BYU Symposium Probes Humanities and the Gospel
February 1981

“BYU Symposium Probes Humanities and the Gospel,” Ensign, Feb. 1981, 76–77

BYU Symposium Probes Humanities and the Gospel

BYU’s Fifth Annual Symposium on the Humanities asked questions about the relationship of the gospel to the humanities in a variety of ways: carefully prepared lectures, of course, but also small group discussions, panels, and the presentation of a medieval morality play, updated to the twentieth century and vivified with gospel concepts.

Keyote speaker was Wayne C. Booth, George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. One of the most distinguished critics and rhetoricians in the United States today, he used a device made popular by Mark Twain in Letters from the Earth and by C. S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters to discuss the condition of arts in the Church. He told of “discovering” a stack of letters on red stationery in the library, the correspondence between a fictional demon named “the Chief” and his thick-witted field agent stationed in Provo named “Smoother.”

Reminding Smoother that the motto engraved over the door of hell is: “Homogenize, tranquilize, desensitize,” he told his bumbling lieutenant that his job was to combat “in every possible way the tendency of the arts to strengthen the souls of those who take them seriously.” He was especially irate that Smoother had not seemed aware that President Kimball’s message on the arts “could finish us off once and for all.”

The Chief quoted several passages that he found particularly damaging, including this one: “‘We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God. If we don’t care much about these basic things, then such not caring carries over into the work we do, and our work becomes shabby and shoddy.

“Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.” (Ensign, July 1977, p. 5.)

Outraged at his lieutenant’s obtuseness, the Chief fumes: “Now see here, Smoother, how stupid can you get? … Don’t you see that this is the strongest statement ever made by a Mormon leader about the kinship of art and worship? He sees no inherent conflict between art and the aims of the Church. Don’t you see, idiot, that such a view strikes at the very roots of our program? He speaks as if a member of the Church who is a fine artist is actually serving the Church by being a fine artist. … Once people take seriously his suggestion that there’s a close tie between the virtue of fine craftsmanship and the virtue of religious devotion, our goose is cooked!”

Johann Wondra, a convert of about thirty years who is currently serving as the first president of the Vienna Austria Stake, contributed to the symposium in two ways. With Thomas F. Rogers, he directed a cast of BYU students in performing Jedermann (Everyman), an allegorical morality play that is performed annually on the steps of the Salzburg Cathedral.

He also addressed an absorbed crowd on “Art: A Possibility for Love.” After reviewing the tension-filled lives of such great artists as Schiller, Handel, and Beethoven, he observed, “All these artists lived in this world as if in a prison, a prison of external conditions but also frequently as a result of their lifestyle. But they didn’t know the gospel, or … that peace of mind that makes you independent of external circumstances. So they created their immortal masterpieces out of that inordinate tension of their longing for the liberation and the salvation of Jesus Christ.”

But if these tensions seem to accompany the production of great art, and if the gospel would remove these tensions, what would the gospel offer that would also inspire great works of art? “Charity,” he said simply, noting that the Spirit fills a man with the desire to bless his neighbors as well as himself. This charity is “not imposed by external circumstances but rather is an expression of the intense interest in the fate and welfare of a neighbor. Love makes use of artistic means to bless other men, and art is thus a possibility for love. Art is, through the pure love of Christ, a powerful means of edifying, teaching, ennobling, and perfecting mankind. Art is great to the extent that it is motivated by the Spirit.”

Dr. John Carroll Lloyd combines two unusual interests in his profession. He is chief of surgery at Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh and holds the academic positions of professor in the medical and comparative literature schools at the University of Pittsburgh. In a slide lecture, Dr. Lloyd examined the life of William Carlos Williams, a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, and one of the nation’s most prominent poets. “He was a doctor for their illnesses and a poet for their health,” said Dr. Lloyd, “who used to jot down a short poem or an idea for one on his prescription pad. He did not lead two separate lives but seemed to achieve a merged sensibility.”

How was he able to do it? Dr. Lloyd suggested that one of the strengths was his insistence that there are “no ideas but in things,” that poetry must be rooted firmly and deeply in reality, and that knowledge comes from looking directly at that reality.

“Medicine deals with the great intimacies of daily life which is the stuff of great art—birth, illness, death.” The “technological splendor of the intensive care unit” is one kind of reality, but “the human aspects are the hardest part of an illness.” As disease “distorts the relationship of organs, nerves, and vessels within the body, it also distorts the relationship of the sick person to his family, friends, colleagues, his image of himself, and most importantly, his relationship to God. These are the concerns of the world’s great literature.”

Christ in America, by Minerva Teichert, a prominent Latter-day Saint artist who often portrayed gospel events and themes in her paintings.