The Gospel and the Arts
We might also think of a quote from Elder Orson F. Whitney, spoken in 1888, which said, “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven, though its foundation may now be low on the earth.”
Almost a year before printing President Kimball's talk, the Ensign, in August 1976, printed a talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles which also touched on this theme of the arts and the gospel. It is called "The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord". It is a wonderfully thought-provoking piece. I'll be quoting from it, but I recommend reading the entire talk to get a better grasp of Elder Packer's point.
After some brief introductory remarks, Elder Packer explains the purpose of his talk by saying:
I want to respond to a question that I face with some frequency. It has many variations, but the theme is this: Why do we not have more inspired and inspiring music in the Church? Or why do we have so few great paintings or sculptures depicting the Restoration? Why is it when we need a new painting for a bureau of information, or perhaps for a temple, frequently nonmember painters receive the commission? The same questions have an application to poetry, to drama, to dance, to creative writing, to all the fine arts.That's a bit long as quotes go, but it explains why he picked the subject and why he is talking about it. So what are his concerns?
Now, I’m sure there are those who will say, “Why does he presume to talk about that? He is uninformed. He is just out of his province.” It may comfort them to know that I know that. My credentials to speak do not come from being a musician, for I’m not. I am not a composer, nor a conductor, and certainly I am not a vocalist. I cannot, for example, play the piano. I would be very unwilling to do so. However, should I be pressed to it, I could, without much difficulty, prove my point. I am not adequate as an artist, nor as a sculptor, a poet, or a writer.
But then I do not intend to train you in any of those fields. My credentials, if I have any (some of them should be obvious), relate to spiritual things.
I hope for sufficient inspiration to comment on how the Spirit of the Lord influences or is influenced by the art forms that I have mentioned. Since I have been interested in these matters, I have, over the years, listened very carefully when they have been discussed by the Brethren. I have studied expressions of my Brethren and of those who have led us in times past, in order to determine how those questions should be answered.
The reason we have not yet produced a greater heritage in art and literature and music and drama is not, I am very certain, because we have not had talented people. For over the years we have had not only good ones but great ones. Some have reached great heights in their chosen fields. But few have captured the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of it in music, in art, in literature. They have not, therefore, even though they were gifted, made a lasting contribution to the onrolling of the Church and kingdom of God in the dispensation of the fulness of times. They have therefore missed doing what they might have done, and they have missed being what they might have become. I am reminded of the statement:
“There are many who struggle and climb and finally reach the top of the ladder, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.”
If you are willing to listen, I would like to express some concerns I have had over these matters and describe to you some disappointments I have heard expressed among the leaders of the Church.
Since that statement [Elder Whitney's statement that I quoted above] was made in 1888, those foundations have been raised up very slowly. The greatest poems are not yet written, nor the paintings finished. The greatest hymns and anthems of the Restoration are yet to be composed. The sublimest renditions of them are yet to be conducted. We move forward much slower than need be, and I would like to underline some things that stand in our way.A lack of appropriateness is one concern that Elder Packer has. He gives some examples to illustrate his point. Another concern is this:
You will quickly notice that I refer frequently to music. There is a reason for that. We use it more often. But the point that I shall make about the musician applies to all the arts: painting, poetry, drama, dance, and others.
For some reason it takes a constant vigilance on the part of priesthood leaders—both general and local—to ensure that music presented in our worship and devotional services is music that is appropriate for worship and devotional services. I have heard presidents of the Church declare after a general conference, or after a temple dedication, words to this effect (and I am quoting verbatim from one such experience):
“I suppose we did not give enough attention to the music. It seems that our musicians must take such liberties. Something spiritual was lost from our meetings because the music was not what it should have been. Next time we must remember to give them more careful instructions.”
Why is it that the President of the Church, or the president of the stake, or the bishop of the ward must be so attentive in arranging music for worship services and conference meetings? Why should the anxiety persist that if the musicians are left to do what they want to do, the result will not invite the Spirit of the Lord?
