To All Mormon Artists, Writers, Musicians, Everywhere:

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The great English scholar Arthur Henry King wrote of consecration,

Once we have been converted and have laid down at Christ’s feet whatever talents and tools we may possess, we find ourselves able to take them up again and use them for the Church in his name and in the light of his countenance.

We all have spiritual instincts that we have gained from our Heavenly Father, those parts of us that make us His offspring. I believe our deepest spiritual instinct is to create. This is Heavenly Father’s most prominent role: Father, Creator, Designer of the universe, engineering the unending expanse of the cosmos all the way down to the tiniest strands of DNA in the tiniest insect. He is a builder of worlds, and more importantly, a builder of souls. He creates, and because He does, so do we.

Our own creations take form in many different ways. Some paint, some sing, some compose, some write. The fingers of one grip a brush tightly, while others dance across ivory keys. We create constantly, whether in art or in civil matters. Plowing fields and planting seeds is creating. Planning cities and structures is creating. Assembling a team that can accomplish great things is creating. Finding solutions to problems of all kinds is creating. Writing in our journals is creating. Establishing friendships and giving light to the lonely is creating. And in raising our children and teaching them truth, we are acting in the creation of a soul, joined together with our Heavenly Father in the gradual process of creating a divine being. All of us have some level of innate desire to form order out of chaos, to organize disparate parts into something new, something whole and beautiful.

But there was purpose to His creation as well, and so should there be in ours. Why did God create this universe, this galaxy, this solar system, this planet? So He could have a place for His children to dwell and to learn and to be tested. He created all of it not to boast, but to further His work of exalting His children. His is the noblest creative act of all, for it is meant for others: He is trying to create gods, and He lets us be a part of that work, if we so choose, to join Him in His work and His glory. And I can’t help but believe He wants us to use our powers of creation, our deepest spiritual instinct, to help Him in that noblest work.

That is the kind of consecration I call for today: a consecration of our arts, even our unconventional arts, and of all our creative gifts, to the church, to the gospel, to the work of saving souls and building gods and comprehending our Heavenly Father.

What are the spiritual possibilities with art, with music, with literature? I immediately think of the Savior, who expressed doctrine with stories, with literature—parables that not only taught but resonated with literary value. Those parables are the applied principles of our beliefs and can be seen as our theology made concrete, made real. Most stories today are what my friend Ming Stephens once called “interesting wastes of time.” Stories that make us keep reading, but in the end leave us empty and unchanged. Such works may be entertaining in the moment, but the reader then moves on and someday perhaps even forgets he or she even read it at all. But the power of art and media can be great if used properly.

BYU professor Wendy L. Watson said regarding the effects of media, “When you interact with someone repeatedly over time, it changes you. That’s why what you watch on TV or read or see in magazines is so critical. So watch what you watch. Be careful with whom you are interacting. These recurrent interactions change your cells. They change your soul. They change your countenance.”[1]

This is the power Latter-day Saint artists could have. With our artistic abilities, we can change human beings! And in doing so, we can change the world. Orson Scott Card said about the artists of society, “We who learn to create artworks and share them with the audience, we invent the world. We put visions and music and stories into people’s memories. Even when the audience for our works is small, they have received a priceless gift, for there is a place in their memories where, because of our work, all the people in that audience are the same. Sharing the shaped reality of art is the closest we come in this world to truly knowing what is inside another person’s heart and mind. For a moment, as an audience, as a community, we are one.”[2]

I once heard Jenny Oaks Baker, famous violinist and daughter of Elder Dallin H. Oaks, at a concert about to play a piece of music from the film score of Romeo and Juliet. She expressed her love for those title characters and revealed that in her heart she hoped those two characters could one day be sealed. Fictional characters receiving temple ordinances? Perhaps not true doctrine, but that’s how real literature can be to us, that we’d want to see that happen. That’s the power it can have on our hearts and minds. (I, for one, want to see Snape and Lily sealed one day.)

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Take a look at today’s popular media, and witness what the other side can do with that great power. Look at the degradation our culture has experienced, and without even being aware of it. To take one easy example, music and music award shows. Satan has bound that industry, no doubt about it. Remember what music used to be? Now look at what popular music is: catchy but cheap, dirty, unrefined stuff that furthers the work of degeneration of our culture. Even popular music used to be about love, but these days you’ll more often find songs celebrating not love and devotion and commitment, but merely sex itself, without subtlety or nuance or any art to it at all.

