Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Picture of Jesus

I found this article, about a peculiar happening in the aftermath of the Provo Tabernacle fire, interesting. Obviously, it's a nice faith-promoting story that can bolster one's faith in Christ. Alternatively, one could ask why all (or many) of the other pictures of the Savior were fully destroyed (or, in the sarcastic words of one commenter on the Herald's site: "Oooooh. Jesus['] right hand is burned off. What does THAT mean?").

What the events mean to any individual says a lot about the individual but perhaps not as much about whether or not there is a God and whether or not He specifically intervened in this instance.

But I'm most interested in the response from the many Mormons who do see this as a sign of divine protection. I got the picture above from a friend's facebook (I don't know where she got it) who seemed to think it was pretty cool; the woman interviewed at the end of the Herald piece, Cynthia Dayton, got emotional describing the symbolism she saw; others are paraphrased in the story as calling the remains of the painting "remarkable"; it's apparently under "emergency conservation and stabilization" by the LDS church, so I guess someone somewhere in the hierarchy there feels similarly. My question is: why?

I don't mean that question in a patronizing way at all. It really is a cool story and could very well be divine in origin--I am a firm believer in the truth of this church and of Christ in particular, so why not? Weirder things have happened in Christianity. But Mormons traditionally have downplayed (sometimes we've verged on (OK, gone over the line towards) ridiculing) the "icon worship" of other faiths. I have heard Mormons (and, sadly, participated in it myself) speak derisively of Catholics praying to crosses or adherents to the Russian Orthodox faith confusing images of Christ with the actual Christ. Why then do we seem to want to jump at the chance to say that an inkjet print of a painting that shows a caucasian Christ (and which originally portrayed winged angels--something Mormons don't believe in) was protected by a higher power?

I don't think anyone believes that allowing this print to burn would have taken away from God's power or glory or our reverence towards Him. The only possible explanation would be that such an act would be for us, to remind us that God really is in charge of everything. While that could arguably be accomplished through this kind of preservation, it seems like miraculously protecting something that had real value--like a human life, or at least an original, priceless work of art--would be a better way of doing so (though of course the painting-saving method has the benefit of being open to interpretation and thus allowing us to choose faith instead of some rational explanation).

I think though that really, for all our talk of not having idols, of not revering mere images of the Lord (favoring instead to worship God directly), we do impute inherent holiness in our representations of holy people and places. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

We Mormons disagree with Catholics about the nature of the Lord's Supper: they believe it literally becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, we believe it mattereth not what we eat because it's just a symbol of renewing our covenant to remember Christ and take his name upon us. And while that sounds nice in theory, it is tempered by what we really believe. I heard a funny story about a guy from my home ward who, when he was late to church and missed the sacrament, would just pop into the sacrament preparation room as the Teachers were cleaning up and take a piece of the bread and a cup of the water; he did so half-jokingly, like it wasn't ideal, but still better than nothing, as if the tokens had a spiritual half-life so that even though they weren't quite as potent as right after being blessed they still had some residual spiritual properties to them. Granted, we might not all give the pieces of white bread and plastic cups of water quite this much literal significance, we do give it more than nothing. We do show reverence towards the symbols. Again, this isn't a bad thing.

When we think of the symbols we use as really representing something very powerful, real, and holy, how can we not transfer some of that mysterious force to the symbols themselves? Doing so helps us reify those abstract and unseen concepts, to strengthen our faith in the hoped-for. It's hard to treat symbols of something holy lightly without also treating the holy thing lightly as well; it's really hard to separate our feelings towards one from our feelings towards the other. As long as we don't take it to an extreme and mistake mere symbols and simple images for the truths they convey, I think it can serve a useful purpose.

So while I might be a bit skeptical of how much God's hand held back the fire around the copy of a painting of Jesus in the burning Provo Tabernacle, I can recognize how that symbolism of Christ withstanding fiery darts carries a deeper truth to the hearts of many. Christ really can help us overcome our worries, our problems, our walls caving in, and anything else. If this recent story helps you believe that, then I believe it too.

In closing, listen to this beautiful Ben Harper song and think about how you can appropriately find strength through images any symbols. I especially love the lyric that says "I long to be a picture of Jesus." What a lovely thought, no?


  1. I had the same thought about the idol worship - it made me think of the shroud of Turin and other relics which we tend to think of a little sceptically. The key, I guess, is to not take it to far - if this story increases your faith, great. Just don't let it become the focus of your worship. I think you expressed that very well in your post.

  2. Then this morning, I saw Faith Promoting Rumor, a wonderful Mormon history website, posted something rather similar: Snopes, Saints, and Santa. It's a good read and expresses some of the ideas I was trying to express very well. It also links to a great Dialogue article about how Mary Fielding Smith has been stereotyped in history. So check it out!

  3. This makes me think of how we treat symbols in the temple. I think the symbols themselves are regarded as sacred, but I'm not sure why. . . Anyway, perhaps this is not the forum to discuss them, but it is interesting.

  4. Amanda, I actually had the same thoughts, but since the post was getting pretty long already and there are holiness considerations I decided not to include them. Interesting stuff, nonetheless. Perhaps a future post!

  5. My first inclination was to think of something along the lines of that reagan picture you posted. I don't mean to demean anyone whose faith is strengthened by the story, but I think in general we are way too likely to latch on to any curious coincidence in this imperfect and unpredictable world and call it divine. If my own apartment were to burn down but the middle of one painting were spared because of the way heat travels in waves, would I consider it a divine message if what was left was my picture of Tallinn? Would I think that God was telling me to move there? What if the only thing left was my picture of Istanbul and the Blue Mosque was what remained. Would I think God just communicated to me that Islam is really the one true faith? It's seems just a little too convenient to me to find something that could have happened in any number of ways and apply to it significant meaning simply because it happens to also trigger something in us that we already believe in.

  6. Very true, kartmatu, though I also want to remember not to be too closed to inspiration when it does come because sometimes it can come in trite, cliche ways. It's the classic "God of the lost car keys" problem--does God really answer prayers to help us find keys when we're 5 minutes late but then not stop horrific tragedies or answer other people's heartfelt prayers for faith? Apparently, sometimes. Inscrutable doesn't even begin to describe it :)

    But yeah, I think we (as humans) definitely tend to err on the seeing coincidence as revelation side of things.