Key to the Culture of Mormons

October 3, 2008 | 81 comments
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Last Saturday I gave a walking tour of Mormon history sites in lower Manhattan, one of the services our stake history committee offers regularly. One stop on the tour is the location where an early LDS newspaper, The Mormon, was published by John Taylor. That newspaper featured an interesting statement in its masthead–what it called The Mormon Creed.

More than 150 years later, I don’t think many Mormons know what the Mormon Creed is or what it says (and when they learn, in my experience, most laugh!) I’m not sure that Mormons should know the Mormon Creed. Its more than 150 years old now, and doesn’t necessarily reflect Mormon experience today. But its existence makes me wonder: how many more cultural tidbits have been lost over time?

Those elements of American culture and the English language that we have decided are of true value get used over and over again. Shakespeare, in particular, has lines from his plays used and reused not only in other literary works, but completely out of context. We find them on t-shirts and mugs, notepads, bookmarks and calendars. And not just Shakespeare. Quotations from all sorts of authors, politicians and others show up in the most pedestrian of places, from “Thought of the Day” lists to email signatures. A whole genre of publishing exists for churning out books of quotations, calendars, and the like, for a public hoping for a nugget of truth, well-expressed.

A decade ago, the “Best Loved … of the LDS People” series was published, eventually including anthologies of poems, humor, talks and three volumes of stories. To me the series has always been an annoyance. It was mostly “borrowed” culture — apparently few or no poems or stories loved by the LDS people were actually written by LDS Church members.

Its not that we don’t follow this same phenomenon. Its that we only have one source for the material used in these tidbits: General Conference. Statements made there do show up in Mormon culture — “Families are Forever” is found on walls all over Mormonism, everyone knows “every member a missionary” and “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” More recently we have the “six be’s,” “faith in every footstep” and “standing for something.” Conference is the principal transmission point for Mormon Culture.

For most of us, our national culture, and especially our “high” culture, was learned more through school than through the events that normally happen in our lives. We (Americans) read Wordsworth and Melville in high school, not because it was popular literature passed around among our friends or because it dominated what was on television. Brazilians are most often introduced to Machado de Assis and Camões through their schools, not through music or film or their neighbors. The French, Germans, Italians and every other culture teach their children through schools about the best of their culture.

But this can’t happen in Mormonism. To the extent that Mormonism has a high culture, there is no way to pass it on to our children. Conference, the Church magazines and talks in LDS meetinghouses have purposes that don’t include education about Mormon high culture. While these tools do pass on Mormon culture, they only pass on those elements that fit their purpose, and then just in passing, as needed to communicate a religious message.

For all of us this means that we are ignorant of the best of Mormon culture. To find out the best that Mormons have produced, we have to explore, guide less, the landscape of what has been produced, looking for that which is worthy–the materials that would have been taught in high schools, were Mormonism an independent culture. Its kind of like trying to find the most important books in a large bookstore or library without the benefit of a card catalog or the cultural education we received in childhood. Its quite impossible.

As a result, until we have a way of educating ourselves about Mormon culture, I suspect the current ignorance of Mormon culture to continue. Those interested will have to cast about trying to figure out what’s worth their time, and many others will look at what is sold in LDS bookstores and conclude that there is nothing worth their time in Mormon culture (a little like judging English literature by looking at Danielle Steele).

And some of us will continue trying to come up with solutions. Solutions that will help Mormons get to know their own culture — and perhaps even the Mormon Creed, which is, according to the masthead of The Mormon, a quote from Brigham Young: “Mind your own business.”

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81 Responses to Key to the Culture of Mormons

  1. Brigham Daniels on October 3, 2008 at 10:23 am

    “Mind your own business” is a far cry from the “Every member a mission president” attitude I see so often.

    But hey, I guess nobody every said it would be easy; they just said it would be worth it. By the way, Kent, way to play this blog like an old violin; I enjoyed the post. It was pretty entertaining. I also appreciated your contributions while I was a guest blogger. Not once did you leave me stranded like the cipher in the snow. In fact, when I look back at the most trying times of my blogger, I only see one set of footprints. I guess that is where you and the other commenter carried me. So, to sum up, I guess I am not alone. My needs are know. I am not alone.

  2. Ginger on October 3, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Maybe its a good thing, as Martha would say, that Mormon culture isn’t passed on to each generation… Too many times people in the church mistake culture for doctrine. It is good to know history, and we are definitely trying to teach that to our children. We want them to learn about hard work and perseverance. But I don’t want them to fall into the trap that I sometimes find myself in of judging others for cultural things that aren’t really relevant to the actual doctrines of the gospel.

  3. Mark B. on October 3, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Why should we care about a peculiar Mormon culture–in art, literature, music, etc? It’s sort of like electing a President–if his political views are more similar to mine than his opponents, he’ll get my vote no matter his religion. So it is with art–good art (defined as I choose to define it–again, why should I care how others define good art?) comes without a “Produced by a Mormon [or Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness] tag, and why should it matter?

    Let Mormon artists compete in the arena with the rest of the world’s artists. If their work is good, will it not rise to the top?

  4. queuno on October 3, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Let Mormon artists compete in the arena with the rest of the world’s artists. If their work is good, will it not rise to the top?

    A sister in my ward and I have a running argument over whether or not Stephenie Meyer’s work is popular among Mormons because (a) it’s already popular, (b) she’s Mormon. Oh, she’d tapped into the post-Potter market and done very well. But does vampire fantasy work in Mormondom if the author isn’t publicly a devout Mormon?

    How many people living in Utah used to be 49ers fans, or are now Eagles fans?

