Monday, November 07, 2005

People of the (newly-forged) Relics

A few days ago I made on offhand comment about “Mormon confidence in and taste for ontological realities.” The true magnitude of that taste for concreteness was subsequently opened to my view during a perusal of the Deseret Book Christmas catalog. Check these out:



The Deseret Book web pages for the Brass Plates and the Liahona reveal that these are not intended as gimmicks, nor mere kitsch. This is indicated not only by the nontrivial price tags ($295 each), but also by the inclusion of an accompanying “certificate of authenticity” (!). Also apparently on the way soon—I kid you not—the Sword of Laban ($345). (Speaking of which, I also note that some are not satisfied with commemorative reproductions: a counselor in a stake presidency once told me enthusiastically of the credence he gave a supposedly well-sourced rumor that the First Presidency retains the Sword of Laban in its vaults.)

I wonder what the FARMS folk think of these newly-forged relics. In the Editor’s Introduction to a recent issue of the FARMS Review of Books, Daniel C. Peterson derives a mocking corollary to Dan Vogel’s hypothesis that Joseph fabricated a crude mock-up of plates to deceive his followers:
But once we’ve posited a previously unnoticed Deseret Custom Design Metal Foundry operating under Joseph's management on the outskirts of Palmyra, that industrial concern also needs to produce the breastplate seen by various witnesses, as well as the brass plates, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona. One wonders how many skilled metallurgists and craftsmen were available in the area at the time, what the local wage scale was, and why nobody ever seems to have reported the noise and the belching smoke of Joseph’s fraud-producing furnaces.
(According to the Deseret Book online descriptions, the modern masters of curious workmanship busy filling out Peterson’s shopping list have not taken the name Deseret Custom Design Metal Foundry, but instead simply LDS Artifacts.) Despite the disdain this statement manifests for the theory that Joseph may have fashioned a (possibly well-intentioned) fraudulent prop aimed at boosting faith among his intimates who did not share his capacities as a seer, I would not be surprised if hard-core apologists in Peterson’s mold were among those most delighted by these modern celebrations of the transient Nephite artifactual irruptions into the real world that accompanied Mormonism’s birth. Perhaps more than one such apologist will be lucky enough to find one of these treasures under the tree this year!

Reading over what I have written here, I am not sure I should be happy with its unmistakably (if mildly) derisive tone. I wish I could say that I’m merely amused by Mormon artistic tastes and dispassionately following Brother Peterson’s signature stylistic lead. In fact, I suppose questions surrounding the nature of divine manifestations touch a nerve with me. I may simply be proud, fancying myself passionate about verifiable ontologies (I am, after all, a physicist) and rightfully suspicious of inadequately supported ones. Whatever my degree of guilt for intellectual pride, I am frustrated by evidence purposefully withheld: if, in the interest of requiring the exercise of faith, God has seen fit to take the original artifacts unto himself (except perhaps, as noted, the Sword of Laban!), who are we to forge reliquary Towers of Babel as celebratory substitutes? (I’m aware that “reliquary” is, officially, only a noun. I invite you to consider my present use as an adjective not erroneous, but linguistically groundbreaking. ;-> )

If we consider ourselves—like other great monotheistic faiths—‘People of a Book,’ do we mean the text, or the putative physicality of its elusive relics? It is, I suspect, principally the latter. Present-day exercise of authority correlates and governs the details of Mormon life to a much greater extent than the specifics of the Book of Mormon text—and the source of that celebrated authority is not the self-evident wisdom of scriptural precepts and contemporary prophetic teachings, nor the democratically elaborated consent of the governed, but the perceived concreteness of the founding manifestations.

32 Comments:

Perhaps this counselor got the sword of Laban confused with Joseph's seer stone, which we do have.

These items remind me of the Lord of the Rings stuff you can get (rings, swords, etc)--some of it quite pricey. People like tangible reminders of things they value. I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that--within bounds.

Hmmmm. I've got a bunch of rocks in my yard...I might be able to take paper weights to the next level. 

