"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
April 30, 2014
Things Lovely, and of Good Report
by Marian Stoddard

We went to see “The Monuments Men” last week. I know that the movie has generally come and gone, but it was playing at the second-run bargain theater just over the county line, so we went.

I know that some critics and patrons felt disappointed in it, and their assessments have merit. It could have been stronger in character development and a little tighter in execution, moving the plot along. But this is not a movie review.

I found myself responding to it in a quieter space, feeling the import of what they were doing. I have had a personal link to one Alsatian Jew’s story, a gifted artist and collector who had to leave everything behind and flee for his life, whose artworks were never seen again, so the tale makes that connection with me.*

The story takes place as the war is in its final days; the horrors of the camps had been found and the stories we are so familiar with were known to the men we follow in this rescue campaign. That enables the exposition to follow its own line, acknowledging but not dwelling on those horrors. This story is to tell of other, less celebrated heroics.

It is their purpose itself that is the center of the story, the focus of the film. The plea for action is impassioned, as the disinclined military leadership asks the question — “Is art, any art, really worth risking men’s lives?” In the years to come, will anyone care?

With the perspective of our later time, I think we agree with their answer, that yes, it can be, and yes, they will. How we yearn for those treasures in antiquity that are lost forever; in this case we are familiar with the riches that were at risk, and they speak to us.

But as I watched and listened to the actions of the Nazis, and the race to retrieve as much as possible from their thefts, I pondered. The Nazis didn’t just steal great and famous artworks; they were determined to destroy them if they couldn’t get away with them.

Why was that so important to them? I recognized that on one level it was the arrogance of, “If I can’t have it, no one can have it.” It was spite, it was cruelty, it was domination. And yet, that wasn’t all it was.

Why would Satan make the extra push to inspire them (I hate to even use that term) to gather up everything they could find and burn it? To rush to do so before they would flee, when flight was imperative?

Why did the art matter so much to him? Because make no mistake, this was a work of evil, and not just ego and a mindset of power and abuse. Make no mistake, Satan was behind all the works of Nazi annihilation in all their guises.

What does art do for us? What did such works as the altarpieces of Ghent mean, which was painted in the 1400’s and has been revered for centuries, which they were determined to destroy?

Or the sculpture of the Madonna and child at Bruges, the only Michelangelo marble to leave Italy in his lifetime. It cost a good man his life.

I recognized with the quiet touch of the Holy Ghost that these works of power and beauty, in their many different forms, serve to draw the heart to God for those who see and feel their meaning. They speak to the majesty, the mercy, and the love of God for us, and they speak to our transcendent possibilities and hopes.

Great art, and great beauty wherever it is found, can open us to the presence of God. No wonder Satan wanted it all destroyed. I watched the rest of the story, as it unfolded, from that perspective.

Our 13th Article of Faith reads, “We believe in being honest, true, chaste benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men. Indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul — We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

What was Paul’s admonition? It’s found here, in I Corinthians 13, regarding charity, that charity “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Charity endures forever and never fails.

Joseph Smith’s article of faith takes that admonition and adds a declaration that we seek after all things that are virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy because those are the things that will draw us nearer to God, who leads us to charity, or perfect love.

Those are the things that open our hearts and carry us through our trials. Both cleaving to truth and hope and filling our experience with what uplifts or reminds us are part of the spiritual equation of pressing forward with steadfast faith in Christ.

Much of what was taken by the Nazis was religious art. Much of it was not, but those things that draw our hearts towards a yearning for a better world, or for our better natures, still open us spiritually even without an overtly religious subject.

Beauty in our lives matters. The connection of generations of human outpouring does help define us through our art and culture. Even those works that depict the pains of the human condition can speak to us of our commonalities as mortal beings, giving empathy, or give us quiet reflection on the things we may suffered or have overcome.

Great works of art speak to the soul. It goes deeper than the surface of our ordinary daily experience. Roosevelt termed them “symbols of the human spirit, and of the world the freedom of the human spirit made.”

Satan doesn’t want our souls open, he absolutely does not. He doesn’t want us to contemplate wonder, awe, or freedom. His goal is always, always, to diminish us. We can see a great many things around us in our day that are celebrated but not virtuous or lovely — and they will ultimately not endure.

It’s not often that you can go to a movie and find spiritual experience and meaning, but last week, in this story, I did.

*The artist of course was Nat Leeb’s story from my father’s column of July 16, 2012


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About Marian Stoddard

Marian J. Stoddard was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in its Maryland suburbs. Her father grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and her mother in Salt Lake City, so she was always partly a Westerner at heart, and she ended up raising her family in Washington State. Her family took road trips all over the United States and Canada, so there were lots of adventures.

The adventures of music, literature, and art were also valued and pursued. Playing tourist always included the local museums as well as historical sites and places of natural beauty. Discussions at home, around the dinner table or working in the kitchen, could cover politics, philosophy, or poetry, with the perspective of the gospel underlying all. Words and ideas, and testimony and service, were the family currency.

Marian graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, and attended the University of Utah as the recipient of the Ralph Hardy Memorial Scholarship, where she was graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in English. She also met the love of her life, a law student, three weeks after her arrival; she jokes that she had to marry him because her mother always wanted a tenor in the family. (She sings second soprano.) They were married two years later and have six children and six grandchildren (so far). She treasures her family, her friends, and her opportunities to serve.

Visit Marian at her blog, greaterthansparrows.  You can contact her at bloggermarian@gmail.com. 

Marian and her husband live in Tacoma, Washington. Together they teach those who are preparing to go to the temple for the first time, and she also teaches a Stake Relief Society Institute class.

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