by Sharon Lindbloom
4 March 2019
In February, BYU professor Daniel Peterson posted on his blog what I think is an odd article. The title is a question: “Is the Church lying to us through its art?” Dr. Peterson admits that he understands the critics’ claim that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is misrepresenting its history by means of its commissioned art,” but thinks the claim is misguided. Why? Because he doesn’t know who to blame. He doesn’t know “who, exactly, ‘the Church’ might be.”
In an apparent effort to absolve everyone from any responsibility connected to inaccuracies in Mormon church art, Dr. Peterson makes the case that the LDS church is merely a group of “run-of-the-mill active, believing Latter-day Saint[s] that is called ‘the Church,’” with no expertise in church history. His argument goes like this.
The LDS Church doesn’t have “professional clergy” and therefore, the leadership (namely, bishops and General Authorities) don’t have any training that would be “the equivalent of a doctorate in early American religious history,” or “graduate training in systematic theology.”
“In other words, and I say this without in any way wanting to condescend to them or demean them, the leadership of the Church tend to represent very closely, to ‘track,’ the attitudes and the level of historical and scriptural expertise of the most committed elements of the general membership of the Church. It cannot be otherwise, because our leadership is drawn from our general membership.”
So, he asks,
“Does the typical bishop — busy with the myriad demands of running a local congregation and attending to the needs of his flock, on top of his own family responsibilities and his job… — suddenly receive historical expertise at his ordination? Is he suddenly given a grant of additional daily hours beyond the normal twenty-four, in which he can pursue deep historical and theological research? Is your bishop an authority on early Mormon documents?”
Anticipating an objection that at least the church’s full-time General Authorities would have more time than bishops to explore and learn church history, Dr. Peterson writes,
“The life of a General Authority is an endless round of stake organizations and reorganizations, committee meetings on Church finances, approving bishops, counseling with local leaders, assigning missionaries, responding to national and multinational legal issues in all of the nations where the Church has members, calling mission presidents, traveling around the world, dealing with the most difficult questions of Church discipline, attending to diplomatic challenges, managing translations, administering a worldwide organization with properties and schools in scores of countries, supervising humanitarian aid, and so forth and so on…
“The leaders of the Church are called to be administrators of a very big and complex international non-profit organization. But, more importantly and essentially, they’re called to be witnesses, to bear testimony. Not to be scholars, not to function as academic historians, but to be witnesses.”
So in Dr. Peterson’s view, historically inaccurate church art is just a by-product of an overworked and uninformed church leadership/membership. Whoever the responsible parties might be for both commissioning and creating the art, they are not “lying to us,” they just don’t know any better.
This is an interesting approach to the problem and to any related charge of deception. But historically inaccurate artwork is not the only issue on the table in light of Dr. Peterson’s argument; for he has made it a point to place church leadership’s lack of training regarding church history, and lack of training regarding theology, in parallel.
Because of this, the conclusions he draws for the church’s overworked and uninformed leadership in relation to church history should also be applied to its grasp of LDS doctrine. Concerning bishops, he rhetorically asks (regarding historical knowledge), “Perhaps that expertise is granted when he becomes a stake president, or a mission president? Hardly likely.” And furthermore, “None of this [daily work of General Authorities] automatically confers the equivalent of a doctorate in early American religious history. None of it — however demanding and mind-stretching it may be (and is) — functions as graduate training in systematic theology.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Peterson does suggest that General Authorities are qualified for their specific callings as administrators and witnesses — those qualifications just do not come from “scholarly attainments.” Indeed, many General Authorities have become qualified administratively via their previous secular professions, while qualification for bearing testimony simply requires personal belief in Mormonism. If this was the scope of the responsibilities of church leaders, all might be well.
However, somebody has the task of commissioning art that is supposed to depict church history. And General Authorities are often called upon to teach theology at LDS General Conference or in other official venues, while Latter-day Saints are instructed to accept the words of church leaders as trustworthy, and even, in some circumstances, as scripture.
But if church leaders are unable to commission historically accurate art due to their lack of training/knowledge of LDS church history, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that, with no training or special knowledge of LDS theology, they are also unable to consistently promote sound doctrine? Using Dr. Peterson’s logic, church leaders may very well be wrong in their doctrinal teachings (e.g., on the nature of God or the requirements for eternal life); but it’s just because they don’t know any better.
This is why I find Dr. Peterson’s blog post so odd. He seems to be arguing that nobody in the LDS church, from general membership through General Authorities, really knows LDS church history or LDS theology; and everyone is too busy with other duties to find time to research or study them. In the end, no one in the church is ultimately responsible for accurately presenting Mormon history or Mormon doctrine, a thought wholly without comfort for Latter-day Saints.
Could this deficiency account for the “the church” repeatedly presenting Joseph Smith as a conventional translator of ancient documents rather than, as he was — a scryer gazing into a hat equipped with a seer stone?
Could it account for the church’s fondness for pictorially depicting the Book of Mormon and the Bible side-by-side, as if the books are of equal value and trustworthiness, when, in fact, in Mormonism the Book of Mormon is considered far superior to the Bible?
Could it account for the image promoted by the church of forever families enjoying the constant companionship of one another throughout all eternity when, according to the logic of the church’s teachings, even faithful, worthy families cannot actually be “together forever”?
Could it account for one church leader insisting that you must be perfect to gain Mormonism’s exaltation, while another teaches perfection is not required?
Dr. Peterson’s implication that no one in the LDS church is qualified to get Mormon history and theology right could perhaps account for these problems — and more.
But his beef with the criticism that’s levelled at the church really falls flat. He argues that critics are misguided to suggest that the LDS church has misrepresented its history through its art because those who might be held accountable for commissioning the art have no formal theological training, no advanced degrees in early American religious history, and no graduate training in systematic theology. Yet critics are not saying that LDS leaders need to have advanced degrees; we’re only saying that Mormon leaders – and the LDS church — should tell the truth.
Nobody needs an academic degree for that.