Point: It’s just art

Hezekiah didn’t consult with artists or historians before destroying the bronze snake Moses had made. He didn’t even try to preserve it somewhere else for its cultural value.

Art won’t save you. Great art can be used to promote awful things. I say that as someone who likes art, particularly religious art. Religious literature, religious music and the cathedral as Gesamtkunstwerk have all inspired a great deal of awe in me. I’m certainly not an iconoclast. But maybe, to a certain degree, the iconoclasts had a point.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the temple after a year of temple closures and while temples are still not yet fully open. That required a four-hour drive in each direction on roads that could be hazardous if the weather didn’t cooperate (and at times it didn’t). Our temple is one of the newer and smaller ones, and the design is not unique. But with the temple open only to those attending for their own ordinances (and just enough guests to fill out a socially-distant session), this was a rare opportunity for a dozen people.

People leapt at the chance. Not me; family history isn’t my passion, and I would have been happy to let someone else have the opportunity. But since it was my own child attending the temple for the first time, that wasn’t an option. I don’t dislike the temple—every time I’ve gone has been a profound experience, and it was again this time, too. We encounter God in the temple in a way unlike any other in our spiritual practice.

Our temple doesn’t have any murals or distinctive artwork that I’m aware of, but I’ve certainly enjoyed discovering murals in other temples. If it were up to me, I’d put murals in all the temples. But in terms of priorities for going to the temple, “admiring murals” is far down the list, and dispensable. The people who seized the opportunity to make the long drive to the temple that day weren’t there for the artwork.

The brazen serpent, no mere work of art, had been instituted by Moses himself as an implement of salvation from death in which we see a foreshadowing of Christ’s crucifixion. But Hezekiah demolished it anyway because it was becoming an object of worship in itself. I don’t think anyone’s about to burn incense to Minerva Teichart’s murals (although in light of some reactions, one does start to wonder). I’m glad to hear there’s a plan to preserve them. But compared to the temple ordinances, the murals are unimportant. They’re just art. Teichart created murals not to be displayed in the temple, but to serve the temple. They were created for a space in which art could never be equal or even comparable in significance to the sacred ordinances conducted there. Moved to another space, we can still imagine Teichart’s murals in their original setting. But to make the murals inseparable from the sacred space that housed them would not only undermine the purpose of that space—by hindering the alignment of the temple with new needs and updated ordinances—but also undermine the artwork’s original intent to serve that sacred space.

There is value in art, but we can’t let art become the basis for a hierarchy of temples: large versus small, central versus periphery, historical versus modern, architected versus iterated. The temples are not houses of God: the temple is a house of God. In a real sense, the temple ordinances bring us to the same place, no matter which temple we may be physically present in. If magnificent artwork and exquisite restoration of original craftsmanship are obscuring that fact, then we should pluck them out—or at least move them to an appropriate museum space.

* * *

Check back tomorrow for Chad’s counterpoint. Aspects of the temple not for public discussion are not particularly relevant to this topic, but please consider yourself reminded. I’m also not interested in cranks, crackpots, conspiracy theories, or insults directed at people or things I care about, and I will delete comments along those lines without a second thought or a trace of remorse.

29 comments for “Point: It’s just art

  1. I’m going to have to disagree here. Art can, in fact, save you. It doesn’t have to by any means, but it is one of our best ways to reach and understand the Divine. It has been since time immemorial and will continue to be.

  2. I appreciate hearing that it has been “a profound experience” every time someone has attended the temple and that someone “encounter[s] God in the temple in a way unlike any other in our spiritual practice.” But for some/many it varies from rote boredom to a profoundly negative experience that is not at all an encounter with God. I may have experienced nearly the full range of temple experience and have found, since 1967, the vagaries of the live endowment in a historical architectural and artistic setting far more conducive to a positive experience and to turning hearts to ancestors and others than any of the films. Clearly we do not all react to the same “art” in the same way. But even SWK was reputedly distressed to see what had been done to the Logan temple. There are likely ways that efficiency in numbers of ordinances performed for the dead could be increased without destroying our architectural and cultural history through which many experience the connection with generations that temple work for the dead is supposed to be about.

