Memorializing the Moments

During my recent trip to San Jose, a friend and I visited the larger-than-life statues of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the athletes who gave the Black power salute during the National Anthem at the Mexico City Olympics. I personally come to the statues with respect for what Smith and Carlos did. So after my visit, I read a few articles about the huge depictions. I was struck by the observations of Dave Zirin: “Trepidation should be our first impulse when we hear that radical heroes are to be immortalized in fixed poses of bloodless nostalgia. There is something very wrong with seeing the toothy, grinning face of Paul Robeson staring back at us from a stamped envelope. Or the wry expression the US Postal service affixed on Malcolm X – harmless, wry, inviting, and by extension slanderous. These fears erupted in earnest when I heard that San Jose State University would be unveiling a statue of two of its alums, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The 20 foot high structure would be a commemoration of their famed Black Gloved salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. I dreaded the thought that this would be the athletic equivalent to Lenin’s Tomb: when you can’t erase a radical history, you simply embalm it.”

The most “radical hero” in our theology is, of course, Jesus Christ. We see the range of depictions from Greg Olsen’s placid Savior to Liz Lemon Swindle’s sometimes smiling Lord, often surrounded by children, to J. Kirk Richards’ experiments with angles (yes, I meant angles, not angels–though he does a great angel, too…). Far fewer are Mormon depictions of the suffering at Gethsemane, though they do exist.

If someone without training in Christianity were to see a picture of Jesus calming the waters, they might think it interesting or even beautiful. But they would not have the context to really understand what was happening. I, however, fully trained in Christian scripture and in personal application, have been brought to tears by artistic renderings of that moment. As I have felt the wildly rocking boat of my own family encountering seemingly insurmountable challenges, I have sometimes gone to my computer, pulled up “Peace be Still” (Friberg) and wept. The image of Jesus bringing peace when his disciples were certain they would perish whispers to me that He can calm any troubled waters. My heart has created a context for that image.

Yet Zirin’s warning is important. Surely there is nothing wrong with having peaceful pictures of an imagined (usually rather Nordic) Jesus in our homes to remind us of the name and we have taken on ourselves, but if the context is smoothed to a “tame” Christ (alluding to C.S. Lewis’s description of Aslan–”He’s not a tame lion…), then the radical nature of Christianity can be reduced to some pretty pictures with only superficial meaning. Similarly, the revolutionary nature of the LDS Church can become overwhelmed by Correlation, and neglect the miraculous, almost unfathomable claims of Joseph Smith. Gideon Burton, for example, compares the First Vision to an atomic bomb in his sonnet “Sacred Grove”: “[B]linding light/and burning columns shot between the trees/as God descended plain to mortal sight/ when one of Adam’s sons fell to his knees./A thousand Oppenheimers would have failed/to match what power Joseph’s prayer unveiled.”

Artists only suggest possibilities, or emanations of truth. The real power of any moment, any act, is made alive through its context, and comprehended only as fully as each individual is prepared to comprehend. So, an anti-Mormon might take the caricatures of LDS doctrine and create a straw man (usually a cartoon) as real to him as the many depictions we see of Christ or of the First Vision. Former Mormons may pose in temple robes in an act of mockery rather than submission to something sacred and empowering. Same clothes; entirely different experiences.

I hate to hear Mormon doctrine described by outsiders, because our peak moments (good and bad) are summarized into something silly or insidious. And I hate to hear Mormons dismiss other faiths with an air of capriciousness. It happens far too often.

There are important moments, even sacred moments, prepared for by context, prophecy, history, even poetry. They matter enough to take Zirin’s warning to heart, lest we find ourselves (as Updike put it in “Seven Stanzas for Easter”) “embarrassed by the miracle/ and crushed by remonstrance.”

Comments

  1. Margaret,

    Great post. Thinking of Jesus as a radical–for he was–and how difficult it was for many to receive Him at the time gives great impetus for patience when people balk intially–or permanently–at the teachings of the restored gospel. Also, your inclusion of a quote from C.S. Lewis in this context of various “peaceful” and non-radical depictions reminded me of the following (other quote from the same author):

    “Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time…And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips. One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic…what should we make of a man…who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did…In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history. Yet even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is “humble and meek” and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.”

  2. Fascinating post. I think you are right to suggest that our depictions of Christ are now mostly “tamed.” As we hear so much about how he brings peace and comfort, I notice that I lose the ability to imagine him as radical, even though so much of the New Testament emphasizes his challenge to the established orders and the dangers – not safety – that followed his disciples.

