Mormon identity and culture

March 25, 2008 | 68 comments
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The following is part of a larger study on the concept of “gospel culture”, which I have been working on. In a previous post I presented the question “How American is the Church?”, which yielded very interesting comments. For the present post I excerpted some further parts on culture and Mormon identity, with various questions to the reader.

1 – In search of identity

Most religions display exterior features that are uniquely recognizable: style of buildings, particular rituals, sacred locations, sometimes for the adherents a specific piece of clothing or a full dress, or even a bodily marking. This affirmation of identity fulfills an important social role as an expression of community selfhood and of belonging to that community. Wittingly or unwittingly it also stresses a demarcation line excluding others: identity alienates.

Predominantly in older religions that have permeated whole populations on regional or national levels, religious identity often seems to match with ethnicity in its genetic sense, such as Japanese Shintoism, Greek-Orthodoxy, Indian Hinduism, Arabic Islam. History documents the clashes, and numerous wars, between such groups claiming their authenticity from ethno-religious roots. But even more recent religious groups, without such an ethnic identity, are sometimes viewed as peculiar and thus threatening, as the history of Mormonism in the 19th century illustrates. In various countries Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Krishnas, Baha’is, and many others without any ethnic relations between the members, continue to endure such prejudice and sometimes persecution. Religious intolerance along these identity perceptions remains of great concern in many parts of the world. Actively proselytizing religions moreover test the boundaries of tolerance as they seek, in the eyes of vested religions, to steal away souls and incorporate them under a new communal identity. This creates special strains when converts are drawn from ethnic or national religions. To answer such concerns the Mormon Church has pledged not to proselytize in Israel and is extremely careful regarding Muslims in certain countries.

In another part of this larger study I analyze various approaches to the so-called Mormon “gospel culture”, a term that emerged in the 1970s and that can be found in texts of church authorities and Mormon sociologists. The analysis shows a wide variety of ways in which a conversion, as a form of alteration in identity towards participation in a gospel culture, can be described. The descriptions range from a total overhaul to keeping the original identity with just some additions. These different views reflect the underlying religious rhetoric of the period or of the individual’s perspective, from a resolute rupture with one’s past to the most diplomatic and reassuring embrace. For outsiders, as well as for converts, it may be somewhat confusing as to what brand of identity change is expected. What does it mean, identity-wise, to become a Mormon, to become part of the “gospel culture”?

Mormons have no ethnic roots to base an identity on. The theme of adoption in the House of Israel is not in the doctrinal foreground anymore. There is no visibly recognizable “Mormon identity”, required by the Church, that an individual can display to the outside. Except for the missionaries, Mormons do not wear exterior signs which show off their faith. In that regard it is perhaps significant that temple garments are worn discreetly. Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea is what outsiders often note as one of our main characteristics, but it is not “genuinely” Mormon and can hardly be called an identity trait. All in all, on the street, in public life, Mormons do not wear on their sleeves who they are religiously. Interesting to note: more than once, abroad, a (sloppy) article on Mormons uses photos picturing Amish. The press needs a visual identity for the adherents and the confusion between the two groups — as Christians who in America have separated themselves from the world to preserve an own serene life-style on idyllic land – comes naturally.

Only on Sunday could one discern some semblance of vestimentary sameness, when the Mormon life-style extends to dress and grooming standards, especially for men wearing white shirts and ties. It seems that converts in foreign lands actually like to adopt this uniformity, as the outward manifestation of their newly found identity. Then there is of course, but hidden from the eyes of the world and only occasionally experienced by most Mormons, the homogeny in the temple, where members wear uniquely Mormon vestments. Though this does create some form of common identity, it is not comparable to the daily, public effect of a Jewish kippah or an Islamic head scarf.

In contrast to the lack of an exterior Mormon identity-look, as it pertains to individuals, it is readily asserted that the real Mormon identity is internal, namely the shared testimony of the Restored gospel, the shared spiritual experiences, the participation in the social network, in the “great worldwide family” to which we belong, etc. These elements are indeed of primordial value, but do not help to affirm and feel a physical identity as in many other religions. Moreover, this view may underestimate the importance of unique material symbols in the creation and maintenance of a religious identity for Mormons themselves. For Utah such is Pioneer Day – “one of the most important public expressions of Mormon identity” (Olsen 1996). Many Mormons of pre-correlation days, even members abroad, remember with some nostalgia other material tokens of identity – dance festivals, roadshows, Primary and MIA-symbols, medallions, bandlos, etc. The yearning for such objects probably explains the continued success of Mormon gadgets such as figurines, temple statuettes, pins, CTR-rings, necklaces, etc., but which are “non-official” and only reach a small part of the Mormon membership (and, ironically, especially those who are already part of long-standing and well-developed Mormon communities.)

To what extent do the various forms of “gospel culture” contribute to making a “Mormon identity”? Only forms that stress a significant measure of isolation and fear of the world? Can one of the broader concepts of gospel culture, which would include some, many or most good features from other cultures, still lead to a “sufficient” Mormon identity? Do we want a gospel culture that develops in converts a Mormon identity which alienates them from the host culture (and often also their non-member family), or do we prefer, at least outwardly, that they continue to blend in? Has the present correlation-era of the Church, by taking out of church life some of its substantial content as well as colorful Mormon tokens of earlier years, undermined Mormon identity or, rather, brought it to a higher level?

I have no clear answers to these questions. But I believe it is important that new converts, in particular for their retention, adopt as quickly as possible a proud, joyful, viable Mormon identity, which they also recognize as such for themselves, but which does not put them on a collision course with their non-Mormon environment.

2 – In defense of uniformity

I have always disagreed with the suggestion to somehow pluriculturalize Mormonism by determining a common, essential core and then allowing regional or national Mormonisms – Pacific, Japanese, Dutch, Siberian … – to develop around that core. There are serious drawbacks to such a proposition.

a – What would be the common, essential core? It should be more than broad generalities, but less than anything too specific. The discussion would be endless.

b – Those who propose such makeover to local cultures, are identifying them out of stereotypes. What would be “typical” Pacific, or Brazilian or Dutch? Take Dutch: the Netherlands are already a small country. But just as much divided into different zones, from Northern Friesland to Southern Brabant, with their own respective characteristics. Then, spread all over the country, the ideological puzzle: from staunch Calvinists, a dozen Protestant tendencies, over traditional and independent Catholics, to more liberal tendencies. Can we imagine what kinds of discussions the creation of a “national Dutch Mormonism” would involve? If we move to larger entities like Pacific or Brazilian, the divisions are as complex and diverse. And would it then be possible to even have a single “American Mormonism” with its own cultural identity? Mormons from California or New-York may not completely identify with Mormon culture in parts of Happy Valley… And is Happy Valley not dividable in various areas? There is just too much diversity to arrive at a “national Mormonism” once we would loosen the grip of worldwide correlation in favor of any of these.

c – Assorted forms of Mormonism would open a box of Pandora as to who is more or less orthodox, who has remained the purest to the core, who deserves not to be called Mormon anymore. Suffice it to point at such discussions within the factions in Islam or the sects in Christendom. We do not want Tutsi versus Hutu Mormons, nor Kosovar versus Serb Mormons.

d – This ties in with the preceding, one central aim of the gospel should precisely be to make nationalities and their threatening nationalisms fade away.

e – Through conversions among immigrants, the Church in many countries is already a melting pot. A relatively small ward like Antwerp (Belgium) has members from more than 30 nationalities. The membership in each of many church units across the world does not belong to one nationality or culture anymore. In fact it is in those units that a non-nationalistic, worldwide Mormon culture may be emerging. “The Church is the same all over the world” is a potent reassurance of our unity and our strength. With increasing travel for many people in the world, the assurance of finding a Mormon meetinghouse where things are familiar, where the same hymns are sung, where one feels at home, is heartening.

Correlation, control, conformity seem therefore vital as principles. As a European with long experience in the mission field, also in Africa, I recognize the value of worldwide correlation as it ensures unity. We are too young and too fragile an international Church, to take risks of fragmentation or even schisms. It is interesting to note that the Church has been extremely careful, even reluctant to enter some African countries where the probability of independent diversifications is high in view of the ease with which break-away preachers can start their own versions of a church. The Church is moving very slowly in such areas. In that respect it seems the Church is pursuing a worldwide movement of consolidating shattered pieces into centers of strength which are easier to control. Indeed, in previous years progress has sometimes been too fast and has splintered forces, horizontally in the founding of weak units, vertically in the multiplication of callings on stake and area levels with a heightened risk that such leaders micromanage people and units under them with pet-schemes. With fewer mid-level leaders and with strength concentrated in wards uniformity can be better implemented.

In relation to the preceding section (1), one should remark that identity needs uniformity, but uniformity alone does not guarantee identity. Uniformity, indeed, is an externally imposed framework, while identity is the individual response to it, in terms of acceptance and conformity. But identity is more complex than simply matching the general framework. Individuals have divergent needs and expectations, characters and backgrounds. To what extent can the Church respond to these in ways that are helpful to create balanced identities? That leads us to the next section.

3 – In search of inclusion of local culture

My preceding reflections should have convinced all that I am strongly in favor of an identical, worldwide Church. This does not, however, imply antagonistic isolation. Except for some Utah pockets, church members live among people with other worldviews. Outside the Mormon corridor in the American West, they constitute tiny minorities and belong both to a Mormon (or call it gospel) culture and a local culture, defined here in the broader sense as a totality of traits that make a distinct society – way of life, manners, traditions, art, history, language, symbols, interests – including folklore, but vastly surpassing it.

Such a local culture should not be approached by default with the rhetoric that turns it into the despicable “culture of the world”. Normally a local culture, if considered as a complex whole, contains many more good elements than bad, if we could quantify them some way or another. Moreover, the most distinctive elements will mostly be good, i.e. the ones that provide the most cohesion and identity, safety and trust, while negative ones are probably disruptive to the society itself and found all over the world in various degrees – dishonesty, adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. Only certain cultures harbor distinctive customs which are patently evil, such as domestic violence or genital mutilation. Such customs need to be eradicated.

