The Great White Head

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:

August_2007_image018

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.

Comments

  1. Anything goes on this thread. Christus, busts (of the marble, portrait variety), Mormon weirdness, missionary clothes — take your pick.

  2. The mullet on this particular Jesus makes him look like he has short hair from the front.

    Very clever.

  3. True.

    Sorry that the photo’s rubbish. Blame Nokia. Hate those Finns.

  4. I didn’t recognize it as Jesus until you said so- when I pulled the post up on my RSS feed, I was wondering, ironically, what Roman that was.

    As far as what makes us weird- since I am the only member on both sides of my family, well, evrerything. WE may not see it, but you’re right- others sure do.

    The way we pray- what’s up with the folded arms, I’ve repeatedly been asked.

    The chapels with neither cross nor center aisle.

    Temples and all the goodies that go with.

    Piles and piles of food, anyone?

    Calling a gym a “cultural hall”.

    Women who never, ever wear shorts or sundresses- no matter how hot it is.

    I’m not saying any of these things are bad, but folks, it’s wierd to the rest of the world. My own family things I’ve gone totally bonkers.

  5. How about thee/thou?

    Tracy, really? You didn’t think this was Jesus right away? Very interesting.

  6. Yeah, really. Just didn’t see it.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    Would it help if the church put a clearly identifying label on the bust so people would know right away who it was? I’m thinking like a sign above his head that says something like – This is Jesus, “King of the Jews”

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    When I saw it I thought it was a Greek philosopher, maybe Plato or Aristotle. You’re right that it’s not going to be clear to visitors at first blush that this is Jesus, although most will figure it out eventually.

  9. When I saw the title I thought that this was going to be some sort of boastful biographical post by Ronan.

  10. I did not think it was Jesus either. It actually seems unusual for the church to show an unexpected representation of Christ this way. I do agree with your general point. I think that missionary clothing is a very good example of how we send the wrong message. Also, much of the church’s website which is aimed at folks who are not LDS, but still uses a lot of terms that we understand in our own way, such as “sealing” without a good explanaion (I haven’t looked at it for awhile, and it was getting better last I looked so perhaps that has changed.

  11. SC, that is exactly what I thought, as well.

  12. ditto.

  13. SCT,
    Well, yeah, that too…

  14. Jonathan Green says:

    Who, or what, is Edelman?

  15. NY-based church PR firm. (I think the contract may have lapsed.)

  16. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m not an art person, but I am under the impression that until modern times, it was not common to paint Jesus with anyone’s head higher in the picture than his. I don’t know to what extent this “rule” applies to sculpture, but one weird thing about this photo to me (unless the perspective is off?) is that the bust looks like something you’d rest your elbow on, not look up to. Elevating it might also make the plaque below more readable and prominent, and I assume the plaque IDs the head.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    About 25 years ago I went to a lecture at the University of Utah by a visiting classics scholar on “sentimental philhellenism.” One of the things he talked about is the modern tendency to equate Greek and Roman art and architecture with bare, white marble and stone, which has become a kind of standard of classical elegance.

    But it turns out that the originals weren’t white like this at all; they were originally painted garish colors. The colors simply haven’t survived. Those of you who have seen the excellent HBO series “Rome” get a sense for this in the opening title sequence, which appropriately suggests the colors that were favored in contemporary classical civilization.

    So when we moderns see something like the Christus and think of it is as representative of classical style given its bare whiteness, we’re remembering an ideal that never existed in the real world.

  18. The fact that we really should have an interpreter sit next to every investigator throughout our Sunday meetings to explain every term, phrase or acronym they have never heard.

    That we use acronyms for everything. (FP, Q12, GA, Bp, SP, HC, RS, SS, YM/YW, TR, etc.)

    That we have so many reasons to use acronyms.