Those who are gifted with artistic talents, can and must reject that process and reverse that spiritual entropy, at least within the hearts of those few souls within our realm of influence. That realm expands with the increased quality of our work, and as we advance in skill and spirituality we will have a greater impact on the world around us.

You are promised by the Lord that “if thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries which are great and marvelous; therefore, thou shalt exercise thy gift, that thou mayest find out mysteries, that thou mayest bring many to the knowledge of the truth” (D&C 6:11). One of our great early artists, the poet Eliza R. Snow, is most known today for the words to the hymn, “O My Father.” Consider the effect that single hymn and its introduction of our Heavenly Mother has had on the church and on investigators over the past 165 years—a poem written after searching the soul, finding out the mysteries of God by inquiring, just as we are taught to in the Doctrine and Covenants. Sister Snow certainly exercised her literary gift, and she has brought many to the knowledge of sacred truths. Through her careful ponderings and poetic meditations, the existence of Heavenly Mother is now an essential doctrine of our faith.

According to Elder Douglas L. Callister, President David O. McKay even called the masters of literature “the minor prophets.”[3] Surely Sister Snow could be thought of in that way, a veritable prophetess. What else could be out there for spiritually in-tune artists to discover? What other mysteries are there waiting to be solved by a thoughtful, faithful poet or novelist? What new understanding can be depicted in the arts that cannot be depicted any other way? What spiritual truth is there that can be delivered to a world that would otherwise reject religion at face value?

Now please bear in mind, I am not asking us to resort to simple moralizing. That is not the kind of teaching that I am talking about, both because it lacks art and grace and because it is not effective. I am, however, asking us to use our art to package our testimonies in new, creative, and subtle ways. Through creative gifts we can help the world understand our theological principles and even finer points of doctrine. Through the great avenues of literature, through visual arts and music and film, we can depict our theology, our principles, and share them with the world in ways they’ll understand.

The prophet Alma writes, “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom” (Alma 29:8). I find it similarly imperative to use familiar language and elements the world might find reasonable in order to bridge the natural intellectual divide, to convey spiritual ideas a secular audience wouldn’t be open to initially. Secular academics, for instance, would almost never be open to learning about the gospel if it were preached to them using traditional testimony verbiage. The gospel might very well need to be shared instead in the verbiage of academia, a translation work as necessary as anything learned in the MTC. Through art or literature or academia we can build our depictions block by block, reasonable premise after reasonable premise, until it culminates in the end with the natural illustration of a particular concept or teaching, and the otherwise close-minded reader can say something to the effect of, “…Oh. That makes sense.”

I see a strict divide in the field of Mormon literature today. Mormon writers almost always write either secular books for a secular audience or Mormon books for a Mormon audience. I see little overlap, comparatively few literary envoys from God’s kingdom to the great and spacious building. Those who have tried have mostly ended up abandoning their goal as diplomats and claiming new citizenship in the realm they were supposed to preach to. I see no one taking the torch from the great modern Mormon storyteller Orson Scott Card, with his Worthing Saga and Alvin Maker series and the Homecoming novels, all of which are in the vein of which I speak: taking Latter-day Saint concepts and ideas to a secular audience, these in particular draped in the clothing of science fiction.

Mormon literary critic Karl Keller wrote, “When someone becomes capable of creating imaginative worlds where Mormon theological principles are concretely true, then we will have a writer of the stature of Flannery O’Connor. Because she was a Catholic, she said, she could not afford to be less than a good artist.”[4] O’Connor was not a great writer in spite of her Catholicism, but because of it. Such, Keller argues, will be the case with the great Mormon writers. Our faith should inform our art, and because we have that advantage spiritually, we have the potential to achieve even greater artistic heights, if we choose to pursue them.

This was the vision of Mormon greatness called for by Elder Orson F. Whitney, one of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time in 1888, when he spoke of a new age of Mormon literature, and gave the following as his caveat to those starting out: “Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of ‘Mormon’ literature….No pouring of old wine into new bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be…. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven.”[5]

That is a heavy responsibility, and it has only been in the last few decades that we’ve seen this promise begin to be fulfilled. But it has not yet. President Spencer W. Kimball in his inspiring 1978 article, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” wrote, “We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people, written by great artists, purified by the best critics… Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a cause, could put into such a story life and heartbeats and emotions and love and pathos, drama, suffering, fear, courage.”[6]

Yes, that was 1978, but Mormon art and literature, as glistening as it is with talent these days, has not yet begun to reach its full potential, the capacity for grand masters and legends that echo the works of yesteryear. President Kimball regrets that this has not happened, and in the article repeats emphatically that there should be no reason for this, that the Miltons and the Shakespeares and the Beethovens and the Michelangelos have not necessarily run dry in our modern age. The reasons they haven’t emerged, I believe, have very much to do with the victories of the Adversary on the battlefield of our culture and the individual soul in his sinister quest to bind the tongues of the faithful.

