While in Ensenada, Mexico, on vacation this summer, my wife and I stumbled across a little shop selling black velvet paintings — those campy portraits that tickle tourists but make art critics cringe. One wall of the shop was set aside for pictures of "martyrs." Bob Marley and his dreadlocks were hung there. So were Tupac — the rapper — Jim Morrison, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.
And in the middle of them all was a black velvet portrait of LDS prophet Joseph Smith.
On a whim I decided to buy it. The vendor wanted $70. I offered him $30. He chided me for thinking such a saint was worth so little. I chided him for holding one of my heroes hostage.
He hoisted the painting high. "Joseph Smith, on my shoulder, for $40," he said.
I bought it.
And the painting isn't bad. It is a knock-off of the famous portrait done by Alvin Gittins. The complexion is darker; and the eyes look like large, black Del Monte olives. In short, Joseph looks very Mexican.
But I don't think he'd mind.
And I don't even think he'd mind having his portrait in a gallery filled with pictures of roustabouts. I'm speculating here, but just as Jesus spent time with the publicans and outcasts, I think Joseph might hope people would see his picture hanging there and, for a moment, realize there was more to life than vacation trips, pop music, movies. They might, for a moment, look beyond the material world and dwell on things that matter more.
In fact, seeing Joseph amid the money-changers called to mind a conversation I had with a longtime friend. He said the world was awash in pornography and he had grown disillusioned. He felt God had retreated from the world, that he couldn't abide all the decadence.
"Child pornography, sadistic movies, perverted urges — where is God in all of that?" my friend asked me.
It was an earnest question. And he expected an answer.
I thought hard.
"I think," I said, "God is right there. I think he's right there with the pornographers — at the elbow of those who film it, distribute it and call it up on their computers. I think he hopes in a moment of truth, they'll see the sin and turn to him for help. I think he may actually be as close to them as to you and me."
I don't know if the answer satisfied my friend. He didn't say. But whether he is satisfied or not, I think it's right. All I have to do is think of the times in my own life when I've been on the verge of doing something ridiculous when a little reminder came my way — a phone call out of nowhere maybe, or an e-mail, a few words in a book, a line of conversation on television, a photograph or a memory. And I know I haven't been abandoned. In fact, I believe with St. Augustine that if we saw things properly, we'd see that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
As for my portrait of Joseph Smith, I've had second thoughts about taking him out of that little Ensenada shop. It was probably needed more there than it is here.
Still, with a little planning, I can probably find some place to put it — a place where the portrait will serve as a reminder that beyond this busy, material world — behind all the possessions, power and preening — there are bigger concerns that merit our time and attention.