World Religion vs. Global Religion (and Brain Drain)

August 2, 2004 | 21 comments
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I have been thinking about the international church lately. This is a field that has practically been ignored by LDS and non-LDS observers alike. This is pretty sad since we are growing so much more quickly internationally than domestically. There is a marked increase in attention paid to such areas by church leadership, but since we have really only begun this process of introspection, we have a long way to go. I have two thoughts on the international church right now:

1. The English speaking church is much more mature than the international church. This is manifest in a couple of areas. There are very few important political/business/entertainment people who are LDS outside of the US and Canada. I found that the intelligent/upwardly mobile young people that I baptized or saw join the church either left the church after a few years or came to BYU and stayed in the US. A related issue is the lack of materials translated in other languages. An anecdote I recently heard (maybe on T&S??) is that a stake president in Belgium recently asked the visiting Seventy to push to have more materials translated into other languages. The Seventy replied that the only thing they need are the Standard Works and the manuals. Meanwhile, his wife was reading a Hugh Nibley book and his son was reading Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites! It seems that such intellectual and cultural products of Mormonism (in person or in print) have a way of creating a stronger sense of identity, and thus retention, for English speaking saints. Can we replicate or encourage this in other locales?

2. At the end of Douglas Davies’ marvelous book The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Davies is one of my favorites!), he talks about the future of LDS international growth and asks a sociological question about whether the church will be a global church or a world church. The distinction he makes is that currently the LDS church is a global church. It has members all over the world, but where these are, they remain largely in the image of the Utah church. A world church, on the other hand, will develop independent local customs. It will emphasize different aspects of the religion that are more suited to the local culture, like the difference between Indonesian and Moroccan Islam. He is not optimistic about the church developing into a world religion because of the strict control of SLC, which he sees as a major weakness to its viability. Visitors in testimony meetings frequently express gratitude that the church is the same everywhere, but is this really an asset? Is the church not better served by decentralization and localization, or does this run the risk of fracturing our cohesiveness?

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21 Responses to World Religion vs. Global Religion (and Brain Drain)

  1. Ben Huff on August 2, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    Great question, Taylor. I think Davies has his finger on an important issue. I wonder, though, whether we aren’t going through a necessary phase of getting straight what our core is, in a way that will allow us, in time, to be a world religion in Davies’ sense without losing our cohesiveness. We need to know clearly what it is that unites us, and know how to hold onto that, so that we can safely welcome variety on other points. The recent narrowing in our sense of what unites us, reflected in the lack of interest in translating non-standard works, may precisely prepare us to tolerate diversity down the road.

    I also think there is a critical mass issue at work; a viable culture needs to have a certain number of members, and we may not be ready to relax into smaller subcultures. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem to that idea, though, since I think what you’re talking about does limit growth. We need books by people like Hugh Nibley the same way we need aunts and uncles and cousins and friends in the gospel, in addition to the standard works and Sunday church.

    I was very happy to see while I was in Japan some excellent videos produced in Japan to talk about the gospel and how it fits into the lives of the families in the videos. In some ways I thought they were better than anything coming out in English. I wonder where else we are ready for that sort of local independence.

  2. Gilgamesh on August 2, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    One example of the church’s relative success in accomodating cultures is in the polynesian saints. It seems the church has gone to great lengths, i.e. the Polynesian Cultural Center, to help the island cultures maintain their identity and not get lost as their world westernized.

  3. danithew on August 2, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Actually, I don’t believe Islam’s decentralization is an advantage to Islam or to the world. People say Muhammad didn’t achieve any miracles but I believe his huge miracle was bringing disparate groups together and turning them into one religious people/nation. Unfortunately, since he is “the Seal of the Prophets” and there can be no real prophetic successor, Islam has had a void at its center ever since — creating lots of competing groups and leaders — none of whom is really capable of “re-centralizing” Islam.

    I have always perceived centralization as one of the LDS Church’s main advantages. We know who our leaders are. We have a sytem of keeping the church doctrines and priesthood unified and legitimate.

    The last thing I’d want to see is a U.S. Mormonoism, a European Mormonism, a Latin American Mormonism, etc. and etc.