  3. The only reason why Minerva Teichert is notable is because she’s part of the tribe, Mormon, I mean part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Was she Michelangelo? Raphael? Monet? Sure she was talented, but if you really want to devote the best to God, there are better painters.

  4. I know the point of this post is to get people to refute it, but I kind of agree with it. When I was first going to the Manti temple my relatives who had been whispered about some of the art work and how non-Politically Correct some of it was. While the phrase “owning the Libs” certainly didn’t exist back then, the way they whispered about it had that vibe. The murals contained artwork that wouldn’t be politically correct, so by going and seeing it, you were doing something rebellious.
    There have been talks which have mentioned how all patrons are equal in the temple. Everyone is dressed the same. From first timer to President of the Church, all the same. All equal. I can see the same argument applying to temples. No one should feel superior to another member of the church because their temple has murals and the others do not.

  5. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, but I think it is worth remembering that our spiritual forebears received sacred ordinances on a mountainside or in simple buildings only temporarily designated as sacred edifices. The worship – and God as the subject of worship – is more important than the place.

    That said, the pioneer temples are monuments to the extraordinary sacrifices of those who built them at tremendous personal cost. While I think it makes sense to adapt them to modern conditions, I think it is worth preserving as much of the physical handiwork of the original builders as possible. They tried to build buildings that would last a millennium, and I think we should honor their efforts to the extent possible. When it isn’t possible or practical to maintain some of that original work in situ, removing it from the temple for preservation and display outside of it seems like a very good compromise.

    For those who like the murals or the multiple room format, allow me to recommend a visit to the Philadelphia Temple, which among other new temples has preserved many of those elements of the older pioneer temples. (And like the Washington DC Temple, has paintings of the U.S. Founding Fathers on prominent display – which I’m sure could be the subject of its own blog post.) I do think it’s curious that many of the newer temples are bringing forward elements from the older pioneer temples while the pioneer temples are being retrofitted with modern features.

  6. It’s not “just art.” The architecture and paintings in the early temples were worship. They were glorification of God. They signified, directly and indirectly, the value the Saints placed on the House of the Lord—an attitude mirroring what they saw in the Hebrew Bible. When Hafen, Pratt, Fairbanks, Evans, and Haag went to Paris to study art and develop their ability, it was not in the form of a grant or fellowship, but as a *mission* on behalf of the Church. What the early Saints built and how they built is a testament to their faith.

  7. If art/beauty isn’t the point, or isn’t essential, what’s the goal of spending millions of dollars on these ornate temples? Those places are chock full of art, in the form of murals (not so much anymore), framed paintings, furniture, design elements, massive chandeliers, etc. They are, of themselves, deliberate works of art. The intent with each of those things is to bring one closer to God. Now, personally, I don’t find much inspiration in any of those things (music is different for me, though). But you can’t revere temples without having a reverence for art.

  8. If we understand temples as houses which hold the symbolism and language of the everlasting, eternal covenant, then the symbolism which translates this covenant–art–matters.

    Do you think there is a risk with LDS temples themselves becoming “objects of worship” after the pattern of our own Israelite heritage?

    If LDS did misplace worship at the temple, what would it look like? (How would we know?)

  9. Hedonist.

    Sam, I think once you’ve arrived at the formulation of “art can save you,” you’re confusing the symbol for the thing symbolized. It’s time to melt down that brass serpent.

    MoPo: It’s certainly true that creating art can be a form of worship. But art created as worship always has to be ready to yield to the true object of worship, or to other, equally justified acts of worship. It’s the problem of “I created this wonderful program while serving as X, but then I was released and the next X didn’t continue it.” The creation of the program was a laudable act of service, but it can’t constrain the actions of the next person with the same stewardship. And right now, someone else has stewardship over the walls of the temples.