In considering the encounter between the two so-called cultures – gospel and local –, we must first of all recognize that many features of the local culture will simply be part of members’ lives without creating any conflict. Converts can continue in all aspects of their “normal life”, except the very few elements that fall under explicit commandments like the Word of Wisdom.

But at one point we enter the gray zone. Problematic items deal with “good” customs that somehow penetrate the realm reserved for religious assessment from a Mormon perspective. Can Mormon children in Finland, dressed up as witches and wizards, participate in the beloved yearly event to trek through their neighborhood (at least as momentous as Halloween to American children), passing out willow twigs in exchange of candy or a few coins? – but this is always happening on Palm Sunday, raising a question as to Sabbath observance. Even inoffensive folklore, for the joy of the children, can thus present a challenge. There are meaningful traditions that, depending on the criteria chosen, cannot be called “contrary to” gospel principles, but would raise eyebrows if followed by Mormons. Can a Mormon Japanese family keep ancestral shrines in their home and observe Buddhist and Shinto holidays? Can converts from Judaism keep a mezuzah on their front door and at Passover continue to have the Seder ceremonial evening meal? These are questions for the privacy of their home and we may not want to interfere. Things become more sensitive when we move to church grounds. Can Latino members celebrate quinceañera – a girl’s exceptionally festive 15th birthday – with an appropriate fireside-type service in the chapel (to approximate the special Catholic Mass at this occasion)? Can Congolese members conduct a funeral service with jazzy accompaniment and dancing – so vital for their sense of community in the face of death? Can Spanish members, many of whom are converts from Catholicism who may long after the delight of the Midnight Mass, organize a Mormon variant on Christmas’ eve in the chapel? Such items are representative for what can come up in the gray zone.

I presume that in most cases the tendency will be to refuse any such cultural incursions into Mormon territory, simply because they do not match predetermined standards of acceptability. Or, in case of hesitation, better to err on the safe side and turn down requests.

But there may be reasons to be more lenient and to establish helping criteria.

a – For the individual and the family, a number of traditions belong to a cultural heritage that shapes fundamental identity within the local community. When such traditions are uplifting, joyful, reassuring, and have nothing detrimental in relation to the gospel, proscribing them could create voids that the Church cannot fill – especially since correlation has reduced the chances for socializing among members. Among these traditions are festive events celebrated all over the country (or in a certain locality), special historical remembrance dates, peculiar recipe days (when each family eats the same distinctive, delicious food), etc. Especially forms of yearly “childrens’ day”, which are celebrated in many countries in various forms and on divergent dates, connect the community through their activities and excitement. Sometimes such festivities are non-denominational (e.g. childrens’ parade on the Norwegian Constitution Day), sometimes they have a certain religious origin (e.g. Sinterklaas in Holland, la Befana in Italy). Prohibiting Mormon children to participate in such events not only can be socially upsetting to them, but may develop early on in them a rejecting, fundamentalist outlook on society as the only justification for the distance created. In contrast, being both a “good Mormon” and an integrated member of the local culture, without transgressing any norm of the Church, will most probably contribute to the construct of a balanced personality.

b – Having church members openly and naturally participate in local traditions can, certainly in critical cases, signal an important socio-political message to the host society and its leaders. The Church adheres to a strong policy of good relations with each government. But, from Mormon historical writings, not even so long ago, there is the possible negative impact that particular affirmations can have in the politico-religious realm – like promising to supplant all governments by the Kingdom of God. A religion like Islam carries, in some of its strands, the same rhetoric of future world domination and firmly rejects traditions of the “infidels”. Latent and emergent religious conflicts are sensed as potentially disastrous to many nations which have witnessed them in their history. National and regional governments look at “foreign” religions with suspicion, or outright aggressivity, in particular when these religions demand rights and facilities for their members, stressing their distinctiveness and therefore their apparent refusal to assimilate. A group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses is, in many West- and East-European countries, viewed as a sinister cult, partially because of its disturbing disengagement from the surrounding culture, refusing to celebrate days like Easter or Christmas, even banning birthday parties. Such societal disconnection is interpreted as treacherous cultic behavior. Participation in the local culture, on the other hand, is viewed as commitment to the common cause. It can happen on a neighborhood level, in the school context, through membership in cultural organizations, etc. It can also be highly visible as a public statement. I remember how, years ago, a Belgian missionwide Mormon choir participated as one of the three central choirs in a national singing festival covered by the media. The positive impact on the perception of such public involvement is incalculable.

c – Taking into account the often high internal cultural diversity of a Mormon unit abroad, with its immigrant converts from various foreign cultures, introducing these people to major traditions of the host society, can help them better integrate. Indeed, quite often these people have only the Mormon unit as their social connection point with the host society. Integration of immigrants is high on the agenda of governments. Even within its limited scope, a Mormon unit can contribute to that integration, but then it needs to include components of the local culture into its activities.

d – A fourth argument, in some cases the most important, concerns non-Mormon family members. The conversion of a family member to a “foreign” religion is, in many countries, sensed by the rest of the family as a betrayal of the deepest cultural heritage. The larger the breach in beliefs and practices between that heritage and the other religion, the more painful it often becomes. Some religions, like Jehovah’s witnesses, are accused of willfully harming those inter-familial relations by their rejection of the so-called “pagan” traditions that bind families together. In cult-investigations one of the criteria looked at concerns the severance with family and society traditions: isolation from those is considered unacceptable. So there is particular value in keeping certain local traditions alive in Mormon units abroad, where also non-Mormon family members can feel at ease when invited.

e – Dynamic connectedness of church members with the local culture allows Mormon missionaries from other countries to experience, through these members, traditions which bring them closer to the people and which can only be enriching for their own cultural horizon. This experience should, of course, transcend stereotyped folklore – an all too obvious problem when one notices the kind of memories and souvenirs some returned missionaries cherish. Understanding and appreciating a local culture requires a practical pedagogy to develop cultural sensitivity and responsiveness in its multiple facets. That way missionaries, in a guided interaction with local traditions that church members maintain, can discover and internalize more essential traits of the culture and improve their own communication with people.

If these arguments are convincing, namely to be more lenient in allowing cultural manifestations, proper to the host society, as part of local church life, some guidelines would probably be in order. The general statement sometimes made that everything can be kept that is “not incompatible with the gospel” leaves much room for interpretation and hence for inconsistent decisions and disagreements, with a high risk that nothing at all will be allowed. A first step in such guidelines could be the positioning of protective principles such as 1) the strict maintenance of our worldwide standard meetings (e.g. no local liturgical additions); 2) the clear distinction between the official church realm and the sphere of items of local culture, which are seen as temporarily and locally permitted practices. Next I can only suggest questions. Should each proposal for such practice be assessed on a one by one basis, to be approved on a multi-stake, national or regional level for the sake of coherence? Should proposals best pertain only to major cultural items that apply to large geographical entities, like Christmas’ eve services, quinceañera firesides, Childrens’ day festivities – in order to avoid fragmentation over little issues? Or should the whole matter be kept very local and casuistic, only sustained by an acknowledged greater tolerance at the top? Some will probably fear that guidelines may tend to overregulation. Others that too much freedom will lead to incongruent decisions and disarray. Whatever the viewpoint, the present lack of any parameter is not helpful either.

Finally, perhaps we need to be as concerned about local church leaders who, in order to fashion an extremely standardized and thus safe “gospel culture”, impose restrictions well into the realm of the acceptable. In some places, certainly where the Church is still young, the tendency of local leaders to enforce strict uniformity, and to micromanage their flock, can lead to the prohibition of small ancestral traditions that should be perfectly acceptable in the daily lives of members. Also here some guidelines would be welcome to counter extremes. A Church News article (03/14/98) on Nigeria mentions that a challenge for leaders “is that of helping new converts shed their tribal customs and traditions and bring their lives to conform with the culture of the gospel.” Note the contrastive approach. The article tells of members who, by giving up some (unidentified) traditions, create such a rift with their non-Mormon parents that these do not consider them their children anymore. The local church leader is quoted with the conclusion: “That creates a lot of pain, but some members have decided to do that. It is really very hard. But the members are definitely blessed for this sacrifice, because they are free from bondage.” The problem with such information is that the reader has no idea which traditions were at stake here. Were they of such a nature that a dramatic rupture with the parents was inevitable? If not, perhaps we should, like Chieko N. Okazaki suggests in Disciples (1998), pursue wisdom by looking at principles in the host society’s culture and by continuing to accept some traditions for the sake of family unity and peace. As examples she mentions how the principle of prayer allows her to pray with her mother at the Buddhist household shrine, or how the principle of family unity allows her and her husband to participate in fun Sunday afternoon activities with her extended non-Mormon family. Her conclusion: “Before you dismiss any cultural practice, think about the principle behind it, decide if this principle is one you also believe, and see if you can find a way to participate in it in a way that honors that principle.”

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Your thoughtful criticism and reflections on some of the questions raised in this post will be greatly appreciated. I am particularly interested in examples of possible inclusion of local culture into “Mormon gospel culture”.

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68 Responses to Mormon identity and culture

  1. CraigH on March 25, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Very interesting and thoughtful, Wilfried. Forgive my attention then to a small point: the desirability of liturgical sameness—I wonder how far this should go. I recall a picture in a church publication perhaps 25 or 30 years ago, showing some of the first senior missionaries in Africa, and what were they doing? Showing the locals, all gathered round, how to play a tiny electronic organ for worship, rather than traditional instruments, including drums. I had to chuckle at this, as if an organ (especially a tiny, tinny, electronic version) was inherently more reverent than a drum, as if an organ were not itself the product of a particular culture rather than an eternally true instrument for worship services. I’d allow the drums, I think.

  2. Alternate Pseudonym on March 25, 2008 at 10:59 am

    I enjoyed your essay. I don’t have any criticism or reflections, just a brief impression related to #1.

    Last year my husband and I were staying at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. The newer wing of the RMH is built on land donated by the church and our room looked down on the ward building. We were getting ready Sunday morning to go to the first bit of sacrament meeting and then up to the hospital and were standing for a minute watching people arriving at church.

