Q: Why do we not have Miltons and Shakespeares?
A: Because the ward choir is so bad.
I had occasion recently to attend a very, very, very high church Anglican service. I’m a smells and bells gal–love a good mass or Evensong service–but even for me, the aesthetic of this liturgical event was seriously over-the-top. It occurred to me as I thought about the dozens–maybe even hundreds–of hours that must have gone into rehearsals for this service that it would be very different to be an artist in a church culture that regards the pursuit of beauty as holy, and the sharing of that beauty as an important communal act, than it is to be a Mormon artist.
Usually the only art in a Mormon service is music, and its inclusion has always been somewhat anxiety-provoking. Long before Dallin H. Oaks articulated the “principle of non-distraction,” the Church Handbook of Instructions allowed music with careful constraints, rather than positively advocating an aesthetic of worship. In reading the Church Handbook guidelines, it’s impossible not to conclude that “worship” is some nebulous good thing, constantly imperiled by the potential encroachment of music that is “designed to draw attention to the performance” (rather, than, I suppose, providing sonic cover for the exodus of a third part of the host of heaven third of the congregation to go out to the water fountain or the restroom) or performed on an instrument with a “prominent or less worshipful sound,” like, say, the trumpets and timbrels mentioned in the psalms. Visual art would seem to be similarly dangerous–the Spirit of the Lord can, apparently, be frightened away by the sight of a piece of art that is not in the catalog of approved works by inspired Seventh-Day Adventists.
I can’t think of much great music or art that is motivated primarily by a desire NOT to distract or offend. Of course there’s art that is so experimental or so heretical or frankly obscene that its presence would be incompatible with worship. I’m afraid, though, that in our concern to avoid such things, we’ve made everything that is not mediocre taboo. We certainly don’t affirm the potential holiness of beauty and excellence. Theologically, we have much more warrant for such affirmation than many Christians who believe in human beings’ essentially corrupt nature and emphasize the yawning gulf between humanity and deity. We believe that our creative capacities are potentially not just mirrors of divine power, but actually the embryonic beginnings of human capacity for divinity.
So what the #$#!! are we doing with best-selling books designed to let the ward choir get up to torture the congregation after only 10 minutes of rehearsal??