“Our Refined Heavenly Home”

6.11.09 | | 18 comments

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Elder Douglas L. Callister of the Seventy wrote a delightful article in this month’s Ensign, “Our Refined Heavenly Home.” I’m ashamed to admit that I might never have read it had not my dear wife told me I should. (I keep saying I’ll stick the Ensign in the bathroom where it will actually get read, but it seems weird to have all those pictures of Jesus on my toilet, Backslider or no Backslider.) The article is adapted from a BYU devotional Elder Callister gave in 2006 which is about 1800 words longer and has even more dandy quotations. (Frankly, it’s tempting to just lift all his quotations and anecdotes and place them here for discussion, but I can’t quite feel good about that.)

The article has three main thrusts, language, literature and music, with an everything-else category to finish things off.

For brevity’s sake, I will take a short excerpt from each section to comment on, but in your comments, feel free to reference any part of his talk.

Language

In his biography on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Van Wyck Brooks relates that Emerson was invited to speak at the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the great poet Shakespeare’s birth. After proper introduction Emerson presented himself at the pulpit and then sat down. He had forgotten his notes. He preferred to say nothing rather than words not well measured. For some, it was Emerson in one of his most eloquent hours.

Considering how frequently I speak before dozens and how poorly I prepared I generally am, I feel ashamed. I respect few writers like I respect Emerson, but if I were speaking at his 300th, I would wing it without my notes, considering myself prepared enough for having had notes until a moment ago. And then I would get a few laughs and trot out my David-O-McKay-called-him-the-wisest-American and talk about reading him in high school and sit down.

But I do agree with Emerson that it is best to be well prepared. I sculpt, for instance, my sacrament meeting talks with great care. And I spent, apparently, too long polishing my Sunstone presentation.

In 2009, where soundbite culture has trickled down even to the written word, carefully crafted sprachen is a rarity. But speaking of sacrament meeting, Mormon culture has a grand opportunity to share its preservation among all.

Literature

I don’t know whether our heavenly home has a television set or a DVD player, but in my mind’s imagery it surely has a grand piano and a magnificent library. . . . President David O. McKay (1873–1970) was inclined to awaken daily at 4:00 a.m., skim read up to two books, and then commence his labors at 6:00 a.m. He could quote 1,000 poems from memory. He referred to the grand masters of literature as the “minor prophets.” He was a living embodiment of the scriptural admonition to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118).

I’ve abandoned the mansion metaphor for heaven, but I do like the temple metaphor for home and mine certainly has a library. I’ve taken to reading for breadth and not depth so I memorize nothing these days, but I am still active among the minor prophets. And the world is still producing them! Minor prophets I’ve read recently or am currently reading include Ian McEwan, Thomas Lynch, Edward Gorey, Francesca Lia Block, Mary Shelley and Cormac McCarthy. And we Mormons are supplying some prophets as well. I’ve been enlightened recently by Angela Hallstrom and Brad Teare and Orson Whitney.

When people ask me about being Mormon, I often speak of our openness to Truth. And nothing proves this more than our canonized love of literature.

Music

After the first performance of Messiah, Handel, responding to a compliment, said, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them—I wish to make them better.” Haydn “dressed in his best clothes to compose because he said he was going before his maker.”

I’m planning on rising early this summer and writing a book. I don’t see me wearing a tie, though. Perhaps this speaks poorly of my book?

I agree fully with Handel however: entertainment alone makes for poor art. Forgettable. Leaves you no better and thus, given the laws of entropy, leaves you worse. If I am not improving, I am sliding.

As for music, Callister seems to be placing classical above, say, rock. But if you have the same local classical radio station I have, you know that plenty classical music is just pretty notes pointlessly arranged. And a closer reading reveals that he is not explicitly calling modern music poor in comparison to the Old Masters. And it would seem that not making such distinctions has a decent history:

President Young said, “There is no music in hell, for all good music belongs to heaven.” It would be punishment enough to go to hell and not hear a note of music for all eternity.

Art, Appearance, and Attitude

This is where the article starts to seem rushed, with art being smashed next to dressing neatly. And it leaves me wanting for much much more. (Also: How did you come to meet Audrey Hepburn, Elder Callister?)

David Starr Jordan, former president of Stanford University, wrote: “To be vulgar is to do that which is not the best of its kind. It is to do poor things in poor ways, and to be satisfied with that. . . .”

Your Father in Heaven has sent you away from His presence to have experiences you would not have had in your heavenly home—all in preparation for the conferral of a kingdom. He doesn’t want you to lose your vision. You are children of an exalted being. You are foreordained to preside as kings and queens. You will live in a home and environment of infinite refinement and beauty, as reflected in the language, literature, music, art, and order of heaven.

Vulgarity then, is falling short of our godly potential.

I like this definition very much.

Again, when speaking about my faith, the concept of being a Child of God — of progression, of potential — these are the terms I use when explaining Mormonism.