    One little girl looked up at us and waved. We waved back and my husband said that the little girl had acknowledged us because we looked like her. I gave my husband a curious look. We are both descended from American and Western European converts. This little girl is of African ancestry. Nevertheless, there was truth in his statement. We all looked like members of the church. We were in church clothes, if a little more casual than normal; a tie for him and a skirt for me. She was in a dress. We looked like people she sees at church and she looked like kids we see at church.

  3. CS Eric on March 25, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I agree with the principle Sister Okazaki suggests–as long as the underlying priniciples behind the cultural activity don’t conflict with gospel principles, why not accomodate them? I don’t see why, for example, a quinceanera fireside would be any less compatible with the gospel than an American “trunk or treat” at Halloween.

    One ward I served in on my mission to Korea had an interesting adaptation of American holiday traditions. Since I am nearly white-haired blond, I was an obvious choice to dress as Santa Claus for their Christmas dinner. However, my responsibility as Santa wasn’t to pass out presents or treats like I would had it been an American ward; instead, I was the one who led the ward in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and I got to blow out the candles on the cake.

  4. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 11:23 am

    Thanks, Craig (1). The aspect of music and instruments in our service is an interesting one, and certainly not a small point. I would not too quickly opt for the drums instead of the little organ in the African setting you mention. In a religiously central Mormon meeting like a sacrament meeting music may belong to “core identity”, the “sound” of the experience, like it is in Hindu or Jewish or Islamic traditions. I agree, of course, that our music comes from typical Western protestant traditions, but it has become part of “Mormon identity”. Moreover, would the idea that “drums” should be part of an African service not reflect some of our own stereotyping? It does not mean that some local flavor could not be added. When I was in Kinshasa a few months ago, the ward had no organ nor piano (having such in the building is useless, they get stolen anyway). But a choir of a dozen local members formed “the instrument”: they sang prelude and postlude hymns, from the hymnbook, a cappella, but with a slightly emphasized beat and a little faster than usual: I thought it was a perfect blend. I was still our Mormon music, but with a touch of local culture.

    Thanks, AP (2)! Yes, indeed, a nice and moving example of Sunday-recognition of identity.

  5. Ardis Parshall on March 25, 2008 at 11:25 am

    In some places, certainly where the Church is still young, the tendency of local leaders to enforce strict uniformity, and to micromanage their flock, can lead to the prohibition of small ancestral traditions that should be perfectly acceptable in the daily lives of members.

    I was glad to finally reach this line, because I found myself wondering over and over why there should often be the tension you describe between Mormon and local culture. This *would* create tension; otherwise, I guess I don’t understand, based solely on my own experience.

    I live in Salt Lake now, but part of my teen years were spent in a part of the country where there were more RLDS than LDS (and not many of either). That’s as close as I can come to approximating the experience of a Latter-day Saint in Europe or Africa. I don’t recall ever feeling any tension between gospel culture and the surrounding culture, even as a teenager with the usual teenager need to fit in. The language was the same (minus the foul language of a few, not all, of my peers); my appearance was the same (with minor adjustments for sleeves and skirt length, which were not so extreme as to mark me as different in any way); my social activities were the same (minus the alcohol, which was by no means — then, at least — universal among high schoolers). My family celebrated all the usual holidays, including Santa Claus, and Halloween (costume choice may have been slightly affected by Mormonism). Political participation was the same. TV and movies and music were the same (or, if affected by Mormon conservatism, wasn’t extreme enough to mark me as different).

    In your “gray zone” section asking whether it would be acceptable to adopt this or that local custum, I found myself answering “of course,” to all but one, which seemed to require a change in the practice of the church itself, rather than in the cultural behavior of its members.

    I trust you that these issues really are disruptive in the cultures you are familiar with. There hasn’t been enough disruption in my life for me quite to understand the difficulty. I look forward to the comments of others who might clarify this for me.

  6. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Thanks, CS Eric (4), for that example. It is indeed an excellent example of a non-intrusive acceptance of local traditions, that do not affect the religious area as such.

    Excellent reaction, Ardis (5). Yes, more examples of borderline intrusions in the international Church will clarify. What if the local Mormon bishopric, in a Catholic country, let the children dress in white robes on Palm Sunday and enter sacrament meeting in rows, carrying palms and singing, and next take place on the stand (very similar to Catholic tradition on Palm Sunday)? What if a Christmas’ eve service would include lighting candles? What if a local tradition developed to have the members reverently stand, at the start of sacrament meeting, when the bishopric enters one minute before the meeting starts (like in a Catholic mass)? These examples are not invented: they happened in European wards. That is why I make such a difference between the common religious experience in worldwide uniformity and the possible “local culture” additions that would not be sensed as disturbing.

  7. Ardis Parshall on March 25, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Ah. I understand better, Wilfried. The adaptations you list in #6 are changes to church practice itself; I thought you were discussing the behavior (identity) of church members in their daily lives and interactions with their non-Mormon cultures and non-member families. It’s a very different thing to say “participate in your local culture” when that means your children taking part in the customs of children’s days in their schools or towns, even to say “throw a Mormon veneer on cultural practices” when that means having an evening to honor and instruct young women on their coming of age, and saying “incorporate aberrent practices into Mormon worship.”

    I don’t doubt the happenings you cite, but the line is so clear in my mind that I have a hard time comprehending how others can’t see it. (I suppose that marks me as hopelessly Utah.)

  8. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Indeed, Ardis. Problems arise when practices that are not directly part of Mormon worship, but very much part of local culture, can be judged (by local Church leaders, by more strict members) as incompatible with the Gospel. Such would include Sunday afternoon activities (e.g. family goes and plays badminton or volley in the park, as so many families do) or Word of Wisdom issues (e.g. the joining in a toast on an important festive occasion with non-Mormon family members). I am particularly interested in other borderline examples, like the “tribal traditions” in Nigeria I mentioned in the post, which I would like to see identified: were they so inacceptable to Mormon standards that they are worth the total rupture between parents and children?

  9. Brad Kramer on March 25, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I suspect that our ability to negotiate and optimize the tensions you outline here will be centrally ingredient to our ability to become a world religion in the fullest sense (i.e. in a sense that accounts for more than just statistical growth and demography).

  10. Ardis Parshall on March 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    But now you’re drawing back again, Wilfried, from behaviors that alter the church’s public worship to member behavior in their private lives (leisure activities, alcohol consumption) that may be informed by Mormon teachings but is not The Church Itself the way liturgy is. I guess I don’t understand the direction you’re going, so I’ll hush up and listen for a while.

  11. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    This discussion helps to clarify matters, Ardis. The point is that there are complex interactions on various levels. Public worship, such as a sacrament meeting, is usually well delineated and I presume mostly identical in all parts of the world (exceptions?). But there are other more or less related realms. One is the use of Church facilities for local cultural events, that may or may not be sensed as acceptable, especially if those events tie in with religious traditions from other churches. Another realm is the question to what extent certain aspects of “private life” can really be private in a Mormon gospel culture when (publicly seen) behavior is deemed “incompatible”. Here we enter that difficult gray zone with potential impact on the assessment of worthiness. I also think there is often a major difference between the overall well settled “Mormon norms” in Utah and neighbouring areas, and the situation in the maturing church abroad where converts are usually very much part of their local culture and where questions of compatibility are, in my experience, quite often raised, sometimes leading to tensions and inactivity of members. I don’t think we have really studied to what extent some problems of retention are directly tied to issues of (unbalanced, struggling) Mormon identity. I would love to hear more comments on these aspects – I myself am also trying to understand it all better.

  12. Jim Cobabe on March 25, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Certainly these are questions that Church leaders often consider in general counsel to members.

    Elder Scott addressed issues relating to culture in his April 1998 General Conference speech, Richard G. Scott, “Removing Barriers to Happiness,” Ensign, May 1998, 85.

    “Appreciation for ethnic, cultural, or national heritage can be very wholesome and beneficial, but it can also perpetuate patterns of life that should be set aside by a devoted Latter-day Saint.”

    This and similar counsel offers the guidance I choose to follow in such matters.

  13. Jim Cobabe on March 25, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    I personally have found remarkable consistency in Church congregations throughout the US, particularly in selection of local leaders from among those who have at least temporarily lived among the main Mormon population centers in Utah. BYU graduates especially seem to account for a substantial number. Perhaps these few people who predominate in select leadership positions tend to perpetuate unofficial cultural practices more representative of the Utah Mormons.

  14. Eugene V. Debs on March 25, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Are you positing Mormonism as a master status? Wouldn’t that make Mormonism an ethnicity, or at least a de facto ethnicity? Or can a Mormon participate in their local culture simply as a member of that local culture?

  15. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you, Jim (12). Indeed, authorities have spoken out on “incompatible” cultural traditions. But these always pertain to obvious aspects. Elder Scott’s talk deals with breaking the law of chastity and the word of wisdom, the domineering husband, the hereditary rights of leadership, caste systems, breeding conflict with other cultures, gangs. Very clear, no discussion. It does not address the realm where many aspects of local traditions do raise questions: allowed or not? compatible or not? Hence the divergences in interpretation by local members and leaders, and subsequent tensions, misunderstandings, feelings of cultural disruption.

    Brad Kramer (9) pinpointed it well: “our ability to negotiate and optimize the tensions you outline here will be centrally ingredient to our ability to become a world religion in the fullest sense”.

  16. East Coast on March 25, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Boy, I could stand to lose some cultural practices. Get rid of the Saturday morning Easter egg hunt. Dispose of the “Trunk or Treat.” Ditch the gaggy mother’s day candies. Cut down those intrusive activities in December. (And I won’t even mention scouts. Wait. I just did. Oops.)

    But I realize that’s just me and some people love this blend of culture and religion. And although I don’t care for some of the celebrations (especially Halloween) it’s always good to have an excuse for us and our children to get to visit with other members of the church. We need more socializing and less media. And furthermore, common social experiences can help build a network that’s so necessary in time of need.

  17. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    This will take some re-reading and some thought. Thanks for that, Wilfried D.

  18. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Eugene (14): “Are you positing Mormonism as a master status? Wouldn’t that make Mormonism an ethnicity, or at least a de facto ethnicity? Or can a Mormon participate in their local culture simply as a member of that local culture?”

