Jesus in Space
At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, under its signature dome, there stands a ten and a half foot marble statue of Jesus. He’s a rather manly fellow, not only because of his size. He’s muscular and broad-shouldered and commandingly kind-looking: the sort of man America holds in high regard. Johns Hopkins’ Jesus looms above the mere mortals skittering by, and regards, benevolently, the flowers and pictures laid at his feet. To his right, there’s a small bust of Johns Hopkins, looking on impassively. Hopkins was a Quaker who wanted to have a completely secular institution, but there was so much outcry from the community, he threw everyone a ten-and-a-half-foot, Jesus-sized marble bone.
When I sent in a picture of this Jesus to KtB, eagle-eyed editor Nathan Schneider noticed a similarity between this Jesus and one in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Turns out they are identical: copies of an original created by a Danish sculptor named Berthold Thorvaldsen. Then I noticed the mural behind the Christus in Temple Square (as it is known): space, planets, stars. Since this statue and its backdrop seem to be a great symbol of the Latter-Day Saints, I wondered what the significance was of the planets in the background. I like to think of myself as having a passing familiarity with Mormon cosmology, mostly thanks to the book Mormons: A Short Introduction and repeatedly listening to the Saturday’s Child soundtrack.
My first stop was Mormon.org. On the website, I tried the live chat. Since I once wrote a piece about the history and significance of the white suit in American men’s fashion and an LDS spokesperson was quite helpful and patient with my questions about the suit’s usage in Mormon rites, I figured this was an excellent place to start. (The “ice cream suit” came from the sweltering south and has since been sighted on notables such as Colonel Sanders, Tom Wolfe, and the disco-dancing John Travolta, as well as on the men who run the Rose Parade in Pasadena and, of course, our Mormon friends—not that we non-Mormons would ever catch a glimpse of them in full temple regalia.) The missionary I met there, whom I’ll call “David,” claimed to have no knowledge of the significance of the planetary mural behind Jesus, or how it relates to Mormon cosmology.
“But why would Jesus have a space backdrop?” I asked. “Surely, there must be a reason.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” replied David.
David. If you’re manning the chatline on Mormon.org, I think you do know something about that. I think that someone must have directed you to play down the cosmology to “outsiders.”
Next, I asked Joanna Brooks, of Religion Dispatches and Ask Mormon Girl fame. She said, “Mormonism not only has a theology, it has a cosmology, that at various points in history has talked about the shape of the universe, the creation of the universe, God’s location in the universe, and infinite possibilities for other universes and other Gods.” She also added, “Google Kolob.”
Kolob? The very word gave me a little spine tingle. I was pre-thrilled by what I was about to find out. Anytime I feel like I’m cracking a case or chasing down the facts, even if it is just Googling something that someone told me to Google, I get a tiny rush of All The President’s Men excitement and imagine that soon I will be meeting shadowy figures in parking garages and running for my life, chicly, in a trench and heels.
The great news is that I was actually thrilled by the results of my Googling of Kolob. For all you Battlestar Galactica fans out there, the resemblance to the name of the planet Kobol is not coincidence. Glenn Larson based some of the concepts of the original show on Mormon theology. Kolob, depending upon whom you ask, is a star or planet near where God Himself resides. God, who is only one in a great chain of Gods, constructed the universe out of materials on hand (much like a boat builder). Apparently he was once a human-like creature who lived on Earth or an Earth-type planet, and now resides close to glorious Kolob, waiting for us to realize our own Godhood and ascend to the heavens ourselves. Not too shabby an outcome, I would say.
Which led me to the greatest Mormon band of all time, The Osmonds, and their concept album, The Plan, which is a take on LDS cosmology. The Osmonds were a sort of white answer to the Jackson 5 (at least as marketed; apparently, they fancied themselves the next Led Zeppelin!), and this was a risky move on their part, one that really didn’t pay off. But I, for one, am glad they did it. The album, which begins with “War in Heaven” and ends with “Goin’ Home” takes one through the cycle of prebirth, life on earth with all its contradictions and temptations, and then the eventual return to the source. And seriously, if you didn’t think the Osmonds could rock, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Merrill Osmond: You just gained yourself a new fan, mister.
So, point is: Yes, “David,” I think the mural does have some significance. Check out this Mormon hymn called “If You Could Hie to Kolob”:
Guess who shows up repeatedly in this fan-made video? Our old pal Christus.
My dear Latter-Day friends, may I suggest something? Don’t water down your message. Your message is fabulous. Most Christianity only offers heaven or hell (Catholics also have Purgatory, which, in my mind, is a florescently-lit unclean waiting room stuffed with miserable people on stained chairs and a TV seemingly always tuned to Rachael Ray. Yes, I have been there.) You, on the other hand, have eternity stretching in both directions and the notion that any mere mortal possesses Godhood and planets! Lots of Earth-like planets! And a God who seems more like a “presider” than a “decider!” Which is so much more fun than the usual sinning-and-atonement or pre-chosen Elect or just feeling bad all the time cause Jesus died for your sins but guess what? You’re still sinning, you loser. Of course, all I have to do is confess on my deathbed, but I’m so stubborn I’ll probably refuse. God can take me or leave me just the way I am. (See you all in Hades!)
Thorvaldsen’s Jesus shows up in other places, too, like in Lego and garden-statue form, but I must say that I like him best in front of the majestic space backdrop. In “If You Could Hie to Kolob” William W. Phelps asks:
If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?
Why, yes. I would hie to Kolob, Mr. Phelps. Hie I would.
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.