And one of the beautiful things about Art is that it pushes us forward.

At least, that art which we will find in our mansion prepared.

18 comments: ““Our Refined Heavenly Home”

  1. FoxyJ

    I’ve been thinking about this article ever since I read it last week. And I liked the ideas in it a lot. But I still feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric equating old/classic stuff with being ‘good’ and the complete ignoring of 20th century stuff. Shakespeare was just as vulgar as many people writing today; does the fact that we can’t understand many of his dirty jokes make it OK? Yes, he is an amazing author and artist, but I wouldn’t say he is so much more uplifting than other authors since him. I also love film and have to quibble with the idea that DVDs and television wouldn’t be in heaven; just because film is a relatively new art form it tends to be the one most picked on for vulgarity/baseness. It is just as easy to find erotic 16th century poetry as it is to find vulgar movies. Every age has had its inferior artists. Even the temple uses film–there’s nothing wrong with film itself, just like there’s nothing wrong with books or art or music. It just depends on what you put in it.

    I like your take on the article; I liked his general idea, but found myself squeamish about some of the details. I think you’re helping me see how to keep the baby and the bathwater together.

  2. Wm Morris

    “But speaking of sacrament meeting, Mormon culture has a grand opportunity to share its preservation among all.”

    I certainly hope so. I know there are plenty of quote collections, but it would be interesting to see a collection of excerpts from conference talks and other addresses chosen specifically for literary or rhetorical value.

  3. Tyler

    While I appreciate and was inspired toward greater refinement by Elder Callister’s thoughts, I feel much like FoxyJ: Why does Mormon often consider the best books/art/music to be that which is old/classical? As you say Th., we are a truth loving people, proved by our canonized love of literature, but what does our general love of canonized literature say about us? Are we sometimes too afraid to move beyond the list of books referenced in General Conference into a confrontation with the literature of the world? Perhaps I’m thinking too narrowly here, but these are my initial thoughts.

    Along the same lines, I was somewhat put off by the reactionary tone of the talk/article. I don’t want to sound faithless or speak badly of Elder Callister and his efforts, but this rhetorical moment seems in some ways like a dismissive reaction to new and emerging media and technologies (as FoxyJ alludes to). Or is that just me?

  4. RecessionCone

    I like the Latin origin of the word “vulgar” – the word simply means common, which I understand to mean that vulgarity is anything connected with the natural man. This is important to me because it explains why vulgarity (in the modern English sense) is so prevalent: I read the news and despair that no one is chaste or honest these days – but the idea that vulgar means common helps me put this back in perspective. Things haven’t changed, the vulgar has always been prevalent because we live in a fallen world. To escape vulgarity, then, implies refusing to give myself the excuse that other people are doing something, so it’s ok for me to do it too.

    As to a justification for why Mormons consider the best books/art/music to that which is old & classical – I think it’s simply that the old stuff has withstood the test of time. The world is filled with common (vulgar) art that will be forgotten immediately. The stuff that still captures people’s minds and hearts after the publicity campaigns are over has a much higher probability of saying something important. I think our love of canonized literature says about us that we are not trend driven, that we are looking for eternal truths, and that we’re not afraid to be a little weird compared to our peers whose tastes are driven by the whims of the moment. All of which sound good to me. =)

  5. William Morris

    Related to what RC said, I don’t think it’s just that the old stuff has withstood the test of time, it’s also that by focusing on stuff that’s canonical us members of an adolescent, restored faith attempt to tie in to traditions that give us credibility. It’s cultural temple work. Declaration of cultural lineage. etc.

  6. MoJo

    The world is filled with common (vulgar) art that will be forgotten immediately.

    And a good deal of it’s sitting on the shelves and hanging on the walls of Deseret Book.

  7. William Morris

    I think you’re confusing kitsch with vulgar, MoJo. Two different things created and consumed for two different reasons.

  8. MoJo

    I’ll elaborate.

    I read the news and despair that no one is chaste or honest these days – but the idea that vulgar means common helps me put this back in perspective. Things haven’t changed, the vulgar has always been prevalent because we live in a fallen world. To escape vulgarity, then, implies refusing to give myself the excuse that other people are doing something, so it’s ok for me to do it too.

    The definition of “common” here has apparently been implied/inferred as The Sin That People Commit, and has been accepted for the purpose of the discussion.

    Common DOES have other connotations, you know, and the most common connotation of common is, well, common.

    Meaning, in great abundance and appealing to a wide audience.

  9. S.P. Bailey

    I am: (1) completely shameless in my admiration for the achievements of western civilization, and (2) not entirely unsympathetic to claims that these are shabby, decadent times. I think something similar informs this devotional talk come Ensign article. As far as that goes, what’s not to like?

    But. (And I am not talking about unfortunate “rights talk” not related to the arts. BCC and T&S have already covered that waterfront.) But, I am not sure about the article’s apparent definition of art as: (1) something old, safe, and generally upbeat, and/or (2) a luxury product one consumes for image purposes.