    ATNM: Art and beauty may not be essential, but they can be useful. If the point is to create a house of God, with a few essentials spelled out but most of the details left up to people to figure out, art can serve a useful function in the effort. But artistic paradigms change, as do the people left to figure out the rest of the details of how to build a house of God, and eventually art gets replaced and walls get shifted around. Even Philistines can revere the temple.

    Jader3rd: I think I kind of agree with my post, too. Admittedly it’s part of a point-counterpoint, but I think it’s an essential part of the discussion, and it’s finally given me a chance to write a post based on thoughts I’ve been kicking around for several years.

    Attention night owls: You might get to see Chad’s response late tonight.

  10. Jonathan: this strikes me as a deeply Protestant way of thinking.

    Once in conversation with somebody about the difference between the Mass and the Mormon ‘sacrament’, they said they didn’t think desecration of a Host wafer was a bad thing because “it’s just bread.” No, for a Catholic, it’s not. Augustine said sacraments are a visible sign of an invisible grace. You are using the analogy of the brazen serpent to describe the murals because you realize that, ultimately, humanity experiences meaning through what we call “art,” be it the literary form of metaphor and analogy and imagery or the tangible form of sacraments, and that art communicates meaning in ways that pure information cannot.. It’s the same reason ritual is important.

    These things are not “just symbols,” because sacraments aren’t just symbols.

  11. Matt, I think you’re failing to distinguish between art and sacraments. If I understand correctly, eucharistic wafers are quite plain. There’s nothing artistic about their color or flavor. What makes them sacred and essential is not their artistry, but their consecration in the context of ritual. The stained glass or wall decorations in their vicinity are much more artistic but much less holy and can be replaced as needed. The stained glass of a cathedral strikes me as a better analogy to Teichart’s murals: beautiful, but only a decoration to enhance the environment of a sacred event. It’s just art.

  12. Was the only purpose of the murals just to help patrons have as “immersive” an experience as possible? If so, then without the live ceremony it seems that the murals are dispensable. The special effects and musical score are the current methods of helping set the mood in the video presentation. And we don’t tend to go apoplectic when old videos are replaced with new ones.

    Making the murals equivalent to the cinematography and music of the video presentation doesn’t quite fit for me, though. Something about their tangible nature makes me see them as akin to the beautiful architecture and expensive materials that early Saints brought forward as sacrificing to give God their best offerings. While I can understand the reasoning, it feels disrespectful to just whitewash the murals.

  13. There is something to be said for a minimalist experience. All you really need for the endowment is a set a chairs, a veil, and eight trained ordinance workers. And I guess the chairs are optional if you don’t mind standing. When they announced the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple, I had considered the benefits of rebuilding the temple with the exact layout of the original temple and making the modern live endowment fit the unadorned open space of the original building. That setting would focus the ritual very much on its essential elements. Alas, they didn’t go that way. Probably didn’t even consider it.

    So is art essential for the temple experience? Of course not. Is the present art of Manti or Salt Lake essential to the Manti or Salt Lake Temple experience? No. Most of those rooms in both temples had unpainted walls or earlier murals that were painted over with the artwork we have been familiar with.

    But what is the purpose of removing the murals, reconfiguring the rooms, and adopting the filmed endowment? Is it to remind us to focus on the central elements of the ritual? I could go along with that goal, I really could. But if that were the purpose, we would not use well-produced video images and recorded sound. We would have done the new Nauvoo Temple the way I imagined. We would prepare bare rooms in Manti and Salt Lake for saints to gather and personally enact the ritual in space made sacred by the ritual itself.

