Friday, November 28, 2014

What makes "Glorious" Mormon (and Mormonism glorious)

I want to start by saying that "Glorious" is a good song--a dang good song.  It's beautifully constructed, engaging, deeply felt, with intelligent, inspiring lyrics.  One indication of its quality is the fact that it still sounds fresh after having enjoyed (or in some cases suffered from) being covered over 400 times in various styles, from country to choral, by performers ranging from a 4-year-old to the PS22 Chorus in Staten Island.  I haven't heard all 400 covers, but I've heard a good number of them.


But I want to focus here on what is "Mormon" about the song.  The song uses no uniquely Mormon language and can be enjoyed even by those who find nothing in it specifically religious.  In fact, when I first heard the song, I wondered where it had come from and whether the writer was a Latter-day Saint.  The more I've listened to it, though, the more I've felt that (whether the writer intended it or not) it beautifully expresses much that is distinctive about Mormonism--much that is not just culturally but doctrinally and spiritually foundational to the living and understanding of life associated with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That is not to say that it isn't also universal, conveying much that all or most human beings can relate to.  I believe, in fact, that much of what makes the Latter-day Saint understanding of life so powerful and appealing is that it responds to needs and aspirations deeply woven into every human heart.

My reasons for focusing on what is "Mormon" about the song include wanting to understand something about Mormonism and its role in the world.  The song was, after all, selected for the culminating moments of the Church's first venture in releasing a feature film in commercial theaters.  That film, Meet the Mormons, is also a remarkable phenomenon, rising as high as the 9th most successful film at the box office in the United States soon after its release, ranking 11th in the nation during its first weekend (despite a very small turnout on its first Sunday) and 10th in the nation during its first full week. 

  A disclaimer: My wife appears briefly in the first segment of the film.  But I would love the film even without that.  It offers a powerfully authentic portrait of what it is like to be a Latter-day Saint, including the challenges, the joys, the impulse to serve and bless and connect with others, the cultural diversity and sense of community, and the moments of redemption and transcendence.  (You can read my review of the film at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4003774/reviews-2 and http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/meet_the_mormons/reviews/?page=18&type=user.)  After segments about six extraordinary--but in some ways typical--Latter-day Saints, we hear David Archuleta singing "Glorious" against a collage of images from the film.  The song serves in some ways as a summary of the film's message, especially the idea that each human being is important and plays a significant role in the symphony of life.

After a little searching, I discovered that the composer of "Glorious" is Stephanie Mabey, a gifted young performer and songwriter with a Latter-day Saint background.  (You can learn more about her work herehere, and here; and you can listen to the original version of "Glorious," her version, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ShP9JaK0nw.).


The song was first popularized (though I only just learned this) by being included on a CD for EFY (Especially for Youth) 2012, where it is sung by Russ Dixon.  (His version is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diUZI1AkISM.)   I also discovered some of the many covers of the song, many (though not all) of them prompted by David Archuleta's announcement of a competition to appear in a "supercut" of the song--a version that would include bits and pieces from many renditions.  Here's a link to the "supercut": http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/glorious-video-compilation-features-amateur-singers-around-world?cid=HPTH112014496.  I'll provide links to other versions below, near the end of this post.

To consider what is "Mormon" about the song (as well as what is universal), let's start with the lyrics:

There are times when you might feel aimless;
You can't see the places where you belong.
But you will find that there is a purpose;
It's been there within you all along
And when you're near it,
You can almost hear it.

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

You will know how to let it ring out
As you discover who you are.
Others around you will start to wake up
To the sounds that are in their hearts.
It's so amazing, what we're all creating.

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

And as you feel the notes build, ah,
You will see:

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

What will strike many as typically "Mormon" about the song is its optimism.  Mormons are known for their positive--some would say naively positive--view of life.  Yet as anyone would know who has any real experience with Latter-day Saints, we are well acquainted with heartache, struggle, and confusion.  It's true that many Latter-day Saints don't realize how many others around them have just the same sorts of struggles they themselves are going through.  Yet these are not problems we refuse to talk about.  There are many ways we can confide in and seek help from others.  And sermons by Church leaders as well as in our local congregations often touch on afflictions and trials and how to deal with them.  What gets us through is genuine faith that there is a God--a perfectly wise and loving God--who is in charge, and hope that everything will work out if we are faithful.

The song captures both the idealism and the realism of the Mormon approach to life.  Yes, we sometimes feel aimless and isolated.  But we believe that if we keep at it, we'll find meaning and connection.  That leads to another set of distinctively Mormon elements in the song: the understanding of life--and even eternal life--as a process, a process of discovery and growth and creation.  In some views, but not the Mormon one, the world is essentially finished: God's creation is complete, and all we can do is accept our place in it--if we can even do that.  The Mormon view is fundamentally different.  Creation is ongoing, and we are taking part in it.  We have been endowed with agency--the ability to choose and act--not simply to accept what is already finished but to participate in the creation of the world, to establish relationships that can be eternal, to take an active part in the divine project of salvation and exaltation.  God has established a perfect plan, but he invites us to take part in bringing that plan to fruition.