    That is indeed a core issue in the Mormon rhetoric of the past decades (which I analyze in detail in the larger study). Some do posit Mormonism as the master status, the ultimate culture to which all mankind will have to conform (or at least all Mormons should form a unique, separate culture, rejecting all other cultures). Others have taken various positions of blending: retain what is good in your culture (but sometimes limiting it to harmless folklore). Still others see the gospel culture as a simple addition to all what you already have. These various positions derive from different theological, social and diplomatic perspectives. The problem is that such divergent rhetoric not only does not solve local cultural questions, but tends to exacerbate them, very strict members despising and rejecting the non-Mormon environment as a whole, while others taking more compromising positions. But all are in search of identity.

  19. David Knowlton on March 25, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    This discussion is fascinating, although somewhat unsatisfying. I think we are using too limited a notion of identity and culture. This weakness is common in most discussions of gospel culture and the gospel in culture.

    It focuses on the need for external symbols and boundaries, which you find lacking, and then look for inner features which could be the identity, which leads you to culture (whether gospel or host) and testimony. Testimony is, of course, one of the key symbols of Mormonism and a justification of being Mormons. So for Latter-day Saints its presence is necessary. But it also is a ritual. The ideological content of a testimony may be less important, one can argue, than the act of obtaining one and ritually demonstrating it with proper emotion and with proper commitment.

    In other words, a focus on an inner core or on an inner set of features misses the process that makes people LDS and keeps them LDS. It misses the role of the range of Mormon practices in creating a feeling, disposition, and commitment, rather than a set of ideas. The feeling, disposition, and commitment, arguably, are more important for personal identity than are possession of a set of externalizable beliefs.

    The discussion of gospel culture misses things like dispositions and such. It also misses practices besides hymn singing, word of wisdom, temple garments, and so on. It misses the ways language is used and the kinds of possibilities it affords people for expressing and living their realities. The silences in Mormon practice are as important as the spoken. it also misses the authority structure and the role of discipline in creating identity and commitment. This structure is invested deeply in Mormon language, not simply in an organizational chart.

    Somehow, Mormonism has been able to create itself in practice around the world. It already is part of numerous cultures. That cat is out of the bag. I think we need to look carefully to see how this is done and how it works. What are the issues, in practice, that constitute the gospel, both its key symbols and the rest of its workings that may be less commented.

    For that we might need a more complex notion of culture, both ours and others.

    I think this conversation is important because it brings us into the kinds of discussions Catholics and Evangelicals have had for a long time. Part of the difficulty in our conversation is the assumption that the gospel is a \”culture\”. We anthropologists might say it obviously is. However for Catholics that has not been sufficient. They argue, in notions of the inculturated gospel, that the gospel, i.e. the divine, enters into cultures. It is the constant as something beyond human time and space.

    This is a strong philosophical position. By arguing gospel culture we are arguing the gospel is earthly and human, or that God has a culture. In either case we might want to work through the implications of those ideas for any notion of a gospel culture.

  20. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you, David! Much appreciated. You lead the discussion to a conceptual level, which opens a broader discussion. I select a few passages from my larger study (sorry for not including all biblio-references, please ask if needed).

    At a 1976 BYU symposium on the gospel in the world John Sorenson already took exception to the use of the term “culture” as an identity marker related to the gospel. His wariness stems from the multiple meanings that can be given to the term “culture” and from the fact that people have multiple cultures, pertaining to e.g. gender, family, age, profession, social level, region. That may lead, within groups, to “similarities in behavior, thoughts, and worldview”, but on an individual level these similarities will vary according to the circumstances. Sorenson concludes: “I do not think that culture, as that term is used by most social scientists, is the same thing as the gospel. I do not think there is a gospel culture as such. Ultimately, I believe culture will be transcended when men have the spirit of truth in its fullness” (1978:31, see also Sorenson 1973).

    In other words, this is the most exclusive paradigm: there is the gospel, and all the rest is culture, because the gospel by definition transcends all cultures which are man-made.

    Note that already in an April 1928 conference talk Elder Levi Edgar Young contrasted human cultures, such as the Greek or the Roman, with the gospel, which he defined as a non-culture: “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a scheme of culture or a system of philosophy; but a Religion, fulfilling the law and the prophets, enforcing the obligations of duty, and pointing to the glory of the Cross.”

    In a 1979 Ensign article on “bridging cultural differences”, Eric B. Shumway notes: “But gone are the days when we saw the gospel as a culture itself, usually characterized by the life-style and psychological references of the Wasatch front. We really do believe now that the gospel embraces a set of spiritual values that transcends the mere emotional allegiances to the ways things are said and done in a particular environment.”

    Such a view ties in with the more fundamental outlook of how the gospel had to unshackle itself from Jewish culture to become a-cultural: “For Paul, the law of Moses was no longer a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, it was merely a sign of cultural identity for the Jewish Christians—and the implicit message of Paul’s teachings is that the separation between gospel and culture should be maintained when one takes the gospel to the world” (Strathearn 1994).

    Of course, we must realize that such a conceptual discussion, for all its worth, does not answer the hic et nunc concerns of members living in local cultures and trying to forge a viable Mormon identity.

  21. CraigH on March 25, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I don’t understand how gospel can ever be separated from culture, so I’m not sure it’s a practical or even necessary ideal to strive for. I understand what is meant by it, because we say all the time, well that’s culture not the gospel. But if there are humans involved, then there will be culture, it seems to me, because all religions takes specific forms. I don’t think that necessarily makes a form “untrue,” because it’s tied to something cultural. I do think it’s worth trying to distinguish between the “essence” and “accident” of a tradition or rite or custom or belief, but only so that we can then translate the essence to, or locate it it, another culture, not because we think we can transcend culture. I’m open to the theoretical possibility, I suppose, but I don’t see it happening as long as humans are involved. Religion will always take particular forms—whether in words, traditions, or what have you.

  22. bbell on March 25, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Hi Wilfried,

    This morning in my kids school I was walking down the hallway and was greeted by a member of my ward. She was 7 and her name was Udom. Her family is from Nigeria and she was wearing some traditional African clothes. She told me that my childs plastic football helmet was at her house and that her mom and new baby brother were still in the hospital.

    “Mormons have no ethnic roots to base an identity on”.

    In think now in 2008 this is a true statement. I am far far more connected to Udom from Nigeria then I will ever be to the Anglo or Latino kids passing us in the hall. Our common LDS identity seems to overcome our obvious cultural/racial differences.

  23. Ellis on March 25, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    #16 Eastcoast clearly doesn’t have the parochial Wasatch front view of things. It is on the Wasatch front as well as in Idaho and Arizona that the quintessential Mormon culture flourishes. It is infuriating to residents not of our faith and comforting to those that are. In some measure it is dependent upon, if not dictated by, what is acceptable to the hierarchy. For some of us it touches every aspect of our lives right down to influencing decisions that are better left to individuals.

    It is kind of difficult to put ones finger on exactly how it is manifest, but everyone living on the Wasatch front can recognize it right away. Let me suggest that one of the manifestations of it is the celebration of mediocrity. Along with an almost irrational fear of living outside the shadow of the everlasting hills. We strive for perfection in areas where we know it is impossible to attain and settle for less than our best when it comes to areas where practice, practice, practice, education, hard work and high standards of performance make it virtually reachable.

    When people do leave, come east and achieve modest success in the “world” they return to accolades that far exceed what they have achieved. A person with a walk on role at the Metropolitan Opera becomes a star. A section player in a major orchestra is transformed into one of America’s most accomplished.

    Before one can see what Mormon culture really is one needs to understand something about other cultures. There is a whole lot more out here than most Mormons know anything about. And it would be nice if they would learn not clap between movements of a symphony or stand up for a substandard performance of any kind just because it is performed by someone from Utah.

  24. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Well, that’s the irenic view . . .

  25. Ray on March 25, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Wonderful post, Wilfried. I wish all bishops and stake presidents could read it, if only for the challenge to understand the basic issues you outline.

    Just a couple of generic thoughts:

    Article of Faith 12 — “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” – I think we nearly always define this too narrowly. I agree completely with the idea of tension between the spiritual and the cultural – and the need to consider it in all things, but I would err on the side that says, “If there is no demonstrable negative, it is a positive.”

    Moroni 7 — “that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.
    Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
    And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.
    Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.

    I understand that the verses I did not quote add an elemental focus on Christ which can be problematic for some, but the basic point appears to me to be that we need to fight the natural tendency to label good as bad – thereby missing an expansiveness that can add richness to life and unite rather than divide. The admonitions about calling evil good are important, but, in this chapter, they appear to be a necessary subordinate to the overall objective of avoiding getting narrow-minded and exclusionary.

    1 John 4:18 — “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”

    Again, I think we err far too often on the side of rejection (usually out of fear of the result) and end up calling evil that which is good.

    I served my mission in Japan. The issue of ancestral shrines came up regularly. One of the bishops where I served said the following, to the best of my memory:

    “‘Ancestor worship’ is a terrible translation of what our shrines mean to us. We do not ‘worship’ our ancestors in the way that gaijins usually assume. We honor them for their influence on our lives – for their dedication and love and service – for the connectedness we feel long after death. Our shrines are like our personal temples, places that show our desire to turn our hearts to them and recognize that their hearts are turned to us. How much more Mormon can you get than that?”

  26. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    bbell (22), that was a very nice addition to our discussion. Thank you!

    Ellis (23), I can relate to what you say! And indeed, it ties in with cultural identity. However, we’ll leave this topic for another discussion some day, as we try to focus here mainly on Mormon culture abroad.

  27. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Thank you, Ray (25), for reminding us of those basic principles in the Scriptures. They do indeed deal with culture and our openness to what is good in cultures. Also, the example from Japan is revealing: much depends on how concepts are understood. This is also what Chieko Okazaki stresses: look at the principle behind a custom.

  28. Ray on March 25, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Wow, some words still come to mind automatically, even after more than 20 years. “Gaijins” means “foreigners” (“different people”).

