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Godly Elitism: Our Refined Heavenly Home

June 8, 2009
I wonder if these guys are too vulgar for Heaven?

I wonder if these guys are too "vulgar" for Heaven?

So, the other day, I was compelled to go through the latest Ensign and just read some articles…and because the Ensign is online, I had like…0 barrier to do so. (So there, dear church…if you want to get people reading, provide easy online access, because even though my parents order the Ensign in magazine form, I don’t touch that.)

Anyway, at first, I only read articles with names that caught my attention…and the article “Our Refined Heavenly Home” didn’t entice me. I just thought it would be some person writing about how their home rocks, family home evening rocks, etc., That’s no way to interest me…

But then I saw that Kaimi at T&S had written a post about it, so I thought I would read it over.

To be sure, I read the Ensign article before I read Kaimi’s…so his didn’t spoil me.

But there was enough I got to dislike too. I don’t know how to say it…but…Elder Callister’s impression of heaven just smacks of elitism. It smacks of traditionalist deference to the past as opposed to the present. It seem afraid or disdainful of the present and future and instead clings to an idealized past.

Callister writes/speaks:

Is Friday evening a frenetic flight to see where the entertainment and action will be? Could our society today produce an Isaac Newton or a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Can 85 channels and uncountable DVDs ever fill our insatiable appetite to be entertained? Do any unwisely become addicted to computer games or Internet surfing, thereby missing the richer experiences of great reading, conversations, and enjoyment of music?

I don’t know whether our heavenly home has a television set or a DVD player, but in my mind’s imagery it surely has a grand piano and a magnificent library…

So, we are just supposed to buy that Mozart is better than anything we could come up with today (which, I mean, of course Mozart is great, but this is an insult to the numerous creative artists and musicians of today’s realm…) Putting Newton on a pedestal smacks all of our current scientists in the face.

But this is not my issue. See…Callister reveals in his approach an extreme bias. He is baised for the past and biased for traditional media. Not to suggest he is a luddite or anything, but it seems like *many* people have this kind of bias. People just know that the best work of literature will always be better than the best film or the best video game. I’m not even comparing pop culture to high culture — obviously, a lot of movies are just for pop culture and a lot of games, music nowadays, etc., are just for pop culture. But we could say the same about literature now, and we could say the same about certain works of art back in the past. But if we are comparing apples to apples, “high” with “high” or “pop” with “pop,” why must we defer to the past? These people will often misunderstand new media like blogs, twitter, etc., or if they do dabble in these media, they may view them as inferior to the old.

Callister continues on about music:

When some music has passed the tests of time and been cherished by the noble and refined, our failure to appreciate it is not a condemnation of grand music. The omission is within. If a young person grows up on a steady diet of hamburgers and french fries, he is not likely to become a gourmet. But the fault is not with fine food. He just grew up on something less. Some have grown up on a steady diet of musical french fries.

…Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “We … live in a world that is too prone to the tasteless and we need to provide an opportunity to cultivate a taste for the finest music. And likewise, we’re in a world that’s so attuned to the now. We need to permit people to be more attuned to the best music of all the ages.”6

Recognizing the penetrating influence of great music, Oscar Wilde had one of his characters say, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”7 After the first performance of Messiah, Handel, responding to a compliment, said, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them—I wish to make them better.”8 Haydn “dressed in his best clothes to compose because he said he was going before his maker.”9

Now, I must admit I was shocked to hear a general authority mention Oscar Wilde in any kind of context other than a disapproving one…but once again, we have a fetish with the past. I mean, Callister gives us a criteria: good music  passes the test of time. But then, we do disservice to the new, because not enough time has past to see if it will endure — so it’s easy to assume that all of the new pieces of art art…french fries.

