“Revolutions” is probably not the right word: what I’m getting at is turning points, watershed events, or paradigm shifts. What got me thinking about this was the “Mormon Culture Tournament” over at By Common Consent. It’s basically just a fun exercise (go ahead: vote!) but there’s an interesting project lurking within it: the attempt to identify which, out of many historical habits, references, and signifiers, really are the most telling, the most unique, the goofiest markers of the truly, authentically “Mormon.” And if you look at the answers and comments, a pattern is made clear….
Specifically, the cultural markers which BCC has assembled seem internally divided: many of them have a real, living presence in the lives of many Mormons, while others are…well, dated. It’s hard to say exactly how, but clearly, the idea of “wedding receptions with basketball hoops” is something that Mormons today continue to deal with, while references to J. Golden Kimball are not. Not to dismiss those for whom J. Golden stories reign supreme in their Mormon identity, but seriously, the average Mormon today is about as likely to buck themselves up by recollecting a few mildly risque J. Golden Kimball anecdotes as they are to engage in speculation about the Three Nephites. (There’s another one that’s pretty much dead and buried.)
This fact makes me wonder…when did we lose J. Golden–that is, when did he become an odd cultural curio as opposed to a source of (humorous) self-understanding? Saturday’s Warriors was huge when I was a child in the 70s, yet today, I strongly suspect I could wander through dozens of Deseret Bookstores in Salt Lake Valley and find nary a trace of it. (Certainly, at the very least, “food storage” is a far more identifiable part of our way of life than the musical which gave us the song “Zero Population.”) Is it just all the passage of time, or are specific phenomena–changes in the missionary program, new ward budget procedures, enrollment caps at BYU–accidently kill off (for most members, anyway) huge swaths of Mormon experience? I have my own ideas, but here I want to give this hypothesis a spin. Are there moments of revolution in Mormon culture, events or decisions that shift the way we talk and believe, that change our patterns of reference and memory, in profound ways? If so, what are those moments?
I’m sure if we went way back in time–to the ending of polygamy and the State of Deseret–we’d find many examples…but 19th-century Mormon culture is pretty unfamiliar to me, so let’s stick with the last half-century or so. My nomination: the removal of stages from church buildings. Now maybe this change was the effect of another, but either way, once the decision was made to save some money by taking buildings out of our churches, the roadshow died, dance festivals died, the whole Mormon cultural tradition of dramatic reticals and plays pretty went kaput. And with it no doubt went scads of terms and jokes and references that my Mom and Dad–and probably most life-long Mormons in their 40s and 50s–knew like that the back of their hand.
Other nominations? What else has Mormon culture lost, and when did we lose it? And what, if anything, has taken its place?