    How many Mormons bought a book about successful Mormon businessmen (that seemed a bit off, given the very public failings of some of the businessmen)?

    Is there a cult of personality surrounding Mormon artists/celebrities?

  5. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Brigham, you’ve convinced me. We should definitely revive the Mormon Creed. Its better than the alternatives.

    As for the rest, let me paraphrase Hugh Nibley: “No Sir, that aint Mormon Culture.” Much of “Especially for Mormons” (in which the stories you cite are found, for the most part) was plagiarized from non-Mormon sources.

    In a way, I think you are making my point. Your allusions are to popular culture, not
    “high” culture. My point is that the latter, those things of some real value, are not known among most members, and there isn’t any way to let them know.

  6. Wm Morris on October 3, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    “If their work is good, will it not rise to the top?”

    What is the top? Or rather — which top? The NY Times bestseller list? The Deseret Book topselling items list? The Pulitzer committee? The syllabi of literature survey courses of major American universities?

    Where do you go to find good narrative work by Mormons? There has been a bit that has “risen to the top” in the world of speculative fiction. And there is a narrow band of it that has gotten some credibility in American literary circles (LaBute, Evenson, Kirn, one title by Brady Udall). And that’s pretty much it unless you go back to the Lost Generation of Mormon writers who got published by NY publishers.

    But if you want to good (sometime verging on great and it’s really to bad that some of these writers can’t get more publishing opportunities so that some of them can develop into great) Mormon narrative art you pretty much have to paw around the Mormon arts ghetto. Which is a cool place to hang out. But I don’t that it’s “the top.”

    The other thing that I think gets missed is that we all buy into this whole Shakespeares and Milton thing, and ignore that most readers, most consumers of, any type of media product, don’t consume only the top, only the great. There needs to be room for the pretty good, good and very good. Because without that I don’t think we ever get the great.

  7. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Ginger, I think you misunderstand what culture is. Without culture, we don’t have any way of communicating. Culture provides the framework for passing ideas from one person to another. Cultural goods (books, music, films, etc.) are just ways of communicating–but ways that can also sometimes communicate across generations.

    Without some kind of culture, your children won’t learn “hard work and perseverance,” to say nothing of the Gospel itself. This is the whole reason we have such a hard time understanding the scriptures in the bible — they were written for a culture that hasn’t existed for a couple thousand years or more.

  8. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Queuno (4): You’ve raised some good questions. I’ve wondered the same thing about Meyer’s work, whether or not its really Mormon. I suppose its a question that depends a lot on how you define Mormonism and what makes a work Mormon.

    You are right that there is a tendency to confuse works by Mormons and give them some kind of cult status, with work that is actually Mormon in some way. But since we don’t have a clear definition of what is Mormon, its very hard to say when that is happening.

    But I’m not sure in any case where that gets us. Even if there are some works that are popular among Mormons just because the author is Mormon, does that change the point that Mormon culture doesn’t get passed on? that the best works of Mormon culture aren’t known at all because members have no way of finding out about them?

    I suppose if there was a way for Mormons to know more about Mormon culture, we might have a better idea of what is Mormon and what is just stuff written by Mormons–and providing an answer to your question.

  9. John Taber on October 3, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    All I know is that the Church carries quite a bit baggage these days. A fair amount of that is institutional. At least as much is cultural. I wonder sometimes if said baggage is part of what makes it unnecessarily difficult to retain new converts.

  10. John Mansfield on October 3, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    “We (Americans) read Wordsworth and Melville in high school, not because it was popular literature passed around among our friends or because it dominated what was on television.”

    A couple decades back, conversing with a Nigerian woman at college, I started discussing a couple of Wole Soyinka’s books that I liked. (This was only a few years after Soyinka had been awarded the Nobel literature prize.) I inadvertently embarrassed her and stifled the conversation because she hadn’t read anything by her lauded countryman and I was acting like she would have. All the same, she was still a Nigerian, I suppose.

  11. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Mark B. (3) writes: “Why should we care about a peculiar Mormon culture in art, literature, music, etc?”

    Because it helps strengthen the Church. [That’s why the Brethren worry about the culture that surrounds members of the Church.]

    Because we need the ability to communicate with each other in the Church in a more nuanced and complicated way. Because we need to be able to help each other understand what it means to be Mormon and how to get along in a world that isn’t Mormon (or is Mormon, as the case may be).

    I’ve tried to cover this issue a few times before in posts. Try reading my post Why We Need Mormon Culture.

  12. E on October 3, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Brigham Young was so awesome.

  13. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    John (10) wrote: “All I know is that the Church carries quite a bit baggage these days. A fair amount of that is institutional. At least as much is cultural.”

    I think this is a fair characterization. For that matter, almost every institution in our culture has some kind of cultural baggage (if not other baggage). Its inevitable. Changes in culture (changes that happen no matter what the institution wants), lead to cultural baggage.

    But remember, this post isn’t talking about cultural works that are well known, but rather about cultural works that aren’t well known. The cultural baggage that the Church is carrying is by far the former, the well-known cultural elements.

    Perhaps, in another post, we can try to figure out what can be done about the baggage that the Church is carrying.

  14. Jack Lyon on October 3, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Kent:

    You wrote: \”A decade ago, the \’Best Loved … of the LDS People\’ series was published, eventually including anthologies of poems, humor, talks and three volumes of stories. To me the series has always been an annoyance. It was mostly \’borrowed\’ culture — apparently few or no poems or stories loved by the LDS people were actually written by LDS Church members.\”

    As one of the compilers of that series, I must say that you didn\’t review the books very carefully. What you say is true of the poetry volume (which is a collection of poems quoted by General Authorities during general conference over the years). It is not true, however, of the stories and other volumes, which are composed almost entirely of true stories–mostly first-person narratives–by members of the Church. The list of writers reads like a Who\’s Who of Church history: Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow, B. H. Roberts, and on and on.

