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Latest from Mormon Land: Picturing Jesus — Why the art you see may have it wrong

Plus a recap of General Conference — the words, the music and more.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "The Sermon on the Mount," by Harry Anderson has been approved for use in church foyers.

These are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s free Mormon Land newsletter, a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Want this newsletter, with additional items, in your inbox? Subscribe here. You also can support Mormon Land with a donation at Patreon.com/mormonland, where you can access, among other exclusive gifts and content, transcripts from our “Mormon Land” podcasts.

‘Behold the Man’

Step into the foyer of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse and you are supposed to be greeted by a painting of Christ.

Not just any artwork, mind you, but one of 22 approved depictions of Jesus.

That begs a question that is impossible to answer but almost as impossible to resist asking: What did Jesus look like?

It’s one blogger Chad Nielsen explores in a recent Times and Seasons post.

Relying on ancient scriptural summaries and more modern explanations from early Latter-day Saint leaders, Nielsen notes that the Christian Savior is usually described as “radiant, glorious and cloaked in light or fire.”

Wrote church founder Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in reporting their 1836 vision of Jesus in the Kirtland Temple: “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun.”

Nielsen recounts why so many familiar and famous paintings portray Christ as white, even though it is “doubtful that Jesus would have had fair skin or blue eyes.”

“He was Jewish,” he writes, and, according to Isaiah’s prophecy, did not necessarily stand out in his appearance. “...That likely meant that he was a dark-skinned, brown-eyed Middle Easterner. … He was not European.”

Nielsen speculates — because that’s all anyone can do on this matter — that “Jesus may appear differently to different people so that they will recognize him according to their expectations and focus on the message being presented.”

(Think of the 1977 movie “Oh, God,” with an earthy George Burns playing the heavenly being. “I took this form,” Burns’ Almighty says, “because if I showed myself to you as I am, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend me.” Or, in a more current flick, 2011′s “The Adjustment Bureau,” there’s the mysterious and never-definitively-seen godlike “Chairman,” who can appear in any form.)

“At the end of the day,” Nielsen writes, “we do not really know what Jesus looks like. … Our scriptural canon gives us no real definitive statement.”

(If only there had been Praetorian Polaroids or synagogues with surveillance videos or disciples with cellphone cameras, right?)

Then again, not knowing, the blogger concludes, “gives us artistic freedom to imagine his appearance.”

Conference recap

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, President Russell M. Nelson and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during the 191st Semiannual General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Aside from the naming of 13 new temples, no major announcements took place at the past weekend’s General Conference, but there were major addresses and other highlights:

• General authorities played to the big room again, speaking from the Conference Center Auditorium for the first time in two years. But, save for a few hundred invited attendees, the 21,000-seat hall was mainly empty during this fourth straight all-virtual global gathering.

• The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square sang at three sessions, the scaled-back group’s first live conference performance since October 2019. All the singers were vaccinated, tested and physically distanced.

• President Russell M. Nelson thanked members who have heeded the faith’s COVID-19 counsel — which consistently has included calls for vaccinations, masking and social distancing — and trumpeted temple worship while challenging members to build solid spiritual foundations.

• Apostle Dale G. Renlund, a former cardiologist, praised the “safe and effective vaccines” but said divisions that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic point to the need for unity among Latter-day Saints.

• In his first public address since his much-debated August speech at BYU, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland encouraged listeners to go all-in with the gospel, saying that “there can be no halfway measures” in God’s kingdom.

• Fellow apostle Neil L. Andersen reaffirmed the mandate that members, media and others eschew most uses of the term “Mormon” and detailed the church’s efforts to scrub the moniker from its platforms and communications.

• German general authority Seventy Erich W. Kopischke delivered a powerful and personal sermon about the pain caused by mental illness in the most extensive conference coverage of the subject since Relief Society leader Reyna Aburto and Holland tackled the topic in 2019 and 2013, respectively.

• Four women gave speeches (three offered prayers), including President Camille N. Johnson, who delivered her first conference address since being named in April to oversee the children’s Primary, and general Relief Society first counselor Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, who spotlighted projects to help those in need around the world. “There is so much more to do,” she said, urging members “with a willing heart” to step up and “say to the Lord: Here am I, send me.”

Read summaries of Saturday’s sermons and Sunday’s sermons.

‘Mormon Land’ podcast: Conference highs and lows

On this week’s show, Emily Jensen, a writer and web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, reflects on the weekend’s General Conference — the words, the music, what inspired, what disappointed, and what the proceedings may mean moving forward.

Listen here.

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