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.”