Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mormons and the cross

There are a couple of Mormons running for the presidency in the U.S., which means that the rather tiresome question of whether or not Mormons should be considered Christians is being discussed yet again. (Short answer: Do Mormons worship Jesus Christ? Yes, of course. Do they profess basically the same religion as Catholics and Protestants? No, of course not.)

I’m interested in a different but related question: Given that they believe in Christ and the crucifixion just as much as any other Christians, why don’t Mormons use the cross as a symbol?


I was surprised at how hard it was to find the historical answer to that question. As far as I know, Mormons have never, even in the earliest days of the movement, worn the cross or used it as a decorative motif in churches, on Bible covers, etc. — but when I tried to find some statement by an early Mormon leader to the effect that the cross ought not to be thus used, I got nothing. It appears that the non-use of the cross among Mormons just sort of happened, without anyone ever making an official decision on the matter. (In a similar way, Mormon missionaries don’t tell converts from other denominations to stop wearing the cross; people just figure it out.)


The earliest clear statement on the cross that I could find was in the fourth volume of Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph Fielding Smith — not Mormonism’s founding prophet, but his great-nephew, who presided over the church in the early 1970s. Smith writes:

While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the [LDS] Church.  The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture.  To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God.  However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [source]

In 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a similar explanation.

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ. [source]

This reaction to the cross is certainly understandable and has often been expressed (Shaw stipulated that his tombstone not “take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice”) — but always by people who did not consider themselves Christian. It is odd that none of the countless other Christian movements and denominations has ever interpreted the cross that way. (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the cross either, but that’s because their ultra-literal reading of the Bible has led them to the conclusion that the σταυρός Christ was nailed to was a single upright stake.)


The problem with Smith and Hinckley’s explanation is that there are many symbols of the dying Christ, not just the cross, and Mormons have no problem with most of the others.

Mormons administer a version of the Eucharist, though water is used in the place of wine. The sacramental prayers identify the bread and water as symbols of Christ’s broken body and spilt blood but make no mention of the resurrection. The sacrament is generally preceded by a hymn which emphasizes the torture and death of Christ, such as “Upon the Cross of Calvary” or “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.”

Two of Mormonism’s most sacred symbols — used only by the initiated within the walls of the temple — represent the nails that the were driven through Christ’s palms and wrists to fix him to the cross.

When I was a missionary, we often showed people a short film called The Lamb of God, which was basically a much less graphic version of The Passion of the Christ. (It was created before Mr. Gibson’s film was; I don’t mean to imply that the Mormons copied his idea.) The majority of the film deals with Christ being flogged and abused and crucified, with a few minutes at the end for the resurrection.

Though you’ll never find a simple cross or crucifix on the walls of a Mormon church, you may well find a painting of the crucifixion. The cross appears to be acceptable so long as it is used in a portrayal of the historical crucifixion rather than as an iconic symbol of the Christian religion.

(One exception: Mormons do sing the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war / With the cross of Jesus going on before.”)

All this leads me to the conclusion that Mormons have no problem with using symbols of the dying Christ, and that there must be some other reason for not using the cross.


Another religious symbol which Mormons do not use is the ichthys or “Jesus fish.” This symbol makes no reference to the suffering or death of Christ. It represents an acronym of “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” — “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” — a formula to which Mormons have no theological objections. It also alludes to Christ’s statement “I will make you fishers of men,” which should make it especially appealing to a missionary-oriented denomination like the Mormons. But they don’t use it. Nor have they ever used the Chi-Rho, which simply represents the word “Christ.”

Why not? Because, over and above their “literal” meaning, these symbols represent the institution of mainstream Christendom — and Mormons, while certainly “Christian” in the primary sense of that word, are not part of that institution.

