Oops, I let nearly a month go by without blogging. Well, I've been out of town for much of that time. To get me back into the rhythm, following is a draft of a guest-post I wrote for another blog:
Is Human Art Merely Relying Upon the Arm of Flesh?
I just got back from my first-ever trip to Europe. Following my wife's capable, experienced itinerary—man, she kept us moving all day, every day—I spent over a week jamming all my senses with the art of the last millennium in the museums of London and Paris, seeing shows in London's West End, and just soaking up the architecture and watching all the people. As we repeatedly crisscrossed these two amazing cities via their subway lines, I felt quite humble and even envious, I admit—our only city that even comes close is New York. More than ever, it's clear to me that the world does not revolve around America, as much as we'd sometimes like to think it does.
As I absorbed all this culture and humanity, some questions started to formulate. (And I'm back only two days, so they're still germinating.) I wonder if human art and culture are in many ways attempted replacements for God, the Holy Spirit, etc. We are lost and lonely on this earth, and it's easier to find solace and justification in each other than to seek out God. In some ways, I wonder if creating and absorbing art is similar to relying upon the arm of flesh.
Yeah, maybe God inspires some forms of art sometimes, but usually it's just our own creativity. Yeah, he gives us talents, but humans mostly use them in mortal, worldly ways that I can't imagine pleasing God much. For many of us, the most compelling art dramatizes human reality more than godly ideals; it highlights the problems of the human condition rather than solves them. Personally, I'm far more often moved by worldly art than by anything I hear repeated for the hundredth time through church channels, and I think art that sets out to affirm the gospel becomes propaganda, not art. By my definition, real art celebrates and commiserates with humanity, not godliness. Art is human, and most of it is probably more carnal and fallen than otherwise—even religious art of the type found in places like Westminster Abbey, where we attended evensong. In my Mormon-centric view, all that great organ music and singing and sculpture and architecture is really just trying to compensate for the lack of the gift of the Holy Ghost. (However, I was still moved by the sheer human effort and accomplishment of it all.)
So I ask myself, why do I even want a "real" Mormon culture, in my case mostly focusing on LDS-themed literature that emulates the best of the humanities? Maybe I'm not spiritual enough to be satisfied on a day-to-day basis through Mormonism's claimed spiritual gifts, yet I believe in Mormonism and want to stay tapped into it, so in my mind if you can combine the best of worldly art with Mormonism, it's win-win. Maybe I think that adding Mormon elements to human stories can make them more worthwhile and uplifting in some way, redeem the fallen, carnal elements. But maybe all this is just wishful thinking? Maybe it would be better to let worldly art be worldly art and let Mormonism be Mormonism, without trying to conflate the two. And maybe the very best Mormons are those who don't need a steady diet of worldly/human art like I do, because they have a steady diet of the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have that gift too, but I don't consciously feel it very often at all. Maybe that's because my mind is always clouded by too much worldly music, literature, etc.? Maybe those of us who want a "real" Mormon culture are guilty of saying, in effect, "Let us do that which has been done in other cultures."
It's similar to friendship. When I didn't have the church/gospel, my friendships seemed so close and powerful because they were the only thing I had. But since I've become a practicing Mormon, friendships don't seem as close because a Mormon's primary friend is Jesus, so we all rely on Jesus rather than each other, except as Jesus helps us through each other. Our relationships with each other are as fellow travelers on the pathway back to god, not as people who are totally looking to each other for support and salvation, as is the case for the irreligious. In a similar way, if a Mormon is properly focused and converted, he or she shouldn't need art the way we more worldly people do. Yeah, that kind of Mormon can certainly enjoy some of the purest, most "appropriate" art, especially music from classical times—but it's just icing on the cake of their spiritual journey, not the cake itself. (An aside: I bet Heavenly Father doesn't think much of a guy like Shakespeare. While old Wm. can certainly tap into our emotions of what it means to be human, I doubt he inspires the workings of the Holy Ghost in our minds, except maybe triggering us to figure out how NOT to fall into the human ways he dramatizes. On the other hand, I guess he portrays some heroes that we would do well to emulate as well...)
I'm sure there are gaping holes of logical fallacies and unwarranted assumptions in what I'm trying to articulate, and perhaps I'm not even making much sense (the jet lag was worse going than returning, but maybe I'm still suffering some residual effects). So challenge me. Help me try to figure this out from a Mormon perspective. Is art mostly a fallen human activity that amounts to a replacement for really living the gospel and getting closer to God, or is it actually an essential part of that process? Think of all the time that creating and absorbing art takes away from home teaching, serving others, reading scriptures, rearing children, etc. Is art a distraction from—or a counterfeit of—the process of learning to become like God, or can it be somehow part of our rehearsal?