SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to dispel the perception of the Sunstone Education Foundation as a collection of “whiney, godless heathens,” leaders of the LDS-oriented organization focused its most recent symposium on a topic as godly as it could possibly be: the life and eternal ministry of Jesus Christ.
Sunstone’s first “Christ Conference” drew some 60 attendees to the fourth floor of downtown Salt Lake City’s Main Library last weekend. It was the brainchild of Sunstone board members, who came up with the idea of a conference focused on Christ at Christmastime “so that we could invite scholars and thinkers to explore a topic close to their hearts but for which there are limited venues of expression,” said interim executive director Mary Ellen Robertson.
“Part of why we ran with the idea is that we wanted to do an event that was more focused on faith and a point of connection that would appeal to many people across the faith spectrum — active Mormons, Sunstone types, less- or inactive Mormons for whom the message of Christ remains significant,” Robertson said.
“We found that people in our Sunstone community and a wider audience were really hungry for a more in-depth examination of Christ, his message, and how we as disciples can best apply his teachings as we move through life.
And given Sunstone’s reputation among some Mormons, Robertson continued, “it was a chance to display that we have range and appeal beyond just the disaffected Mormon crowd.”
“The main purpose of the conference was to focus on Christ,” she emphasized. But she added that messing with those aforementioned “whiney, godless” notions was “a side benefit.”
“Sunstone’s mission is to explore Mormon experience, issues, scholarship and art, and the ‘Christ Conference’ was an aspect of Mormon experience and scholarship that we wanted to explore in more depth,” Robertson said. “We were absolutely thrilled with the content and turnout for our first foray and look forward to many future Christ-focused conferences.”
Among the highlights of last weekend’s conference was the keynote address by scholar and author Fiona Givens, who told some 60 conferencegoers that Jesus Christ “literally embodies the conquest of sin and death” through his uniquely concurrent roles as both “the Great High Priest and sacrificial lamb.”
“Mormons should have a unique and sacred understanding” of those roles, Givens said, because of how LDS temple worship celebrates Jesus Christ and the Atonement and how “through his great sacrifice we are healed and united” with those we love most.
Givens noted that “priesthood is not something Christ wields or takes up — it is intrinsic to his nature.”
“Thinking of Jesus Christ as the Great High Priest pushes the term ‘priesthood’ beyond metaphor,” said Givens, who recently co-authored “The God Who Weeps” with her husband, well-known LDS scholar Terryl Givens. “He does this primarily by inverting common conceptions of power.”
To illustrate, Givens outlined five clear lessons one can learn about priesthood as a result of Christ’s ministry: priesthood power is freely chosen divine vulnerability; priesthood champions the vulnerable; priesthood heals rather than judges; priesthood is expansive rather than constricting; priesthood unifies, binds and seals.
Asked during a question-and-answer session about the application of these priesthood principles to LDS women, Givens noted that “women in every age are vulnerable,” but that “Christ the Great High Priest treats everyone as equals.” She also pointed out that the “Mormon faith tradition” is “the first tradition — perhaps the only one — that promotes Eve as the heroine of the human race.”
“We believe that Eve was fully engaged in the Garden of Eden, in making choices,” she said. “Adam doesn’t want to be engaged. He is off somewhere doing something. But Eve is engaged. She reasons. She makes a rational choice. That is remarkable about our tradition.”
Other speakers at the one-day conference included Matthew Bowman, LDS scholar and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” who spoke about the Lord’s Supper, referred to among Latter-day Saints as the sacrament; Sunstone Institute instructor Michael Vinson, who spoke about the intersection of fairy tales and religious belief during the holiday season; a panel discussion of Christ’s messages to his historic and contemporary followers by Jacob Baker, Janice Allred, Mark Thomas and Michael J. Stevens; and another panel discussion focusing on how we can apply Christ’s teachings while living in a troubled world, featuring Michael Vinson, Elizabeth Pinborough, John Kesler and Dan McDonald.