Comment by Jared | 11/07/2005 11:31:00 AM  

I am missing the connection between Peterson's derision of Vogel's outlandish claims and the likelihood you have posited that FARMS writers are enthusiastic about this kitsch Deseret Book paraphernalia.

You wrote I would not be surprised if hard-core apologists in Peterson’s mold were among those most delighted by these modern celebrations of the transient Nephite artifactual irruptions into the real world that accompanied Mormonism’s birth. 

I would suggest that FARMS writers like Peterson are among the first to be rolling their eyes at such nonsense.

Incidentally, you seem to share Dave's (of DMI) view that FARMS review of books rhetoric, such as that you quoted above in response to Vogel's book, is somehow illegitimate when the material to which it is responding is often just as dismissive of LDS truth claims. Somehow, it is legitimate for Vogel but not for Peterson. What Peterson wrote in the Vogel review makes valid substantive points against Vogel's assumptions while at the same time being funny. It is hard to understand what exactly is wrong with that. At least FARMS reviews are attempting humor and not hatred. 

Comment by john fowles | 11/07/2005 11:48:00 AM  

It seems to me that a growing trend of the last five years or so are expensive "relics" for adults. I think it largely came out of the comic-geek niche market. There Todd McFarlan (sp?) starting making plastic "sculptures" of superheros, movie characters, and TV shows. It was basically the old action figure that we knew as kids with things like G I Joe. The difference was the price and that the market was adults.

You saw this really take off with Lord of the Rings were people were paying $500 - $1000 for sword replicas and other such things.

You made me curious as, other than ads on various movie rumor sites I occasionally frequent, I'd never really checked into this. I suspect that in part, it's due to the rising class of single adults. No male who was married probably could spend that kind of money on such matters. (Their wives would kill them - not to mention complaining about the tacky decorations) Anyway, I went and checked and the McFarlane stuff isn't as expensive as I thought - around $10 - $20. But I found this site  that has such expensive "toys" as a $40 James Bond figure, a $900 replica mask of the monster from Legend (yeah, that old 80's movie that was originally a musical with Tom Cruise singing), $500 for a replica Terminator arm, $75 for Thor's helmet, and $300 for Hellboy's gun.

I'm not sure this says much beyond the fact that there must be some rich Mormon geeks.

BTW - I seem to recall in the 70's there being a popular fad of that mesoAmerican "hypocephalus" carved out of wood. I still can recall seeing a few on people's walls. 

Comment by Clark | 11/07/2005 11:50:00 AM  

Okay, an early consensus seems to have developed that I've made too much of this. I should've stuck with a chuckle and avoided cosmic implications. Jared , that's a good guess about the confusion with the extant seerstone.

Jared and Clark, good point you make about the similarity to expensive fantasy relics. Of course, for most who might buy these items, the Book of Mormon is not fanstasy. But this raises an interesting question: does it matter? If so, I think it must be because of the connection to authority I bring up at the end of the post.

Nevertheless, your examples indicate that even consciously fictional material of a certain kind can carry considerable meaning and mythic power---perhaps not enough for people to build their lives on (as people do with Mormonism), but nevertheless sufficient to induce people to part with hundreds of dollars. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 12:33:00 PM  

john,  I didn't make a definite assertion, but said I wouldn't be surprised. But you may well be right that many FARMS folk would roll their eyes at these commemorative relics. I suppose FARMS apologists---like any other group---are not monolithic, and would have a variety of tastes about things like this.

With regard to the rhetoric, I have mixed feelings. I can't entirely blame Peterson; it's a tendency I quickly slip into myself (as in this post). Perhaps it is effective if his main goal is to comfort the faithful (but weak in testimony) against attacks. And of course, fun and humor are good things.

However, I don't think it's effective as a habitual approach in an academic setting. (Unfortunately it seems pretty endemic to his style, at least in apologetic settings.) It's fair enough to say he's only responding in kind, but on the other hand I think retorts that were more consistently respectful, matter-of-fact, and sober might, in their gravitas, be even more effective.