"Glorious" celebrates not just the world we live in but the process of discovery and creation that we are invited to engage in.  "You will find that there is a purpose . . . you can almost hear it . . . just keep listening . . . you'll start to figure out your part . . .": all these phrases call to mind the Latter-day Saint understanding of personal revelation, the process of attuning ourselves to God's voice and to the divine meaning woven into the world, a process that requires us to "study it out in our minds" and recognize confirming insight and feelings.  Along with our own individual discoveries, we seek to awaken others--not forcing insight on them, but helping them to hear what is in their own hearts.  The comparison of revelation to music is apt: knowledge is not so much abstract formulation, arrived at as the product of mechanical, rule-driven logic, as it is direct, first-hand recognition of light and truth, something resonating within us, like a voice: "I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost" (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2).

The song also hints at our eternal natures, which in some fundamental way partake of light and truth.  The understanding of purpose and meaning that we seek is somehow within us and always has been: "It's been there within you all along."  For "man is spirit" and "was also in the beginning with God" (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 29).  We bring with us something that not only recognizes but contributes to the meaning and beauty of the world.  There are "melodies in each one of us"--spiritual melodies, characteristics deriving from our divine parentage and witnessing to our divine potential.   We are the offspring of God and (as Spencer W. Kimball put it) have within us "the seeds of godhood."  In the words of Lorenzo Snow, "There is the nature of deity in the composition of our spiritual organization; in our spiritual birth our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He Himself possessed--as much so as the child on its mother's bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers, and susceptibilities of its parent."  The song is not explicit about all of this, but it certainly affirms our essential spiritual natures.

Yet besides celebrating what is glorious about each of us, the song also celebrates our connection with others.  In fact, the song does not say "we're glorious," but instead "it's glorious": the whole plan, the whole process of ongoing discovery and creation.  It's "amazing, what we're all creating"--all of us, working together.  Each of us has a part, but a part in a symphony in which we seek to join with others in harmony and cooperation.  As you figure out how to let what is within you "ring out," others will also "start to wake up," sense what they can contribute and join in the music.  We all seek to offer the melodies within us to a much larger enterprise, a symphony of creativity, love, and joy.


As often happens with popular songs, people hear words and phrases that are not there.  Many have thought the song "Glorious" says, "Everyone plays a piece in their own melodies," as if the point was for each of us to express our individuality by playing a separate piece.  Someone told me that this led them to imagine cacophony as everybody discovered and played "their own thing."  But that's not what the song says.  "Everyone plays a piece"--end of phrase--"AND there are melodies in each one of us."  Yes, we each contribute something, and it is something that no one else can do in quite the same way.  Yet it is only a "part" of the larger "symphony."  "There are melodies in each one of us," melodies that derive from our spiritual natures and our divine heritage, but we contribute these melodies to a larger tapestry of harmonious sound.  Rightly understood, the song affirms both individuality and community--something essential to the Mormon understanding of life and of eternity.  We believe we are unique and eternal individuals.  Yet our lives have meaning only through relationship with others.  God's purpose is the exaltation of his children, yet that exaltation is brought about not only through the unfolding and transformation of their individual natures but through their being joined together in familial relationships.  In the practical life of Latter-day Saints in this world, there is a similar emphasis both on individual agency and on responsibility and familial and communal connection.

In these and related ways, the song "Glorious" beautifully expresses what might be called the spirit of Mormonism--the sense of engaging in a glorious process of awakening, of self-discovery and communal cooperation, of struggle and hope, of appreciation and creation.  It speaks to the immediate here and now while also opening us to a vision of eternity--in fact, suggesting that eternity is unfolding within the here and now.  In all of these ways and in all of these dimensions, "it"--including the world, our lives, our relationships, our eternal prospects--is "glorious."

******************************************************

 Having said all of this, I recognize that not all of this is utterly unique to Mormonism and that much of what I find in the song may be different from what others will find.  (By the way, the term "Mormonism" isn't used much these days--but I've found it a useful shorthand for the view of life widely shared by Latter-day Saints and affirmed by our scriptures and other authoritative sources of doctrine.)  Still, though not entirely unique, the tone and ideas expressed in "Glorious" have as a whole a distinctly Mormon flavor, and at least some of what the song expresses and implies comes close to being unique to Mormonism.

That is not to say that there isn't much that is glorious in other understandings of life--Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Judaism, Buddhism, to name a few.  And in fact, there is much overlap among these various approaches to life, as well as distinctive insights in each that can contribute to a deeper and richer vision of the complex diversity of human experience and of what lies beyond current human experience and understanding.  But I've chosen to emphasize what is distinctive and glorious about Mormonism because it is the view I know best--and because I believe it has its roots in divine revelation--and also because I'm writing about a song that I believe is attuned in many ways to the Mormon understanding of things, especially when heard or sung by those familiar with that understanding.

Now, a couple of personal notes and then links to some of my favorite covers of the song "Glorious."

As I mentioned earlier, David Archuleta sings the song near the end of the movie Meet the Mormons.  So far I've seen the film three times, and each time I've felt the song beautifully sums up the film's message of service, relationship, love, faith, and individual worth.  You can hear this rendition, along with clips of scenes from the film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GytW_rgr0RM (I've also embedded it further below).

