The Approaching Zion Project: How Firm a Foundation! What Makes It So

Rome-St.-Peters-Basilica-In-Morning-Moon-over-churchYou can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project (including a link to the text of the book Approaching Zion) here.

Interestingly enough, this chapter seems to be less focused on Zion and more focused on the Church more broadly. Still, Zion sneaks in, even discussing the Church. As always, a couple things I found interesting:

The Third Dimension

Nibley talks about how our world is a flat, two-dimensional world, unless we have experienced the “indispensable third dimension to the gospel” (154). Art, he says (including the sublime art and architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica) provides the illusion of the third dimension, but fails to actually achieve it.

And, to the extent Nibley’s right about that, it puts inordinate pressure on us. Because St. Peter’s Basilica is stunning. It is a marvel, designed to turn our thoughts and hearts to heaven, to Jesus and His sacrifice. There is nothing flat about it, or about the art that fills it.

And, speaking of art: today, after four years teaching at Loyola, I finally went (with my family) to its art museum. Unfortunately, we missed the Chagall exhibit (though his America Windows grace the Art Institute), but we were able to see the permanent collection, with its Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque religious art. And the art elevated me; these artists’ conception of Jesus, of Mary gently cradling him, or of Satan and death being crushed beneath the cross offered me new ways to perceive and think about religion. The best art does that.

So if even the best art provides only the illusion of the third dimension of the gospel, that third dimension must be something spectacular. And it must be something worthy of our time and effort. Because two dimensions can be remarkable of themselves.

“Grim Commercialism and Ugly Litter”

Nibley bemoans the changes in the Utah landscape between the 1940s, when he first arrived, and 1979, when he delivered this address. He talks of Utah as a joy and delight, but says that “no my friends no longer come on visits as they once did, to escape the grim commercialism and ugly litter of the East and the West Coast” (158).[fn1]

To which I must respond in two ways: first, there’s an attitude I’ve seen, especially in New York, but also in Chicago, that I find unproductive and unhealthy. People sometimes move there and here grudgingly, and mark time, actively waiting until their current job is done and they can move away from the hateful (grim and ugly) city and back to Utah.

Now let me pause here and say, I don’t mean this as a condemnation of Utah or Utahns. It certainly isn’t unique to Utahns—18-year-old Californians who go to school at BYU often enter Utah with a chip on their shoulder,[fn2] and New Yorkers are notoriously insular with respect to the rest of the country.[fn3]

The problem with marking time grudgingly is, you don’t actually live life, you don’t contribute to the community you’re in, and you don’t let the community contribute to you. Even a temporary residence gives you enough time to give and take, while many temporary residences have ended up lasting a whole lot longer than expected.

The second major problem: calling the East and West Coasts grimly commercial and littered is, frankly, uncharitable and inaccurate and does a huge disservice to the coasts.

The Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley

Look, I get that he loves the look of Utah (or, at least, Utah from the 1940s). That’s a perfectly fine aesthetic judgment; it is not, though, an objective one. Me, I love the rolling hills and vistas of Southern California. My wife, on the other hand, who grew up in South Carolina, loves densely forrested land, with brilliantly green trees that impede the view. (Though, frankly, if anything could sell me on densely-wooded, super-green land, it would be New York’s Hudson River Valley. Because wow.)

I’ve not been sold on the Midwestern landscape; like I said, I like rolling hills and vistas. But Chicago is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve seen, especially if you look at the downtown over Lake Michigan or drive past it on Lake Shore Drive.[fn4] Or go to the West Loop and look across the Chicago River.

Downtown Chicago

Downtown Chicago


That is, I’m fine that Nibley really, truly loves the Utah of the past. Many people—people with impeccable taste—do. But you can get similarly unspoiled beauty in plenty of other places, and man-made beauty in plenty of other places (although I’m partial to the architecture of Chicago, New York’s a pretty cool city, too, Kent!). I don’t know that there’s any spiritual superiority to the beauty of Utah over the beauty of New York, California, South Carolina, Chicago, Italy,[fn5] or whatever your beautiful place is.


