A while back, Dave asked about possible narratives to structure 20th or 21st century Mormons. Another way of thinking about this question is how we bridge between modern experience and our historical narratives. We need not only new stories but also ways of maintaing continuity with our old stories. Consider the two images below.
The first one was painted by the nineteenth-century Danish artist C.C.A. Christensen and shows hand-cart pioneers pushing their way toward Zion. (The painting is autobiographical, as C.C.A. was himself a hand-cart pioneer.) The second is a photograph of modern Mormons in west Africa, pushing a mini-bus through the mud of washed-out roads on a trek to the Aba, Nigeria Temple. Each image in its way is very much a product of its time. C.C.A.’s painting might be thought of as a document of 19th century migration or American expansion across North America or the poverty of mid-century Scandanavia. The African photo might be a document of the post-colonial implosion of west Africa or the challenges poor infrastructure or the perils of mini-vans on muddy roads.
Yet the same images can be seen using transhistorical stories as well. Both of them capture the sanctified and strenuous effort — “The world has need of willing men! Put your shoulder to the wheel!” — that is such an important part of Mormon spirituality. We think that religion ought to be about work, not just — or perhaps not even — belief, contemplation, or the cultivation of personal virtue. Indeed, we often speak of our faith simply as “The Work,” as in “The Work in the Hampton Roads region needs all of our efforts.” The two images share more than simply effort. They also share similar destinations. Both groups are pushing to take themselves out of the World to reach a sacred and sanctified space where they can draw closer to God. In the case of C.C.A. it was the Zion of the Great Basin. For the west Africans and their bus it is the temple. Indeed, there is a sense in which the temple is the end toward which both images push, the sacred and peculiar core of our faith that endures despite its adapatations and the changes of time and circumstance.