Why is it that Britain’s Labour Party never uses that classic, instantly recognizable symbol of labor, the hammer and sickle? If that question were put to the party’s leaders, I’m sure they would be able to come up with some ad hoc reason — something about how, with the decline of agriculture and the rapid growth of the service sector, those implements no longer adequately symbolized the blah blah blah — but the honest answer would be that that symbol already “belongs” to other movements, movements which, while they have a great deal in common with Labour ideologically, are sufficiently different that Labour would not wish to imply they are the same by borrowing their symbols. And that, I think, is also the honest answer to the question of why Mormons do not use the cross.

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Filed under Christianity, Mormonism

Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides

I’ve just read David Grene’s startlingly beautiful English rendition of Euripides’s Hippolytus — a play which didn’t make nearly as deep an impression on me when I read Paul Roche’s version. Here, side by side, are the Grene and Roche translations of one of the choral lyrics from Hippolytus, with Gilbert Murray’s version (courtesy of thrown in for good measure.

Gilbert Murray (1902) David Grene (1942) Paul Roche (1998)



Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear, / Men’s eyes with hunger; Love distills desire upon the eyes, / Eros, Eros, clouding our eyes / With a mist of yearning
thou swift Foe that pliest / Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear; / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy. / when you sweeten the hearts / Of those against whom you plan your attack. /
Come not to me with Evil haunting near, / I pray that love may never come to me / with murderous intent, / Please never show yourself to wound me. /
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear / Wing’s music as thou fliest! / in rhythms measureless and wild. / Please never turn everything upside down. /
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire, / Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear, / Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts / Neither lightning nor the fall of a star / Wreaks more havoc
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire, / Erôs, Child of the Highest! than those of Aphrodite sent / by the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child. than Aphrodite’s / Lance when loosed from the hand of Eros, / Zeus’s boy.


In vain, in vain, by old Alpheüs’ shore / The blood of many bulls doth stain the river / And all Greece bows on Phoebus’ Pythian floor; / In vain by Alpheus’ stream, / In vain in the halls of Phoebus’ Pythian shrine / the land of Greece increases sacrifice. / Useless, useless, the pouring of blood / That Greece has shed of slaughtered kine / On the banks of Alpheus or Apollo’s shrine: /
Yet bring we to the Master of Man no store / But Love the King of Men they honor not, / Useless, if Eros isn’t adored. / Dictator of men,
The Keybearer, who standeth at the door / Close-barred, where hideth ever / The heart of the shrine. although he keeps the keys / of the temple of desire, / the keeper of the keys / To Aphrodite’s beds of love–
Yea, though he sack man’s life / Like a sacked city, and moveth evermore / although he goes destroying through the world, / He is the prime wrecker of mortals, /
Girt with calamity and strange ways of strife, / author of dread calamities / and ruin when he enters human hearts. The bringer of catastrophe / When he attacks.
Him have we worshipped never! /    
* * * * *


There roamed a Steed in Oechalia’s wild, / The Oechalian maiden There was a girl in Oechalia /
A Maid without yoke, without Master, / And Love she knew not, that far King’s child; / who had never known / the bed of love, known neither man nor marriage, / A filly unbroken by man: / Unbedded, unbridled, unfettered, /
But he came, he came, with a song in the night. / With fire, with blood; and she strove in flight, / A Torrent Spirit, a Maenad white, / Faster and vainly faster, / Sealed unto Heracles by the Cyprian’s Might. / the Goddess Cyrpis gave to Heracles. / She took her from the home of Eurytus, / maiden unhappy in her marriage song, / wild as a Naiad or a Bacchanal, / with blood and fire, Who was driven by Love, Aphrodite, / And fled like a flame or a Bacchant / Far from her home; and was given / As a bride to Alcmena’s son /
Alas, thou Bride of Disaster! a murderous hymenaeal! In a wedding most gory.