  • Interestingly, as Nibley proselytizes his views on consecration, he also urges charity toward our fellow Saints. Although he’s quite convinced that his reading of scripture is right, he says, “What about Brother So-and-So or President So-and So [sic]? He is free to do as he pleases [in keeping his covenants]; I did not covenant with him! I knew quite well what I was promising to do and when and where I was to do it, and why—now it is up to me!” (170-71). This, I believe, is a healthy and charitable approach. Nibley may well believe that his covenants demand that he eschew the pursuit of wealth. He may even teach it. But in the end, what he has covenanted to do is between him and the Lord; concomitantly, what President So-and So has covenanted to do is between him or her and the Lord.
  • Nibley wonders, though he claims not to care, if the Law of Consecration (by which he essentially seems to mean Kirtland’s United Order is realistic and practical. From a tax perspective, it just might be; remind me, sometime, to post about section 501(d) of the Internal Revenue Code.
  • Nibley writes, “The St. George Temple is now lost in a neon jungle and suburban tidal-wash of brash, ticky-tacky commercialism” (157). I can’t read “ticky-tacky” without thinking of Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,”[fn6] Was Nibley a Pete Seeger fan? They do share certain views toward capitalism and careers, and it would make a lot of sense that Nibley got the term from Seeger. On the other hand, maybe “ticky-tacky” was a common (derisive) phrase in the 60s and 70s.
  • I’m uncomfortable with Nibley’s views on other religions. But, of course, we now live in an era where the Church is much more interested in dialogue with other religions, and in which we acknowledge that all religions offer good things, if not everything, to adherents. It’s a generational change I’m very happy with (see, e.g., above, where I talk approvingly of St. Peter’s and of a Catholic university’s art museum as being spiritually edifying).
  • I find some of his history, especially as it relates to other religions (especially as it regards charismatic performance), to be suspect. But, of course, he was speaking almost 35 years ago; we have access to more information than he had access to.

Please note that I don’t mean the final two points as criticisms of Nibley. Attitudes and knowledge change generationally. I suspect that, had Nibley been delivering this address today, its message would be the same, but its details different. Which is to say, I’m not interested in criticisms of Nibley the person in the comments; I am, however, interested with engagement with his (or my, or your) ideas.

[fn1] I’ll assume he would have said the same about the Third Coast.

[fn2] Or, at least, 18-year-old Californians who went to BYU almost 20 years ago. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.

[fn3] Though interestingly enough, Utah made the map.

[fn4] I wanted to put up a picture I’d taken the other day, but it turns out that my family’s in the foreground, and, although I love blogging, I also love maintaining their privacy. So instead I chose a picture that doesn’t entirely do justice to Chicago, but comes close to what I wanted to show.

[fn5] Actually, Italy may trump most of my examples.

[fn6] Yes, the link is to Walk Off the Earth’s version of “Little Boxes,” Not Seeger’s. Sorry.

11 comments for “The Approaching Zion Project: How Firm a Foundation! What Makes It So

  1. June 26, 2013 at 11:24 am

    It’s taken me years to get over Nibley’s dismissive asides to actually appreciate the substantive points he is making.

    In this chapter, I esp. like the “is there no other way” point Nibley makes in the Q&A. I suspect there are some social and economic problems we face that will only be successfully addressed by drastically changing some deep-seated assumptions we have about social and economic relations.

    For example, I’ve been reading a bit about cooperatives, and their ideas and stats, and I wonder how movements like this are going to fare over the next decade or two. My hunch is that some of these kinds of alternative movements will get more traction, but that traditional corporate forms will also change in the face of increasing social pressure to be more socially responsible.

    I think as Mormons we should lead the way on these kind of efforts, without getting hung up on ideological differences. Nibley’s writing can be very effective in bringing to light many of the numerous problems we (still) face in our modern economy and culture, but inasmuch as his writing is used in a way to deepen ideological differences, I think it’s unproductive and unfortunate….

