The restored Gadfield Elm chapel in England — site of the 1840s United Brethren conversions — has recently been given a pedagogical makeover by the Church History Department. Clean, professional displays tell the story of the chapel, the United Brethren, and the mission of Wilford Woodruff in the area. At a later date I might post a photo-tour of the chapel, as I think its status as a historical site on the Mormon fringe is interesting indeed.*
Walking through the door, visitors are greeted by this bust of Christ:
I say “bust of Christ,” but here’s the thing: would a non-Mormon visitor immediately make that connection? Bombarded by strange names like Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young, and slightly nervous to be in a Mormon building in the first place (“is there a secret room where they perform their polygamous marriages?”), is this Great White Head obviously of Jesus?
Perhaps so, but it’s certainly not an obvious icon to expect in a church. For English Christians, Jesus is typically represented in a church-setting by a cross or a crucifix, or a stained-glass image. Busts are usually reserved for Roman emperors in the British Museum. The (very nice) historical displays at the chapel are not about Jesus, and so a non-Mormon visitor — not used to Mormon culture clues — is left to make the connection between the bearded-man-with-no-pupils and Christ. It doesn’t take a genius, I grant you, but the image is different and unexpected in an English house of worship.
The point here is not about faux-marble busts of Jesus, although it would be interesting to discuss how and why Thorvaldsen’s Christus and its derivatives have become the de facto internal symbols of Mormonism.** Instead, it’s about the assumption Mormons often make that people will speak our language and know what we mean.
In this case, we have an example of Mormons wanting to be seen as Christian, but, unable to show a cross, they hope that this white head will say “Jesus” sufficiently strongly instead. Yes, the non-Mormon visitor will figure this out (I think), but it comes across as odder than Mormons realise. Which is probably true of Mormonism in general.
So here’s my question: in what other ways are Mormons blissfully unaware of their Otherness?***
One example: for us, missionary attire says, “business smart,” for others (at least in Europe) it says “weird” (because young men typically don’t wear matching shirts, ties, nametags, and bike helmets).
* See some bloke’s “Creating a Mormon Mecca in England: the Gadfield Elm Chapel,” Mormon Historical Studies 7/1-2, 2006.
** The best place to start for artistic images of Christ in Mormonism is BYU Studies 39/3, 2000. As an image of Mormonism I find the Christus a little ethereal and uninspiring. I like my images of Jesus oriental (Coptic icons, for example); I like my images of Mormonism to be, well, Mormon. Like the Salt Lake towers, or Ol’ Moroni.
*** Before anyone says we ought not to care about our Otherness, I have one word for you: Edelman. You might not care, we perhaps ought not to care, but the church does care.