O Mouth of Dirce, O god-built wall, / That Dirce’s wells run under, / O holy walls of Thebes and Dirce’s fountain / You hallowed Theban ramparts / And mouth of Dirce’s stream, /
Ye know the Cyprian’s fleet footfall! / bear witness you, to Love’s grim journeying: / You can tell how gently / Aphrodite comes.
Ye saw the heavens around her flare, / When she lulled to her sleep that Mother fair / Of twy-born Bacchus, and decked her there / The Bride of the bladed Thunder. / once you saw Love bring Semele to bed, / lull her to sleep, clasped in the arms of Death, pregnant with Dionysus by the thunder king. But the mother of Bacchus she flared / To bed with bloody Death.
For her breath is on all that hath life, and she floats in the air, / Bee-like, death-like, a wonder. Love is like a flitting bee in the world’s garden / and for its flowers, destruction is in his breath. Over the earth she breathes: / A bee, she hovers.

These three translations are too different from one another to allow for the kind of close line-by-line comparison I used in evaluating 15 versions of Dante. Nor can I recognize enough Greek words to be able to compare each translation directly to the original and make an educated guess as to how faithful each is, as I was able to do to some extent with the Dante translations. Nevertheless, here are some general comments and impressions on the three versions.

(I tell myself that I have no business learning Greek until after I’ve at least mastered the language of the country I live in — but I can’t say I’m not tempted. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn the useful skill of evaluating translations without being able to read the original.)

Strophe I

As English poetry, Grene’s version is by far the best of the three — though drawing from that fact any conclusions about its quality as a translation is obviously risky. In general, a translation which reads superficially like poetry (like Murray’s, which rhymes and scans) is suspect. On the other hand, it may actually be a sign of fidelity when a translation is poetic in a deeper sense. I base this judgment on the assumption that the writer being translated — generally considered to be one of the greatest in the whole history of Western literature — was a far better poet than any of his translators could ever dream of being, and that therefore wherever the translations touch greatness it is likely that their pale fire was snatched from the sun.

Grene slips in a few rhymes in the first strophe (intent and sent, wild and child), but these are apparently serendipities; the rest of the poem is evidence that he followed no policy of forcing the lines to rhyme. What seems more significant to me is that he knows where to put his line breaks and how to preserve ambiguity long enough to give added force to the line which resolves it. “Love distills desire upon the eyes, / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy” — in that order, with those line breaks — is perfect. Murray tips his hand too early by starting right off with tears and hunger, and by calling Eros a “swift foe” first and making an afterthought of the joy he brings to human hearts. Roche does a passable job in this regard — certainly better than Murray — but his lines don’t pack the same punch as Grene’s.

Grene’s is the only version which talks about Eros rather than addressing him directly. Since he’s the odd man out here, he’s likely to be the one who is straying from the original Greek.

Murray’s “All Desire” instead of “Aphrodite” is unforgivable, a clear sacrifice of reason to rhyme.

Antistrophe I

It’s hard to judge which version is most accurate here. The disagreement over what exactly Eros bears the keys to is surprising: “the heart of the shrine,” “the temple of desire, ” and “Aphrodite’s beds of love” are all quite different things.

Strophe II

Grene lacks the horse metaphor of the other two and is probably in the wrong. Roche makes no mention of the Naiads which appear in the other two versions (I’m assuming that’s what Murray’s “Torrent Spirit” is meant to be), and his version also lacks the “blood and fire” pairing found in the other two.

As usual, Murray throws in a lot of rhyming crap that doesn’t belong in the poem.

Antistrophe II

Here Grene is talking about “Love” (i.e., the masculine god Eros), while the other two versions are about Aphrodite. Grene is clearly in the wrong here, as it interferes with the meaning of the poem. When he has the masculine Love bring Semele (not mentioned by name in the other two) to bed, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on — a problem which does not arise when it is Aphrodite. Also, Grene’s otherwise perfect ending is marred by its confusing image of a male bee flitting through the garden of life.