    I\’m happy to say that the series is being released in paperback this year:

    http://deseretbook.com/store/product/5007315

    Best wishes,
    Jack Lyon

  15. sam on October 3, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    “Because we need the ability to communicate with each other in the Church in a more nuanced and complicated way.”

    I don’t think most Mormons seek more nuanced or complicated communication. Ever sit through a Gospel Doctrine class recently?

  16. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    John Mansfield (11):

    I can think of a number of authors, artists and subjects that you could discuss with most Mormons, and come up with blank stares, since, unlike your Nigerian friend, they wouldn’t even have heard of the author.

    How many Mormons will have heard of Orestes Bean? or Susa Young Gates? of the epic poem Elias? or Leroy Robertson’s Oratorio from the Book of Mormon?

    Your story is unfortunate in a lot of ways. But Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, probably a bit soon to expect his work to be well integrated in curricula. I’m also not too surprised since I assume that Nigeria doesn’t have the level of resources we have here in the U.S. for secondary education.

    FWIW, recent English-language winners of the Nobel Prize in literature from Western countries include Saul Bellow (1976), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978), William Golding (1983), Toni Morrison (1993), Seamus Heaney (1995), and Doris Lessing (2007). How many of these have you seen integrated into high school curricula? How many has the average American read?

    Now if you talk about Nobels from more than 50 years ago [John Steinbeck (1962), Hemingway (1954 – the year before the only Mormon to win the Literature prize), Faulkner (1949), etc.], I think they are quite well integrated into the curricula.

    Our problem for Mormon culture is that there isn’t a curricula to integrate our best authors, artists and musicians into.

  17. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Jack (14):

    My apologies. I’d seen the poetry volume, and thought I had the idea of the series from that.

    May I ask why Mormon poetry wasn’t included? The volume of poetry available is really quite substantial (although I don’t think most of it is very good).

    Or for that matter, why no fiction? When I heard Stories, I assumed fiction, not historical accounts.

    In any case, I suspect you will agree that your series wasn’t meant to familiarize members with Mormon Culture so much as to reflect the kind of material drawn on in Conference, right?

  18. Kent Larsen on October 3, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Sam (15):

    I have (although not since the summer – I’m teaching Temple Prep right now).

    And that is a lot of the reason I say this.

    Gospel Doctrine rarely has the time to explore any issue in depth or in an nuanced way. Perhaps you ward is different, but I haven’t seen it happen in the wards I’ve attended (including several I attended while vacationing various places).

    I will admit that some Church members do think deeply about things. But I dont’ think its the same kind of exploration that you get from quality literature, especially since Gospel Doctrine is oriented to principles, and not as much to circumstances.

  19. DTL on October 3, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I have enjoyed reading the various comments on this subject, but the thought strikes me (right or wrong); is the reason we have difficulty finding or defining Mormon Culture perhaps because most members of the church are actually immersed in the culture of the state or country of their residence?

    Living outside the state of Utah, I don\’t really associate with many members on a day to day basis, and when we get together at church functions, we really have many and diverse interests. I find myself drawn to art, music, and reading material based on my personal likes and dislikes, not because it was created by a mormon (or a member of any other religion for that matter). These likes and dislikes were formed while being raised in a small community (mostly mormon) in Northern Utah, but I have been greatly influenced by other factors as well, including my wife who was raised a Catholic in the eastern US.

    I just wanted to pass these thoughts along to see if they made any sense to anyone else.

  20. Marjorie Conder on October 3, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    FWIW the full Mormon Creed says “Mind your own business–All SAINTS will observe this–And all others ought to.” It had a double meaning. First, the obvious–tend to your own knitting (stewardship) and second–It was a direct reference to a “know-nothing” stance during the polygamy raids. If you happened to find out “something” you were expected to keep it to yourself and “mind your own business.”

  21. Marjorie Conder on October 3, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    More thoughts. Every group has a culture and a cannon. The old RS cultural lessons were trying to creat a shared LDS cannon, but as the Church was ever growing, that cannon still remained largely western (in both senses of the word.) Today a shared cannon is emerging among all Latter-day Saints everywhere. (It is not however necessarily “high culture.”) I see this almost universally shared cannon as including the scriptures, selected core hymns and children’s songs, teaching of the prophets through both the MP/RS manuals (distributed free to virtually every LDS home for free–sometimes the only books in a home) Conference Reports and Church magazines. Whether “high” or “low” culture these things put us all on the same page and lead to the often stated idea that “the Church is the same everywhere.” That is what culture does. It gives all those who claim that culture a common knowledge and reference point.

  22. Craig H. on October 3, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Kent, a couple of things occur to me. I’m not sure you get great or high culture unless you’re asking hard and big questions about fundamental questions of existence, morality, and so on. And while everyone I know encounters such hard questions in their lives, and while plenty of examples exist in Mormon culture (Nephi killing Laban), I think in general in Mormon culture we feel we have the big answers already, in theory, and the theory is what matters. So why struggle?

