive in our personal exploration of art. I believe its good to try new things, to take in a variety of genres, to broaden our perspectives and challenge ourselves. No corporate body with strong central authority and carefully regulated branding will ever do that for us as individuals. It would be just as foolish for me to take all my aesthetic cues from Starbucks, and I generally appreciate the interior of their stores. I use Starbucks as an example because it is where I used to watch General Conference. Of course, this doesn’t directly address the music side of things, but there too, we do well to stretch ourselves.
Wondering and Mortimer have discussed sources of mistakes the church has made through the years, some small, some more serious. I appreciate the discussion.
I suspect that the church will have issues until it changes its fundamental system of governance. There are many beautiful things about the church, but any organization that concentrates all of its power to a very small group who shun outside influence (except under carefully controlled situations they devise, such as the focus groups we occasionally hear about) is going to engage in unhealthy organizational behaviors.
The destruction of notable works of art by devoted members, no matter how practical the intent may be, is a red flag for any group.
No matter how good our church leaders are, individually, if they govern within an unhealthy structure there will be problems.
Researchers have devised lists of traits of healthy organizations. We would do well to examine them and work to ensure that our church culture is a healthy one. Transparency, the ability to dissent, the welcoming of free thinking, are some of these traits.
I used to look down on churches that employed democratic styles of governance. I now envy them.