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Filed under Literature, Translation

Seeing what you expect to see

Just yesterday I was looking at the cover of one of my books and noticed something funny. It was a volume of English translations of Euripides, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore — only they had written his name as Richmond Lattimore, right there on the front cover! Then I looked at the back cover, and the title page, and a Sophocles book by the same editors — and I found that, by golly, the guy’s name actually was Richmond.

I read a lot of Greek literature in translation, and I must have seen Mr. Lattimore’s name hundreds or even thousands of times before without ever once noticing that it wasn’t Richard. They say the brain recognizes words mainly by how they begin and end (wcihh is why Esilgnh is slitl pltcefrey lbilege wehn you wtrie it lkie tihs), and I suppose the first time I encountered this particular name, my brain said something like, “R-I-C-something, ends with D — okay, I know this one.” After that, the more times I saw the name, and the more familiar it became, the more likely my brain would be to recognize it as a unit rather than actually reading it letter-by-letter and recognizing its mistake.


This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It was only last year that I discovered, much to my surprise, that Euripides himself was not called Euripedes — this after reading about a dozen of his plays and writing extensively about him in a notebook.

When I was a child, I was once discussing the characters in a Tintin book with my sister, and she mentioned the name Spalding. I said, “Don’t you mean Spadling?” She said she was pretty sure the character’s name was Spalding, but I insisted: “No, it’s Spadling — you know, like the basketball brand!” — at which point she went and got our Spalding basketball and showed it to me. You don’t forget an embarrassing experience like that. (Years later I tried to correct the same sister, then a grad student in philosophy, for saying Leibniz instead of Liebniz. I should have learned my lesson the first time.)


I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this. Another childhood memory is of my father reading to us from The Lord of the Rings — and always pronouncing Rohirrim as “Rohimmir” (though I can’t be sure he thought it was spelled that way, I suppose). And I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people list “Jane Austin” as a favorite author — that is, an author whose name they must have seen written innumerable times and should be able to spell.


Some of these mistakes are pretty easy to understand. There are 200 Austins for every Austen in the most recent U.S. Census, and Richmond is so unusual as a Christian name that I can’t even calculate how much less frequent it is than Richard, the seventh-most popular name for men in my country.

“Spadling,” of course, is not a normal name at all, but the -ling ending is fairly common in English, and I suppose that’s what my brain thought it recognized. It made the same mistake when I read Tolkien, reading Eorlingas as Eorlings. (I was really quite shocked to discover much later that the a had been there all along.) My father’s own Rohan-related misreading is harder to understand, though, since -im as a suffix for the name of a people should seem quite natural to a Bible-reader, much more so than -ir.

“Euripedes” and “Liebniz” are also hard to understand. I guess a lot of Greek names end in -edes, like Archimedes and — well, that’s the only one that comes to mind. I think I have a reasonable guess for “Liebniz,” though. My pre-teen philosophical education consisted of (1) reading everything Plato ever wrote, (2) reading everything Nietzsche ever wrote, and (3) nothing else. When I first encountered another German philosopher with a prominent ni-z in his name, my brain must have decided that ie was a more appropriate vowel than ei.


The strange thing about errors of this kind is how confident we are in them. I wasn’t unsure about the names Spalding and Leibniz; I was confidently correcting people who pronounced them correctly! It’s not that I was unsure of Mr. Lattimore’s Christian name. If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said without hesitation, “Richard.” And if you’d said, “Are you sure it isn’t Richmond?” — well, as they say, I could have sworn his name was Richard. Why? Because I’d seen his name so very many times, and every single time I saw it as Richard.


Filed under Language, Psychology

It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone

I stopped at a tea shop to pick up some drinks, and the song that was playing on the radio seemed a little familiar. I thought, “Hey, I think I’ve heard this song before. I know how the chorus goes, anyway.” I kept waiting for the chorus to kick in, but it never did — it turned out to be a different song altogether, but one with virtually the same melody. I was mildly disappointed.

When I arrived home, I got on Google to find out what the two songs were — the one whose chorus I had been anticipating, and the one they were actually playing. Finding the two songs and watching their respective music videos in succession turned out to be a very depressing experience.