I have in the past made not altogether successful attempts to set a mood of devotion on a very sacred subject, having been invited to the pulpit immediately after a choir or choral number which was well performed but did nothing to inspire the spirit of devotion; or after a brass ensemble has rendered music that has nothing to do with spiritual inspiration.
The selections, which for other purposes might have been admirable, even impressive, failed in their inspiration simply because they were not appropriate. For some other gathering, some other time, some other place, yes—but they did not do what the hymns of the Restoration could have done. How sad when a gifted person has no real sense of propriety!
Elder Packer's concern is not without merit. When any of us has worked hard to develop a talent and to prepare a presentation, it's a normal human temptation to want to really show our abilities. Sometimes, too, as in the case of music, we might feel that we ought to take the opportunity to do something different, something other than the same old hymns. Elder Packer has this to say:
Very frequently when our musicians, particularly the more highly trained among them, are left to do what they want to do, they perform in such a way as to call attention to themselves and their ability. They do this rather than give prayerful attention to what will inspire. I do not mean “inspire” as the music or art of the world can inspire. I mean inspire!
They are not content to use the hymns and anthems of the Restoration, for such a presentation, they feel, will not demonstrate their full capacities. When pressed to do so, they may grudgingly put a hymn on the program. But it is obvious that their heart isn’t in it, for the numbers they select themselves seem to say, “Now let us show you what we really can do.”
I know there are those who think that our Church music is limited. Some with professional abilities evidently soon get very tired of it. They want to stray from it and reach out into the world. They present the argument that many of the hymns in our hymnbook were not written for the Church or by members of the Church. I know that already. And some of them are not really as compelling as they might be. Their messages are not as specific as we could have if we produced our own. But by association they have taken on a meaning that reminds members of the Church, whenever they hear them, of the restoration of the gospel, of the Lord, and of His ministry.He clarifies his position by adding:
Sometimes, to ensure that music will be appropriate, one of the hymns or anthems of the Restoration is specifically requested. “Oh, but they sang that last conference,” our conductors will say. Indeed we did, and we preached the same gospel last conference also. The preaching of it over and over again gives it a familiar and a warm feeling. We build it into our lives.
As speakers we are not trying to impress the world with how talented we are as preachers. We are simply trying to get across, by repetition, if that’s the only way, the sacred message that has been entrusted to us.
Those of us who lead the Church are not constantly seeking new doctrine to introduce. We simply teach over and over again that which was in the beginning. It is with great difficulty that we try to pass on to the next generation, in some form of purity, that which was given to us. We will lose it if we are not wise.
The musician may say, “Do you really want us to take those few familiar hymns and present them over and over again with no introduction of anything new?” No, that is not what I would want, but it is close.He isn't against using something new and different, but it must be appropriate and on topic. Elder Packer also has these words of advice:
What I would desire would be to have the hymns of the Restoration characteristic of our worship services, with others added if they are appropriate. There are a great many things from elsewhere that are very appropriate. Many numbers can be used in our worship services with complete propriety.
Our hymns speak the truth as far as they go. They could speak more of it if we had more of them, specifically teaching the principles of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
If I had my way there would be many new hymns with lyrics near scriptural in their power, bonded to music that would inspire people to worship. Think how much we could be helped by another inspired anthem or hymn of the Restoration. Think how we could be helped by an inspired painting on a scriptural theme or depicting our heritage. How much we could be aided by a graceful and modest dance, by a persuasive narrative, or poem, or drama. We could have the Spirit of the Lord more frequently and in almost unlimited intensity if we would.
It is a mistake to assume that one can follow the ways of the world and then somehow, in a moment of intruded inspiration, compose a great anthem of the Restoration, or in a moment of singular inspiration paint the great painting. When it is done; it will be done by one who has yearned and tried and longed fervently to do it, not by one who has condescended to do it. It will take quite as much preparation and work as any masterpiece, and a different kind of inspiration.And then there is this:
There is a test you might apply if you are among the gifted. Ask yourself this question: When I am free to do what I really want to do, what will it be?