    I mean, the world is full of truly wonderful art that fits one or both definitions. But what about the great art these definitions exclude?

    Regarding the latter definition, the emphasis on the term “refinement” struck me as interesting. One thing I know from ads for luxury products: all of the best yachts, cigars, and German sedans are exceedingly refined. Yet such “fine” things are not necessarily praiseworthy. Is “refinement” a Christian virtue? That is a sincere question.

    And as for the former definition, the apparent rejection of the new and non-classic seems a little cranky (Back in my day, we didn’t have new media. That’s the way it was, and we liked it!). The article implies that there is an obvious distinction between the quality of work produced for one medium (books!) over others (movies and tv). But good art is good art, right? Even if it happened to be produced by people who didn’t wear funny hats and codpieces?

  10. MoJo

    Quite frankly, I think a good lot of our leaders’ counsel re standards is not revelation or commandment, but a cry out to achieve across-the-board country club refinement.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  11. Theric Jepson Post author

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    It’s simpler to find good work if you limit yourself to in-print 100years-plus works. Anything that’s lasted that long is almost definitely Great!

    In, say, 1703, there was plenty of crap on the market. Most of it has been long forgotten. Most of it deservedly so. Today it’s easier than ever to get something before the public which means more crap — maybe even a higher percentage of crap — but this should not be taken to imply there is nothing virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy being published. You just have to look harder and be willing to make errors sometimes. (Example: Bible Salesman: no good.)

    Some will no doubt see this as a waste of time and soul. Stick with Dickens — we already know he’s good. But I disagree. For several reasons, but here’s one:

    If we want to weasel our way into the zeitgeist, if we want to create art that makes a difference, we have to be aware of the trends. Now, “trends” is a much-pilloried word, but there is value to knowing trends. Just because “Hamlet” was trendy didn’t make it unworthy. Generally, the best examples of yesterday’s trends are today’s masterpieces.

    I am not not NOT suggesting artists should try to be trendy, only that they should be of their time. In the world, but not of it, as it were.

    I’m surprised that every seems to have fixated on this classics-first issue which I thought was ultimately less interesting and if possible, I would like to post a question on the positive pro-art facets of the article — the calls for recognizing and consuming greatness, for instance. Ignoring the old/new problem, what about it? How about this concept that the pursuit of Great Art is an inherently Mormon thing to do?

  12. RecessionCone

    @William: I agree with you – I was too strong when I said “simply”. I think Mormons often try to gain credibility by alluding to older traditions. I get particularly frustrated when I visit Utah at all the faux-weathered art, the brand-new houses with facades evoking the 1870s, and the signs proclaiming “Historic Downtown Provo”, “Historic Sandy”, etc. I wish people would value our newness a little more, instead of always trying to bury it in the past. Interestingly, this is not just a Mormon problem, but an American one. When I’m visiting Europe, I’m struck at the easy and comfortable juxtaposition of centuries-old buildings with avant-garde modernism. We don’t have as much of that in America because we are still an adolescent country straining for credibility. To me, this speaks of how universal the need is for people to feel grounded in tradition, which I agree is an important reason why Mormons canonize old art.

    @MoJo: I agree with you as well. Definitely “vulgar” has bad connotations, where “common” can be used more positively. I see vulgar as the dark side of common (which, you must admit, does have a lot of dark side to it…)

  13. MoJo

    vulgar as the dark side of common (which, you must admit, does have a lot of dark side to it…)

    Yes, I agree with that.

  14. William Morris

    That which is vulgar is common, is meant to entertain, to arouse fear, desire, shock, laughter.

    That which is kitsch is intended to inspire, to reify words or images in such a way as to nod at purity and eternity, to capture timelessness. Of course, it fails to do so and that’s why it’s kitsch.

  15. David J. West

    Don’t wanna thread-jack here, love the article Th, but why do they push kitsch, when we all know 99% is gonna be forgotten in ten years?

  16. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    Good Q.

    Kitsch or vulgar, I think we can agree we’re not keen on either. But if they’re both actually bad, then how can we ween ourselves off them? Substituting kitsch for the vulgar doesn’t strike me as a very good solution.

  17. Wm Morris

    Solving kitsch means solving issues of class and material culture and industrial production that you have no hope of even beginning to address.

    The best hope and approach, imo, is that of the radical middle which, for now, means embracing the concepts of punk, diy, indie, underground and creating as much of a community as you can so that those who are looking to break from that culture (and I’m only talking about culture here — the whole issue of activity in the LDS Church is something else entirely, but a big part of the impetus behind the radical middle is to help perfect the saints who are turned off by or are weary off the kitsch but who don’t want to wholeheartedly embrace the world) find a place that delights and instructs and speaks to them and to their Mormon-ness.

    [Edited to correct a very embarrassing mistake]

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