Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Apotheosis and Popular Culture

The Rotunda
The Apotheosis of Washington
Standing under the massive rotunda of the US Capitol is a pretty awe-inspiring experience. The dome is an architectural masterpiece and national treasure. In the oculus 180 feet overhead is a beautiful fresco painted by Constanino Brumidi entitled The Apotheosis of Washington. It is reminiscent of the frescos we saw in the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum and apartments.  I was amazed at the degree to which the painting deified George Washington. Admittedly, Washington was one of those larger-than-life individuals that literally changed the course of history. Few would dispute that the United States of America would even exist were it not for his leadership. But in spite of all he was and did, he was merely a man and these were very high honors. 

But if you check out the definition of apotheosis, then you realize the painting accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. 
Apotheosis: the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god; deification
In nineteenth century America, George Washington was adored and idealized as a leader. Washington's apotheosis was tolerated and even welcomed by populist thinking. Most would concede this deification was artistic hyperbole and highly metaphorical.  But surprisingly, it was not deemed to be blasphemous--even to a deeply religious populace with puritanical roots.  

I left the Capitol and other Washington monuments with a measure of surprise by the degree to which the nation has deified it's founding fathers (the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt memorials to name a few). I was reminded of the cult religions of Imperial Rome, in which Emperors were deified after death to join the panoply of gods. Washington, like Agustus, could transcend mortality and enter the sphere of deity by proclamation of the Senate. 

I really don't have a problem with the honors we pay to these founding fathers. But as a culture we've taken things way too far. After I returned home I overheard two of my staff deeply engrossed with their apotheosis of one of the Kardashians.  The K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N-S! Just writing the word somehow cheapens this post. Napoleon Bonaparte quipped: "from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step." If so, then society is taking giant steps like astronauts on the moon in zero gravity. Our apotheosis of celebrities, athletes and even criminals creates a panoply of new deities that consumes our leisure time as we scramble to pay them homage. 

It is interesting to see similar patterns at play in history. Imperial Rome's habit of apotheosis of leaders became a laughing stock, as one inept or corrupt ruler after another was deified and then worshiped. Seneca the Younger, thought that apotheosis had been taken way too far in Rome and didn't view the "new" gods as legitimate. Taking a shot at an old political rival that had banished him, he wrote a political satire* on the apotheosis of Claudius. It was entitled The Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (literally The Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius). Seneca and Napoleon were clearly on the same page. 

Our penchants for the apotheosis of everything unholy is a flaw in the fabric of humanity that can be traced back to the earliest times.  It is seen in the idolatry of the Old Testament and the pride of the Book of Mormon. It is wrapped up in the worship of self that so plagues the modern church. I'm as guilty as the next guy, but think that Seneca may be on to a potential antidote. If we could substitute apocolocyntosis for apotheosis on a more regular basis, we may be less inclined to spend our time worshiping stuff that will neither save us or make us happy.
If not apotheosis, then a bad case of obsession

Apocolocyntosis . . . keeping it real

*Apocolocynthosis (gourdification or pumpkinification) is a parody on the word apotheosis

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Black Robes of a False Priesthood

Mentors: two of the finest thyroidologists in the world.
 I'm honored to have both President and Past-President of ACE as friends. 

This month I got to participate in the Convocation of the American College of Endocrinology (ACE) for the first time since I was inducted as a Fellow many years ago. It was a great privilege to recognize 90 inductees that had spent more than a decade working for this honor. This time I got to put on some pretty sweet robes and march behind the other members of the Board of Directors  and the President of the College. He led us forth carrying an ornate ceremonial mace into the ballroom. While we marched a string quartet played classical music. It was all very official, and very stirring.

The august occasion reminded me a famous commencement speech delivered by Hugh Nibley at the 1983 graduation ceremony at BYU (I wasn't there, but read it here). In it, Nibley quoted himself from a prayer he gave at commencement 23 years earlier:
"We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood."
False priesthoods come adorned in a wide array of robes and accoutrements. The robes of scholarship (we were commemorating those of the ACE) are one of the most disarming of these false priesthoods. Motivated by high ideals and a fervent search for truth, scholarship seems beyond reproach: like motherhood and apple pieScholarship--especially when dressed in it's fancy robes--strives to make our world safer, healthier, happier and more convenient. Nevertheless, the robes of scholarship represent a false priesthood that promises to change the world, but cannot save it. Nibley calls it "borrowed finery coming down to us through a long line of unauthorized imitators."   

Part of what makes a false priesthood such a convincing shill is how closely it resembles legitimate priesthood. Legitimate priesthood is conferred on those that are deemed worthy, by those in authority. The ACE grants Fellowship to its ranks in the same way. In both cases, the honor comes with rights and responsibilities. The critical difference is that the authority of legitimate priesthood comes from God. As the ACE attends to the matters of treating disease and promoting health to lengthen mortality, legitimate priesthood will continue to work "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." It's good to be part of both efforts, but important to remember which matters most. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Applehood and Mother Pie

apple pie & mom
What's Not To Love?
I attended a Strategic Planning meeting for our the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists a couple of months ago and spent a weekend with a group of very bright and opinionated endocrinologists. During this time  we tried to read the tea leaves and divine where the current health reform efforts would leave patients and their endocrinologists. A big goals was to try to keep patients healthy and still be able to earn a living. In all honesty it was very frightening and kind of discouraging. At one point in a very long day, one of the senior members of the Board of Directors took a moment to give an impassioned plea and encourage us to action. His words  perfectly captured the sentiments of the group. Sensing this, he said 'I'm talking about applehood and mother pie people.'

Astoundingly, nobody paused for a second at hearing this fantastic spoonerism.  The group, roused by his stirring speech, kept on task and we completed our work. But the concept of applehood and mother pie has got me thinking (here and here for related posts). My colleague had everyone's agreement. Both motherhood and apple pie were beyond awesome. But that's not what he said.  The energy of the moment and his fluency of speech made it easy to hear what he intended, and to miss what he actually said.

So it is in life.  Nuances, shrouded in lofty terms and ideals can change the substance of a message. So often they go unnoticed and unchallenged. We unwittingly agree--or remain silent--despite the absurdity. If it is bloviate (yet inspiring none-the-less) speech at a Board meeting it's harmless enough. Not so if it is part of Satan's carefully orchestrated counterfeiting system which "[has] a form of godliness, but [denies] the power thereof (JS-H 1:19)." Consider the advice of James E. Talmage:
Satan has shown himself to be an accomplished strategist and a skilful imitator; the most deplorable of his victories are due to his simulation of good, whereby the undiscerning have been led captive. Let no one be deluded with the thought that any act, the immediate result of which appears to be benign, is necessarily productive of permanent good. It may serve the dark purposes of Satan to play upon the human sense of goodness, even to the extent of healing the body and apparently of thwarting death. (James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, pg. 232)
To attempt to compile a list of spiritual spoonerisms belabors the point and probably also cheapens it. Suffice it to say that if we're not very careful, Satan will have us rallying behind him with pitchforks and torches as we rush in to defend applehood and mother pie