Defending the Faith: 'Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words'

Published: Thursday, April 17 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

President Spencer W. Kimball’s remarks on “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” thrilled many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of my generation.

“For years,” he said in the article published in the Ensign in July 1977, “I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the re-establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle-man, Joseph Smith. … We are proud of the artistic heritage that the church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.”

There’s considerable distance to travel before that prophetic vision is wholly fulfilled. Yet only a few generations back, Latter-day Saints were a small, isolated, rural people struggling to survive exile in an arid and unwelcoming land. Nonetheless, much has already been achieved — the early hymns, for example, and the stunning pioneer temples, and the work of such composers as Leroy Robertson, Crawford Gates, Merrill Bradshaw and others — and much more will come.

As future apostle Orson F. Whitney remarked in another classic statement relating to the gospel and the arts in his 1888 address “Home Literature," “God's ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. … Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snowflake that forms the avalanche, God's kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.”

A notable effort to do justice to the sweep and majesty of the Restoration is my friend Robert Cundick’s new CD, “The Gospel Restored.” Expressly created with missionary intent, the disc represents a significant contribution to the growing body of serious gospel-centered music. It’s been strongly endorsed by the present conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as well as by two previous choir conductors.

Perhaps best known for his 27 years as Mormon Tabernacle organist on Temple Square in Salt Lake City — his principal organ teacher was Alexander Schreiner — Cundick earned a doctorate in composition under Leroy Robertson at the University of Utah. Since then, he’s worked in choral, orchestral and chamber genres.

The first piece on this disc, “Remembering Joseph: We Who Press to the Path” (2005), uses an a cappella chorus, a baritone soloist and a cello to represent, respectively, the present-day church, the prophet and the voice of revelation. The text, by the composer’s son Robb, draws on an eloquent but relatively little-known account, in Joseph’s words, of the First Vision.

The second work, “The Song of Nephi” (1955), written for tenor soloist, chorus and orchestra, adapts the remarkable text of 2 Nephi 4:16-35. In the third (1997), the late Edward Hart’s vivid poem “To Utah” is featured with choir and orchestra.

“Preach the gospel always,” St. Francis of Assisi (who died in A.D. 1226) is supposed to have said, “and if necessary, use words.” That attribution is probably mistaken. Still, whatever the aphorism’s source, it makes an important point: Explicit verbal preaching, essential though it is, isn’t the only way, and perhaps is not always the most effective way, in which the gospel can be shared, commended and defended.

Words combined with action or with other artistic media, however, can have uniquely powerful emotional and spiritual impact beyond their purely intellectual content. That is certainly true of music and of this CD.

From the opening solo cello motif (“Joseph!”) until the final climax in the building of the Salt Lake Temple, Robert Cundick takes listeners on an evocative musical journey from the First Vision through the Book of Mormon to the Great Basin. This isn’t for casual listening. The words are eloquent, and their musical setting has been carefully crafted for heightened meaning. Repeated, focused attention will be rewarded with continually new insights.

The complete texts of all three pieces are included in the jacket booklet, and a website at TheGospelRestored.com has been created to foster deeper analysis of their contents.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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