Every other month, we receive a copy of LDS Living magazine, I suppose because we shop at the Deseret Book store. Each issue is filled with uplifting stories about LDS personalities or LDS who have overcome great hardships with inspiring stories. Notwithstanding those People magazine-type articles, LDS Living is a commercial for the LDS Church. But not just the LDS Church. LDS Living is a commercial for LDS products — you know, food storage, Holy Land tours, comfort foods, religious conferences, event venues, and, of course, products from Deseret Book. And, not oddly but uniquely, addiction treatment centers and fertility clinics advertise on its pages.
Oh, and a bunch of products and services over time beginning with the words “LDS” or “Zion.” And that is the topic upon which I would like to focus: The selling of Zion. Specifically, I want to address what exactly is not Zion and provide a working definition of Zion beyond its scriptural definition in Moses 7:18:
We need a working definition because the Saints, it seems, simply cannot accept, abide, or perhaps cannot understand the scriptural definition. The latter is not practical, per se, and so the former is necessary to remove all wiggle room to ignore the latter. But first things first.
Obviously, the selling of Zion does not include the institution of Deseret Book and similar markets. I enjoy good books and beautiful art and do not mind paying for them. I am paying for a person’s labor and what I value in substance. There is no irony that I purchased the book, Approaching Zion by Hugh Nibley, at Deseret Book. I am grateful Brother Nibley assembled the collections of his best thinking and speeches in a book (or agreed for the book to be assembled in his name), and I do not begrudge the author, his admirers, or Deseret Book for requiring a payment to gain access to all of Brother Nibley’s work, which he originally shared freely across many years of research, in one volume.
For me, the selling of Zion is all about appearances — which is actually the selling of Babylon. In Approaching Zion, Brother Nibley writes,
“You can get away with anything if you just wave the flag,” a business partner of my father once told me. He called that patriotism. But the label game reaches its all-time peak of skill and effrontery in the Madison Avenue master stroke of pasting the lovely label of Zion on all the most typical institutions of Babylon: Zion’s Loans, Zion’s Real Estate, Zion’s Used Cars, Zion’s Jewelry, Zion’s Supermart, Zion’s Auto Wrecking, Zion’s Outdoor Advertising, Zion’s Gunshop, Zion’s Land and Mining, Zion’s Development, Zion’s Securities—all that is quintessentially Babylon now masquerades as Zion. (Approaching Zion (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol 9). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.)
In the September/October 2022 issue of LDS Living, we find advertisements for The Firm Foundation Expo, Deseret First Credit Union, LDS Agents.com (realtors), Israel Revealed.com (tours), brickemyoung.com (toys), Dressed in White (temple clothes), LDS Paint by Numbers.com, Price Genealogy, Scripture Notes.com, Millennial Choirs & Orchestras, Temple Flakes.com (snowflakes in the form of LDS temples), Nauvoo Remembered.com (jewelry), Celestial Ringdom.com (more jewelry), Nauvoo timeshares (real estate), 4Ever Mints (yes, breath fresheners), and much more of the same.
The selling of Zion. Except, for one problem. Zion is never for sale. Only Babylon is forever for sale. I am not saying the products mentioned are evil. I have utilized the financial services of Deseret First Credit Union many times. I might enjoy buying a granddaughter a piece of jewelry from Celestial Ringdom. I am saying that the use of these “labels” projects an appearance of value that might or might not exist. We have Zions Bank and LDS Children’s Hospital. At least when the LDS Church got out of the healthcare industry, its label also disappeared and reappeared as Intermountain Health Care. No feigned appearance there — except IHC’s nonprofit status allowing it at convenient times to create an illusion of charity care.
Just as Robert Louis Stevenson provided a clear working definition of telling the truth, “To tell the truth, rightly understood, is not just to state the true facts, but to convey a true impression” (from his book Truth of Intercourse), Zion requires a solid working definition because appearances can be deceiving, as the Adversary well knows. The real Devil arrives in a three-piece suit even as he paints a demonized picture of a devil with hideous disfigurements.
The Devil also carries a faux designer bag with the label, Zion. And so do many Latter-day Saints — the appearance of purity and consecration. Though the Lord states, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), the Saints know the power of appearance. Hence, a beautiful working definition of Zion: Saints who never design to do wrong. Saints who do not put on the worldy mantle of appearances.
I agree with Brother Nibley,
The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism.
These “worst sinners” do not work for Zion. They, in fact, “design” to do wrong. Brother Nibley skewers the design, the appearance, of working for Zion. His (and Brigham Young’s) classic description of this design can be seen all over Mormondom.
The elders of Israel are greedy after the things of this world. If you ask them if they are ready to build up the kingdom of God, their answer is prompt—”Why, to be sure we are, with our whole souls; but we want first to get so much gold, speculate, and get rich, and then we can help the church considerably. We will go to California and get gold, go and buy goods and get rich, trade with the emigrants, build a mill, make a farm, get a large herd of cattle, and then we can do a great deal for Israel.” I have heard this many times from friends and relatives, but it is hokum. What they are saying is, “If God will give me a million dollars. I will let him have a generous cut of it.” And so they pray and speculate and expect the Lord to come through for them.
Yes, Zion is a people of one heart and one mind, among who there are no poor. There is no appearance of righteousness among them. There is simply righteousness. In other words, the people of Zion never design to do wrong. That is a working definition of Zion upon which to hang your hat.
Clearly, I and every human being ever has done wrong. We are human. We were given a Savior who sacrificed His life on our behalf as we repent of wrongdoing. But having done something wrong is not the same thing as designing to do wrong. Typically, when we knowingly and willingly do not keep God’s commandments, literally and in spirit, by commission or omission, we have designed to do wrong. That is a lot of work and we know designing when we have done it.
I venture a guess that most Saints first recognizing and then striving to keep the commandments and being temple-worthy are NOT designers of wrongdoing. It’s a high bar, as is Stevenson’s bar for telling the truth. But it is achievable and expected — at least it is as applied to me as a husband, father, and grandfather. All my wife, Sally, and I have ever wanted from our children was that they would be “decent people.” Well, this is what I mean by that.
My expectation for myself and mine is to avoid becoming designers of wrongdoing. Instead, we expect to be designers of good-doing — introspective, transparent, fair, with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and courageous on behalf of our neighbors in need. (And always defending others against bullies of every kind — my favorite act of doing good.)
I know. Those criteria for good are a lot to unpack. Perhaps simply leave with this: 1) the scriptural definition of Zion, 2) the commandment from John 7:24 about appearances and 3) my working definition of Zion. Live up to those three commitments and you will be counted (by me anyway) among the great people of the earth.