By: Esther Hi’ilani Candari
Esther is a lifelong member of the LDS church, an Asian-American, a fine artist, and an adjunct professor at Southern Virginia University.
In recent weeks, as topics of race, diversity, and inclusion have swept across the nation like wildfire, church friends from across the political spectrum have reached out to me asking questions about the crossroads of art, race, and the church. As I attempted to provide them with adequate answers and resources I realized there is a lack of convenient resources to point people to. So as a Boy Scout by association with four brothers, I am going to try and leave this space better than I found it.
First off, let's talk about why it is important to be thoughtful about and critical of the religious art that we choose to surround ourselves and our families with.
To begin this conversation we need to establish a baseline understanding that, within the doctrine and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, art plays a liturgical role. This means that art is built into almost every aspect of how we learn and teach about our theology, including the spaces in which we perform ordinances and the symbolic representation of Christ’s presence in our away-from-home and at-home churches. It is an inextricable part of how we come to understand deity, ourselves, and others.
Elder Ballard teaches, “The word artist is not included in holy scripture, but the presence and importance of artists are unmistakable. The scriptures include a myriad of references to “all manner of workmanship” described as “exceedingly fine” and “curious.” That the creative process is rooted and revered in heaven is evident in the Lord’s use of the word workmanship to define not only the artistic accomplishments of his children but the results of his own creation.” 1
Teaching the Saviors Way, the current official teacher’s manual for church curriculum, urges instructors to, “Consider how using music, stories, pictures, and other forms of art can invite the Spirit, clarify gospel principles in memorable ways, and help learners relate the gospel to their everyday lives.” 2
Central to its liturgical role, is art’s function as a vehicle of symbolism. In 1980 Elder Packer taught, “Spiritual truths are sometimes very difficult to teach. The most conclusive certification of man’s intelligence is his ability to recreate in symbolic form the world in which he lives.” 3 The Teacher after whom we pattern our lives, taught through the richness of symbols. The question now becomes, "Are we stopping to ask ourselves what we are consciously or subconsciously teaching people with the symbols we create of Him and His gospel?"
By reflecting on the symbols that He used, we can garner ideas of what to consider as we decide what symbols to incorporate in our teaching and learning of the gospel.
Let’s look at some of the most famous characters and objects used to "illustrate" the teachings of Christ.
A farmer (Matthew 13)
The destitute and homeless (Matthew 22)
Shepherds and sheep (Luke 15)
Lepers (Luke 17)
Mustard seed (Matthew 13)
A righteous and a sinful son (Luke 15)
Servants (Luke 17)
Female wedding attendees (Matthew 25)
Widow (Mark 12)
Another widow (Luke 15)
Yeast (Luke 13)
Laborers in the field (Matthew 20)