    It occurs to me that another comparison of various cultural versions of a single church/religion would be Catholicism. You can find various combinations of cultural practices existing under the Catholic banner — at least that was my perception of Catholicism in Guatemala during my mission. There was orthodox Catholicism, a more charismatic version of Catholicism (for those who envied evangelicals), Catholicism that was mixed with local Indian tribal customs and practices, etc.

  4. Rusty on August 2, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    Aren’t we talking about the difference between culture and doctrine? I too was in Guatemala and agree that the Catholics were divided in that way. Within those different congregations were divisions on doctrine (the worship of saints, prayer, etc.). However, I had no problem with the fact that in the indigenous villages the bishops or elders of our wards wore their traditional clothing (colorful tops with no ties…gasp! capri-like pants and sandals) instead of white shirt and ties like most other areas. But of course what we wear to church isn’t a doctrinal issue, it’s a cultural one.

  5. danithew on August 2, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    Rusty,

    I would agree with what you are saying. But I think it’s tricky sometimes to divide culture from doctrine. I wish I could ponder this more at this time and write a little bit more… but I have to run! :) I’ll be back later to see what’s up. This is a very interesting post.

  6. Ben Huff on August 2, 2004 at 9:12 pm

    So Taylor, what was the “Brain Drain” part?

  7. Ben S. on August 3, 2004 at 3:17 am

    Here’s the anecdote and reference Taylor refers to.

    Decoo, Wilfried. “Feeding the Fleeing Flock: Reflections on the Struggle to Retain Church Members in Europe.” Dialogue 29, no. 4 (1996):104, ft. 7.

    “I well remember a leadership meeting at which a local leader asked a visiting general authority if it would be possible for the church distribution center in Frankfurt to make available books from the Deseret and Bookcraft companies, even in English for local English-speaking members, with permission perhaps to translate some of the more popular books into other languages. The visiting authority responded categorically that the scriptures should be enough for any of the Saints. Yet in the foyer I observed his wife reading a book by Hugh Nibley and his daughter a novel by Jack Weyland.”

  8. Keith on August 3, 2004 at 5:29 am

    I teach at BYU-Hawaii, where there is a wide range of students from around the world. There are few places that have the cultural diversity of this place. A typical student ward, for instance, might have around 140-150 students from about 22-23 different countries. In some ways I see what goes on there as a kind of microcosm of the international church and why I think it’s a good thing to have some things be the same across the board.

    Though Davies may have set up a false dichotomy with the global church and world church distinction, I think there is good reason to have a strong global church (which is not to say it must be a Utah church). My experience has been that the most positive way is to have a few, clear, practices, policies, doctrines, etc. that apply globally and then allow for individual cultures and areas. But the uniformity or unity in some things really is essential and helpful and, in fact, then helps folks see and appreciate some of the cultural twist and differences without being scandalized by them or thrown of track. And I do think each culture has ways it can illuminate the gospel, ways it can help one practice the gospel in helpful ways. Each culture also has its particular ways it can throw us off center from the gospel if we aren’t careful to distinguish. BYU-Hawaii does provide, by the way, a real place of preparation of leaders for Saints from the Pacific and Asia, since this tends to attract a critical mass of some of the best and brightest from these areas. (One can hope, of course, that the real essential things get passed on with as few “Americanized” aspect as possible and that they do learn the essential and how to navigate with them through their respective cultures.)

    I think I agree with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Seventy’s remarks that the scriptures would be sufficient. Many (perhaps most?) international Latter-day Saints (from less developed countries to those more developed counties possessing high education) simply have either little concern or no meaningful context for much of what might be argued in a Nibley book, or for the nuances, arguments, and discussions of Sunstone folks, FARMS, FAIR, or even Times and Seasons. And this isn’t necessarily for lack of education, but rather finding how these might have meaning in their lives. So one thing I have found universally meaningful to members in such areas and universally helpful are the scriptures. There even may be various ways, culturally speaking, in which the Scriptures are taken up and read, but still there is this unity across culture, just as there is with the ordinances.