One possible impediment pushed into our paths by Satan is the lack of doctrinal understanding in our youth, the field from which the next generation of great artists will have to emerge. LDS scholar and literary critic Eugene England wrote concerning Elder Whitney’s call for Mormon literature and suggests some of our mightiest doctrines as fertile fodder for creative expression:

“To fulfill this hope,” he writes, “Mormon writers need some theological literacy. B. H. Roberts, whom some consider Mormonism’s finest historian and theologian, provides an extensive overview in The Truth, The Way, The Life and a concise explication of what is most dramatic and unusual in Mormon thought in Joseph Smith, the Prophet-Teacher. Others could be added: Joseph Smith, of course, especially the King Follett Discourse (uncreated being and godlike potential); Doctrine and Covenants 88 and 93 (God’s relation to nature and to human agency); 2 Nephi 2 (the doctrine of essential opposition in everything) and Alma 42 (how the atonement works) from the Book of Mormon; and Brigham Young’s sermon, “The Organization and Development of Man” (our basic need for eternal progression).”[7]

Understanding these concepts, and being able to articulate them to those of the world in new and persuasive ways, could be an incredible boon to the work of the Gospel. These ideas are ripe to be portrayed in ways literary and fantastic, creative and powerful. Certainly Satan is working to prevent our understanding of these great and eternal concepts, and is active day and night in his fight to suppress our souls and halt our pens in rational declaration of these noble truths. In doing so, he quashes both our potential and that of those we may have taught or influenced. He shows us an easier path, full of distractions and apathy and even condescension of our own religion and the art it has inspired, calling such traditional art “kitsch” and “cliche” in comparison to the art of the world. Many artists may think they have more important things to write about, true art to express, and dealing with and even teaching gospel truths is considered didactic and artless.

This point, I confess, is not a straw man. As we seek to portray positive principles and explore our theology, there is the possibility for overt didacticism, and our efforts can be taken as moralizing lectures. Keller said of such well-meaning but ineffective stories, “The didactic sells the Church without making it very believable.”[8]

Brother England explained further, “Most thinkers in this tradition have understood that the more directly literature teaches, the less delightful and persuasive it becomes. In contrast, a vivid and honest story, interesting and complex characters, powerful images, and affecting rhythms and sounds can often move the reader into new dimensions of moral understanding and religious experience.”[9]

What does this mean for the goal of a consecration of the arts? It means our writers have a fine line to walk between didacticism and depiction, between sermon-preaching and subtle sharing. But successful balance and execution on the required multiple levels can bring forth the greatness Elder Whitney, President Kimball, and President Packer have called for.

Though we are all under the obligation of taking our message to the world, there are many varied and possible ways it can be done. A story doesn’t have to be explicitly about church, about God, about religion. It doesn’t need to be shallowly couched in the context of direct doctrine. Christ’s parables weren’t! But neither do they have to reveal simple meanings in the end. After all, the best parables are the ones that work on multiple levels, both literary and spiritual, and that carry implications loaded with meaning that aren’t brought up outright, as the Parable of the Talents does. Theoretically, it should teach through a natural understanding of the story and the lifelike characters therein.

Remember Keller’s words: “creating imaginative worlds where Mormon theological principles are concretely true.” The worlds we create for our stories, for our art—and I don’t just mean in fantasy or sci-fi texts; new worlds need to be created for literary, non-genre works, too—these worlds should be built according to the spiritual laws of the gospel. This does not mean LDS cosmological laws, but theological principles, spiritual laws as we understand them with consequences as real as gravity.

Orson Scott Card’s Ender series takes place in a futuristic earth where Mormonism doesn’t turn out to be true. And yet he is still able to promote our ideas—ideas Card must hold very dear to his heart—about family and about marriage, for one thing, and how important those institutions are. Those books are not didactic in the slightest, and yet they still teach, still instruct, still strike the reader on a different plane.