  29. Jason J on March 25, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the excellent post, Wilfried. I’ve thought of these issues a good deal, and appreciate your insights.

    I am especially interested in the role of music in forming a Mormon identity. As you mention in an earlier comment, our musical tradition is basically borrowed from Protestants. While I love the hymns of the Church, I don’t believe that they exhaust sacrament appropriate music. And yet, I agree with the Church’s efforts to encourage members to stick to the hymnbook in church meetings. (As an aside, I find it extremely vexing that these guidelines are almost always invoked on the local level to keep classical music out of our meetings, while Mormon pop arrangements and originals somehow seem to slip in on a regular basis.)

    My question then is how much should the Church seek to incorporate appropriate cultural music in the Church hymnbook? I know that the Italian hymnal includes some hymns we don’t have in the English version – most notably Verdi’s soaring chorus “Va Pensiero” from Nabucco. The Verdi chorus seems to perform the same function that the patriotic American hymns and “God Save the King/Queen” do in the English version. Should the Church only consider one or two patriotic hymns for each language, or should we include other appropriate music as a nod to the uplifting and sacred that we find in various local cultures?

    I am especially interested in African American spirituals, as it has been suggested that many African Americans have a hard time making the transition from black churches to Mormon congregations. Would it not be appropriate to include a handful of well-known spirituals in future English hymnbooks? “Were You There?,” “Amazing Grace,” and even “Go Tell It on the Mountain” would be great additions. (If you think my last suggestion is at all irreverent, please explain “Scatter Sunshine” and “Called to Serve” – or the Missionary Fight Song as I like to call it.)

    Music is an extremely powerful source of religious and cultural identity, and I’m sure many might object to such additions. I just spoke with a Jewish friend yesterday who told me that the organ at his temple is very controversial, because many of his fellows have felt the use of piano and organ in their worship seems to bring them too close to Christian worship. You mentioned instruments in a previous comment, but what are your thoughts on hymns? Would it be wise to reach out to local cultures with a few appropriate additions to the hymnbook while, of course, holding fast to our beloved (and largely Protestant) musical tradition?

  30. David Knowlton on March 25, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Wilfried,

    I definitely look forward to your manuscript. It sounds rich and quite useful, in its overview of the gospel/culture issue.

    You mention the conceptual issues. I am not exactly sure that they are conceptual, because they go to the “hic et nunc concerns of members living in local cultures and trying to forge a viable Mormon identity.”

    Those very issues of Mormon, or Saints, versus what does not pertain to that domain and is acceptable, and what is definitely not acceptable depends on some classification scheme based on some sort of principles. Culture, and the gospel, as operationalized by members is very relevant here, as is a categorical critique to help aide the process.

    I think, though, there is a problem in the way culture is understood by all concerned. John Sorenson justifiably discussed his critiques, as per the time, by mentioning issues of diversity. Much more thought since then has gone into understanding culture, as you know. That is why I mentioned dispositions. One can also talk of embodiment, discourses, and other concepts.

    In other words, a culture is not merely a set of practices, symbols, or ideas. I wonder where and how, in practice people’s Mormonism meets their host society, whether here in Utah, in Belgium, Bolivia, or Benin. May I suggest that the Spirit, not as idea, but as something deeply grounded in people’s experience of their bodies, is one of the key ways people encounter their societies. It is supposed to help them discriminate between what is “good” and what is not.

    People also talk about these things. They are the object of Priesthood power, and not always for clear gospel reasons, though the Church and gospel may be invoked. But in the talking they are limited by what is sayable and not in Mormon speech at the same time they face issues with their own languages in terms of sayability and authority.

    I would love to learn more how people in parts of Asia and Africa, who are Latter-day Saints deal with ancestral worship and ancestral spirits. It is easy to say no to ideas and defined practices, not so easy to say no to dispositions and issues of embodiment. Maybe people define a particular portion of the complex as untenable, so they can throw that from them, while letting the rest be in the new context.

    Pentecostalism is known for its all out assault on indigenous cosmologies and metaphysics. Yet, as various students have pointed out, the issue is not so simple. Logics and dispositions from indigenous ways are continued in Pentecostal congregations. Mormonism probably does not engage in such an all out assault. All the more reason therefore to look at how people actually worry about your “hic et nunc concerns of members living in local cultures and trying to forge a viable Mormon identity”.

    Love this conversation.

    david

  31. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Would it be wise to reach out to local cultures with a few appropriate additions to the hymnbook while, of course, holding fast to our beloved (and largely Protestant) musical tradition?

    Good thought. Most of the Spanish members loved “oid el toque del clarin,” (“hear the sounding of the trump”) which was one of the few hymns that weren’t originally English. It has not been translated into English. You cannot make a film of smiling faces from many nations singing it each in their own tongue. But the mere fact that the Spaniard saints had a *hymn*, that they *loved*, made them culturally closer to us American saints.

  32. Jason J on March 25, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    I always thought Paul had a bit to say about discipleship and culture. As I understand him, Paul was a Roman citizen, a Jew, a Pharisee, eventually Christian, and was probably born in Turkey — quite the puzzle of conflicting cultural identities. He understood cultural identity pretty well and gave a decent sermon on how to handle culture as disciples of Christ.

    In 1 Cor. 9:

    18 What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without a charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
    19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself a servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
    20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
    21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
    22 To the weak became I as a weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
    23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

    Paul was so concerned with adapting to local customs that he had Timothy circumcised when he took him to preach to the Jews, b/c they all knew Timothy’s father was a Greek. (See Acts 16: 1-3). On the other hand, Paul apparently confronted Peter (can you imagine an apostle calling out the Prophet these days?) because the latter had separated himself from the uncircumcised gentiles, even though Peter himself had received the revelation that circumcision and Jewishness were no longer predicates to receiving the gospel. (Gal. 2: 11-16 (“why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”).

  33. HCJ on March 25, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    I read your analysis with fascination. I can’t claim to speak authoritatively on any of it, but I have some thoughts on how I understood some of what you said.

    I live in Russia. Within the last five weeks, I have attended a branch in Italy where my sister lives and services are conducted completely in Italian, and I attended our district Relief Society conference which was conducted in Russian and English. It was an amazing experience to sit in RS where I could only intellectually understand the Italian words that resembled what little Spanish I remember from college, but the Spirit was strong and comforting. I felt so at home and tied to those sweet sisters. What peace! The meeting followed the pattern of virtually every RS I’ve been in across the world. In my home district, our RS conference was every bit as “Mormon” as the Bologna experience. We talked about testimony and conversion. We sang the hymns from the green hymnbook in both English and Russian. We prayed together. We talked about our goals–stronger individual testimony, stronger families, seeking the Spirit, reaching out to inactives. In two weeks I am travelling again. I hope we can find a branch in Riga where we will be visiting. I know that should the opportunity arise, when we hear the sacrament hymns in a Latvian branch in an unfamiliar language, the melodies will be familiar and the Spirit the same as I have previously experienced in Italy, in England, in Israel and now in Russia on a weekly basis. The uniformity helps me feel a connection to my LDS brothers and sisters no matter where I go.

    To me, the “uniformity” of practice, routine and ritual is such a gift. For some converts, it is sometimes the emptiness of the religious rituals they find elsewhere that sends them searching for the gospel. Why continue to celebrate some of those holidays or continue their practices if they are trying to break away from the past? I heard one sister talk about how a negative experience in a Russian Orthodox church ritual is what drove her to Mormonism. Sometimes (not always) Western concerns about multi-culturalism become absurd when looked at from the perspective of non-Western converts, especially those who want to make a statement about changing their lives by doing things differently. Sometimes, cultural practices, whether they seem harmless or not, prevent people from letting go of their “old lives” that they are attempting to grow past as members of the church. One of my neighbors who lived in Africa for three years told me about how he saw the gospel helped break down tribal barriers and traditions that were the source of long feuds and anger. This sameness, knowing that wherever you go you are part of a greater church family that “behaves” a lot like you, isn’t always such a bad thing. How culture and tradition carry on in our homes/neighborhoods/communities is something that has to be approached with prayer and an eye to the Brethren’s council. This may ultimately be a more appropriate way to respect heritage without attaching it to the way a ward or branch conducts its meetings or activities.

    To me, as a Utah Mormon born and raised, it can be hard to return to the US and see how much the members want to embellish their LDS identities by embroidering gospel practices to compensate for the lack of outward identity. I love my LDS brothers and sisters in more developed parts of the world (I’m especially thinking Western US here); their enthusiasm and generosity is contagious. Still…the pagentry of some missionary farewells, the fancy first communion-like “baptism” dresses and elaborate parties and gifts–sometimes the rituals around temple sealings become so extreme and involved that the simplicity of the sealing ordinance is buried. Don’t get me wrong–there is nothing wrong with celebration, tradition and expressing our happiness with parties and fun especially as it builds family ties. But when the significance of the ordinance is overwhelmed by the accompanying celebration, or when the handbook stated purpose for an activities (yes YW leaders, I’m looking at you :) ) and/or meeting is stampeded by lots of “stuff,” often something is lost.

    What I have seen is the sometimes the desire to compensate for a lack of outward identity can blunt the sweet simplicity of the gospel in action. What uniformity does is hold us together without traditions that can sometimes distract us from higher purposes. This is all my small, humble opinion that has come from my personal experiences. I don’t expect to speak for anyone and I’m not arguing that one side or another is better. Simply put, my experience, especially internationally, has been that the Brethren seem to know what their doing when they ask us to run the church a certain way. I don’t always know why. As a classical music fanatic who would love nothing more than to hear selections from the “Elijah” oratorio every week in Sacrament meeting, there have been times I have scratched my head over the music issues. But I have also experienced measurable blessings–and seen others lives blessed with “uniformity.”

  34. DavidH on March 25, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    “Uniformity” in the Church can, indeed, be helpful for people who travel or who move.

    A more difficult question is whether the template of our worship services is the most effective in meeting the needs of members from different backgrounds and different areas of the Church. The fact that, as a white, western US Mormon, I find comfort in attending a meeting elsewhere in the world that, but for the language, is the same as at home (including, perhaps, mostly white shirts and ties on men), does not answer that question for me.