  9. Taylor on August 3, 2004 at 10:44 am

    Ben- this is the Brain Drain part:

    “I found that the intelligent/upwardly mobile young people that I baptized or saw join the church either left the church after a few years or came to BYU and stayed in the US.”

  10. danithew on August 3, 2004 at 11:19 am

    These anecdotes where General Authorities say that “the scriptures should be enough for the local Saints” (or something similar) seem to be a kind of pat answer — an answer that gives me the feeling they must hear this question pretty often and aren’t comfortable providing a positive answer for it. Maybe they just don’t feel they are in a position to promise that Nibley’s and Weyland’s books will be translated into other languages anytime soon.

    But do these authors actually have international appeal? This is kind of a painful question, and I like Hugh Nibley plenty — but who thinks translating Hugh Nibley’s books into another language is a high priority? Who thinks so to such a degree that they will take up the task?

  11. Kim Siever on August 3, 2004 at 11:41 am

    What I find interesting—and which I’ve addressed at my blog—is the fact that Spanish will be the majority language within 15 years or so. Despite the fact that more people will be speaking Spanish in the Church than not, I am doubtful this will have any effect on how we communicate as a church.

  12. Ben S. on August 3, 2004 at 12:04 pm

    Here’s the context of that anecdote-

    “Many European Saints feel isolated even from the worldwide LDS community. To some extent this feeling results from the lack of varied church literature available in the local languages. To be sure, the church does a great deal of translating in various languages, but the translated materials tend to address only the essential moral, spiritual, and organizational needs.7 Accordingly, the European Saints are hungry for news about the international church. They are anxious to feel a part of this vibrant international movement and to learn as much as possible about its accomplishments, challenges, and even problems on both the regional and the international levels. Of course, the international version of the church magazine is available in several languages, and its section on local news, however primitive, is appreciated; but it contains only a tiny fraction, if anything, of what is happening in the church at large, and no mention is ever made of anything problematic. Members living in small problem-ridden units thus wonder painfully why their units are so atypical.8

    Beyond this basic hunger for realistic news about the world church, many Saints are cut off also from the many important developments and discoveries in the world of LDS scholarship. American Saints can scarcely appreciate this predicament, given their ready access to the many LDS books, journals, media productions, videos, and educational events, even for their children. The very availability of these materials, even for those Saints who do not use them, provides them nevertheless with constant reinforcement for the feeling that they belong to a thriving enterprise. The need in Europe for such “extra” materials is apparent from my experience during the early 1980s as editor and publisher of Horizon, an independent bimonthly magazine published for Dutch-speaking Saints. This magazine featured international and local church news, sketches of local and foreign Saints, prophets’ biographies, the history of the church in various countries, easy-reading LDS stories, and special articles selected and translated for their combination of intellectual and faith-promoting impact. Horizon drew upon sources like F.A.R.M.S. and authors like Leonard Arrington, Truman Madsen, Steven Sondrup, John Sorenson, and John Welch. I was eventually constrained to cease publishing this magazine because of its very success: it was starting to displace the official church magazine, indicating that I had achieved my goal of demonstrating the existence of the very need I have been discussing here.”

  13. Wilfried on August 3, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    Hey, what a surprise to see me quoted so extensively from my article in 1996… I hoped that was forgotten. Thank you for obliging me to finally join a discussion! My wife and I read all the posts…

    What I wrote about the need of many European saints to feel the broader picture and read about it, holds true. At the end of my experience with Horizon (a Dutch magazine “for the Mormon community” 1981-1982, which finally reached some 2,000 subscribers), we sent out a questionnaire to the readers to ask what they liked most. Top three? Nr 1 was the feature “Studies”, which used faith-building articles, in translation, of the more intellectual kind (Truman Madsen, John Welch…). Interesting result, because the magazine went to all layers of our Mormon population. Nr 2 was “Spencer W. Kimball” by Ed & Andrew Kimball, which we brought in installments. Nr 3 were the stories (Jack Weyland, Blaine Yorgason… — culturally adapted!). After 22 years, people still talk to me about Horizon and what it meant to them.

    The internet, meanwhile, has opened a world of possibilities to local members. For those who read English, the Mormon world in all its variety is at their fingertips. For others, sites in local languages start to open. The French now have http://www.idumea.org , a very professional site, widely appreciated. They take a lot from FARMS. Please visit Idumea and congratulate them!