A few weeks after the film came out, my son Michael was skyping with my wife and me and shared a link to another version of the song, one  sung by the One Voice Children's Choir. The song spoke to him, he said, because he's trying to find his part in the symphony of life--a part that will allow him to serve and bless other people. We were touched by those feelings that came from our son's beautiful heart--and we were also moved by the One Voice Children's Choir's performance.  Part of what makes that performance so powerful is that individual members of the choir sing various parts of the song--yet they all come together as a group as well.  As individuals sing, we focus on their beautiful, divinely beautiful, faces.  But we also hear them join together in glorious harmony.  You can listen and watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nomxXk6Q1rk.

Having heard that version, we began to run into yet others including eventually the "fan supercut" that combines various renditions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrNlWR1-5lQ).  Among the dozens of versions I've listened to, some are much better done than others.  Yet something apart from the quality of the performances has touched me as I've listened.  Part of what has drawn me to the many covers of "Glorious" is the way so many of them open windows into the inner lives of individuals and families--their loves, their yearnings, their struggles.  Many of those who submitted covers are young, very young--many between 8 and 18, not to mention the 4 and 6 year olds. I see in them such profound goodness and longing. The song seems to provide many of them a way of expressing their hopes and desires and connecting with others.  Hearing them give voice to the song has given me a glimpse into their spiritual natures, into what in each of them is precious and eternal and associated with divinity.

While I love many of the renditions--and will share some of my favorites in a playlist below--I want to focus on the "fan supercut" for a moment because it reveals another distinctive element of Mormonism: the desire to reach out to, and celebrate, and connect the entire human family.  Though the film Meet the Mormons has been shown only in the United States so far, the invitation to do a cover of the song "Glorious" reached far beyond the nation's borders.  There were responses from Latin America, Caribbean islands, Asia, and Europe.  Among those chosen for use in the "fan supercut" were contributors from Canada, China, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as the United States.  Among participants from the United States, there was some attempt at ethnic and stylistic diversity.  The finished product deliberately used contributions that would reflect the diversity among Latter-day Saints--and in the human family--including a 4-year-old, many teenagers, and a few older adults.  In addition, the fan supercut included two covers performed by signing for the deaf.  (They didn't choose my favorite sign language performance, though, one by a young deaf girl: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbLI_dr_M6g.)

In a similar way, the film tells the stories of a variety of Latter-day Saints: an African-American bishop in Atlanta (that's the segment in which my wife appears); the coach (of Samoan extraction) of the Navy football team; a mother (and kick boxer) in Costa Rica; an American pilot, known as the "candy bomber," who helped sustain West Berliners during the 1949 airlift; another man, a native Nepalese, who does humanitarian work in Nepal; and (in the most moving, heart-wrenching segment) a woman who, after rough years as a single mom, now has a beautiful family and is sending her oldest son on a mission.  The film includes scenes in Costa Rica, Germany, Nepal, South Africa, and various parts of the United States--including the White House.  The film's cinematography is superb: there are stunning scenes from around the world, reminded us that God's creations are indeed glorious.



Some might cynically suggest that this emphasis on diversity is a public relations ploy.  But in reality it is a fundamental element of Mormonism.  It is an essential teaching of the Church that we are all members of God's universal family, that we are all brothers and sisters.  The Church has been commanded from the beginning to share the gospel with the entire world.  We believe that God's plan of salvation provides a way for all the human family to be saved--those who have lived before Christ as well as after, and those who never heard the gospel message in life as well as those who did.  Though we have done so imperfectly, it has been the impulse of Latter-day Saints as a people to respect and love and connect with people of all nations.  A few years ago I re-read (this time in French) a book highly respected by Latter-day Saints, the book Jesus the Christ, first published in the early twentieth century.  I was pleased to find in the book a strong emphasis on universal outreach and on the belief that "God is no respecter of persons."  So this is not a new idea among Latter-day Saints.

In fact, our scriptures express the idea clearly: "Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men?" (2 Nephi 29:7); "the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word" (Alma 29:8).  The Book of Mormon teaches that God invites all to come to him: "all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden"; "he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Nephi 26:28, 33).  This clear statement of God's universal love for his children is one reason many Latter-day Saints felt uncomfortable with the racial restrictions that formerly operated in the Church and rejoiced when they were lifted.

That sense that we are sharing life together, that we are "members of one another," is also expressed in the song "Glorious."  All that is said there is true, by implication, for every human being: "Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies in each one of us."  The film too expresses this view and affirms that we all have a part to play in this exciting and often challenging adventure in which we are all taking part.


(Another Meet the Mormons Trailer)

******************************************************

Here are two of the versions I mentioned above, plus one other, one of my favorites, performed by the PS22 Chorus of Staten Island, New York--another evidence of the wide appeal of the song.

David Archuleta (with clips from the film Meet the Mormons):



One Voice Children's Choir:






Finally, I'm going to link you to a playlist with a few other of my favorites. Here it is: