Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mormons at War

ESPN recently dubbed the BYU - Utah rivalry as the #1 non-BCS in-conference rivalry in college football.  

Even with all the qualifiers in that distinction it is arguably one of the most passionate rivalries in all of college football primarily because of the added element of religion.   For those who are unfamiliar with the background you can get the full history in some very extensive Wikipedia articles on the general rivalry as well as the "Holy War" as it is known.  

The rivalry is full of culture and color in and of itself but in this forum I would like to look at the elements of LDS culture and Utah culture that can possibly explain the ferocity of the rivalry.  

I think the fundamental reason is demographic.  There is a growing demographic divide between the two schools and the surrounding communities, the percentage of LDS residents of Salt Lake City proper has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s while the smaller communities of Provo and Orem remain predominately LDS.  As that demographic divide continues I anticipate the religious polarity of the two schools to grow which I think could give greater potential for the rivalry to turn ugly or distasteful.

The second element that should cause self-reflection for Mormons is the threat of pride.  I'm not talking about being proud of your team or wanting to win, I'm talking about when winning on the football field falsely gets coupled with self-righteous notions of having a monopoly on religious truth or superior religious piety to the point of haughtiness.  This is not a challenge to the Latter-day Saints collectively but individually.   Each passionate sports fan needs to monitor themselves that they do not cross that line.  

Should Mormons be proud or ashamed that they have a reputation for a unusually fierce rivalry?  Does it matter?  I would argue that there can be a healthy and fun expression of rivalry and competitiveness in sport but that maintaining that healthy status takes restraint and a sense of humor otherwise it is destructive.  As a general principle I would rather see a religious-flavored rivalry played out on the football field rather than in the street with guns, which is still the case in parts of the world. 

The question I'll leave you with for discussion:

Will there be sport rivalries during the Millennium?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beautiful Photo Exhibition depicting the Life of Christ

Tonight I was introduced to an exhibit produced by an LDS photographer, Mark Mabry, out of Arizona which depicts scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. It is an absolutely beautiful collection of images. It was shot on location in and around Arizona, the costuming and actors were borrowed from the LDS Easter Pageant. Having grown up in Mesa and attending that Easter Pageant all my life I must say that the art and emotional impact captured in these still images was a much more powerful experience for me personally. In comparison with other artistic mediums to depict Christ I find this example of photography particularly moving because of the human emotion that is able to be portrayed in the faces and bodies of the subjects.

Currently the exhibit is showing at the Arizona Temple Visitor's Cener but it has received approval from the First Presidency and will travel to all the visitor's centers around the world. My expectations were exceeded in the quality and the emotional image of the photography. I commend the artists and the producers for both the spirit they captured and the art they produced. I understand that they are in talks that will bring the exhibit to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. as well as the Washington D.C. LDS Visitor's Center. I look forward to seeing it in person.

There have been various reviews around the web by those who have seen it in person and universally it appears to be a very powerful experience. Jeff Lindsay at Mormanity writes the most detailed review and description of his experience.

I encourage everyone to share the video, I can't imagine a better video to endorse in the viral sharing world of the web. For those with more interest you can see behind the scenes video about the production at It really does add a lot to the viewing experience to hear, feel, and know the individuals behind the photos.

I find it to be a wonderful example of people using their time, talents, and all of their souls in the artistic proclamation of the ultimate message of life and salvation.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Changing Mormon Art: Arabic Portrayal of Psalm of Nephi

Source: flash presentation of the 6th LDS International Art Competition

Mazmuur Naafi: The Arabic Psalm of Nephi

Ahmed Jamal Qureshi
Digital print on paper, 2002

"The gospel finds beautiful expressions in every culture. Pioneers of the past brought with them the arts and architecture of Europe, while today's pioneers have an array of new cultural riches that broaden our appreciation of the restored gospel. In the Arab world, imagery in art is often eschewed in favor of sacred text shaped into flowing designs. Here, the artist has adapted a mosque dome form to display the circuitous text in a stately Thuluth font of Nephi's cry of trust in the Lord (2 Nephi 4:16–35). The text concludes in the center where the word "God" is written in a flowing Diwani font. In the four smaller circles in the corners are names of four individuals who brought the book of Nephi to us: Nephi, Lehi, Moroni, and Joseph Smith."

I absolutely love this piece and would buy it if the church ever sells prints. (They purchased the rights to the print as part of the award in the competition).  I recommend a great write up on the artist and the design of this piece in a previous BYU Studies if you have access to it, which I unfortunately cannot find in a PDF version online.

I think this piece is a brilliant example of how the beauties of art and culture from diverse culture can be "redefined" or expressed in the context of a new found faith in the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ in these the latter-days.  I think this is a particularly interesting example because it is so foreign to the artist taste of mainstream Mormons yet it is of an artistic tradition that geographically has strong ties to the culture of the first family of the Book of Mormon.  

What are your thoughts on this piece?  Would you put it in your home?  Would you be surprised to see it hanging in the temple? 

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesus shaves in the latest Ensign

In the June Ensign there was a picture that caught my attention in terms of Mormon dress and grooming.  I know it is not a new topic, it was always an annual topic of conversation in the Daily Universe at BYU, but it still strikes me as an unusually strong shift in cultural norms and one that begs commentary.  Of course I'm talking about the infamous beard. 

Did the editor of the magazine not realize that the darkened image of this presumably reformed sinner has a strong resemblance to modern depictions of Jesus?  And of all visual representations of a reformed life, how did the progressive shaving of one's beard become the quintessential image of repentance?  

Mormons have a long history with beards, no pun intended, ok, maybe intended.  We started clean shaven, Joseph Smith was said to have not even have been able to grow a beard he was so lightly patched.   Then Brigham Young became the face of Mormonism (sorry, I can't stop) and a bearded old man was the public image of Mormonism until David O. McKay took over in the 1950's.  Now when people think of Mormons they think of clean shaven young men on bikes.

Is there a right and wrong in this all?  I would argue that the largest populations of individuals that wear beards in our modern day are the poor and if a negative connotation associated with a beard persists to the point that the poor do not feel comfortable gathering with general population of the Church or if beards are such a cultural norm in a country such as Kazakhstan, for example, that a clean shaven church is seen as completely foreign/not worthy of listening to the message entity then yes it is wrong to perpetuate such an image. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ties should not be mandatory for all Mormons

As the LDS church grows and expands internationally what role does the necktie play? The answer should be none if we are talking about the tie as an article of clothing. The scriptures give principles regarding dress and grooming but never since the law of Moses are specific articles of clothing dictated. 

So what are the principles? D&C 42 is a good start where the instruction to the Saints regarding clothing was for all things to be done in cleanliness before [Him], for their garments to be “plain” and “their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands.” Most important the overarching commandment preceding 
those instructions was “thou shalt not be proud in thy heart," a lesson we should learn from the Book of Mormon where pride almost always goes hand and hand with costly apparel. 

I would love to see greater liberty given to local cultural congregations to determine appropriate Sunday apparel. If we talk about 'dressing up' for church out of respect and honoring of the Sabbath-as a special day set aside from the rest the week- then I would propose that each culture will have the appropriate style or level of dress within their culture and not require an importation from the West.  Is there any good reason why these two pictures could not be pictures of LDS Bishops on Sunday?

In the West the appropriate style typically means dress shirts and ties for the men and typically dresses or skirts for the women. In other parts of the world those same principles can manifest themselves in different fashions. When I was in Ghana I loved the fact that the women dressed up in their bright brilliant dresses with colorful patterns, never over the top or an issue of pride but it was simply their cultural norm of dress for such a level of respect and honor. The men, however, in Ghana wore the business suits and ties of the West, despite having a local counterpart to the women's clothing. Of course in nearly all parts of the world the business attire of the West has some foothold but I don't think it should be demanded or expected that every deacon in Indonesia or every bishop in Uganda to be wearing a white shirt and tie. I think the white shirt and tie that the church brings with it into international areas of the church actually acts as a barrier for some investigators and potential members of the church. That extra bit of Western culture will cause the church to be viewed as an American church and somewhat elitist, bordering pride for observers from the outside.