On a more personal level, such outward bluster can be a sign of defensiveness, a kind of overcompensation against insecurities regarding oneself or one's beliefs. For this reason it concerns me when I find myself slipping into it. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 12:53:00 PM  

I like a good FARMS snark as much as the next guy but I have to reluctantly agree with John F. on this one. FARMS people probably dislike kitsch like this for two reasons. First of all, it goes against the first rule of FARMS: don't allow yourself to get pinned down on anything. If you have a reproduction Liahona made out of metal, you are discounting the possibility that it was an obsidian-tipped wooden Liahona. If you commit to anything, it opens up the possibility that you could be proven wrong at a later date.

Secondly, stuff like this betrays the FARMS contention that Mormon doctrine and Mormon belief correspond perfectly with the latest issue of FARMS. They become very uncomfortable when the disparity between common Mormon beliefs and FARMS positions become apparent.

P.S. I expect Ben S. will shortly appear, as I believe he has a bell inside his computer that goes off as soon as anyone makes fun of FARMS. Don't get me wrong, we love you, Ben! 

Comment by NFlanders | 11/07/2005 01:44:00 PM  

Since John F. has invoked my name, I might as well weigh in and try to realign his conception of my view. Yes, I have objected in the past (at DMI) to the overreliance by some FARMS Reviewers on ad hominem (attacking the writer rather than the argument) and some of the directly associated rhetoric. But I don't have a problem with poking a little fun at an argument  -- hey, I like Voltaire, the master of the sarcastic retort. Candide didn't refute Leibniz, it just pointed out how ridiculous his argument sounded when applied to real life.

I don't see anything wrong with the Peterson quote. Apologists aren't typically writing for a narrow academic audience; they have to be entertaining as well as substantive. Nibley did this effectively, one of the reasons he is still so popular. 

Comment by Dave | 11/07/2005 02:01:00 PM  

It's curious that the $295 liahona looks exactly like Friberg's liahona. It reminds me of an interview he gave where he said that Mr. Words can gloss over vagueness as to what the liahona looked like, but Mr. Pictures has to put something  on the canvas. He can't use a tube of "I don't know" paint. Now we know; we just look at Friberg's picture. 

Comment by John Mansfield | 11/07/2005 02:21:00 PM  

NFlanders,  LOL. Nicely done.

Dave, thanks for making me feel better about sarcasm and satire!

John M., good point, you'd hope that at least part  of the $295 price tag would go into original design work. I've also been amazed at how childrens' Book of Mormon books also seem to rely heavily on the Friberg typologies. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 02:50:00 PM  

I don't think it's just fantasy  replicas though, Christian. If you go to the link I posted or related ones, you'll find similar stuff only dealing with WWII, the Civil War, and even medieval or Roman stuff. One could even argue that there is a huge market for faux ancient through early modern Chinese, Japanese, Roman, Greek and other artifacts. Only most of those are far in excess of the prices we've been discussing.


Comment by clark | 11/07/2005 02:50:00 PM  

Just to add, I think that in large measure the LDS market follows the larger Evangelical market for good or ill.

Thus after Biblical action figures started appearing there were some half hearted LDS ones. LDS pop music followed only a few years behind Evangelical pop music. A lot of the bland LDS fiction and self-help offers interesting parallels to what you'd find in the average Bible bookstore.

While I understand (and share) the revulsion at kitsch, I think the fact is that people are embedded in their culture and will thus react to their religion from within their cultural norms. One way to consider this is simply that people are taking the same sort of things they would already buy and ask for them with a more LDS flavor. The market responds. | 11/07/2005 02:54:00 PM  

Clark,  good point. I've not been exposed to this stuff? What motivates it? How is it similar to or different from this Mormon instantiation? (I suppose things like Civil War reenactments vs. Mormon trek reenactments might be considered here too.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 02:56:00 PM  

CYC: I think retorts that were more consistently respectful, matter-of-fact, and sober might, in their gravitas, be even more effective 

I agree with this. As much fun as I find the Review of Books, it might be even more effective if it were completely dry counter-analysis of the material being reviewed.