  35. Wilfried on March 25, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Interesting comments, all.

    Jason (29) raises the question of our musical identity. From my personal background (Belgian, convert at age 17), the Mormon hymns I discovered were culturally “different” from my Catholic background, but I embraced and cherished them as part of my emerging Mormon identity. I presume that for many converts, from whatever country or culture, the adoption of the hymns is tied to the conversion process and therefore not a major cultural problem. On the other hand, the inclusion of some original Flemish songs (like Christmas carols) in our Dutch hymnbook is appreciated by locals. At the same time I know of a few Belgian members, musically trained, who do not like some of the hymns. I presume music and cultural identity have also much to do with taste and education. But I also agree with Gladys Knight (quoting from memory) that we could need some more life and schwung in our Mormon singing. Go, Saints Unified Voices! Am I wrong when I think that members abroad sing louder and with more gusto than in some Utah wards?

    David (30), lots of food for thought! Yes, I must concede, the conceptual considerations do touch upon the hic et nunc perspective. In my study I deliberately avoid (at least up to now) to try to give an own definition of culture — much too complex and I am not a sociologist or anthropologist — , but I quote others in their approaches to culture and gospel culture. Interesting diversity. As to elements that probably constitute parts of our so-called gospel culture I mentioned in my post on “How American is the Church”, also “American” ideological and behavioral realms — I believe there is still a lot to discover and analyze there.

    Jason (32), thanks for those additions from the New Testament. Paul and his vision on the gospel and on cultural adaptations have been a source for many studies. I wonder how he would look at the Gospel through Mormonism in the world today.

    HCJ (33), what a great contribution! You expressed beautifully the values of worship uniformity and the importance of simplicity. Our ability to see and feel the core is a worldwide binding element.

    DavidH (34), the question you raise is important. But it strikes me that members in foreign lands seem to adopt the template of our worship services without problems, probably because it is such a strong identity marker. Adopting a new religion includes adopting the worship format. The conversion process should entail enjoying the worship otherwise there would be a disturbing factor from the beginning! As such I believe our service format meets the same needs, even in different cultural backgrounds. At the same time — I believe we should concede that also –, some less pleasant aspects of some meetings (too long hours, boring lessons…) will probably be shared all over the world as well!

  36. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 25, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    As an aside, could you do a riff like http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/page/2/ only based on Mormons? I think that while you might be able to do it for some idealized happy valley stereotype, it would be much harder to do than it was for that site, all for the reasons you point out.

  37. Jim Cobabe on March 26, 2008 at 11:23 am

    I encountered an interesting aspect of cultural disparity this week.

    Our ward choir sang an Easter piece this Sunday. I was distracted all the time practicing and performing the song because it was written with Spanish alternative verse, and I noticed that the translated lyrics did not have the same literal meaning. For some reason that bothered me. (In fact my impression is that some of the Spanish lyrics were better.)

    Apparently this is a sort of mechanical problem with versifying a musical score, and attempting to arrange words that fit the flow and rhythm of the notes. This must be a common problem with correlated musical that does not translate effectively into language other than American English. I can see why native speakers of other languages might be less satisfied with traditional hymns from our hymnbook, as opposed to their local favorites.

  38. Wilfried on March 26, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Sounds like an interesting topic for a thesis, Jim! “Doctrinal differences in hymns translations …”

    I must say that — at least in the few languages I know — translations have been done very well. It is indeed quite a challenge to preserve the message, the poetic language, the rhymes… and still render it authentically sounding in the target language.

    As to “liking” the traditional Anglo-saxon protestant hymns, I think that the vast majority of converts, from whatever background, love most of the hymns, as these are part of the conversion experience, the discovery of the gospel and of Mormon worship. Hymns like O my Father and Come, come ye saints must evoke, in the minds of converts, sacred memories of their first encounter with them.

  39. CS Eric on March 26, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I like the discussion that some of the hymns can be cultural markers. I had the privilege of spending many hours with a man who was one of the missionaries who was serving in Germany when Hitler came to power and had to leave on very short notice. It was both chilling and inspiring to hear him tell that the way the missionaries identified themselves to each other in the crowded train stations was by humming or whistling “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

  40. jrl on March 26, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I am not as experienced or wise as most of the commenters on this blog, but I have thought about this a lot. I just want to suggest what I think should be a cardinal rule for Mormon culture. Like others have suggested, it comes from Paul. When we come into the church, we should become “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19. To use this as a rule for Mormon culture would be to judge our approbation and prohibition of any cultural practice, tradition, belief, etc., by two measures: the first, most obvious one has been mentioned – whether it conflicts with the commandments. The second is whether our approval or disapproval of this tradition, etc., helps or hinders all in feeling that they are no longer strangers, but part of the household of God. In application, we would judge an activity not by whether it is what Mormons have traditionally done, but by 1) whether it is consistent with the commandments and 2) whether forbidding or discouraging it runs the risk of making some members (new or not-so-new) of our household feel like strangers. I am sure that there are problems with this approach, but I will throw it out to those here that are much wiser than me.

    Another thought – I am sure that most members have noticed that every time the Ensign features original art, it includes artwork from lots of members outside of North America – the Tree of Life depicted as a traditional Japanese print, or an ordination portrayed in African folk art style. I think this is an effort to make more members of the Church feel like fellow citizens.

    Finally, because Mormon culture is so American, I think it is just as useful to focus on what parts of American culture Mormons have accepted that we should get rid of. My pet peeves – bachelor parties. Why in the world does a Mormon groom have a bachelor party? Consumerism – I live close to LDS bookstores, and every time I go, I love to see all of the stuff there is for Mormons. But at the same time, I always end up asking myself “Why do Mormons buy so much STUFF???”

  41. Adam Greenwood on March 26, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    It was both chilling and inspiring to hear him tell that the way the missionaries identified themselves to each other in the crowded train stations was by humming or whistling “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

    That’s crazy, because a couple of times I’ve met people who I suspected were Mormon and instead of asking them right out, during a lull in the conversation I aimlessly started humming Come, Come Ye Saints. Worked both times.

  42. Wilfried on March 26, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    And so, better not move too quickly to “local hymns” that would be better adapted to the local culture…. I agree, CS Eric and Adam!

    jrl (40), thanks for that excellent summary of assessment principles for cultural acceptance. It’s all we need to strive for — to be “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”

  43. BHodges on March 26, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    This is one of the most interesting discussions I’ve ever read on the Bloggernacle. I don’t really know what to say right now, I just marathon’d through all the comments and am a little overwhelmed.

    We are singing “Come, come ye Saints” but maybe need to be more (or less?) specific on what they carry with them.

  44. BHodges on March 27, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Wilfried: I strongly urge you to read the following sermon by Parley Pratt regarding traditions, unity, customs, etc.

    A Visit, By P. P. Pratt, to the Southern Settlements—The Power of the Priesthood—Union Among the Saints—A Miracle. A Discourse by Elder Parley P. Pratt, Delivered in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, June 29, 1856. Reported By: J. V. Long.

    Here is the link:

    http://scripturesbeta.byu.edu/jod/jodhtml.php?vol=04&disc=03

    An excerpt:

    “It is really so long since I was among the sectarian world, that I had almost forgotten that I was a sectarian of any kind, and that I was a political partisan of any kind. I have been so long removed from those scenes which characterize the numerous parties of the world, I had almost forgotten whether there was a whig or democratic party, or whether parties existed; I say, I had almost forgotten whether I had ever belonged to any sect or party, and I had almost forgotten my nationality. It is true that I do not speak a different language from what I did in the world, but I had almost forgotten that, but I feel that I am with the Priesthood, and with all good men, I am one with them, to be used nationally, politically, morally, and religiously, to hold fast our faith, to build up a righteous people from every country, to preach and establish righteousness, and union, and peace, to all people in every country, for the benefit of all men that will obey it, without regard to persons.”

  45. Wilfried on March 27, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Excellent, BHodges. Thanks!

    Older Mormon texts often show some ambiguity as to their view towards the rest of the world, on the one hand the desired purifying isolation (with the sometimes inherent outpouring to all nations that they may become similar), on the other hand some “envy” when considering “cultured people” of the world — whereby culture is seen as educational and artistic, hence the desire to also bring those values into Zion.

    Most occurrences of the term “culture” (applied to humans, not to agriculture) in older Mormon texts, even up to the middle of the 20th century, point to the “refinement and culture prevalent among the rich”, in particular with reference to education, as Brigham Young used it in discourses in 1869 and in 1874. “Culture” as a particular civilization appears in many Mormon texts mentioning e.g. the Aztec, Maya, Greek, Italian etc. cultures. Note that the expression “culture of the world” had a positive ring in that period (in contrast to the present connotation in many Mormon texts). Preston Nibley (1936) lauded George Q. Cannon with: “He grew in knowledge, in ability, in strength of character; in his varied travels he absorbed the culture of the world, which he used for the purpose of promulgating his religion.” The May 1937 Improvement Era editorial extols the pioneer Bowen family with: “Though living under pioneer conditions, they drank the culture of the world from books of classic merit, and from sacred volumes they garnered the meaning of life.”

    My study of the concepts is thus for a large part also semantic. Interesting to see how terms change in meaning over time.

  46. Jon E on March 28, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Wilfred,

    Very interesting post. I would like to articulate my thoughts as I read:

    On the topic of nationality/culture, a recent bit of research came to mind that was presented by a man from India. In my profession of Urban Planning, there is a concept known as the Neighborhood Unit Concept. It is a functional concept of development based on central social/cultural structure and mixed uses in a bounded area. Everything is proportionally measured and arranged to supposedly provide great convenience, diversity and importantly, “social glue”. What is interesting is that this planning practice, being coined in the 1970′s by a man named Perry at the University of Chicago, is not original. Although it was coined by this man and put in wonderfully simple charts and graphs for it’s perpetuation, it is evident in archeology dating back to the first settlements.