    Are we removing murals and installing projectors in the name of efficiency and accommodating languages? That seems to be the claim. But I don’t think either Salt Lake or Manti has been operating at maximum efficiency as it is. I’ve rarely been to a full session in either temple, and I understand that has not much changed in the time since I last had the opportunity to go. So we can renovate and in theory, do more endowments, more work for the dead, but the limiting factor still seems to be temple patrons, not temple capacity. It’s a worthy goal to do more proxy work. But the temple is for the living as well as the dead. We go there for our own ordinances. And if we have a good experience, we will be more likely to go back and then do more proxy work. If the murals and the live sessions contribute to a better temple experience, then they contribute to more proxy work, no matter what the theoretical capacity of the building is. I can truly say that I am more inclined to attend more sessions in my local temple because I’ve had the experience of live sessions in Salt Lake, Manti, and Idaho Falls. So I’m not at all convinced that the new plan is going to move the work forward and make it better for either the living or the dead. Perhaps it has been revealed that there will soon be a sudden increase of Sanpete temple patrons that must be accommodated. But even if that were so, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be cheaper and more effective to build a very nice and efficient new temple in Mt. Pleasant or Gunnison or even a couple blocks away in Manti. Maybe even all three if we really can do that much proxy work in rural central Utah.

    I agree with this essay to the extent that the murals are not the be-all and end-all of temples or Salt Lake or Manti. But I’d feel a lot better about it if someone could only explain to me how ripping out the art and doing away with the live ordinance gives me a better experience or at least results in more proxy endowments than we would have by keeping the current temple experience and just building a few more temples, which seems to be what we’re doing a lot of anyway.

  14. Left Field

    “And I guess the chairs are optional if you don’t mind standing.” And a dozen years ago we learned that standing was optional (and omitted) and we should all feel like we are 73 years old with worn out hips and knees.

    “We would not use well-produced video images and recorded sound.” The last time I could enter a temple there was no well-produced video and sound. Instead there was something like a slide show with a bare, rushed “let’s get done what we have to get done and get out of here” pace. Not quite a mandatory training Powerpoint thrown together by HR to comply with Department of Labor regulation such-and-such, but closer to Powerpoint than to what had been there in 2018.

    A couple weeks ago I looked at the church’s temple web page to see if I could participate in Manti once more before it closes for the changes. I cannot due to the coronavirus closures. That left me wondering if the unstated reason for the changes in the Salt Lake and Manti temples is the limitations of the temple workers. The task of getting enough of them up to speed to present the endowment live in the Salt Lake temple again after a four year closure may have seemed like more than its temple district would be capable of sustaining.

  15. This entire essay is reductionist in the extreme. Few pieces of artwork are “just art.” The preserver or viewer brings the meaning. The destruction of historical or artistic pieces is not solely the destruction of a material object, it is an attack on the meaning and viewer’s sensibilities and values. The Silver Star awarded to my uncle for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge is more than just metal and ribbon. Iconoclasts do not attack mere objects. They attack our memories and valuable portions of our souls.

    Also, the scriptural prooftext offered in the case of Hezekiah is misleading. Those objects were destroyed because they became elements of pagan worship. Would someone tell me which false gods I am worshipping if I place great value on LDS historical objects and art? I value pieces of temple art and history because they are the material testimonies of people who worshipped the God of Israel at great sacrifice.

  16. The point-counterpoint essays are wonderful! Excellent debate! I don’t envy you- this would have been a difficult one to write (if you lost the coin toss).

    Here are some other points you could have used for your argument:

    1) the Manti mural contains an out-dated scientific representation of the creation. It depicts mammals and dinosaurs from periods separated by hundreds of million years apart co-existing.

    (Frankly, I think this was a non-linear 19th c encyclopedic review, not a realistic snapshot, but I bet a lot of people do t know that and could easily dismiss not only the art, but the rest of the message based on this Perceived “flaw”.)

    2) Minerva Techart’s depictions of Native American persons are racist and politically incorrect, incongruous with southwest native culture, modern BOM doctrine, harmful to native saints, and damming to the rest of us as our racist blind spots are culturally reinforced.