    Family Home Evening (Sorry; FHE)

    Napolean Dynamite – or that we actually speak that way

    19-year-old “Elders”

    16-year-old “Seminary” students

    Carrot shavings in Jello

    Heavenly Parents

    SO many (hundreds, at least) more

  19. Have to add one more: Suits and ties while riding a bicycle

  20. And sisters in dresses and skirts riding bicycles.

    I joke around with a Jewish friend sometimes and tell him that where I come from, he is a gentile and I am from the tribe of Ephraim. He always laughs like it is the funniest thing he has ever heard of. I actually think it is pretty funny, too.

  21. I’ve always thought that the Sunday School should have an “Intro to Mormon Culture” class for all of the new members. Short of that, I’ve found that Mormon Chic gives some LDS Lingo for Beginners, including some of the acronyms we’re so fond of. It’s not much, but at least it’s something.

  22. Missionary clothes can provoke other reactions, too: when my wife moved to New York (from South Carolina, where dark suits don’t happen, especially in the summer), she was confused at all the people who looked like missionaries, until she found out they were investment bankers. (White shirt and tie are pretty common in DC, too.) So the uniform does exist outside of the Church, even if it isn’t universal (i.e., it’s not common in Europe or the American South).

    And I fight with her over the helmet thing all the time (she was a missionary in Europe). In the case of bikers with helmets, I am a fan of U.S. imperialism: check out the X-Games. Even the Europeans wear helmets.

  23. Ray (18),
    Re: acronyms: have you ever worked for the federal government? Contracting officers have dictionaries of acronyms that they have to understand. So I’m going to say that acronyms that don’t make sense to outsiders is not unique to the Church. Or, probably, to any ingroup. FWIW (see?).

  24. StillConfused says:

    Jesus with a mullet? Sacrilige!!

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Orson Scott Card’s Saintspeak, although it eventually became a bit of humor, originated as an attempt to create a serious lexicon of unique LDS usages.

  26. Jesus had a mullet – $14.99.

  27. Sam B (#23) – How many Christians have you seen or heard who use acronyms about their church lives? There might be some out there, but I haven’t run across any myself – including the years I lived in the Deep South.

    There are many ways in which we are aware of our “otherness,” but I agree that there probably are just as many ways in which we are completely unaware of it. I think Church-related acronyms are one of those ways.

    A non-humorous one: The percentage of our children who are involved in music in school. The difference is obvious in this area.

  28. Meaning the geographic area in which I live.

  29. Jonathan Green says:

    Sam B., actually, I’ve seen a lot of young German businessmen in training who look just like missionaries.

    Ray, WWJD?

  30. Gilgamesh says:

    #9

    From the title I thought the post was about acne.

  31. Peter LLC says:

    Busts are usually reserved for Roman emperors in the British Museum.

    I can see the headlines in the Sun now: Mormons pillage Roman excavation, ill-gotten loot on display in local temple!

    Sam B. #22:

    So the uniform does exist outside of the Church, even if it isn’t universal (i.e., it’s not common in Europe…)

    The uniform is common in Europe in the same places where it is common in the US–centers of business and finance, where essentially zero missionary work takes place. Your average high-rise built in 1963, on the other hand, is packed full of missionaries and largely devoid of unaffiliated businesswear.

    Sam. B. #23:

    ’m going to say that acronyms that don’t make sense to outsiders is not unique to the Church. Or, probably, to any ingroup.

    Amen. Take the IAEA (did you have to look it up?) for instance and try breezing through one of these without a reference handy.

  32. John Mansfield says:

    If the Mormons didn’t have any quirks of language or style peculiar to them, it would be an indication that we are not a people with an identity. How to reconcile that with the need to communicate clearly with others and not repel them with our oddness? Maybe it can’t be reconciled. Maybe modern appeals to diversity will help. “We’re not weird. We’re just … different.”

  33. During the temple open house, a common question I found hard to answer was why it is called the Helsinki Temple if it is in the city limits of Espoo? Even truer for the London Temple.

  34. Jonathan Green and Peter LLC,
    Regarding business suits, I have no doubt that the same contingent in Europe as in the U.S. that wears suits—attorneys and certain businesspeople—wear suits in Europe. However, my experience in Europe amounts to a vacation in Belgium and the Netherlands, so I was taking Ronan at his word that conservative suits and ties were uncommon there.