With Elder Whitney, President Kimball and President Packer, I again call to the Mormon artists to produce greatness, a dual greatness: greatness in the eyes of both the world AND the church. It is not an impossible line to toe, though no doubt it will be difficult. To this challenge President Kimball has said, “If we strive for perfection—the best and greatest—and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel.”[10] President Packer adds, “Let the use of your gift be an expression of your devotion to Him who has given it to you.”[11] The best art, even true art, will lead one to God, via one way or another.

And so I say, in whatever gift you have, whatever talent you choose to develop, make sure the Lord has a reason to help you. Show Him what you’ll do with His help. Show Him that you will use it to bring to pass much good in this generation (D&C 6:8). Consecrate your gift to God and you will see it bloom and bear fruit that could not have otherwise been born. Search deeply to understand why you might have the gift that you have, the potential for greatness. Realize that He hasn’t given it to you to merely gain the glories of the world, but if, in the process of developing it, you do gain the glories of the world, use that unique platform to share the Gospel, to proclaim truth, and live as an example of Christian principles. Show the world what the gospel of Jesus Christ can produce, what the fruits and effects of Christ’s gospel can be.

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From my vantage point today it seems our faithful musicians are the latter-day equivalent of the Psalmist in using music to express sacred things. Look at the extraordinary example of David Archuleta, who is not only a popular singer in the eyes of the world or only a devout and unashamed Latter-day Saint. He has declared implicitly and courageously that his faith is more important than his art by serving a mission in the midst of his fame, leaving the spotlight to blend in with all the other white shirts and ties out there preaching the gospel. Now that he’s returned from his mission, he is one of the most public faces of the gospel, and I believe he has a long life of success and indirect proselytizing ahead of him.

In David Archuleta we find someone who has used his God-given gifts and talents to share the gospel with the world. He is able to preserve both his artistic integrity and his devotion to this work, and in fact combine the two in using his talents for the benefits of the gospel. The pattern he has set should be emulated by every Latter-day Saint artist the world over: establishing ourselves in the eyes of the world, then using that influence and that stage to bear our testimony to them, to share with them what is truly important and in ways they’ll listen.

Other examples include the burgeoning violinist Lindsey Stirling and rock and roll musician Brandon Flowers, who have participated in the inspired “I’m a Mormon” public relations campaign. In doing this, in sharing the fire of our testimony from atop the tower of fame, we can become beacons, and cast our beams of light across the world entire.

Sometimes, however, our artists lose track of what is truly important. Sometimes that light is even purposefully kept hidden beneath the bushel. To this concern, I want to remind you that your art is NEVER more important than your faith. Devoting ourselves to the creations of our own hands instead of the hand of the true Creator is a sad mistake that is repeated often amongst our greatest artists. President Packer has said, “We find that there have marched through this grand parade of mortality men and women who were sublimely gifted, but who spent all, or most, in the world and for the world. And I repeat that they may well one day come to learn that ‘many men struggle to reach the top of the ladder, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.’”[12]

“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen,” the Lord says. “And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men” (D&C 121:34-35).

I am reminded of the story of the play Corianton by B.H. Roberts, popular in the late 19th century in Utah. Others eventually took it to Broadway, but not before stripping it of the spiritual values that once defined it. It lasted only a week in New York, failing miserably because it tried merely to gain the glories of the world, and not to add glory to God.

The Book of Mormon has something to say about such cases: “And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper, but were afflicted and smitten, and driven before the Lamanites, until they had lost possession of almost all their lands” (Helaman 4:13).

Those of us who have experienced time away from the presence of the Spirit can agree: we do not want to be left alone to our own strength. We need God in our lives, and for Him to be there, I repeat that we need to give Him a reason to help us. That reason will almost always be that we need His help to convey His messages to the world. In so doing, we have to keep our eye single to His glory, to the building up of Zion.

Think of the story of the lepers healed in the river—only one came back to thank Christ for that miracle. How many of us have received of the glorious bounties and blessings of the Atonement, and in particular our own creative gifts…and then gone off to do our own thing, to do what we want to do with them?

Remember the battle that rages all around us, the battle we’re supposed to be waging. Remember what this whole scene on earth actually is. This isn’t some game where we can bide our time and do whatever we want, “whatever we love,” until we die. This is a war. And in a battle that will determine eternities, we must bear in mind what is truly important, and wield our sword against the foe that would bind us down. As the rousing chorus of The Battle Hymn of the Republic resoundingly declares, “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!”[13]

That quest for true freedom is the battle, the epic war of this world, and in war we have allegiances. To whom or what are you loyal? For whom or what are you fighting? For what cause do we wield our sword? Do any of us want to stand there at the great and last Day, trembling before the Judgment Bar of God, trying to explain that our own secular artistry was more important than spreading the Gospel?

