In Tents #25 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part III

Consider three statements on Mormon aesthetics. The first is a quote. The other two are composites. I’ve heard many versions of all three among AML people or at AML events. And the concerns they express are hardly unique to Mormons. Indeed, the first reminds me of the question from a Life magazine editorial (“Who speaks for America today?”), that called forth Flannery O’Connor’s “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” (I can’t help but note her pronoun.)

1) “Are Mormons who are either on the outs with the Church, in one way or another, or who are naive, stupid, narrow-minded, rigid, or gullible, the kinds of characters we want to encourage in Mormon Literature? I don’t ask just because of this most recent AML novel award. I also ask because of books like RIFT, by Todd Robert Petersen, and THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, by Brady Udall, the two preceding novel awards given by AML.

“Are faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons just not worthy of the kind of wonderful writing produced by authors like Steven L. Peck and Brady Udall, or is it just impossible to write well about such Mormons? (Please feel free to consider that a challenge.)”
–Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, “Mormon Characters in Mormon Literature” Dawning of a Brighter Day, July 31, 2012

2) Your duty as a writer is to be true to your art. Tell the story honestly. Don’t worry about proselyting, or bearing your testimony, or whether the Church looks good or bad. (After all, the portrait of the disciples in the Gospels is hardly flattering.) If you tell your story honestly your beliefs and your testimony will come through.

3) Don’t worry about what your bishop, or the Relief Society president, or your neighbors might say. You have to have courage and write the story that’s in your heart.

Encourage, sacrificing, repenting, duty, honestly, courage. What are all these ethics words doing in a discussion of aesthetics?

The question reminds me of my first semester in graduate school. In the catalog I saw a class called Ethics and Aesthetics, by Charles Altieri. I thought it would explore the intersection of ethics and aesthetics, but Dr. Altieri saw that and not as a connective, but an equal sign. I’m still not sure what the class was about–he is the most abstract thinker I’ve ever struggled to understand–but I remember it fondly because when I decided I ought to be active in AML I took my paper from that class, revised it a bit, and read it at the 1991 symposium.

I like the idea that ethics and aesthetics are the same thing, that what we consider beautiful and worth portraying, and especially the way we portray it, reflects our ethics, our sense of worthy action. That idea helps answer the question that comes up repeatedly when I think about the story of Pilate and Jesus: How did a man who has no interest in truth, no interest in protecting a man he says is innocent, no interest in upholding the rule of law, may indeed be a sadistic coward, become something of a hero among Christians?

I don’t know the full answer to that question, the step-by-step of it, but I know what had to happen first, a change in Christian ethics and aesthetics–ethics because the change involved the way Christians treated or responded to others, aesthetics because the narratives Christians wrote and copied and spread about were written from one aesthetic model and interpreted from another.

Consider Matthew 16 as a statement of aesthetics, Jesus’s statement of how he wanted his story told. Anyone who paid a little attention in seminary can likely quote verses 13-19, and certainly, “Thou art the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but most of us (that is, most Christians) stop the story there, hung up on whether the rock is Peter, or revelation, or something else, without thinking about how Jesus defines the term that has just come out of Peter’s mouth.

In verse 21 Jesus defines what it means to be the Messiah, the anointed one. If “the Son of the living God” is an appositive for Messiah, verse 21 is a appositive to Peter’s declaration, defining what Jesus was anointed to.

21 ¶From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.

Posthaste, Peter objects to the story Jesus is telling, suggesting it’s an unethical story.

22 Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.

Betimes with sharpness, Jesus objects to Peter’s aesthetic, and his ethic.

23 But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.

Matthew 16:21-23

Luke 9 does not include this exchange, but makes up for the lack of drama with a more detailed sermon on what it means to be the Anointed.

20 He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God.
21 And he straitly charged them, and commanded them to tell no man that thing;
22 Saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.

23 ¶And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
25 For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
26 For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels.
Luke 9:22-26

This extended sermon is important because Jesus repeats it at the end of Luke when he asks the two disciples walking to Emmaus why they are sorrowing. He responds to their account of his sufferings and death not by mourning with them (though I suspect his tone is affectionate), but by rebuking then teaching them:

25 Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:
26 Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?
27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27

I take it that’s Jesus’ statement of aesthetics, of how he wants his story told. It’s also a wonderful mirror of the beginning of Luke, where the Lord’s word to Zacharias leaves the high priest speechless (see Luke 1:22).

Taken together, Luke 1, 9, and 24 give his gospel a structure relecting what Adam S. Miller (in Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology) calls “A Hermeneutics of Weakness.”

A few weeks ago the high priests and an elder or two were discussing D. Todd Christofferson’s April 2012 Conference talk, “The Doctrine of Christ,” and we came to this passage: “Others place primary emphasis on the reasoning of post-apostolic theologians or on biblical hermeneutics and exegesis.” What?

I explained what I had learned from Gadamer. “In Greek mythology Hermes is the messenger of the gods, so hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy dedicated to interpreting messages from God, and by extension, interpretation in general.” What? “OK. I took a class in hermeneutics and exegesis.”

