Mormons and Muppets, Secular and Sacred

counttabernacleIt felt like I won the lottery when I received them in the mail: four tickets to see my long-beloved Muppets join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City. That’s because I literally did win a lottery to get the tickets. Last night they kicked off a short series of shows with a public dress rehearsal. Here are a few quick thoughts.

I confess my heart was all aflutter seeing Big Bird take the stand to conduct the choir and orchestra for one of the show’s bits. He was a remarkably commanding presence in the cavernous Conference Center—the other Muppets were teeny by comparison and hard to make out from my balcony section 12 perspective but the giant yellow bird filled the space. The guest conductor motif isn’t new—think of another holiday offering, Mr. Kruegger’s Christmas, in which Jimmy Stewart daydreams himself holding the baton. Kruegger may be schmaltzy, but the film still gets to me. Its contrast between the free-wheeling sleigh-riding choir with Stewart at the front and the humble manger scene with Stewart hidden back in the dark shadows is quite moving. Stewart himself declares the divinity of the Christ child and seeks healing at an imagined Bethlehem. He’s with the choir, and he’s there with the Christ.

Contrast this with the Muppets. The performance was made up of a series of clusters: some Sesame Street style gags and secular Christmas songs and medleys alternating with overtly religious-themed offerings. If I recall correctly, when broadway star Santino Fontana (also of Disney’s Frozen fame) sang Alfred Burt’s “Some Children See Him” the Muppets had already shuffled off stage:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

Some of the language about race is certainly quaint, but the idea that there is more than a “lily white” Jesus, that in many ways we project our beings and lives onto the Savior, is something that can stand to be emphasized more in Mormon discourse. (Incidentally, the latest Mormon Studies Review includes a review of a great book called The Color of Christ that talks about such things.)

And so it went throughout the performance. Cookie Monster was on a monomaniacal search for cookies, only be reminded by Elmo that Christmas was about “MORE” than that. (The word “MORE” was a repeated theme, and usually appeared on the teleprompter in ALL CAPS.) When Cookie broke out his signature song he was reminded that “C” is for more than “Cookie,” it’s also for “Christmas,” “Concert,” and “Choir.” When a full plate of chocolate chip cookies finally appeared, Cookie decided to share with everyone. The Muppets enjoined the audience to carry Christmas cheer with them throughout the year and to remember that Christmas is about MORE than lights, treats, and gifts. But affirmations of the divinity of Christ were delivered by the choir and Santino Fontana, who read the nativity excerpt from Luke 2, with the Muppets attending to other important duties (like Grover running the sound and light board). And Count von Count teamed up with MoTab organist Richard Elliot for an incredible and witty variations on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that brought the packed house to a mid-show standing ovation.

I don’t want to come across like I missed the point of the show, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was much in the way of celebrating Jesus Christ throughout the program even while the Muppets, the cornerstone of PBS, hewed to their line of celebrating Christmas without directly emphasizing Jesus Christ. I believe it’s a great strength that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can reach out to a more ecumenical audience and work with performers who don’t necessarily share theological confessions. They’ve been doing so for decades on the Sunday morning Music and the Spoken Word broadcast, after all. Church leaders have sometimes expressed concern with the Choir’s “veering into secular music,” while other people lament the Choir’s embracing a spectacle-oriented performance ethic. (Mack Wilburg will never make it as an actor. Trust me.) Both of these points are among the themes discussed in Michael Hicks’s forthcoming book The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015, pre-publication page 120, a fuller review is forthcoming but let me say right now: buy the book).

As for me, I was happy to see the Muppets team up with America’s Choir (as Ronald Reagan famously dubbed them), and the LDS Church’s Choir mostly because I’m a big Muppets fan. But I also appreciated the way they navigated the sacred and the secular—two indispensable and inseparable contexts of my own life experience—during a unified performance in the spirit of Christmas.

If you weren’t lucky enough to win tickets or don’t live near enough to even try the concert is set to appear on PBS sometime in the future.

Comments

  1. This is actually a really beautiful post. I read expecting more of a “Muppets and Mormons? Can you believe it?!” approach. If I can, this is a pretty excellent run of some amazing Mormon/Muppet cross over jokes that still makes me laugh: http://www.athingcalledloveblog.com/blog/just-for-fun-the-mormons-and-the-muppets-humor

  2. You lost me at lottery. That’s too un-Mormon.

  3. The very first sentence, Jay! Rats.

  4. “Mack Wilburg will never make it as an actor. Trust me.” Classic.

    Thanks for this Blair.

  5. I like your framework here of examining how the show brought together sacred and secular. The two don’t need to be at war, like some are currently trying to portray in an effort to foment political outrage among our ranks. In fact, your framework actually brings this current situation to mind, and I might just comment on it briefly here since you’ve got me thinking about it (sorry, this is a bit of a detour from the topic of MoTab and Muppets!).

    As I said, the sacred and secular definitely don’t need to be at war — we don’t need to view them this way. Instead, President Hinckley struck the right tone 50 years ago when he admonished university students, both within and outside the Church, to add spiritual learning to the overall mix of their secular learning at university. He said, “I suggest to you with all earnestness that as you pursue your secular studies you add another dimension to your life, the cultivation of the spirit.” His talk was not a dismissal or condemnation of the secular learning that takes place at universities. Far from it — the tone and words of the talk praise such learning and encourage students to seek it. But while seeking it, “I should like to suggest that you follow that injunction given by the Son of God. With all of your learning, learn of him. With all of your study, seek knowledge of the Master. That knowledge will complement in a wonderful way the secular training you receive and give a fulness to your life and character that can come in no other way” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Dimension of the Spirit”, Conference Report, October 1964, pp. 116-119, http://scriptures.byu.edu/gettalk.php?ID=1374).