How you go about that missionary work is up to you. With our creative powers we can find new, exciting, and subtle ways of repackaging our gospel knowledge. Whether it be through allegory or through drama or through science-fiction or however else you think you can communicate the principles of the Gospel, it must be done. It is commanded that it should be done. Endowed members everywhere have covenanted to consecrate all of ourselves, all, to this work.

How blessed are we? As pointed out elsewhere in this book, fifteen million out of nearly seven billion. Why are we so blessed to have the Gospel? Because it isn’t just a blessing or even a privilege: it’s a responsibility. We cannot go around saying, “Oh joy, I am saved!”—we must remember why we are saved, and so be about our Father’s business, else we not be worthy of our hire, and instead be a wicked and slothful servant. And though I have spoken primarily of the creative arts, this commandment extends to all abilities, all professions, all places in life.

Brothers and sisters, there is work to do. The “great and marvelous work” is meant to be done by us. And we must do more than our best. For right now, we are not yet what we can be. Wherever we are, there is still distance to travel, relying all the while on the grace of our Savior to make our efforts sufficient. The whole idea of eternal progression is about constantly improving what our best can be. “Best” is not a rigid, inflexible goal; it is fluid, it rises, it beckons us ever onward, inviting our lifelong participation in the wondrous work. Christ gave us eternal life. Surely we can consecrate to Him our mortal life.

I call out to the rising generation of this church. I call out to them to become masters of their gifts, whatever they may be, to become champions of the Lord and use the sword He has given them to fight his fight, to spread the gospel to the world, and bring souls unto Christ.

Go find what the Lord has given you. It is your duty to find it, to develop it, to use it to further the cause, and then to receive the promised multiplicity of blessings to faithful stewards. In all the evolution of the temple endowment over the years, the covenant of consecration, though we think of it as a relic of the past, is still there—it still applies to all endowed latter-day saints, and it will forever.

We need great thinkers to emerge. We need artists and intellectuals—coupled with a testimony of Christ—to arise out of obscurity, and invest our talents in the spiritual economy of the world. Let us make art, music, and literature that brings souls to Christ. Let us infuse our entertainment with edification, grace our paintings and plots with meaning. Let our art lead to truth, to God! Let us not spend our time critiquing the brethren, and instead spend it supporting them, sustaining them, joining them in the war against the rapidly spreading evil that is so pervasive in the world today. The Lord and His servants need allies, not critics. Champions with sword in hand, not spiritual pacifists.

What can we expect to tell God at the end of it all about our time spent on earth when, in this brief but oh so important life, we are purely pursuing our personal passions, and not doing the work that will last through eternity?

We must find ways to instead channel those passions as they were meant to be used: for the Lord! To use them to enhance, further, and promote the work, to lay a foundation of understanding in the people who are searching for the truth and prepare them to receive the Gospel when they finally hear it. Let us be witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places that we may be in, and consecrate our time and talents to the work of Zion, and the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth.

[1] Wendy Watson, “Change: It’s Always a Possibility!” (Brigham Young University devotional, April 7, 1998, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=440).

[2] Orson Scott Card, “Art as an Act of Charity,” in A Storyteller in Zion (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1993), 112.

[3] Douglas L. Callister, “Your Refined Heavenly Home” (Brigham Young University devotional, Sept. 19, 2006, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1633).

[4] Karl Keller, “The Example of Flannery O’Connor,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Winter 1974): 71.

[5] Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature” in The Contributor 9.8 (July 1888): 296-300).

[6] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977.

[7] Eugene England, Introduction to Tending the Garden : Essays on Mormon Literature Ed. Lavina Fielding Anderson and Eugene England (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1996), xv-xvi.

[8] Keller, 62.

[9] England, xxii.

[10] Kimball.

[11] Packer.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Hymns no. 60.

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One thought on “To All Mormon Artists, Writers, Musicians, Everywhere:

  1. President Kimball’s 1978 statement had a great impact on me, as I was at a phase in my life to start taking my writing seriously. This is exactly why I’m writing “The Seventh Shaman” series. (O.S. Card was one of my first mentors, btw.) Right now I’m looking for beta readers. If you’re interested, please PM me on Facebook.

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