Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Mormon Aesthetic

On Mormon Renaissance, the latest post by Liz Busby discusses a Mormon aesthetic in terms of Heidegger. Here, like many others have, she points out that several ideas of what we might call "Mormon," aesthetically or thematically, could more truly be called generally "Christian." This reminded me of other thoughts I've had about who we are aesthetically and thematically.

We are Christian (which I will define as any religion whose members specifically try to become like Christ, as I feel this idea is at the heart of the New Testament), and to deny that would be to deny the very core of our religion. However we are not only Christian. There are several systems that work together to define and challenge who we are (again, aesthetically and thematically). The first and most central system is our Christianity, which I will call our "New Testament aesthetics." Secondly, we are also pre-Christian Jewish, and this system I will call "Old Testament aesthetics." Thirdly, we are defined by what I will call "Latter-day Saint aesthetics."

The Book of Mormon, in my view, doesn't factor in to our sense of "Latter-day Saint aesthetics" because it is a supplement to our understanding of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We understand the Law of Moses and all of the aesthetic implications of that law (sacrifice, obedience, creation, prophecy, covenants, etc) in terms of the Book of Mormon. Likewise, we understand Christ's life and all of his teachings in the flesh as well as the commandment to preach the gospel in terms of the doctrines contained in the Book of Mormon. The same can be said of the books of Moses and Abraham, not to mention that these systems obviously affect our view and relationship with the other.

However the question is: What defines a Latter-day Saint system? Many themes could be taken from teachings and commandments given only in this, the last dispensation (specifics from the Word of Wisdom, doctrines about marriage, the act of sustaining, pornography, man's potential, our view of eternity, preexistence, etc). However, two things stick out in particular as uniquely Latter-day Saint, things that question the possibility of a unified Mormon aesthetic. The first was brought to my attention by a former neighbor of ours named Rex Cooper. While he was at the University of Chicago many years ago, he wrote an anthropological study about Latter-day Saints that portrayed them practicing a "covenant theology." Since my discussions with Rex, I've come to believe that no other culture or religion holds this perception of man's relationship to God. It is both individual and eternally binding. The next item is central to, and an extension of, the first. Both the beginning story of our religion and the ending chapter of the Book of Mormon focus on this individual relationship with God. Joseph Smith's first prayer teaches us that revelation comes to anyone, if they are willing to receive it, and that that revelation comes directly from God. This is a very powerful idea and one that sets us apart from any other organization that I know. Every one of its members is invited to test and try out the truthfulness both of its system and its teachings.

In this way, our church could be viewed as the anti-establishment establishment. Accordingly, the notion of a unified Latter-day Saint aesthetic would be contrary to the very core of what that "Latter-day Saint aesthetic" is.

The church must, of necessity, create art by committee or art by counsel, as is discussed on the current post on A Motley Vision. But its members must treat art and aesthetics the same way we treat prayer and revelation — in a very individual and sacred way. Though it may sound paradoxical, I believe that this is the only way that we can come to truly be "of one heart and one mind."


Th. said...


That is a marvelous point well spoken. I find myself without anything to add.

Brent said...

I think I agree. Along these lines it seems that for LDS Cinema to flourish, this doctrine must get down in to our blood in such a way that we are compelled to express it in our media. That can take any form imaginable, individually and in collectives. It must happen independently of the official church organization.

Tom Lefler presented an compelling argument for the communal nature of film making a year ago at the LDS Film Forum. It seemed that he suggested that we as people reach our apex when we collectively come together to produce a film.

Additionally, he observed that as a film making community, we have yet to get to the core of what distinguishes us as a people, our faith in Christ. But this begins a whole different topic: how we depict the presence of the divine in our films.