    Second, one thing that’s struck me as I’ve looked at various religions is that they tend to cater primarily either to adults or the young, and rarely do both well. Liberal Protestants are great with adults, but you don’t see many kids there. I’ve seen Catholics deal well with both, but depending on where you’re located. Evangelicals, like Mormons, do well with the young, maybe partly for the reason that there’s not much felt need to struggle with big questions, as the answers are already there. This doesn’t mean that adults don’t hang on in youth-oriented churches. They can. But the emphasis on the young has consequences for adult culture. From my experience in Utah and California, I would say that Mormon adults certainly understand that life is more complicated and nuanced than they once believed, but the religious answers or framework (if they are lifetime members) are essentially the same as they were when they were a teenager, when their faith was really formed. This is manifest in such things as people saying they won’t read anything their 13-year-old shouldn’t read. Again, it’s a generalization, but it’s something that has struck me.

  23. Marjorie Conder on October 3, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    One more thought. When I was at the Church Museum we frequently struggled with the idea of “what is Mormon art?” (Mostly leaving aside for the time being issues of “high” or “low.”) One of the more productive discussions started with the provacative question, What makes “Ruldolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Silent Night” both generally recognizable as Christmas music? It boiled down to a recognizable theme. (Although very divergent takes on the same general theme.) So our working definition of Mormon art rested with theme and message, not media, style, or even necessarily skill level. By this definition Tom Lovell and Harry Anderson’s paintings, which were commissioned by the Church and widely recognized as distincly Mormon subject matter are Mormon art even though the artists were not members of the Church. Conversely, by this criteria Stephanie Meyer’s books would not be Mormon books, but rather books created by a Mormon. Admitedly, this is all still evolving and it may not all be clear and settled for at least another century or two.

  24. Banned Commenter on October 3, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    ///It was a direct reference to a “know-nothing” stance during the polygamy raids. If you happened to find out “something” you were expected to keep it to yourself and “mind your own business.”///

    Uh, no. Not in the 1850s when it appeared on the masthead of The Mormon.

  25. Banned Commenter on October 3, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    ///It was a direct reference to a “know-nothing” stance during the polygamy raids. If you happened to find out “something” you were expected to keep it to yourself and “mind your own business.”///

    Uh, no. Not in the 1850s when it appeared on the masthead of The Mormon.

  26. BHodges on October 3, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    The creed was used as early as 1853 in a public sermon by Brigham Young. See Journal of Discourses 2:90-105 or http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2007/07/weed-your-own-garden.html

  27. Marjorie Conder on October 3, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    #25 says–///It was a direct reference to a “know-nothing” stance during the polygamy raids. If you happened to find out “something” you were expected to keep it to yourself and “mind your own business.”///

    Uh, no. Not in the 1850s when it appeared on the masthead of The Mormon.

    In response–This quote first appears (BY) in the 1850s as people, both in and out of the Church were becoming more aware of polygamy. On the masthead the first interpretation was certainly generally intended for public consumption. However for at least some insiders it carried the second caution. There is still in existence in the Church collections a blood red “wonder” with mother-of-pearl inlay with this full quote. It hung in the Logan Temple in the 1880s and was interpreted as having the second meaning.

  28. Marjorie Conder on October 3, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Sort of a 19th century version of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

  29. quin on October 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    According to the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History-

    “The phrase ‘mind your own business’ and its variants was adopted by nineteenth-century Saints as “the Mormon Creed,” and was known among American frontiersman as ‘the eleventh commandment.’ In 1843 William Smith was the first to publish the idea that the Saints’ creed was ‘to mind their own business, and let everybody else do likewise.’ Other Church leaders soon adopted the phrase, though usually dropping its second half. By the mid-1850s, the Mormon Creed was best known as simply ‘mind your own business.’ In that form it was quoted in countless sermons, songs, and newspaper editorials—even appearing on a fixture in the Logan Temple.”

    Kent,

    If you are defining “high culture” as that which is excellent in art, writing, the sciences etc-I’m afraid that “Mormon culture” is just as subjective as any other is. To you, Monet might be “high culture” in art, but to someone else it might be Dali or Picasso. Some members might prefer Nibley while others prefer Millet or Talmage or Snow. Some people like fiction, some prefer history. It is not just the works of a particular society that make up its “culture”-it is also its beliefs and behaviors, expectations and heritage-and rarely does a majority in any civilization become “experts” on all aspects of their own culture.

  30. quin on October 3, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    I felt the need to comment again after reading the post Kent referred to in #8. In that post Kent uses the definition of a culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

    From wiki-“the word society may also refer to an organized voluntary association of people for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purpose.”

    Using those definitions as a gauge-then “Mormon culture” is the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by men and women as members of LDS society.

    That said, I don’t think the problem is that there is no “official” Mormon culture, or that it is vague or hard to define. I think the problem is that some individuals within the Church today act in the same manner as some did in the ancient Church established by God and his apostles. They refused to live the gospel as it had been purely preached to them, and began to corrupt the doctrine in various ways and for various reasons.

    A perfect example of what I am referring to is a comment made to Kent in the post he referred to. A female poster states that she got her “first taste” of Mormon culture when she attended Rick’s College and described it as follows:

    “Girls dressing immodestly because they hadn’t gone through the temple yet, guys drinking and smoking until they go on their missions, girls pretending to be the “perfect” mother, wife, daughter, etc even though they were on the verge of a mental breakdown. Even now that I am back in KY, we have several Utah mormons out here for school and it really weirds me out the strange culture they bring. It’s almost like they don’t know how to function in normal every day society. Talking in sing-songy voices all the time about how “awesome” and “blessed” everything is. Hello! We can be grateful for our blessings without saying it in a creepy voice! But they ALL do it! Why???? Their debt consumption is outrageous! Their need to keep up appearances is so mind blowing! So much so that those of us from here can hardly believe our eyes! From my point of view, Mormon culture as it is today should NOT be promoted in any way shape or form.”

