Matt Bowman continues as a guest blogger at BCC.
I moved to the DC area about two years ago. Early on, I attended services with an uncle and aunt in their Northern Virginia ward. When I walked down the hallway, I did a double take. There’s a piece of wood from the Joseph Smith Palmyra cabin hanging from the wall. It’s framed. I noticed a group of Primary kids filing down the wall. As they passed, each reached up and touched it.
Last week I wandered across the LDS about.com page and took the quiz to determine how well I knew the Book of Mormon. Fascinatingly, the last question has naught to do with the Book of Mormon itself, but rather, references Brigham Young’s repetiton of Oliver Cowdery’s vision of the sword of Laban. Or rather, the Sword of Laban. Or, as the Journal of Discourses presents it, the SWORD OF LABAN. It has earned the capitals, I suppose, because it’s been invested with theological and eschatological significance — according to Oliver, the Sword will not be moved until the Second Coming. (This contains the seeds of a good Mormon Indiana Jones movie, I think.)
It’s become commonplace to stress the Puritanism residue in Mormonism’s liturgy — our stripped down chapels, our Protestant emphasis on preaching over ritual. But I wonder if this underestimates the tangible nature of Mormonism’s sacred imagination, something certainly present in our theology, but also in our culture and history. These territories are replete with seerstones, the Urim and Thummim, sunstones, temple garments, and a host of sacred sites (some of which we steal presumably significant rocks from). Scripture for us is not only the Word of God, but also a set of tangible golden plates taken up to heaven. I’m not sure Mormonism has completely shaken the talismanic sense that it had its youth — and nor should it. The golden plates, the sacred space of temples, that piece of wood from Palmyra, anchor us in the esoteric Mormon version of Christianity, and this is a large reason why we’re not Protestant.
Of course, most of us no longer have a seerstone visionary (hat tip, John Mansfield) in our wards, and even though things like garments and consecrated oil are still deeply rooted in our daily lives, it feels to me as though the Mormonism which produced Gilgal Gardens has moved on. Our sense of our own peculiarity is diminishing, I think. But it seems to me that we still want to reach up and touch that piece of wall. We buy golden plate tie tacks to remind us of Joseph and Moroni; we hang pictures of temples in our homes, we (some of us) hold our copies of Rough Stone Rolling up with sunstone bookends. I remember getting my own set of golden plates made out of yellow construction paper in Primary. This, I suppose, is my defense of Mormon kitsch — the market merely reflects our cultural heritage, our desire to see our unique faith reflected and affirmed in tangible reminders of sacred relics.
This was Matt’s last guest post at BCC. Thanks, Matt!!