If you find that you are ashamed of our humble heritage in the arts, that ought to be something of a signal to you. Often artists are not free to create what they most desire because the market demands other things of them. But what about when you are free? Do you have a desire to produce what the Church needs? Or do you desire to convince the Church that it needs to change style so the world will feel comfortable with it? Although our artistic heritage as yet is relatively small, we are losing some of what we have—through neglect!
It is sad but true that, almost as a rule, our most gifted members are drawn to the world. They who are most capable to preserve our cultural heritage and to extend it, because of the enticements of the world, seek rather to replace it. That is so easy to do because for the most part they do not have that intent. They think that what they do is to improve it. Unfortunately many of them will live to learn that indeed, “Many men struggle to climb to reach the top of the ladder, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.”Lest you think that Elder Packer is too strict and too restrictive, let me quote something else he said:
I mentioned earlier that the greatest hymns and anthems have not been composed, nor have the greatest illustrations been set down, nor the poems written, nor the paintings finished. When they are produced, who will produce them? Will it be the most talented and the most highly trained among us? I rather think it will not. They will be produced by those who are the most inspired among us. Inspiration can come to those whose talents are barely adequate, and their contribution will be felt for generations; and the Church and kingdom of God will move forward just a little more easily because they have been here.
Some of our most gifted people struggle to produce a work of art, hoping that it will be described by the world as masterpiece! monumental! epic! when in truth the simple, compelling theme of “I Am a Child of God” has moved and will move more souls to salvation than would such a work were they to succeed....The ideal, of course, is for one with a gift to train and develop it to the highest possibility, including a sense of spiritual propriety. No artist in the Church who desires unselfishly to extend our heritage need sacrifice his career or an avocation, nor need he neglect his gift as only a hobby. He can meet the world and “best” it, and not be the loser. In the end, what appears to be such sacrifice will have been but a test.
What do I think [Jesus] would think? I think He would rejoice at the playing of militant martial music as men marched to defend a righteous cause. I think that He would think there are times when illustrations should be vigorous, with bold and exciting colors. I think He would chuckle with approval when at times of recreation the music is comical or melodramatic or exciting. Or at times when a carnival air is in order that decorations be bright and flashy, even garish.Near the end of his talk, Elder Packer says:
I think at times of entertainment He would think it quite in order for poetry that would make one laugh or cry—perhaps both at once. I think that He would think it would be in righteous order on many occasions to perform with great dignity symphonies and operas and ballets. I think that He would think that soloists should develop an extensive repertoire, each number to be performed at a time and in a place that is appropriate.
I would think that He would think there is a place for art work of every kinds—from the scribbled cartoon to the masterpiece in the hand-carved, gold-leaf frame.
But I am sure He would be offended at immodesty and irreverence in music, in art, in poetry, in writing, in sculpture, in dance, or in drama. I know what He would think about music or art or literature or poetry that is purely secular being introduced into our worship services. And how do I know that? Because He has told His servants that. In what ways has He told them? He has told them by either withholding, or on occasions withdrawing, His Spirit when it is done.
Go to, then, you who are gifted; cultivate your gift. Develop it in any of the arts and in every worthy example of them. If you have the ability and the desire, seek a career or employ your talent as an avocation or cultivate it as a hobby. But in all ways bless others with it. Set a standard of excellence. Employ it in the secular sense to every worthy advantage, but never use it profanely. Never express your gift unworthily. Increase our spiritual heritage in music, in art, in literature, in dance, in drama.
When we have done it our activities will be a standard to the world. And our worship and devotion will remain as unique from the world as the Church is different from the world. Let the use of your gift be an expression of your devotion to Him who has given it to you. We who do not share in it will set a high standard of expectation: “For of him unto whom much is given much is required.” (D&C 82:3.)
I know this is a long post and that I have quoted Elder Packer extensively, but I think his take on this topic is an important one to consider. I do recommend that you follow the link and read the entire talk (there is a lot that I didn't quote) to get the full benefit of his thoughts. I think it is also important to point out that Elder Packer and President Kimball both are speaking of developing a high level of art with gospel themes, not a high level of art that would be a resounding success in the world, although a piece of art might very well be both.