    The truth is, the actions she is describing are NOT representative of actual “Mormon culture”, they are examples of those who refuse to live the gospel as the LDS Church teaches it. I can tell you that after living in Utah for the past 22 years and raising 2 daughters to college age here (including one who attended BYU Idaho) those actions are NOT representative of the vast majority of Utah or Idaho Mormons either. My daughters do not (and never have) dressed immodestly even though they haven’t gone through the temple yet, none of the many LDS boys they dated smoked or drank before their missions, and none of the many teens that have frequented our home ever talked in sing-songy/creepy voices (unless they were goofing around). My daughters are completely debt free (as are we with the exception of our mortgage) and the proximity of the homes in most Utah neighborhoods prevents members from “keeping up appearances” for long. You KNOW which LDS neighbors yell at their kids, don’t manage their children well, struggle with depression, are on the verge of divorce, are second marriages etc because your lives are interconnected daily. You come to understand quickly that most of us have the same trials and the same concerns and the same fears-and it FREES you to not only be who you really are, but to love others freely because you know what they are going through.

    In other words, the “high” culture (beliefs, laws, customs, morals etc) of the LDS Church is clearly defined and consistently taught, and exhorted by its leaders and its curriculum, and Latter-day Saints who sincerely embrace and love the gospel of Jesus Christ exhibit its true culture every day in their habits and capabilities and behaviors.

  31. Ray on October 4, 2008 at 12:27 am

    My kids know how they are different. Cultural transmission isn’t an issue for almost any of the active kids around here. Those who embrace the standards fully are peculiar – and multiple teachers at our high school mention it openly and often.

  32. mlu on October 4, 2008 at 4:10 am

    “We (Americans) read Wordsworth and Melville in high school, not because it was popular literature passed around among our friends or because it dominated what was on television.”

    I think there are often contradictions between what you call “high” culture and Mormon culture. I sort of get the feeling that you want Mormons to adopt the biases and assumptions of high culture but in a uniquely Mormon way. And you judge Mormon culture by the standards of that high culture.

    But as one who has taught Wordsworth and Melville in high school, I’m pretty skeptical that “high” culture is a target worth aiming at. Most high school kids don’t really read those authors and few Americans who have been “taught” them can say anything useful or particularly true about them. But they do manage to “learn” the myth of the artist as Romantic hero, who forges new perspectives and values, who lives apart from and above others. They do “learn” that the professoriate is to be granted the cultural authority to define for us the meaning of goodness and badness.

    I imagine at times that every high schooler in the nation has heard Emerson’s suggestion that “whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist,” though it’s made less clear that Emerson’s real target was Jesus Christ, who had been endlessly quoted by generations of conformists who, Emerson thought, would do better if they did their own thinking.

    To a large extent, high culture in literature through the twentieth century charts the “progress” of a huge experiment in faithlessness and the elevation of artists above prophets as the source of value. The priestly class of professors who have decided that, for example, Melville is “great” have not, I think, been right about many things of much importance. I’ve been amused to see that even literary professionals on the left are the left that the entire profession of literary criticism is dying, as it should.

    Much of the problem is that being right is not the basis of their culture. Being novel, being shocking., being transgressive–this is the altar at which they worship. But being good and being true–these things have been left behind, in the province of what I rather think you are viewing as the “ignorance” of the untutored.

    I have long thought that great Mormon literature is more likely to read a bit like Mary Rowlandson’s meditation on the facts of her experience as a Puritan in a difficult world, which itself reads in many ways like scripture, than it is to follow the models offered by “high” culture.

    Ahh. . .big topic, and it’s late. I know my comments are rough and sound a tad incoherent. But I’ve spent some time both in high culture and in Mormon culture and increasingly I think that the criticism of the former from the viewpoint of the latter is more useful than the reverse. . .

  33. John Mansfield on October 4, 2008 at 8:34 am

    I like Kent Larsen’s effort in comment #16 to claim Halldor Laxness as a Mormon. Paradise Reclaimed is a worthwhile book, and probably the only time a writer of that stature wrote a work with a Mormon convert as its protagonist. Very interesting contrast, too, with Independent People.

  34. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 10:21 am

    DTL (19): “Is the reason we have difficulty finding or defining Mormon Culture perhaps because most members of the church are actually immersed in the culture of the state or country of their residence?”

    You are right. Most members are much more immersed in their national culture than they are in Mormon Culture.

    My tentative opinion on the matter is that what we call “Mormon Culture” isn’t a complete culture at all. It is a subculture of U.S. culture. There are too many institutional hurdles that keep us from really being a “full” culture — too many things we usually find broad agreement on in a culture simply aren’t there (like, who are the most important artists and what are the most important works they’ve created).

    In the extreme, a full culture really uses its own language and has physical and logistical hurdles that separate it from other cultures. Our US culture is separate from that of France because we speak a different language. We are less separate from the UK, because we share the language, but still mostly separate because an ocean separates us and because we use separate enterprises for transmitting culture — different TV networks, different bookstores, different publishers and record labels, etc.

    I suspect that Mormonism will end up with a broad group of subcultures of the different countries and cultures in which we are present. We simply don’t have the institutional and logistical tools to be anything else, and I don’t think we ever will have those tools, because they don’t fill a religious purpose. The Church therefore won’t see a reason to create them, and no one else is likely to either.

  35. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Marjorie (20, 21, 23): “Whether “high” or “low” culture these things put us all on the same page and lead to the often stated idea that “the Church is the same everywhere.” That is what culture does. It gives all those who claim that culture a common knowledge and reference point.”