    3) The now demolished SLC Temple mural hrewnfrom a style that no longer resonates with modern aesthetics. Much like the hymn “Columbia Gem of the Ocean” (Up awake ye defenders of Zion) that rallied heart strings over a century ago, the style today feels tacky, corny and kitschy to the modern artistic sensibilities. resultantly- it is counterproductive (a stumbling block) to today’s temple-goer. It’s much better to find a style that accommodates all.

    4) Art and symbolism is the most powerful leadership tool. By harnessing the message of art in our most sacrosanct places, RMN and his administration are controlling the message and expressing their values. The most powerful leaders throughout history have leveraged art and symbolism to lead the people. Abraham Lincoln masterfully used rhetoric, metaphor and story, Nelson Mandela ushered in peace through soccer, Moses Used symbols (miracles, staff and serpent), etc. even evil leaders skillfully employ art and symbolism effectively.) The current President is simply seizing leadership reins that have been dormant for far too long. And, it’s the current prophet’s prerogative to shape the message for the present day.

    *BTW, I don’t think any of these rationales justified the destruction of the murals, I’m just playing devils advocate.

  17. I once had a an occasion to talk to a local mural artist that was painting a mural on the wall of a library. He is well known in the are a and has painted a number of murals on buildings in the area. He painted a mural on a flower shop in town. A short time later the building had to be torn down because of some structural issue. I asked the painter if he felt bad about his art having to be destroyed. He didn’t seem to care that much. He replied something about how that is the nature of murals. They can be temporary.

  18. I wouldn’t say that it was a coin toss or that Jonathan wrote his post with the intention of being refuted. We were just corresponding and realized that we had different feelings and opinions on the topic, making it a good opportunity to do contrasting posts.

    I will say that Mortimer’s second point (along with Jarder3rd’s) is one that may be a very valid reason to change the Manti Temple rooms. I’m primarily familiar with the Salt Lake Temple murals and know Manti’s only though pictures, which don’t tend to show very much, so I wasn’t as aware of more problematic aspects of the art there.

  19. A late, and mostly philosophical, defense of, if not the Manti Temple murals in particular, than of the role of art in enabling temples, and any ritual site, to do their salvific work here. Enjoy, or not, as you feel so inclined.

  20. “It’s just art”……….and Michelangelo’s David is just a piece of stone right? And the Mona Lisa is just paint on a canvas? Following your line of logic, Joseph Smith’s blood-stained clothes in the Church History Museum is just dirty laundry right? 130 years of craftsmanship will be tossed out for the sake of numbers, and I’m flabbergasted that you don’t find this disturbing.

    Each temple has their own unique way of expressing the same teachings found in vital ordinances. In Sapporo Japan, sliding doors are used instead of curtains to cover the veil to reflect Japanese culture. In Cardston Alberta, each ordinance room’s woodwork becomes progressively darker, with the celestial room walls being made of African mahogany. Even in my home state of North Carolina, the mural of the Raleigh temple showcases the wildlife and vegetation of all three regions (Appalachian mountains, piedmont, the coast), with the coast being shown at the front of the room. This gives the illusion that we’re sitting at the beach watching creation unfold through waves and sunrises. I love these peculiarities because they teach Latter-day Saints from different cultures that they are the Adams and Eves of their own environments. These intimate details reflect the uniqueness of each culture and help Saints better connect with the covenants they are making for themselves and on behalf of their ancestors.

    There’s no need to drag the Salt Lake and Manti temples down to the lowest common denominator to make them similar to other temples, because all temples are unique expressions of eternal truths. To quote Brigham Young, “You cannot separate the temporal from the spiritual, for they are one under the Lord.”