Here’s the original of the tune I recognized: Dobie Gray’s 1973 hit “Drift Away” (written by Paul Williams’s brother Mentor).

And here’s the song that made me think of it: Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”  from 1998.

Now “Drift Away” is hardly one of the great songs of all time, and “Drops of Jupiter” is very far from being the worst thing on the radio in recent decades — but still the contrast between the two, and the qualitative inferiority of the latter, is palpable. The melody is the same, but something essential has been lost — something which, though hard to define or explain, is trivially easy to name — soul. Soul, almost in the metaphysical sense. Simply put, when I watch Dobie Gray sing, it’s easy to entertain the idea that he is an immortal being, that he hath had elsewhere his setting and cometh from afar; watching Patrick Monahan, I wear my atheism much more comfortably. That seems like a horrible thing to say, and I certainly mean no disrespect to Mr. Monahan, but the impression is undeniable.

So what happened? What accounts for the difference between these two very similar songs, released only 25 years apart, and what accounts for the fact that — to say nothing of Bach and Mozart, or even of such lesser lights as Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan — today’s music scene can produce no one who rises even to the level of a Dobie Gray?


Filed under Music

Plato’s odd hierarchy of human types

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), saying that the estate into which one is born depends on how much of the truth one has seen in one’s previous incarnations. He lists the following nine degrees, from the most enlightened to the least.

  1. the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature;
  2. that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be some righteous king or warrior chief;
  3. the soul which is of the third class shall be a politician, or economist, or trader;
  4. the fourth shall be a lover of gymnastic toils, or a physician;
  5. the fifth shall lead the life of a prophet or hierophant;
  6. to the sixth the character of poet or some other imitative artist will be assigned;
  7. to the seventh the life of an artisan or husbandman;
  8. to the eighth that of a sophist or demagogue;
  9. to the ninth that of a tyrant

This is Benjamin Jowett’s translation, and I am not entirely confident of its accuracy. Was there really such a profession as “economist” in Classical Greece? (Elsewhere in his Phaedrus Jowett has earned my distrust by using “grasshopper” for what is clearly meant to be a cicada. Why would grasshoppers be up in the trees “looking down at us”? And how could it possibly be said of those proverbially voracious agricultural pests that “they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking”? A lot of translators make that mistake, for some reason; it’s gotten to the point where I simply assume that all “grasshoppers” in translations from the Greek are cicadae unless there is strong textual evidence to the contrary.)

Leaving that anomalous “economist” aside, Plato’s hierarchy still raises a lot of questions. I haven’t been able to discern any formal structure to it — it isn’t organized chiastically, or in three groups of three, or anything like that — so I can only assume that it is meant to be taken at face value, as a ranking of of human types from highest to lowest.

The most surprising thing to me is that, while the artist is considered to be of the highest rank, coequal with the philosopher, the imitative artist ranks just two steps above sophists, demagogues, and tyrants. The term “imitative artist” here clearly covers more than just epigones or producers of derivative work; all poets, except those who are also philosophers, are considered to be merely “imitative.” He makes it clear elsewhere in the Phaedrus that even Homer himself ranks considerably lower than a true artist or philosopher.

I bethink me of an ancient purgation of mythological error which was devised, not by Homer, for he never had the wit to discover why he was blind, but by Stesichorus, who was a philosopher and knew the reason why;

Of course Plato’s criticism in the Republic of artists in general and of Homer in particular is well-known. The surprising thing is not that Homer and the other poets rank so low in Plato’s hierarchy of souls, but that they rank so low in a hierarchy in which artists are given first place. If Homer is not a true artist, who is? Who besides the philosophers (even Stesichorus is praised as a philosopher rather than as a poet) did Plato consider to have “seen most of truth”?

I don’t have an answer. I merely pose the question and invite comments.


Filed under Greatness / Genius, Philosophy