    And Ray, what Jonathan said. I’ve never been a member of another church, so I don’t know what acronyms (or other in-speak) they use, but I would be shocked if at least some didn’t have an elaborate communication system that would mean nothing to me, personally.

  35. Sam,
    It’s not the suits and ties really, it’s the suits, ties, nametags, helmets, and Camelbaks all worn at once.

  36. Okay, I understand better. Even most investment bankers I know don’t wear nametags (although a year and a half ago, when the MTA in New York went on strike, I had a friend—an investment banker—who Rollerbladed to work, UWS down to Wall Street; he’s smart enough that I assume he wore a helmet, and was probably in suit and tie.)

  37. Of course, if the objection is the combination, that kind of counteracts the argument that the “uniform” of missionaries is some sort of U.S.-imperialist thing: even we (American imperialists :) don’t dress like missionaries.

  38. We were told to be a peculiar people, and I like to think that the revelation of such was not just the prophet giving me permission/an excuse to be my own, peculiar self. Say baptisms for the dead near some hardcore evangelicals and watch their faces… or maybe I should curb my sense of humor to be a bit less peculiar.

    I am not entirely convinced that being seen by the world as so weird is a bad thing. Promoting chastity til marriage, teaching children to avoid drugs and alcohol, even telling people that they need to study the scriptures for themselves (although many still say we brainwash people), are all very odd stances to take in the world as it is now. Better still is the Family Proclamation. It doesn’t exactly hint at what it means, nor does it vaguely suggest that it is limited to certain locations. We are told to be a peculiar people and I for one am glad we fulfill that role so frequently. The world needs more of us oddballs out there.

  39. Norbert, #33: The Cincinnati airport is in Kentucky… maybe naming things with other locations is more common than suits and ties.

  40. StillConfused says:

    Question from the Mormonchic website and in general: Why is the sacrament supposed to be taken with the right hand? I am left handed and God made me that way. If I try to drink right handed it will be very messy. Is our Church bigoted against lefties?

  41. California Condor says:

    we use acronyms for everything. (FP, Q12, GA, Bp, SP, HC, RS, SS, YM/YW, TR, etc.)

    Ray, yes we do use acronyms, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a Mormon say “Q12″ or “RS.”

  42. whoinventedfreeride says:

    StillConfused:

    It is with great pain and remorse that I bring the following to your knowledge: As part of the Second Endowment, all lefties (or Southpaws, as I like to call them) will be asked to leave the congregation through a pulsing, red-hot door located on the South side of the endowment room. That room leads directly to Hell, where all Lefties will spend the rest of Eternity. Doomed lefties will spend every day cutting paper with their right hands, struggling to open cans of albacore with right-handed can openers, and writing long essays with their right hands, while sitting at right-handed desks of course. Only those Lefties who never made the terrible mistake of partaking the Sacrament in this life with their left hands will be able to leave this special hell after spending the first three billion years of their post-mortal existence there.

    What’s the basis for this doctrine, you ask? Well, to us Righties, it’s more than obvious; Left-handedness in this life is a sign of insignificant righteousness in the pre-earth life.

  43. Adam Greenwood says:

    I wouldn’t know it was Christ if you hadn’t told me.

  44. I think those weird dresses sister missionaries from America (especially Utah?) wear are even weirder than elder clothes.

  45. Oh, and say what you want about Jesus statues and missionaries, but LAY OFF NOKIA!! They are the bringers of manna, the saviors of Helsinki.

  46. Our obsession with anything about us in the media.

    Also, I often find it amusing when members of the church talk to Catholics about the “sacrament”. To a Catholic, a sacrament = an ordinance (i.e., baptism, confirmation, ordination).

  47. Norbert: What’s weird about American sisters’ dresses? I can’t say I’ve seen anything unusual, but (1) I’m an American in America and (2) I rarely see sisters.

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