On a more personal level, such outward bluster can be a sign of defensiveness, a kind of overcompensation against insecurities regarding oneself or one's beliefs.

This might be overanalyzing FARMS usage of this approach in the Review. It might be a more simple expression of exasperation or impatience created by academic insight (that includes "ad hominem" information) about the motivations of the person being reviewed in writing in the first place.

Dave, good explanation. I would just ask you if you think that an ad hominem element of an argument is ever relevant as a tool of rhetoric when used in combination with other rhetorical devices. I think that information that tends to illuminate one's motivation in writing is indeed relevant and a legitimate form of rhetoric. Information as to why one is writing simply is relevant. If people were writing out of pure academic interest and objectivity, then they have nothing to "fear" from an ad hominem element of a review of their writings. I can't imagine a FARMS reviewer, for example, getting much mileage out of any ad hominem attempt against Harold Bloom. If someone's other writings or actions can demonstrate that they have an affirmative axe to grind with the Church and its teachings, then that is a relevant part of the review of their writings about the Church and its teachings. I agree, however, that any ad hominem prong shouldn't be mean or insulting; it can offer such information in the most objective manner, simply stating it based sources. To the extent that FARMS review ad hominem attacks are mean-spirited or insulting, then this is where the FARMS writers fall down, and not in the fact that they have relied in part on ad hominem argumentation in the first place.

CYC: I've also been amazed at how childrens' Book of Mormon books also seem to rely heavily on the Friberg typologies.

It is interesting that you would observe this since, if I am not mistaken, those Friberg portraits were originally commissioned by the Church as works of art for the Primary Organization. In other words, they were and always have been meant to be illustrations for children.

For a selection of some of Friberg's BoM and other art, see the current issue of BYU Studies, which has an article on three LDS artists who painted scenes from the American West in addition to their work for the Church. 

Comment by john fowles | 11/07/2005 03:56:00 PM  

I think the problem with the Friberg paintings and art inspired by them is that they tend to portray the Nephites through the lens of the Roman revival in Germany prior to the second world war. Thus we see the Nephites looking quasi-German "will to power" supermen (and women) all dressed in Roman garb. (The Waters of Mormon is the best example of that - buff Zenaesque warrior princesses with traditional German hair styles)

The problem is that the survival of these images tends to propagate naive views of the Book of Mormon. I'd love to see more art with more mesa-American looking Nephites. 

Comment by clark | 11/07/2005 04:09:00 PM  

This may be in the category of Faith Promoting Rumors, but I thought that the Friberg paintings had their conceptual origin in connection with Cecil b. De Mille's commencement address to BYU in 1957. Friberg had done at least some of the art direction for the Ten Commandments  and some of his sketches for that movie ran in the Ensign in 1954 or 1955. De Mille claimed to be highly impressed with the Church and was said to be seriously considering a film about at least part of the Book of Mormon, which partly accounts for why Friberg's Nephi has a passing resemblance to Charlton Heston and King Noah to Anthony Quinn. Am I misinformed? 

Comment by Alfred Krause | 11/07/2005 04:20:00 PM  

I believe if you google on the issue, you'll find that the influence was the other way. i.e. the Cecil B. De Mille art was influenced by the Mormon art. Here's one link  that mentions this. 

Comment by clark | 11/07/2005 04:29:00 PM  

Even if the Friberg work was originally done for Primary children, I still think it would be nice if some original imagery could be generated. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 06:39:00 PM  

CYC, what is your view of the Minerva Teichert BoM paintings? 

