In January, when my co-blogger Ronan wondered why, in a worldwide church, we have so many stories about baseball and the lessons learned from hoeing sugar beets in the church magazines, some of us essentially told him shut up and quit kvetching. Now the March Ensign contains a small but fascinating anomaly.  On pages 78-79, in the Latter-day Voices section, we read a well-written story called The Savior’s Saving Hand.  It is an account of a man who nearly drowned but who was rescued at the last minute, and who, later in life, finds himself drowning in sin and is rescued by the Redeemer.  Many of us have similar experiences.  The story is accompanied by an illustration depicting a swimmer in distress, a hand reaching towards him from a boat, and in the background, some beautiful purple and gold desert cliffs, stark and barren of vegetation.  It looks like either Lake Powell in Utah, or Lake Mead in Nevada.  But the story takes place in Sardis, Mississippi.  Which one of these is not like the others?

I’m not sure this detail matters all that much.  He was drowning, he was rescued, who cares what the scenery looks like?  True enough.  But then, why illustrate the story at all?  And if you are going to illustrate it, isn’t it just as easy to paint loblolly pines and deciduous trees on a gentle slope to the water’s edge as it is to paint cliffs in a Southwestern desert?  We can speculate on how this came about, although it would probably be pointless to do so.  I’m sure there is an innocuous reason why the editors of the Ensign decided to make the area around Tupelo, MS look like Bullfrog, UT.  It is certainly no skin off my nose. 

However, if I were the president of the chamber of commerce in Sardis, it would bother me.  If I were the owner of a marina on that lake who spent money advertising, it would bother me.  We all get to decide if something bothers us or not, and our answer depends on our perspective.  If I told the owner of Sardis marina to quit complaining over such a trivial detail, he might be tempted to ask me to step outside.

Last year when The Mormons was on PBS, many of us disliked it.  We took strong exception, for instance, to the the way Whitney depicted the configuration of chairs in the stake disciplinary council.  It didn’t fit into our lived experience, so we took that as conclusive proof of her malevolent intentions and willingness to stretch the truth, even lie, in order to take a shot at our religion.  Do we realize that somebody in Mississippi right now might be thinking: THE ENSIGN LIES!!!, with at least a little justification?

Although it is impossible to get away from our cultural milieu, we can at least try to be aware of it.  We interpret our experiences through that filter, and we can be charitable when others do the same.  We can also assert our interpretations with a measure of humility.  When we get a detail like this wrong in the current month,  don’t we need to be careful about the way we think about Joseph and Emma Smith, not to mention Lamanites and Nephites? 


  1. Left Field says:

    A number of years ago, the Friend ran an illustration of the Manti Temple with a statue of Moroni on top. I suppose they thought the kids wouldn’t recognize it as a temple without Moroni. What made it even more odd was that the artist put the statue on the shorter west tower, ignoring the directional symbolism that was considered so important in the older temples.

  2. A few years ago my mom had a story about my family published in the Ensign. They called her up to ask about descriptions of our family, like ages of kids, hair color, etc. My mom warned that my father is not your typical looking “Mormon dad” and he especially wasn’t at the time the story took place (early 80s). Think tatoos, Harley t-shirt, handlebar moustache, etc. Well, the magazine came out and they illustrated the article with photos of models. To show my inactive dad they had some clean-shaven guy in a polo shirt looking kind of grumpy. I have never seen my dad in a polo shirt. Ever. We were mostly amused, but it still bothered me that an article about a family that wasn’t “perfect” in our conventional ways ended up being portrayed in such a bland way.

    On the other hand, I have seen some really interesting illustrations over the years. I remember a painting of a man who looked much like my dad giving his baby a blessing, and I’ve noticed that many articles are being illustrated with photos of multicultural families. Still, I wish the illustrations showed more “realistic” looking church members.

  3. Latter-day Guy says:

    Speaking of Ensign pictures, check out this month’s issue on facing pages 38 and 39. On 39 there is a painted depiction of a man being arrested. On the previous page, there is a detail from a painting of Christ that has him wearing some kind of dark orange thing, which, one of my co-worker’s noted, makes one wonder if “LA COUNTY” is stenciled on the back. The combination of the two paintings looks pretty funny in that light.

  4. MikeInWeHo says:

    Heck, they’re not even real Church members at all sometimes. LDS magazines are replete with purchased stock photos. My partner Pete works in this industry and I’m very familiar with it.