    Absolutely right.

    But I have a broader vision of this. The problem with the culture you describe is that it is limited to just those things that are passed on through the Church. The canon is therefore limited to those works and objects that are needed for worship and that fit the tastes of the institutional Church. There is little or no fiction (didactic or otherwise), no “modern” art, little or no jazz or rock.

    I’m NOT suggesting that these things should be part of worship, but I am suggesting that they are valid cultural forms that should be part of our culture. The whole point of this post is that we don’t have any way of transmitting forms of cultural expression that are NOT part of our official worship program.

    In general, I like the definition you used at the Church Museum (23)–as long as the definition of the Mormon theme isn’t too restrictive (I worry that someone in authority will use the definition to exclude works that do have a Mormon theme).

    And with institutions like the Church Museum, I worry that they are often captive to both authority and to their audience in this area. In most museums the unconventional is often given short shrift simply because audiences won’t come to see it. One of Mormonisms’ major problems is that the conventional is so narrow — “Modern” art is still seen as radical among the audience, for example. I assume this is the reason that, when I last went to the Museum several years ago, the only example of unconventional art that I found was a Wulf Barsch piece in the basement near the restroom.

  36. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Craig H. (22): “I think in general in Mormon culture we feel we have the big answers already, in theory, and the theory is what matters. So why struggle?”

    You may be right. If so, this is a great failure of our culture.

    The “big answers” are not whether or not you should steal or commit adultery. Nor even really where did I come from, why am I here and where am I going. My own reading of the hard questions in literature leads me to conclude that while the Gospel gives us an important guide to life, it doesn’t mean we have no need for faith, for reasoning, or for personal revelation, all of which are indicators of the uncertainty of life.

    We need great art that examines this uncertainty and the details of what the answers we have mean for us in our lives.

  37. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Marjorie (28): “Sort of a 19th century version of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” ”

    LOL!!

  38. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Quin (29): “…Some people like fiction, some prefer history. It is not just the works of a particular society that make up its “culture”-it is also its beliefs and behaviors, expectations and heritage-and rarely does a majority in any civilization become “experts” on all aspects of their own culture.”

    Oh, absolutely.

    The point of this post is that we don’t have any way of passing on to other members those elements of Mormon culture that are NOT part of our worship.

    I don’t expect members to become expert in all aspects of Mormon Culture. But I do think we need to broaden the base of our culture beyond our church services. The role of cultural education in schools is to give members of society a knowledge base in common. I can write about Emily Dickinson in a general interest publication in the US and be fairly sure that readers will know at least that I’m talking about a leading U.S. poet.

    I don’t think we can do the equivalent in Mormonism.

  39. Craig H. on October 4, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Ken, in 36, why wouldn’t anything be subject to question, in a given context? Again, the extreme example of Nephi killing Laban suggests that in certain contexts even the most inviolate assumptions and standards might not hold. The most interesting science questions assumptions, things you don’t think twice about: Isaac Newton thinking in essence (even if the tale is apocryphal) not “who threw that apple at me,” but why did the apple fall at all? Or Galileo doubting whether the sun circled the earth, even though it was obvious and commonsensical to all. It seems like the same would be true in art, or life. Thus that the most interesting works would probably call anything into question, in a given context, and not so much to refute the thing and say it’s wrong and silly but rather to suggest the infinite possibilities of life, even when we thought we knew all the answers, even when the general rule is a good thing. In essence great art suggests that life is fundamentally creative, rather than merely affirms what others have done before you, or what others (individuals, your culture) have told you to do.

  40. Ray on October 4, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Oh, and if our “high culture” were limited to manifestations of the characteristics of godliness (like those articulated in the Sermon on the Mount), I would be satisfied.

  41. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:47 am

    mlu (32): “I sort of get the feeling that you want Mormons to adopt the biases and assumptions of high culture but in a uniquely Mormon way. And you judge Mormon culture by the standards of that high culture.”

    I hadn’t really looked at it that way.

    The principal reason I used the term “high” culture was to distinguish cultural works of high value to Mormons from popular “light” culture as generally found in LDS stores, for example.

    In previous posts I’ve been criticized for promoting Mormon Culture by those who say that Mormon Culture (meaning LDS romance novels and other works sold in LDS stores) has no value–that they don’t want to spend their time reading junk.

    I agree that much of this latter output isn’t very good, and isn’t the kind of work I want to spend much time reading either.

    So, I thought I had better make the distinction between these works and those that might garner some respect.

    I don’t really care if the work exhibits the values of American or world-wide society. I do care what our culture says and believes about it in the long-term.

    Regardless of what the world believes about them, Minerva Teichert and Mahonri Young are largely accepted as part of the canon of Mormon art — “high” culture, IMO. The Simon Dewey print you can purchase in an LDS store is really “popular” culture, I believe. (Let me be charitable and say that whether that will eventually become “high” culture, remains to be seen.)

    But as one who has taught Wordsworth and Melville in high school, I’m pretty skeptical that “high” culture is a target worth aiming at. Most high school kids don’t really read those authors and few Americans who have been “taught” them can say anything useful or particularly true about them.

    I’m not sure where you are going with this. Those are good criticisms of our system of valuing art and of our system of education. BUT, what exactly would you do instead? Should we NOT teach literature in high school? Should we substitute what is currently popular?

    And, most importantly, should we abandon all hope of a canon that gives our society a basis for discussion?

    While I’m no expert in the culture wars that have hit English departments across the nation in recent years, I don’t think many of the professors are arguing that requiring a basic knowledge of literature and its history is useless (not many people I know of try to argue their way out of a profession).