    In other words, even in the pursuit of secular knowledge, we as disciples of Jesus Christ should also seek out spiritual knowledge to strengthen our faith. There is no war against secularism hinted at in this advice by then Elder Hinckley, a relatively new Apostle. Rather, his words embrace secular learning and promise that our faith will complement that which we learn in the course of our secular studies.

    Though Elder Hinckley’s comments were directed at students in their university studies, the same principles would apply on the opposite side of the equation, to those involved in teaching those students at university. It follows that a Mormon literature professor, a Mormon biology professor, a Mormon music professor, a Mormon law professor, a Mormon history professor, etc., can do his or her most to build up Zion not by forcing a conflict between secular learning and faith but rather by being the best professor in whatever field that he or she can be, and by showing his or her students, where appropriate, how the faith of a disciple of Jesus Christ can enhance learning, and open up new perspectives on how the secular learning can strengthen faith. But within that person’s professional sphere, this does not mean shunning the obligation to publish in the highest organs of secular learning on the most meaningful topics, whatever they might be, in the pursuit of secular knowledge at a given time but rather embracing that responsibility and excelling at it.

    The same would of course be true of a Mormon in any profession: the faithful individual’s potential to build up Zion is to pursue the utmost excellence in his or her work. “As a Mormon [X], I can best build Zion by being the best [X] I can be (which will naturally include following the guidance of the Spirit in my work and allowing my faith to inform my inquiries or actions).” In the process, it will be inevitable that the person’s work will be influenced by the person’s faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It used to be taken for granted that this was the role of Mormon professors and professionals — to excel at the top of their secular fields by leading out in the secular knowledge of those fields while living the life of a Christian disciple. President Eyring’s father as well as a number of others come immediately to mind.

    But I have seen that called into question in the last few years as demands are made for Mormon professors and professionals to turn their attention from achieving the pinnacle of such “secular” pursuits of their fields in order to push faith somewhat artificially through these fields. The vision that a person’s faith will naturally infuse every aspect of his or her work and thus influence those in that person’s sphere of influence for the better in the natural course seems to have become eclipsed with a perceived need to be overtly hostile to secular knowledge, to turn secular inquiries relevant to a particular field into ends-based religious argumentation or outreach. Thus, some now seem to be questioning whether Mormon academics, for example, are abdicating to “secularism” if, in the eyes of those so questioning their commitment, they do not seem to be adequately using their involvement in their specific field to push ends-based reasoning on topics currently relevant in their internal faith discourse, regardless of those topics’ relevance to individuals’ specific fields of secular inquiry.

    Elder Hinckley’s admonition to allow the faith of a disciple of Jesus Christ to complement secular knowledge is not a call to ends-based reasoning in defense of any particular temporal, political end, but rather a call to join the cause of Zion, to allow our faith to infuse every aspect of our work, and to be the change in the world that the Lord would like to see precisely by combining our pursuit of secular knowledge with the faith of Christian discipleship.

  6. The MoTab tradition of reaching out to the whole world with simple messages through songs both secular and spiritual is the church I want to be a part of.

  7. The entire performance was fun, but that “Twelve Days of Christmas” was one of the most amazing musical performances I’ve ever seen!

  8. I believe it’s a great strength that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can reach out to a more ecumenical audience and work with performers who don’t necessarily share theological confessions.

    You mean the Muppets aren’t LDS? I always thought Bert and Ernie were just – um – mission companions.

    Seriously, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to go to this, but you make me wish I had. Great review, and a great perspective on “in the world but not of it.” I’m reminded of something which affected me greatly when I first read it as a new convert: ““Verily I say unto you, that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” (D&C 29:34)

  9. Well, that’s something you don’t see every day.

  10. Don’t worry, Jay, only your average Mormon need taint his or herself by participating in the lottery. Rest assured that our leaders and their families have all been kept untouched by such worldly designs through the inspired program of guaranteed VIP tickets.

  11. In my corner, this side of the Atlantic we’re still reeling from the shock revelation that those Sesame St characters ARE muppets!
    Does this mean there’s no Kermit et al?
    Sounds like tremendous fun anyway.
    We always enjoy watching A Muppet Christmas Carol over the Christmas holidays.

  12. Thanks john f.

  13. Thanks for the review. I am learning that all I really need to know about dealing with difficult reporting situations, I learned from Kermit long ago. All I need to know about how to look bad being interviewed I learned from watching Mormon experts try to talk about things besides what they are experts in. Thanks for your thoughts along those lines john f.

    I admit I hadn’t heard about this concert up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Next week is finals, and the would-be ice wall climbers are hoping for 3 days below zero so they can climb the wall before Winter Break. There are cross-pollination efforts at the Episcopalian Christmas Eve service. 2 Mormon, 1 Seventh Day Advent is and a Jewish student all joining the choir for 2 of the 3 services that night. As one of the Mormons, I am quite looking forward to it, although the lack of 4 parts still is kind of weird.

  14. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Am I a Mor-maaaaaan, or am I a Muppet?

  15. Anyone who was unaware that Richard Elliott is a musical GOD among men, need only review his 12 Days of Christmas arrangement with the Count and know forever that there will NEVER be another organist in the UNIVERSE to compare. Did I mention it was GENIUS?