  21. Jonathan, sorry it took me so long to respond; it’s been a busy week.

    When you say “It’s time to melt down the brass serpent,” how are you determining what constitutes the brass serpent? (Note that I’m not agreeing with you that there’s any idolatry here, but let’s go with your example.) The art is an intrinsic part of the experience, much like the film and the temple itself and the furnishings. Like, the film isn’t a naturalistic recreation of a thing–it’s an aesthetic device, full of the decisions of the filmmaker (and others) about how to frame shots, how to light shots, how long or short to make them, how to decorate and dress the actors, etc. The buildings are made deliberately aesthetic, and their aesthetics vary from temple to temple. The furnishings and the light fixtures are chosen for particular aesthetic purposes. I can’t imagine that you’re arguing that we should disregard all of those things because they’re aesthetic and not somehow salvific.

    In fact, it seems to me that you’re taking an expressly low-church Protestant approach to temples. And our church is largely a low church tradition, but the temple embodies the closest thing we have to high church, with its ritual and smell and sight and sound. If we take away the ritual and the multi-sensory experience, we’re back in an entirely low-church world with not much to distinguish meetinghouses from temples.

    I’ll note that none of what I’ve said is meant as a specific assertion that we need to preserve the murals in the Manti temple. That’s a separate argument. My sole argument is against your assertion that something is “just art” and that art has no salvific value. In a church that values the aesthetics of temples, in a world where God speaks through literature and poetry and music and nature, I don’t think the idea that art has not salvific function is a defensible position. It unduly and unnaturally separates lived experience from “ordinances” or “salvation” or something esoteric like that. And our material culture, religious history, and present experience deny the ability to decouple the two.

  22. And, just to be completely clear, if someone wants to make the argument that art isn’t salvific because only Jesus saves, I think that defines down “salvific” too far. But if we go there, then sure, art isn’t salvific, but neither are ordinances or temples. They’re all extraneous to the grace Jesus gave us. And I guess that’s fare but it’s boring and arguably makes all of the religious structures we engage in superfluous.

  23. Sam, of course the point is that only Jesus saves. And the ordinances he instituted and that are administered with his sanction and authority to bring about the salvation he offers are of an entirely different category than art. It’s not difficult to tell them apart. Jesus sent heavenly messengers to restore the priesthood, not the Mona Lisa. We have whole sections of scripture and entire revelations about ordinances and temples and authority. It’s easy to distinguish between authorized people acting under the direction of Jesus’s established church to conduct divinely sanctioned ordinances, and contemplating an artwork created by a human artist doing the best he or she could to express their perceptions of the divine. Why is this even a question?

  24. Jonathan,

    >Why is this even a question?

    It’s a question because there are religious believers–I am one of them–who do not see exactly how, conceptually speaking, “authorized people acting under the direction of Jesus’s established church to conduct divinely sanctioned ordinances” themselves can save me, assuming one rejects–as, again, I do–the idea that going underwater literally, magically, washes sins away from me, or contractually obliges God to wash my sins away from me. If I am to be saved, I have to receive the meaning of those ordinances, I have to let that meaning change my behavior, my understanding, my allegiance, and the only way that is going to happen is if I remember that meaning always. Arts–words, songs, images, stories, rings., etc.– enables remembrance. Hence, “contemplating an artwork created by a human artists doing the best he or she could to express their perceptions of the divine” may well turn out to be essential to my own remembered experience of the divine which I was introduced to via the ordinance. In which case, an ordinance without art may fail to enable to me to change, to join, to become, as it ritually calls me to do.

    My understand may be wrong, of course. Maybe I am making an idol as a excuse to account for my lack of conviction or will or submission. But phenomenologically speaking, I don’t think I am. Anyway, that’s why it’s still a question, for me at least.

  25. Russell, I’m afraid that the salvation being offered only comes with various partial explanations, and the required steps may make as little sense as washing your eyes with spit and mud to cure blindness. I didn’t make the rules and I wouldn’t claim to understand how it all works. But that’s the salvation being offered.