    (More importantly, Sam, your comments about Chicago remind me of the joke that seems to have originated with the comedian Richard Jeni: ) “I think that’s how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said, ‘Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough. Let’s go west.'”)

  2. Sam Brunson
    June 26, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Thanks, Robert, both for the substantive comments and (especially) the joke.

    My hunch is that some of these kinds of alternative movements will get more traction, but that traditional corporate forms will also change in the face of increasing social pressure to be more socially responsible.

    I suspect you’re right; there already have been movements, over the last half dozen or so years at least, to create socially-responsible business forms that can function in our society and economic system.

  3. June 26, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I’m enjoying your series. I had an Honors Pearl of Great Price class with Professor Nibley in 1987, and it was one of the highlights of my college years.

    I’ve considered Approaching Zion to be one of my favorite books all my adult life, but I last read it in its entirety 23 years ago, when I was 23 years old and newly married. It influenced me greatly, though, as a long-time resident of Manhattan, I quibbled with his condemnation of East Coast cities.

    Now I’m finding that I’d like to re-read it to see whether/how my perspective on it has changed. Thanks for your thoughtful responses.

  4. Jax
    June 26, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    I find Nibley’s criticism quite well founded in scripture, no matter what city it is…

    Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
    Isa 5:8

  5. June 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Since I grew up in Southern CA, I’m on your wife’s side on that one. I did really object to Nibley’s use of ‘ticky-tacky’–which I think was a popular phrase back then in general use, through Seeger’s fault. (My parents listened to a lot of Pete Seeger, but I’m not sure Nibley did.) Anyway it’s a phrase I dislike; we have to live somewhere and not all of us can afford a Seeger-approved house.

    I’ve been enjoying the essays. I find myself objecting to more than I did when I was 20, but it’s reminding me not to be so worried about money all the time, which I really need right now.

  6. KLC
    June 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I don’t see how Nibley’s comment about the “grim commercialism and ugly litter of the East and the West Coast” can be construed as a commentary on landscapes. Doing that trivializes his ideas and illustrates how little you understand what he’s talking about. I don’t think he had rolling hills and green, leafy valleys in mind when he said that.

  7. Sam Brunson
    June 26, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments so far; I’m going to try to add to this discussion an additional question: if not through art, how, do you think, do we experience the third dimension Nibley says comes from the Gospel?

  8. David Scott
    June 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Dude, Nibley must have never seen a babe in a bikini at Huntington Beach. Ain’t nothin in Utah can compare with that. I’m just sayin. . .

  9. Matt Bohman
    June 27, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Sam, In regards to your new question in 7, Nibley says that “the teachings of man are two dimensional unless they have actually experienced the third.” I wonder if he could be alluding to true spiritual experiences and from there we apply that experience or those feelings to our other life experiences. It is interesting to me that he finds that art and music etc are only two dimensional unless viewed from this third dimension of reality. I find that when I listen to music and view art with knowledge gained from gospel truths and my own personal spiritual experiences I view and comprehend it differently. I’m sure I might feel this way about plays and other events if I attended them on a regular basis.
    Nice thinking question thanks for your efforts.

  10. June 27, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    -“The secret feeling of my heart was that I would be willing to crawl around the earth on my hands and knees, to see such a man as was Peter, Jeremiah, Moses, or any man that could tell me anything about God and heaven. But to talk with the priests was more unsatisfactory to me then than it now is to talk with lawyers.” – Brigham Young

    “All the students I have talked with at the beginning of this semester intend eventually to go into law or business; Brigham Young University is no longer a liberal arts college. They are not interested in improving their talents but in trafficking in them.”

    These quotations were, for me, like diamonds emerging from the coal-dust of Nibley’s diatribes.

  11. July 1, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    This really is the third blog, of urs I personally went through.
    But I actually love this specific 1, “The Approaching Zion Project: How
    Firm a Foundation! What Makes It So | Times & Seasons”
    the best. Thank you ,Bernard

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