    I don’t think Mormon culture needs to participate in these wars, align itself with any one position, or adopt those values.

    I do think that we need to broaden the cultural basis that Mormons use to explore our world and worldview.

  42. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:50 am

    John Mansfield (33):

    [sarcasm]Thanks a lot, John. That’s all I need. Having to face my misconceptions yet again.[/sarcasm]

    In my defense, if I use the definition of Mormon Culture that Marjorie told us the Church Museum uses, then Paradise Reclaimed is clearly a Mormon work, even if written by a non-Mormon.

    [So what if I was told wrong about Laxness’ background? – GRIN]

  43. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Craig H. (39):

    You’ll get no argument from me on this issue.

    Tell you what. Why don’t you write a novel that explores something like you suggest, and I’ll publish it for you, OK? [GRIN]

  44. Craig H. on October 4, 2008 at 11:55 am

    I’m working on it, I’m working on it.

  45. Marjorie Conder on October 4, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    #35 “In general, I like the definition you used at the Church Museum (23)–as long as the definition of the Mormon theme isn’t too restrictive (I worry that someone in authority will use the definition to exclude works that do have a Mormon theme).”

    In my experience this is all still evolving. The process has not always been smooth and straightforward. However, I think it is important thatwe were/are trying to engage the issues. And real progress has been made. One of the upshots is that many more worldwide LDS artists are known at Church Headquarters and many have been used to give “local flavor” to far flung temples.

  46. Marjorie Conder on October 4, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    “And with institutions like the Church Museum, I worry that they are often captive to both authority and to their audience in this area. In most museums the unconventional is often given short shrift simply because audiences won’t come to see it.”

    It is important to meet people (the main audience) where they are and more them even one step further. In the competitions you will probably find something you love and something you hate no matter what your taste or assumptions about art. Many non-representative pieces have been exhibited and even purchased over the years.

  47. Marjorie Conder on October 4, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    #46–move not more–sorry for the typo

  48. Marjorie Conder on October 4, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    My goodness, I seem to have a lot to say on this post and most of it disjointed. Oh, well, here is one more–hopefully the last.

    As to Wulf Barsh and “modern art” there was an entire Wulf Barsh exhibit upstairs several years ago. At the present they are not doing individual artist exhibits–There are so many competent LDS artists worldwide, and so little space and time that exhibits are thematic using many different artists in one exhibit.

    While it is true that a Wulf Barsh painting was exhibited in the basement by the restroom it is also true Without any Ire or The Lamb and the Lion,which is the most popular piece in the museum collection has also spent years displayed by the upstairs restroom, since there was no other place for it and the public demanded to see it. (It is currently on display in the exhibit about the RS minutebook.) I assume it will go back by the restroom when that exhibit closes in early January.

  49. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Ray (40): “Oh, and if our “high culture” were limited to manifestations of the characteristics of godliness (like those articulated in the Sermon on the Mount), I would be satisfied.”

    Well, that leaves room for an awful lot of material that we currently don’t see in Mormon Culture. Fiction, theatre, film and other forms of culture that you don’t usually see in LDS services.

    But I should observe that what you are saying doesn’t sound like it would produce very good literature. It sounds a little like we might not see in what you want any conflict or any depictions of sin–which are important elements of drama.

    Without them, most literature would be, in a word, boring.

  50. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Marjorie (48): “My goodness, I seem to have a lot to say on this post and most of it disjointed.”

    I’m very glad that you have a lot to say, and I didn’t find any of it disjointed. Your experience is quite valuable and I’m glad you’ve added to the conversation. IMO, art too often gets ignored in these discussions.

    You also seem to have a bit more patience with the Mormon audience than I. It makes me impatient when I have to “meet people where they are.” It can be very hard!!

  51. Marjorie Conder on October 4, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Meeting people where they are is the only place you can meet them. (Smile)

  52. Dave on October 4, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    35 “The whole point of this post is that we don’t have any way of transmitting forms of cultural expression that are NOT part of our official worship program.”

    I completely agree that the mechanisms are currently not there. I think the mechanisms were there when the church was isolated in Utah and the dividing line between public culture and church culture was minimal but I think the church has yet to find those mechanisms for a global institution and membership.

    First, I would argue that the church can and should help promote the high art by incorporating it more into the official worship program. I think they are trying with such activities as the International Art Competition and showcasing art in the Ensign. I think they are trying to disseminate it through these special events in the conference center, these Christmas concerts, Latino celebrations, the small theatre at the conference center, etc. They are also trying to disseminate it through BYUTV. However, frankly, they need help on all of these fronts particularly in terms of marketing and distribution.

    A couple ways I would like to see them incorporate high art in official worship services: 1. allow greater flexibility in the hymnal, encourage local musicians to compose sacred music and help them publish it, in some poor countries in Africa and Latin America you might need to help these artists financially to get published. 2. Give local members more flexibility in the art and decor of the temples, even if it takes longer, bring artists in to paint murals, use local artists to do the woodwork. I think we have lost something special in the streamlining of temple building. Think of the beauty of the early temples, Salt Lake, Manti, in terms of architecture and high art. 3. Make the high art the church is sourcing in the International Art Competitions more available for mass consumption. 4. potentially showcase high art-music at Conference. How many members have never heard “The Redeemer” or similar oratorios?