    Now in general I also like to understand how things work, and I appreciate good explanations and effective means to convey meaning. As I’ve said all along, art can certainly be useful. But like any symbol, art is something beside the thing itself and there will always be the risk of distortion or replacement. Becoming dependent on a particular artwork to remember an ordinance, instead of witnessing or participating in that ordinance again, should be avoided. People keep citing things as arguments for retaining the temple murals that instead cause deep alarm about how people are using them.

    You’ve previously mentioned high vs. low church, and while I’m not sure that opposition accurately describes the current issue, it does remind me of something someone said around the time that Teichart was painting murals: if everyone’s doing it right, the low churchman should allow the high churchman his preferred manner of worship without taking needless offense, and the high churchman should strive to avoid scandalizing the low churchman. Or something to that effect, it’s been a while. In any case, the point is that I like art and temple art and efforts to preserve Teichart’s murals, but it would help those efforts tremendously if proponents of of saving the murals would appeal to the things valued not by themselves, but by the people they’re trying to convince. Trying to argue that art is salvific or essential to worship is not just entirely unnecessary, it weakens the argument because it raises the suspicion that the proper relationship of art and temple ordinances has gotten badly off kilter. It would be far more effective to say: These murals are beautiful and part of our heritage and people have fond memories of them, so we should preserve them. That is something I could support wholeheartedly.

  26. Jonathan, thanks again for the continued response. A longer, hopefully more thoughtful explanation of where I’m coming from is now up on my By Common Consent post.

    Trying to argue that art is salvific or essential to worship is not just entirely unnecessary, it weakens the argument because it raises the suspicion that the proper relationship of art and temple ordinances has gotten badly off kilter.

    Part of me reads this and thinks “Dude! You’re the one who opened up the issue by claiming art won’t save you!” But that’s water under the bridge at this point, and I can’t deny that there is truth in what you’re saying: not that it’s entirely unnecessary (because I actually do believe in the Faulconerian arguments I’ve shared), but that it is, as I’ve admitted on BCC and as Sam Brunson has admitted here, unnecessary as to these specific murals. In making this an argument about salvation–which, again, I think unavoidably is in part!–we inevitably make it less about the historical, artistic, and gender significance of Teichert’s specific contributions. If backing down from the theological claims (which presumably would have to happen on both sides) would make it more likely that both sides could agree that the Manti Temple murals ought to be preserved simply because the people attend the Manti temple love them, than that would absolutely be a win all around.

  27. Russell, what I’m saying is that some of the calls to save the murals and many of the responses in support have made clumsy and thoughtless theological claims about the relative value of art and ordinances that are unsupportable and ultimately destructive to their own cause. There is a lot to commend in the Faulknerian theory you proposed. I would even argue for it – but as a way to understand human life in general, not ordinances in their particularity. The problem with your proposal is that it simply ignores the church’s covenantal understanding of ordinances, which entails a real and specific divine action, in favor of a theory that is entirely about molding human beings within a human community. It’s this failure to recognize ordinances as something distinct from other human acts that is at the heart of the problem. Art isn’t an ordinance, and ordinances, however artistic, are more than just art.

    You noted that Joseph Smith didn’t just hand out ordinances, but went to great effort to build a community. Surely it’s occurred to you that the opposite is also true: he didn’t just start a church, he made quite a big deal about authority and ordinances and built vast structures – both organizational and made of stone – to house them. Human relationships and community do not provide a complete account of the Restoration.

    The church’s theology of ordinances is well known, discussed in countless conference talks and taught at every level from Sunbeams on up. Perhaps it’s a doctrine that doesn’t work for you, but it’s not an area that’s amenable to compromise. If you want to save some murals, then the path is not to seek a theological compromise, but to make every effort to avoid any appearance of theological implication in the first place.

  28. For people whose experiences in the temple are affected by sacred art, pretending like there is no theological implication would be kind of dishonest and ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

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