    An interesting phenomenon takes place in the formally planned neighborhoods of India. While the area is zoned and planned in strictly conceptual terms, over time, the uses for which land was planned are changed illegally, but permissibly by the public. Shrines are built on open space ad parks that are not allowed, more housing is developed where there ought to be none, and most interestingly, informal (illegal) villages spring up on the outer boundary of the formal, planned neighborhood. The informal villages house the service people of the formal neighborhood for the most part. These informal villages are, at first, a burden on land and resources of the formal village. However, they are soon incorporated and declared ‘formal’- part of the neighborhood- as are the shrines and other developments. When this occurs, the Outlying villages change from little more than shanties to multi-level housing and construction reflecting the developments in the formal areas. After a while, there is no apparent difference culturally, socially, or economically.

    What was once a strict pattern of development behavior and priorities as well as regulated cultural order, takes on a life of it’s own, based on the priorities and culture of the users rather than the use. The gaps are filled by acceptable cultural alternatives. Some planners would see this as problematic- a failure to constrain development and perhaps guide culture. Others would see a triumph of heritage and identity over control. In the end, I think the lesson to be taken is that bounds may be set, and some structure provided, but regardless of intentions and plans, culture manifest itself, possibly painfully.

    I hope the analogy is apparent. The church is boundaries and principles set in a structure of ordinances, authority, and duties. I do not believe there is one way to arrange people or culture around those things and in the gaps that exist in that structure. In my experiences as a missionary in Russia, the church there was Russian. The rituals, rites, and ordinances were all the same, but the types of duties and ways duties were carried out simply carried a different flavor. And I do not think the Church functions any other way. Basic structure always remains intact, though culture is free to be expressed, if not expected to be expressed.

    You raise a very important issue with the adoption of Gospel culture being often at odds with hereditary culture: the case being when one joins the Church, one is subsequently disowned. This is something that has always bothered me. What about Gospel culture demands such polemic behavior? Or is it more the fault of the ignorance of heredity? I think the later is more true.

    I read Christ’s words in Matthew 10: “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother…” Firstly, Jesus Himself states that His Gospel will have such an effect.
    However, I do not see that we ought to look to ourselves to be the sword Jesus speaks of. That is not a part of our culture. The Church membership has a different role to play than does the Savior and I think we sometimes see our work as His work and vice versa, which gets us into more trouble than is necessary.

    Regardless, the choice is given to people to come unto Christ and often, the concept of joining the Mormon Church and the Gospel that it represents is a sword that cuts through family ties. I don’t see this as an outright rejection of hereditary culture, though. I think the basis of such a split is often more elementarily based on prejudice without any plausible arguments for the destruction of hereditary culture. Every culture values choice and freedom and striving (except when suppressed). Past traditions, based on religious traditions, often suffer, but are also often replaced by similar opportunities. And by no means is a member of the Church forbidden to attend any other church for any reason in support of hereditary traditions, a behavior that would most likely be more acceptable by the Lord for its Christian nature than simply turning one’s back to those things as if Satan dwelt there. We are to seek anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.

    Again, wonderful post. Hopefully what I contributed is thought-provoking in some way.

  47. Wilfried on March 28, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Jon E. At the heart of the discussion. Thank you so much.

    Indeed, Christ’s words, as to sending a sword and not peace, remind us of the difficult aspect of connotation. I can understand Christ’s words because the reality is indeed so, when one looks at the family conflicts conversion often entails. Christianity invading Jewish, Greek, Roman cultures tore families apart. In many cases not as a conflict between good and evil, but between cultural identities. It shouldn’t be that way as the gospel preaches love and understanding, but we are not asked to give up our conversion for the sake of family unity. That’s a paradox difficult to handle.

    Closely tied to this is our ambivalent Mormon rhetoric. We have sermons that preach abhorrence of “the world” (with as connotation it’s evil — adultery, addictions, dishonesty…), and we have sermons encouraging us to embrace “the world” (with as connotation all the good that others can offer us). The problem sometimes is that the connotations are not sufficiently clarified, hence conflicting interpretations. This is particularly true in the gray zone when it comes to “customs” and “traditions”. If we do not clarify what is meant, local leaders and members can interpret anything their own way. And people struggle with identity.

    Your last paragraph summarizes it well: conversion does not imply “an outright rejection of hereditary culture”. Whatever in that culture is “virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy” is all right. Now we sometimes just need to better define what is acceptable or not. The example of the unidentified Nigerian family custom comes to mind… If it pertains to genital mutilation, it’s no. But what if it pertains to some “pagan” ritual honoring ancestors ?

  48. Cicero on March 29, 2008 at 3:01 am

    This is going off on a bit of a tangent.

    But the comment about “Come, Come, Ye Saints” being a touchstone of Mormon culture made me think of an interesting experience I had on my mission.

    Holly Rimer had just decided to be baptized, when her brother invited her to come hear him give the sermon at her old Baptist church (that she had not attended in years). This was a big deal of course as her brother was not clergy (although he was considering entering a ministerial school and had been studying with the pastor for several months).

    Well, Holly decided she had to go to support her brother and decided to invite us (her missionaries) to attend as well. Of course it was a set up- the pastor had assigned her brother to add an anti-Mormon segment to his sermon. Holly was pretty upset about it, although Crawford and I smoothed it over, and complimented him (her brother, who we talked with after the sermon) on the other portions of his sermon.

    That wasn’t the interesting experience though. While we waiting for the sermon to begin I took out the Baptist hymnal and was shocked to discover “Come, Come, Ye Saints” inside. The verse about “far away in the West” had been omitted, and there were a few tweaks to the lyrics, but it was mostly unchanged and with the familiar tune.

    Another issue about Mormon culture affecting American culture is the sudden popularity that families and marriage continue after death. My mother tells me that when she was growing up this was not common belief (she was a Community Church member), and that she identifies the appearance of that idea in mainstream American culture with the release of the original “Battlestar Galactica”

    I think the reverse effect of Mormon Culture on surrounding cultures also needs attention.

    On the main topic of Mormon vs local culture- why has no one mentioned the common wearing of the lavalava by Tongan and Samonan Mormons? Heck, I know missionaries who went to Tonga and their mission pictures half the time show them wearing the lavalava.

  49. John Mansfield on March 31, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Brother Wilfried, a couple years back I wrote a post on this topic, “Forget About the Swiss Guard, Think of What?” You perhaps may find some of the thoughts there interesting.

  50. Wilfried on April 2, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Thank you, John! Indeed, excellent thoughts, from which I quote with total approval:

    “… maybe we lean on a church culture more than we care to admit, and a reticence to recognize and embrace a church culture as such leaves converts with nothing in place of what they’ve lost.”

    “A few thousand people embedded among many millions need deep roots to hold a persistent identity, roots held in common with others of their kind in the other nations. Likewise, Mormons are too few almost everywhere to have an identity isolated from Mormonism as a whole.”

  51. Jonovitch on April 3, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Wilfried (35), my experience with many wards in Minnesota, Utah, and Germany is that the Germans by far outsing the Americans, regardless of branch/ward size. Hands down. No contest.

    Also, Americans mumble their “amen”s. Germans tend to “amen” at the end of prayers with enough force that it could knock an unsuspecting American visitor out of his chair and onto the shiny hardwood floor.

    jrl (40), the exuberance of the Mormon Marketplace is rampant in the American West. It’s as if some of the Saints try to buy their way into good standing — you’re not a true believer if you don’t have random pieces of Mormon art/games/books/junk (emphasis on that last one) strewn across the house. (Litmus test: how many of your friends have read every volume of the Work and the Glory series? And how many have read through the Holy Bible?) There are plenty of profiteers who through their music “set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise” and through their writing “preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning” while they “put down the power and miracles of God” (2 Ne 26).

    To bring this back on topic, I get the feeling (through personal experience as well as second-hand anecdotes) that international members see the Mormon Stuff when they visit the Saintly Shoppes in Utah and return with suitcases full of Things to distribute to friends and family in an effort to appear more Mormon, as if the role becomes easier to play if you have more props. The crappiest of the crap is thankfully weeded out before it makes it overseas, but I have still noticed some spillover.

    I hope that Saints around the world can feel like they truly belong without feeling the need to hang a Del Parson portrait by the front door or stockpile CDs of the best of Kenneth Cope in the car. Unfortunately, members who are new or live in far flung places tend to want to behave like the central, stalwart veterans of the faith, and might end up overdoing their emulation to the point of forgoing their amazing local cultural creations and replacing it with sub-standard American West marketed kitsch.

    Jon

  52. Jonovitch on April 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    On the other hand, I just remembered that my wife told me a few years ago that her friends and family (in Germany) didn’t view Mormon Stuff as kitsch, but rather that it was something — anything — new and different from the “Church” (using that term very loosely here).

    They didn’t get much as far as Church materials (or other Mormon trash-n-trinkets) were concerned over there — in East Germany they were especially deprived before the Wall fell. And so they were grateful for anything they could get their hands on, crap or not. And to some extent they still are.

    Of course, considering the overly synthesized, syrup-drippy, oom-pah garbage that passes for folk music in Germany these days (or the techno-noise that passes for music in general) I can’t say that their cultural judgments are in the best taste. And that makes me question whether importing a few Americanisms, even if sub-par, is necessarily a bad thing. :)

    Jon

  53. Ardis Parshall on April 3, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Jon, much as I usually agree with you, I think you are a tad unfair in interpretation purchase of junk as either an effort to buy good standing or to “truly belong” to an artificial material culture. Rather, I think that a sincere commitment to Mormonism reaches into many areas of a person’s life. You want to read Mormon, decorate Mormon, eat Mormon, dress Mormon — not to prove yourself to anybody else, but to BE more fully Mormon because being Mormon is such an important part of your identity.

    Then you take what’s available — the kitsch — either because you don’t know any better or because you’re so hungry that you settle.

    Spending so much time in the bloggernacle may be another facet of the same craving.

  54. Ardis Parshall on April 3, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    And now that I’ve seen your follow-up comment, I think we’re pretty much in agreement after all. You’ve described that craving I tried to describe.

  55. Jonathan Green on April 3, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Jonovitch, please refrain from insulting Schlagermusik. Clearly, you have no feeling for true art.