  3. Beautiful, Margaret. And important.

  4. I admit that I always do a bit of pondering when someone says that Christ was always obedient. He was certainly obedient to the will of his Father, but he “dash[ed] to pieces” all sorts of traditions of his day, even violating the common interpretations of keeping the Sabbath day holy.

  5. Margaret, you’ve probably read it already, but I still remember (years later) the wonder I felt as I read Albert Nolan’s “Jesus Before Christianity”. The detailed discussion of the Gospels and the social context in which they occurred was fascinating to me, and the way that Harvey Cox juxtaposed the events of Jesus’ life with “other religious radicals” has remained with me over 20 years later.

    I agree that we don’t contemplate often enough the very practical reasons why Jesus ended up on the cross – and, in so doing, I’m afraid we miss SO much of how he became “as one of us” and the model he lived of how we should become “even as I am”.

  6. Margaret, Great post and very thought provoking. Just this Easter Sunday my 11-year old daughter wanted to know why the Romans wanted to crucify Jesus and I was trying to explain that they viewed him as a troublemaker. She was very surprised, shocked more like it. “Jesus a Troublemaker?” What did he do? I told her about Jesus tipping over the tables of the money changers and making a whip out of cords to drive them out of the temple. She kept asking about it, this was a side of Jesus she had never heard of. I know there are are some pictures of him doing this, but the ones I know all keep him rather dignified and with a “Wrath of Zeus” look on his face. I would love to see a depiction of this less “tame Jesus” done by LDS artists. There is something of the whip-wielding Jesus that Greg Olsen does not capture.

  7. Scott B–Superb quote.
    Ray–I’d love to hear you explicate that thought a bit more–”I’m afraid we miss so much of how he became ‘as one of us’”… Wasn’t part of the problem the fact that he REFUSED to become “one of us” when the “us” had cultural preconceptions about why a man would be born blind, how a woman taken in adultery should be treated, and how much honor was due even to sinners “who loved much”? I like where you’re headed.
    SteveP–first, it was cool to put your face with your name last week. I think it’s great that your daughter realized the Romans actually were the crucifiers. So many people believe the Jews did it all.
    What pictures do you know which portray a Savior who brings a sword? He was so beaten before his crucifixion that he was doubtless weak as he proclaimed “Thou sayest” to the question “Art thou king of the Jews?” But what if an artist portrayed him standing in godly, defiant dignity at that moment?

    On the other side of things, I will never get the picture from my mind of Edward Norton just after his character has brutally murdered a man in _American History X_. His face is so arrogant and unassailable.

    Christ was meek, but He was ultimately and eternally above everything.

  8. Gosh, I like you Margaret. Rather, I just have a huge appreciation for your writing and for another completely beautiful and insightful post. Thank you.

  9. Margaret gains another groupie. I think she needs to go have a talk with her Bishop.

  10. Ray, I have started sleeping with my bishop. Been doing it for several weeks now. We talk. Sometimes.

  11. SteelBlaidd says:

    One of my favorite books on Christ is Philip Yancey’s
    “The Jesus I Never Knew.”
    Which is a brilliant examination of our preconceptions of Christ and a wonderful antidote to what he calls the “Prozac Jesus”

  12. Fantastic, Margaret. You’ve given me a lot to think on, as well as reminding me how behind I am in my reading and contemplating. Thank you.

  13. Nameless says:

    Thank you Margaret! You know, I have thought of Jesus as a radical but more of a Ghandi type of radical–quietly sitting on a hill in gold tones…

    I had the opportunity to present a youth fireside which required me to do some studying on Joseph Smith and the first vision. Growing up in the church, I could recite the story backwards and forwards but it wasn’t until I it dropped that story into the context of American history or the prevailing theology of that time that I realized just how radical Joseph Smith’s experience was.

  14. I like the way Talmage describes Christ in discussing the cleansing of the Temple:

    His mood was adapted to the conditions to which He addressed Himself; tender words of encouragement or burning expletives of righteous indignation issued with equal fluency from His lips. His nature was no poetic conception of cherubic sweetness ever present, but that of a Man, with the emotions and passions essential to manhood and manliness. He, who often wept with compassion, at other times evinced in word and action the righteous anger of a God. But of all His passions, however gently they rippled or strongly surged, He was ever master. Contrast the gentle Jesus moved to hospitable service by the needs of a festal party in Cana, with the indignant Christ plying His whip, and amidst commotion and turmoil of His own making, driving cattle and men before Him as an unclean herd.

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