Comment by john fowles | 11/07/2005 07:00:00 PM  

I think Teichert's art (which I like) is a tad too abstract/impressionist for most people. They are looking for realistic art. More say like the old Dutch movements of the 18th century. | 11/07/2005 07:12:00 PM  

I like the Teichert work. We have the family heirloom edition of the Book of Mormon that uses her paintings, and we enjoy using it in our family reading. However I will confess that, having grown up on Friberg, her depictions of men seem effete by comparison. ;->

I think the books I was complaining about might be here  and here, and maybe more particularly some recent imagery in the Friend that seemed utterly derivative of Friberg.

I really liked the depictions in The Testaments (the movie in the Joseph Smith building)---I suppose that would be my wish for future illustration work.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/07/2005 07:47:00 PM  

One of my former roommates used to work in the LDS film business and worked on a lot of church films. He said that most of the people there are influenced by FARMS and are probably more open to that sort of thing. Just how open isn't clear. I'd love to see Ammon with a meso-American sword, for instance, rather than a Roman like one. 

Comment by Clark | 11/07/2005 08:51:00 PM  

Clark, you've piqued my curiosity. What does a meso-American sword look like? | 11/08/2005 01:17:00 AM  

Err, number 22 was me, NFlanders. I am having a dilly of a pickle with your comments, Christian. | 11/08/2005 01:20:00 AM  

It's called a macuahuitl  and is a hardwood club edged on both sides with razor-sharp obsidian blades.

 

Comment by clark | 11/08/2005 02:04:00 AM  

Thank you, Clark. 

Comment by NFlanders | 11/08/2005 02:16:00 AM  

Although, I think I'd prefer to see the 2000 stripling warriors with the clubs instead of Ammon. I don't know if one of those macuahuitls could take off an arm cleanly (let alone a dozen). 

Comment by NFlanders | 11/08/2005 04:16:00 AM  

The macuahuitl doesn't solve everything. There are references to old Jaredite swords being cankered with rust, and being molten in their manufacture. For Nephite swords, they were supposedly after the pattern of Laban's sword (at least initially); and in Alma's day we have a Nephite holding up a scalp on the point of his sword, which doesn't fit with the macuahuitl. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/08/2005 06:38:00 AM  

My understanding is that the macuahuitl were sharp enough to cut off arms and heads rather well in some of the conflicts with the Spaniards. Reportedly the obsidian used can be given an edge sharper than surgical steel. I don't see the problem with the account in Alma of holding a scalp on the point of the sword. (Alma 44:13) The macuahuitl have points. It's just our reading into the text what it doesn't say to assume the point used is where we expect it.

The Jaredites are a more difficult problem.  

Comment by Clark | 11/08/2005 11:33:00 AM  

Clark, the pictures you link to show that they don't have a point, but a broad blunt end, with sharp edges only on the sides and not the tip. It would be more like putting a scalp on the end of baseball bat; it doesn't really fit.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/08/2005 01:57:00 PM  

Christian, why can't one of the points on the side hold the scalp. Why wouldn't that be a point? You are assuming the point must be at the end, but there is nothing in the verse indicating that. We presuppose it due to the kind of swords we're used to.   | 11/09/2005 12:36:00 AM  

The definition of "point" is "the terminal usually sharp or narrowly rounded part of something : TIP." That something is "sharp" is not enough for it to be a "point"; being at the terminus is an essential part of the definition.

So if Joseph had said that the soldier laid the scalp upon the sharp edge  of his sword it would've been notable, since use of the sharp point is what one would imagine from European-style swords.

I suppose a scalp is big enough that it could be placed at the end of the obsidian edge (which is offset a bit from the end of the wood) and still hang over the end. The least one can say is that "end" would have been a much better word choice, as "point" definitely connotes a sharp terminus. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/09/2005 07:14:00 AM  

Come to think of it, the verse says the Nephite picked up the scalp and placed it on the point of his sword. If we're willing to look past the fact that "point" might not have been as ideal a word choice as "end" (we don't want to make an offender for a word), it might make more sense for him to pick up the scalp with his hand if his sword did not  have a sharp point. If it did, he could have poked it and picked it up directly with the sword. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/09/2005 10:26:00 PM  

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