  56. jrl on April 3, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    Jon, I tend to agree with your first comment. But for as much as I dislike kitschy junk at the bookstore, I guess that it is not nearly as bad as much of the mainstream culture we should reject as we build our own Mormon culture. Just because I think most of that art is second-rate doesn’t mean that it is bad. In fact, I would prefer to decorate with Del Parson than most of the stuff that would otherwise be available to the average middle-income homeowner. And be careful talking about Kenneth Cope . . . He is the best! I even met him at a youth conference once!

  57. John Taber on April 3, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    “And be careful talking about Kenneth Cope . . . He is the best! I even met him at a youth conference once!”

    I find it more than a little disconcerting how much Kenneth Cope is gushed over by LDS, seemingly more than televangelist Kenneth Copeland is by his flock.

  58. Wilfried on April 3, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Oops, seems that I need to jump back to this thread, before a culture war erupts. Thanks all for latest contributions. Agreed with Ardis: “a sincere commitment to Mormonism reaches into many areas of a person’s life”. When I was a young convert, I purchased and loved what I would now consider less relevant. The initial commitment needed forms of material identity, and anything mormon was Mormon to help in that affirmation. I’m glad to see that Mormon art has developed into many more original and creative forms, though I have also learned to respect those who seek their identity in what others would consider kitsch. To move from kitsch to “better” requires an educational process one can only try to provide. But we should not hurt people for what they adore.

    And so, returning to our international perspective and the search for Mormon identity abroad, I can understand that far-away visitors to SLC at this conference time, will return home with suitcases full of souvenirs. Catholics returning from Rome, Lourdes or Compostella do the same.

    As Jonovitch said: “They didn’t get much as far as Church materials were concerned over there — in East Germany they were especially deprived before the Wall fell. And so they were grateful for anything they could get their hands on…” Same still in many parts of the world. In search of Mormon identity, at least for that physical aspect.

  59. jrl on April 3, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    uh, # 57, that WAS a joke… Just so you know…

  60. Jonovitch on April 4, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Wow, it seems I reignited a slowly smoldering post.

    First off, Jonathan Green (55), I have seen the face of evil, and it is Schlagermusik. LOL.

    jrl (56/59), I got the joke…at least I was really hoping it was a joke. (phew!)

    Back to more serious matters. Ardis is correct as usual — I got a little ahead of myself again. I have a bit of a thing for the Mormon Marketplace and the massive amounts of Stuff it produces. I suppose my ire is better directed at those who willfully produce it rather than those who unwittingly buy it, thinking it will help their testimonies or make them more “Mormon.”

    Still, I think there’s plenty of authentic Mormon culture that can be consumed without settling for the stuff that other people are selling. I guess this goes back to the original question of “what is Mormon culture?” If it is the pop music/art/books/games/EFY talks/Captain Moroni action figures, then I’m not very Mormon. But are these things really part of Mormon culture (i.e., the international/universal concept that we’re grasping at here), or are they just part of the American West consumer culture? (You know my answer.)

    Wilfried (58), you provided a great insight into your own search for Mormon identity as a young convert, and you’re right: we (i.e., “I”) shouldn’t rag on people who are grasping for identity, rather we should help them find it. But once again, we end up asking what Mormon identity and culture is.

    My personal feeling is that authentic Mormon culture is found in the standard works (not historical-fiction novels), the principles of the gospel (not provincial interpretations), the official teachings of the Church (not popular folk doctrines), the temple-recommend questions, etc. A bit hard to nail down, but I think that’s the whole point. Anyone can be a Mormon, because it’s based on eternal principles and universal truths, and it’s all free — milk and honey without price. You don’t have to buy a thing to be a Mormon, or to even feel like a Mormon. (You’ll have a hard time finding Mormon Stuff around my house, other than a few carefully selected books and CDs — most of which is Church Distribution loot anyway.) Local traditions and pop-Mormon stuff might add some flavor, but you can’t make a meal out of garnish and spices, and too much of it can ruin any dish.

    To expand on a different analogy from before, material possessions are simply the Mormon props. But the passion, the humor, the sorrow, the ecstasy, the tension, the conflict, the resolution — the script as wrought by the Great Playwright is what we truly identify with and what creates a lasting impression with the audience.

    When someone joins the Church, they join a worldwide/universal system of beliefs, not an Anglo/Western set of traditions. (For example, I can’t imagine our African/Mexican/Korean/German/Jewish ward celebrating Pioneer Day — it’s a local tradition that our cosmopolitan group doesn’t relate to.)

    To use the food analogy one last time: all meals are basically the same (starch, veggies, meat) — we use local spices and different kinds of starches, veggies, and meat to create variations, but it’s still essentially the same food.

    Perhaps the better analogy is this: props and sets will vary with every adaptation (in every theater, with every actor), but the underlying script stays the same, and that’s what people remember. Regardless of where you and I saw The Play, we can both talk about it and relate to the same things because the script is the unchanging foundation. It doesn’t matter what the set looked like, or how large the theater is, or how many props were used, or how famous the actors were. The script is the play, and everything else is details (or if done poorly, distractions).

    We all relate to the same Mormon script. And it is that Mormon script that defines what a Mormon is. As long as you act the part of a Mormon (i.e., if you follow the script), then you are a Mormon, regardless of props, set, or adaptation.

    Wilfried, I think this analogy might help solve your dilemma. (1) Mormon identity is defined by the script (perhaps the temple-recommend questions are the basic plotline and the official principles and Church teachings flesh out the narrative?). If you follow the script, you’re a Mormon, even if you’re a really bad actor and sometimes forget the lines (there’s always someone offstage ready to help you remember). Mormons simply act a certain way — in fact, it’s sometimes unmistakable, despite the lack of clear outward signs. (2) The Playwright demands uniformity of storyline — under the law you’re not allowed to change the script without permission from the Author. (3) Every director, actor, prop master, costumer, set designer, etc. is going to add something different to each production. As long as local productions don’t change the script, other adaptations are just fine.

    Do I win a prize? (Front-row seats and a backstage pass?)

    Jon

    P.S. I spend time in the bloggernacle not to fill some craving, but because I liked to get smacked around by Ardis when I fly off the handle. :) Seriously, the discussions here are fantastic — they have really helped me refine my viewpoints, opinions, arguments, and beliefs.

  61. East Coast on April 4, 2008 at 10:03 am

    “Do I win a prize?”

    It would have to be a certificate that says, “Das ist wunderbar senor”.

  62. John Taber on April 4, 2008 at 10:56 am

    “uh, # 57, that WAS a joke… Just so you know…”

    I still find it disconcerting.

  63. jrl on April 4, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Jon (#60): Amen, Brother Jon, Amen! I love your analogies. But about Pioneer Day – my understanding is that members around the world DO get into it, simply because it helps them feel connected somehow to the rest of the Church. (Not that I ever celebrated it growing up in Arizona. In fact, I was downright furious in the MTC when the mailroom closed for Pioneer Day – that’s not real holiday! I want my mail!) In fact, that may be the kind of thing that a Mormon culture can (and should?) be based on – a celebration of a peculiar holiday that can have worldwide application because so many of our members are modern “pioneers.”

  64. KLC on April 4, 2008 at 11:48 am

    I can’t add anything to the topic but I would like to tell Wilfried how much I appreciate his style of moderating the comments. You respond frequently and always find something to commend in the remarks, and that has created a conversation among friends. Thanks for your efforts and your style.

  65. Wilfried on April 4, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Well … I find nothing to moderate in the latest comments … Thanks, all!

    Of course, special appreciation for the long intervention from Jonovitch (60).

    I’m not sure to what extent Pioneer Day is still celebrated or at least mentioned on July 24th in the church abroad. As I said in my post How American is the Church:

    Mormon travel tourism to America, with a sense of pilgrimage, is expanding. By restoring historic places as tributes to its past and as locales for commemoration and inspiration, the Church itself is encouraging this tendency. It contributes to the formation and strengthening of a cultural identity in which members worldwide are invited to partake. In a press conference in conjunction with the Grand Encampment Celebration, Council Bluffs, Iowa, President Hinckley answered a question about the significance of historical places and events in the U.S. to e.g. members in the Philippines:

    “I have just been among those people. They are proud of their church and they are proud of the roots of that church. They are proud of the foundation on which it is established. They want to know about it. They do come to know about it. They study about it, and it gives them the strength that comes of knowing that what they have has a tremendous background of courage and fortitude and sacrifice and faith. That to me is of tremendous significance to our people all across the world” (cited in Dew 1996:592).

    A problem might be that a celebration of something so specific as Pioneer Day may trigger opposite reactions among members abroad: some will view it as “too American & disconnected to their experience”, others will enjoy the feeling of historical connection. But also: when members abroad publicly re-enact pioneers arriving in SLC, the media may publicize it as the way present-day Mormons still live — somewhat like the Amish. Now that would be Identity…

  66. Wilfried on April 4, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Still on Pioneer Day and its relation to Mormon culture. Jan Shipps devoted an article to it. Some excerpts:

    Curiously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not recognize Pioneer Day as a holy day. But July 24 is a state holiday in Utah. The result is a blending of the sacred and secular.
    (…)
    In the mountain West, Pioneer Day long had the effect of sustaining an unofficial pattern of stratification within Mormon culture that placed the members of families who came to the region during the early decades of LDS settlement in the area above those who came later. This pattern is gradually being altered, and one reason may be that Pioneer Day is undergoing a transformation.
    (…)
    A closer look at this celebration reveals a larger truth about the Latter-day Saints: nowadays all sorts of things are changing within Mormonism. The transformation of the idea of what it means to be a pioneer will surely help dissolve what amounted to a caste system within the Mormon community. But as the meaning of being a pioneer is being transformed rather than de-emphasized or discarded, Pioneer Day is likely to retain its significance as both a holy day and a holiday.

  67. Ray on April 6, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    Wilfried, I’d be interested in your thoughts about Pres. Ochtdorf’s talk relative to this post and your overall work.

  68. jrl on April 7, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    On the topic of the changing meaning of “pioneer,” may I recommend the book Pioneers in Every Land? It has the stories of pioneer church members from all over the world and fits nicely within our topic.

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