    Of course, not all members need this extra input. But some really do. It does not seem related to the person’s social or intellectual level. It depends on their interests, their avidity to know and to expand the horizon. It has a lot to do, as I wrote, with their desire to feel part of a thriving world community, and not just their small local unit.

  14. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 3:45 pm

    Wilfried: Care to comment on the “brain drain” phenomenon Taylor mentioned?

  15. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    Wilfried: Care to comment on the “brain drain” phenomenon Taylor mentioned?

  16. Wilfried on August 3, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Brain drain: we would need statistics to show the extent. From my observations, yes, we “loose” a few European young men and women, who go to Utah, many through BYU, and next stay in the US. Not only brain drain, also marriage drain. Former missionaries who come back for the girl they fell in love with… American families staying abroad, one of their children marries a local member and take him/her back… On the other hand, there is growing, steadfast group of young adults and young married couples (often second generation) who stay in their home country, remain active in the Church, and start raising the third generation. Based on a quick count from Belgium, over the past 20 years, I would say perhaps 10 out of a 100 find their way to the US.

    Not all should be seen as “negative” drain: for some the US offers chances they would never have had in their home country. Sometimes professional, but for most of them marital. The lack of eligible Mormon partners, especially for the young women, is a hidden drama in the international church.

  17. JWL on August 3, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    The internationalization of the restored church is a much vaster subject than can possibly be dealt with in a blog thread. However, this one seems to be narrowing to the issue of whether Saints outside of North America need access to some broader Gospel scholarship than the scriptures and the few other official Church publications.

    (1) In the context of the particular example cited in Wilfried’s article, I do think that the GA’s answer was pat and simplistic. However, the question too was loaded, because the local leader was asking if the Church could translate and make this material available, which would imply some kind of official Church endorsement. Since there are many reasons to maintain a separation between independent scholarship (even if faithful) and official Church endorsement, the local leader’s solution would have been problematic. Perhaps, as Wilfried suggests in his post, the Internet has filled some of the need for access to broader LDS scholarship. The one question I have is whether sometimes isolated curious non-US members know where to go to find this material on the Internet, e.g. do they even know FARMS or FAIR even exist so that they can go look at them on the Internet?

    (2) While the GA’s response is perhaps nice as an abstract principle, clearly it is at best a generalization with many exceptions. Independent LDS writing of all kinds would not exist in the US if there were not a need for it. Why should non-US members not have the same need to share others’ perspectives on the Restored Gospel? More importantly, LDS members outside of the US are exposed to anti-Mormon writing of the sort that much independent faithful scholarship deals with. See, for example, this article in the Spring 2003 Dialogue:

    One Hundred and Eighteen Years of Attitude: The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Free and Hanseatic City of Bremen by Jörg Dittberner

    This article describes how much of the Bremen Ward left the Church after encountering some disturbing anti-Mormon material. I can’t recall the specifics, but it was stuff that any BYU history professor or FARMS researcher could have repsonded to quite adequately in their sleep. However, the German members went to their mission president and he lamely tried to get away with just bearing his testimony. Knowledge is important as well as the Spirit (otherwise why bother even having the Scriptures) and I think that creating an international community of thoughtful as well as faithful members can only serve to strenghten those educated members who are most likely to provide the local leadership essential to permanently establishing the Church outside of the US. To create such a community, there must be avenues of communication in addition to official Church ones.

    (3) As to the question of whether there will ever be “national” Mormonisms as diverse as the varieties of Catholicism, I think not (regardless of whether that would be a good or a bad thing) because Mormonism is globalizing in an age of global culture unlike any in the past. National distinctiveness as a whole is decreasing, so it is very unlikely that Mormonism will grow as diverse as Catholicism or Islam did in centuries past.

  18. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    JWL wrote: “Independent LDS writing of all kinds would not exist in the US if there were not a need for it.”

    Really? Is there something about it being independent and LDS that makes this true, or is it true that everything that has been written (on whatever subject) exists because there is a need for it?