    I first noticed this a couple years ago when the cover of LDS Living Magazine had a photo of some young Asian students on it titled “Saints In China” — and I had been on the set of that particular shoot a while earlier. Since then I’ve taken a closer look, and stock photos are just everywhere including the official Church publications sometimes. My impression is that the private LDS publications (Meridian, LDS Living, etc) use stock almost exclusively when they’re not depicting GAs or other specific people.

  5. Kristine says:

    Mark, I had the reaction you describe to that scene in the Whitney film, but then got a chance to talk to Margaret and Paul, who said that the disciplinary council was not handled according to the protocol in the CHI (or GHI, I think it was then), and that, in fact, the setup of the chairs was roughly accurate. (The background of the room, however, was still much more elegant than anything in a Mormon building!).*

    And, ultimately, from the perspective of one being disciplined, of course it feels lonely and intimidating–the question of physical vs. spiritual reality adds still another dimension to the problem of perspective you describe.

    *let me try to avert a threadjack by acknowledging that we only have one side of the story, that all of the church disciplinary councils the priesthood holders reading this blog have ever been in were undoubtedly full of love and handled precisely according to all the rules, blah, blah, blah. That may be perfectly true, but it still tells us nothing about the particular case Whitney heard about and tried to portray. We weren’t there, so our perspective is inevitably imperfect–we can’t know.

  6. JA Benson says:

    I have an African AMerican friend who had an article published in the Ensign 16 or so years ago. The story was about her conversion story. The artist mistakenly portrayed her as white.

    I have noticed that the Ensign has improved in the last five years or so in representing a more multi ethnic mix of people. I think that they have made improvments, but more certainly needs to be done.

  7. We were mostly amused, but it still bothered me that an article about a family that wasn’t “perfect” in our conventional ways ended up being portrayed in such a bland way.

    This reminds me of the story Orson Scott Card tells of the time he worked for the Ensign. As he tells it (this can be found in his book A Storyteller in Zion), they wanted to show, in a picture, that the person being portrayed was inactive. So they showed the man with a pipe. He wasn’t actually smoking the pipe, but it was clearly his.

    As Card tells it, they recieved several angry letters along the lines of “how dare the Ensign show a pipe! I thought the Ensign was a clean magazine! Are you trying to encourage sin by making it look like pipe smoking is okay?”

    They way Card related it, it was clear he felt like this deluge of letter was from a vocal minority, but I’m just wondering if perhaps the editors of that particular issue thought “hmm – guy in polo shirt looking grumpy or tatooed biker? Which will get us more angry letters? Okay, guy in polo shirt it is” or something like that.

  8. Mark, very good. The last paragraph especially was profound.

  9. Jo Beth says:

    Does anyone know what’s going on with the gravestone controversy on page 37: “Anticipating the Resurrection”? I like the story but can’t imagine why the supervising minister would object to the words “resting place” on a headstone.

  10. #9 – The minister didn’t believe in a literal, physical resurrection, so a “resting place (of the body)” did not fit his theology – since the body merely would be decomposing rather than “resting” for an eventual rise according to his beliefs.

  11. Left Field says:

    Here’s some lovely views of Sardis Lake showing Mississippi’s famous stark red cliffs along the shoreline.

    Rotating photographs of the lake, marina, and ospreys.

    Southern Romantic Nights

  12. anonymous says:

    On the other hand, the man who abused my wife when she was a child is pictured in an Ensign article about emotional abuse. She freaked out when she saw his picture in the Ensign, and it didn’t help her when I pointed out that he wasn’t illustrating an ideal man. The Church won’t take action against him on a “he said, she said” accusation, but they can make the subtle implication.

  13. This is a magazine that has portrayed Adam and Eve as blond, fair-skinned, looks like they just stepped out of a BYU dorm. Can you believe any of the stock photography they use?

    I remember giving an Ensign to a Chinese investigator that thought it was strange that they’d use pictures of Japanese people to illustrate a story of a Chinese member. Especially with the history between the two cultures.

  14. Sometimes this sort of thing cuts both ways. There was recently an article in the Liahona that depicted an Armenian as looking like an African. The poor illustrator thought he would add some ethnic diversity but just ended up making the magazine look foolish and ignorant. (Armenians are white and the country is not ethnically diverse.) The story also appeared in the New Era, and oddly enough, someone from Ohio sent a letter to the magazine pointing out the blunder, and the New Era printed it. Unfortunately, I understand that the magazines are often at the mercy of these illustrators, who work on contract and sometimes don’t deliver their artwork until right before the print deadline.

    Now, I hope everyone can look past this faux pas and enjoy what is simply a marvelous issue of the Ensign.