Callister extensively quotes authority figures with seemingly superhuman traits that are favorable to his point. Gordon B. Hinckley, if nothing else, had his 1000-book library. David O. McKay would skim-read 2 books each morning in two hours and could recall 1000 poems. And even OSCAR WILDE, as superhumanly debauched as he was, recognized the intense spirituality of Chopin. So you should too.

This actually highlights (more controversially) a bias toward the past ways of doing things as opposed to the present’s. In the past, only authority figures were reputable. You’d need a name to get in print, and to get a name, you go through hoops. With new and social media today, anyone can get a blog (although caveat, anyone can also become an armchair “expert,” even if they are wrong and unread). The new media proposes a democratic system where people vote with page views or continued patronage who they think is the best…while the old media clings to an enlightened, albeit meritocratic, despotism. (To be honest, I’m not saying that the former is “perfect” and the latter has no redeeming traits…I get annoyed with the masses too, and I realize qualifications, authority, hierarchy has its place/)

Those were my thoughts. I thought, when I went to Kaimi’s post…I’d hear much of the same. But amazingly, Kaimi and his commenters focused on completely different parts — Callister’s comments on personal appearance, especially for women. Regardless of that different tangent, I did like what one commenter at T&S said:

Could our society today produce an Isaac Newton or a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

In the case of scientists, the answer certainly is yes. When I mentioned the Mozart bit to my wife her response was “Mozart was a prick.” Which surely gets to the point: Much of what he cites as greatness was made by people who certainly wouldn’t get past the door of his celestial salon. Often they were great precisely because of their weaknesses. Some of what he cites or would envision now was considered terribly vulgar in its day.

Oh snaps.

EDIT: Margaret Young at BCC makes a new post that…hits on the completely different issue that I didn’t hit on.

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6 Comments
  1. It’s ironic that Elder Callister would speak of Great Literature when the Book of Mormon is such a “difficult aesthetic experience” as Harold Bloom put it, “chloroform in print” as Mark Twain said.

    But I don’t accept the distinction between high culture and pop culture, at least not in the sense that high culture is better. I don’t think that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is inferior to any literature that Elder C named, nor is “The Wire” inferior to the theater, nor are Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards or Pete Townsend inferior to Mozart, nor are the NBA Finals inferior to any ballet. The media are different, but art is art.

    And if there is a heaven, and they let me in, I expect to be able to listen to the Cramps there. Lux Interior was a much nicer guy than Mozart or Beethoven by all accounts anyway.

  2. I appreciate this post. I hadn’t noticed the elitism in the ensign article article before… just the blatant sexism. :/

    Also, I enjoyed reading this Spanish Fork 401st ward’s entry about Mccallister’s article:
    http://spanishfork401stward.blogspot.com/2009/06/our-refined-1950s-heavenly-home.html

  3. And by Mccallister, I mean Callister. :P

  4. yeah, *everyone* (like, when T&S, one of the more conservative LDS group blogs, notices it, you know you’re in trouble) noticed the sexism, so I wanted to get something different.

  5. JTJ permalink

    The elitism is a part of the dogma. Like when the LDS leadership says that technology was invented for the spread of the gospel. In hindsight, its so shallow as to be both humorous and pathetic. Where are the great artists today as compared to the past? Well I visited the Getty Museum a few weeks ago, and there were a few hundred there. Where are the great scientific minds comparable to Newton? You only have to look in high schools to find that level of mental acuity. You name the topic and great mind, odds are, we’ve improved upon it since then.

  6. yet, I understand that for an organization like the church that has the prerogative to present itself in a certain way (e.g., the true church), it makes sense that it “redirects” and reinterprets history, technology, etc., in the church’s favor. That’s all a part of the church worldview.

    But even if the church is going to have such a worldview, I do think that some comments are imprudent. Slapping the face of current and future generations is simply not very smart, IMO As you point out, not only may we have surpassed the past, but even if one doesn’t want to accept this conclusion, at least they should consider that the claim that the past is and always be the best isn’t as uncontroversial and widely accepted as they thought.

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