  19. john fowles on August 3, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    JWL, I liked your point and agree that it would be beneficial for members all over the world, but particularly in Europe, which has a Western society more similar to ours than other parts of the world.

    In addition to stepping up the effort to get materials translated and make them available to our members over there (which would probably best be done through private institutions rather than through the Church), perhaps we should be encouraging the European saints to become more actively involved and to write and publish for themselves.

    I don’t want that to be taken to imply that I am enthusiastic about the formation of a “world church” though. The “global church,” in my opinion, is the way that it should be. A world church would constantly teeter on the brink of dislocation; regional practices and beliefs would take root and displace gospel essentials.

    Many will take that position as being condescending towards the locals or not politically correct because it implies that some local customs or traditions will have to be sacrificed for the sake of adherence to the uniform gospel. But I don’t see that as a negative thing. And any cultural aspects or traditions that aren’t inconsistent with the Gospel are welcome, and should be able to thrive in the global church just as much as in the world church.

  20. JWL on August 4, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    Chris — I’m not sure I understand the distinction you are making. To elaborate a little on the point I was making, the restored gospel is BIG, very, very BIG. Believers want, often to the point of need, to write about it and read what other believers have to say about it (evidence our own dear t&s). The vast LDS literature produced by regular Saints unofficially for over a century attests to this. It seems very condescending to me to argue that non-US members would not have the same need to have, and would not benefit to the same extent from having, access a wide variety of writing about the restored gospel. Similarly, those with the desire to produce their own writing should not be discouraged any more than the Utah-based Saints who have generated most of the vast unofficial LDS literature to date.

    John, et. al. — I think that Davies’ global/world distinction is one based on non-LDS scholarship and historical experience. As I noted before, I think in part it underestimates the impact of the modern globalization of world culture. In any case, I will venture to say that I think most Church members, outside the US as well as here, would agree with you that they prefer being part of an international gospel community with strong commonalities across cultures.

    So let’s leave aside Davies’ confusing categories. I think the issue from an insider’s perspective is who is determining what those gospel commonalities are. Despite recent efforts to simplify, I think that the LDS culture still has a strongly American flavor. In fact, more specific than that, it still has a strong Utah cast to it. Tension comes when Utah leaders and members ask Saints from other cultures to sacrifice local customs and traditions for the sake of adherence to a uniform Gospel when that uniform Gospel looks a lot like Utah cultural mores.

    Regardless of whether you call it global or world, the restored church will not be truly international until the “uniform Gospel” is seen as being as much in conflict with Utah culture as with any other culture. When, for example, American/Wasatch Front-style conspicuous consumption is seen as being as much in conflict with the gospel as the failure to hold leadership meetings or make reports as per the schedule in the handbook.

  21. john fowles on August 4, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    JWL: When, for example, American/Wasatch Front-style conspicuous consumption is seen as being as much in conflict with the gospel as the failure to hold leadership meetings or make reports as per the schedule in the handbook.

    I really like that perspective. It points out what is remiss with a “uniform” Gospel that subconsciously contains much American/Utah culture (for the very practical and natural reason that through the history of the Church, American and more specifically Utah has been the epicenter) without criticizing the Gospel as being inherently chauvanist or imperialist, which so often seems to be the tendency when we open the door to discussions of the Church as an “American Church”.

    It is also much more constructive than such discussions. We need to have the perspective that as time goes on, the Church will naturally become more of a truly global church, even if still headquartered in SLC–it will be a natural incident of the Church’s expansion. Hopefully, coupled with this natural progress, the individual members will also be working on their lifestyles to rid them of such American consumption and other negative traits that accompany the Gospel as it goes out into the world because of the mere fact that fat, overconsuming Americans are the ones carrying it out there. Either (1) the Americans carrying the message to the world will be able to moderate their lifestyles and thus eliminate this as a latent trait of the Church, or (2) Church membership outside the US will begin shouldering a more equal burden of the missionary effort by reason of the fact that an expanding international membership will change the face of the Church so that what becomes truly visible is the “uniform” essentials of the Gospel, and any incidental Americanism will fade into the background (although it will undoubtedly remain to some extent as long as Church headquarters is in SLC rather than, say, Nepal or Rome).