Since the Ensign version of the talk did not include Elder Christofferson’s genial cheap shot at the words, let me take a cheap shot of my own and say that the change we made in ethics and aesthetics was to take Hermes, rather than the Paraclete, as our exegete.

By that, I mean Greek mythology is all about blinding Polyphemous, slaying the dragon, and sowing his teeth to triumph over our enemies.

But Luke and the words that emerge from his book after Zacharias writes, “His name is John” (Luke 1:63) doesn’t want us to base our story of the God Spel on Greek aesthetics. It wants us instead to wrestle with that most horrifying and ominous question (not a taunt),

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
(D&C 122:8)

I’ll probably talk more about the attraction of the Greek aesthetic next month, but I’ll end with this thought. The exegesis of the Atonement over the last 20 or 30 years moves us closer to the messianic aesthetic Jesus gave us in Mathew and Luke. By placing the Atonement in Gethsemane rather than on the cross, latter-day revelation separates Jesus’ death from the act of Atonement, which allows us foolish and slow of heart to quicken our hearts a little, if we will, and say, “Yes, these things ought to have been,” and not blame the people who brought these things about, whoever we imagine those people to be.

The expansion of the Church into non-Christian nations has allowed us to shift our focus from the Apostasy (in which they have no emotional investment) to the Atonement. Just as early Christians developed an anti-Jewish aesthetic and exegesis, early Mormons emphasized their differences with Christians by developing the exegesis of the Apostasy, blaming the Christians for corrupting the doctrine in the same way the early Christians blamed the Jews fo various sins.

Focusing on the Atonement means we can praise the Lord rather than blaming the sinners. I may spend time next month fleshing out some ideas from this digression into ethics and aesthetics, then spend the rest of the year applying what we’ve learned to the stories of Jesus and the Pharisees to see what we can learn.

Till then, your turn.

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3 Responses to In Tents #25 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part III

  1. Wm says:

    “What are all these ethics words doing in a discussion of aesthetics?”

    This is an excellent observation, Harlow. I look forward to your next post in the series.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Wm. This digression into ethics and aesthetics may turn into a rather long digression, with everyone wandering off in the fog of sheer boredom muttering, “I know there was an iron rod around here somewhere to guide me through the fog. Now where was it?”

      The more I think about hundreds of aesthetic discussions I’ve read on AML-List and Dawning of a Brighter Day, and A Motley Vision and face to face, et cete-rah, et cete-rah, et cete-rah (that’s supposed to combine the voice of Yul Brynner as both King of Siam and Pharaoh) the more it seems that what we’re talking about is the ethics of creating literature and art.

      That’s partly because both are definitions of the good life. Ethics tells us how to live the good life, and aesthetics tells us how we express the good life–or how we should express the good life. And good is an ethical term, so it’s difficult to define the good without defining the worthy or worthwhile.

      One problem I see with this is that it shifts the discussion away from the assumption that art is in itself good and toward the assumption that art is only good to the extent that it serves our political or religious ends.

      Last summer, driving across southern Oregon (between the Idaho border and Portland) I listened to the American Hunger part of Black Boy (American Hunger), “The Horror and the Glory.” It is not as compelling as “Southern Night,” what Richard Wright originally published as Black Boy. The only scene I found as riveting as, say, his description of the outhouse as a source of food is the scene where the waitress points out to Richard that the cook is spitting in the soup.

      I should have found the scenes of his fall from grace with the Communists riveting, but there’s an emotional distance I don’t see in “Southern Night,” as if he’s not willing to take me into his emotional life the way he does when his mother and grandmother are arguing religion.

      I suspect the emotional distance comes from not having resolved his commitment to Communism. The passage where he says he realized that if he were in a country where the Communists controlled the government they would have killed him should be a stunning scene, but it’s not. He just mentions it in passing.

      I say it should be stunning because what he finds is that the Communists don’t trust artists or intellectuals. He puts his writing talents to use serving the proletariat, giving them the dignity of artistic depiction. But that’s not what the Communists want. They can’t see how that serves their narrow political ends. The complete negation of his life’s work should be devatstating, or an expression or anger or pathos. But it’s not.

      The whole of “The Horror and the Glory” ought to have the pain we see in the final image where Richard is cast out of the May Day parade and they march on without him, but it feels emotionally distant from that pain, as if he’s not ready to let us in.

      Notice all the ethics words I’ve used in the last few paragraphs. It’s difficult to describe why a work of art works, or doesn’t, without talking about what we value, what we find worthy, worth our while.

      I think what happened with the story of Jesus and Pilate is that certain values among early Christians changed, or that the group that became orthodox Christians adopted a different ethic and aesthetic than what Jesus taught. How long it will take to work out some of the intricacies of that shift, I don’t know.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    “ Dr. Altieri saw that *and* not as a connective, but an equal sign. I’m still not sure what the class was about–he is the most abstract thinker I’ve ever struggled to understand–but I remember it fondly.”

    Yes, Dr. Altieri was the most abstract thinker I’ve ever encountered, let alone struggled to understand. But you pretty well comprehended the class in your description of the *and* as an equals sign.

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