    I think the second side of the equation is that those members interested in these topics need to unite and use business and the internet effectively to promote the work that these artists are creating. I think it needs to be separate from the Church and BYU but not so far removed or mainstream that it can be dismissed by the mainstream membership of the Church. I think it needs to be web-based to reach the international church if it is truly going to represent and try to promote a world-wide high-art culture of Mormonism.

    ldsartsandculture.blogspot.com

  53. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    Dave (52):

    I’m glad to see someone that agrees with me so vehemently! [GRIN] And I generally agree with your prescriptions, although I don’t think either of us has all the information that the Brethren have or the right to inspiration in these matters. But I wouldn’t mind if these ideas were considered, and perhaps even implemented, by the powers that be.

    As for members uniting and using “business and the internet effectively to promote the work that these artists are creating,” I do think that there is a lot of talk (and even some effort) about this on sites like A Motley Vision. I think we’re still searching for how to make the right efforts. I know we would love some insight and concrete suggestions, and some help in figuring out what to do.

  54. mlu on October 5, 2008 at 12:13 am

    BUT, what exactly would you do instead? Should we NOT teach literature in high school? Should we substitute what is currently popular?

    And, most importantly, should we abandon all hope of a canon that gives our society a basis for discussion?

    Good. Mormon culture does believe in preserving and teaching a canon.

    The guardians of high culture to a large degree do not. I believe they raised Melville and Whitman and Emerson and such to “greatness” primarily because these writers were radically undercutting the authority of the church and of the past. This has led to where we are now: the age of confusion.

    I’ve spent quite a lot of time re-reading past literature, trying to see, for example, why Longfellow was abandoned and Whitman deified. If you’ve had the proper training, you’ll immediately begin noting that Longfellow, who was once a rock star of a poet, didn’t really have new ideas and didn’t really challenge conventional thinking. If that’s what you think and you’re comfortable with it, I would suggest that you’ve been properly indoctrinated into the orthodoxy of modernity. Of course, if you’re read a lot of Longfellow and you’ve reached that conclusion–well, fine, but what I find is that lots of people know better than to read him much because he’s been relegated to second-class status by high culture. And surely, his goals differed quite a lot from those of the high priests of modernity. But they differ less from the goals of most Mormon leaders: to teach things that are good and true and useful to living well.

    My sense is that we are at somewhat of a collapse of high literary culture, as it has been understood by English departments, and I increasingly find myself admiring aspects of Mormon culture that when I was younger I thought quite ignorant and undeveloped.

    For example:

    (1) Mormons value getting it right more than being original and novel. To a large extent, we are a culture of plagiarists. Every Sunday we hear thought recycled from old conference talks, and the whole issue of attribution and giving credit is of little interest. After all, Paul seems to have a lot of the same ideas as Isaiah, etc. etc. Partly because of this, Mormons kids do quite well in avoiding huge life mistakes, at least relative to kids from other cultural groups.

  55. Kent Larsen on October 5, 2008 at 10:56 am

    mlu (54): Your study is fascinating and your argument quite persuasive. While I think I may have some questions about your ideas, they really aren’t relevant to this post.

    And, to be honest, I don’t see anything in your argument that suggests that Mormon culture doesn’t need its own canon or doesn’t need a way to transmit that canon and “high” culture to new generations.

  56. Adam on October 5, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23ldsconf is the most active topic on Twitter right now.

  57. mlu on October 5, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I’m skeptical of the whole enterprise of trying to create a new channel whereby intellectuals will be able to transmit their “higher” understanding to the ignorant masses. My skepticism is based on my admittedly limited understanding of how that attempt has worked out in history. It seems to me that pride has consistently trumped truth.

    But I think it’s an interesting question worth pursuing.

    My preference would be for Mormons to form their own k-12 schools.

  58. quin on October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am

    mlu,

    There are several “Mormon” k-12 schools here in Utah today, and in the early days of the Church here, there were quite a few schools such as these. It was the ideal according to many of the early prophets and they attempted to establish a “school system” of that nature for many years.

    I agree with what you are saying, and feel much the same way. It seems to me that what Kent really wants is to “popularize” Mormonism in the secular world, and so is attempting to build an argument that denies the reality that Latter-day Saints not only HAVE a culture, but that it is arguably the most enlightening and noble canon on the planet; one that crosses all world and culture boundaries, as witnessed by the fact that a Saint can enter a church building or temple two continents away and “feel right at home”.

    “And, most importantly, should we abandon all hope of a canon that gives our society a basis for discussion?”

    I find it hard to comprehend that any Latter-day Saint could feel that our canon lacks things that give us a basis for discussion- especially if the sheer number of LDS blogs is even a slight indication. Is there another culture whose canon includes such figures as Moroni, Nephi, Joseph Smith or Helaman? Is there any other culture that embraces the concepts of eternal marriage, baptism for the dead, modern day prophets and eternal progression etc? Our “culture” transcends time, distance and language-how many languages was General Conference broadcast in just this weekend?

    Our “canon” is open-meaning it not only expands and enlarges as we study it personally and collectively, but also as modern prophets add to it. In the Articles of Faith we read “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Time and again Church leaders have demonstrated that much of the the “high art/culture” found elsewhere can be appreciated and embraced within the framework of the gospel no matter what source it comes from. The Sistine Chapel is “high” art and members of the Church have no problem acknowledging its grandeur and beauty even if it might be defined as a “Catholic” work of art. “The Messiah” by Handel is considered by many US members as some of the “high musical art” on earth, and many of them play it and sing it as part of their holiday traditions (as does the Tab choir) even if it originated as an Irish or Catholic work. C.S. Lewis is a brilliant writer and observer of the truth, and yet was not “Mormon”. There is no LDS doctrine in existence that states that only things that have originated within the context of the Restored Church since 1830 can or should be embraced as part of LDS culture.

    One of the things I sense (like you) is the underlying opinion that something must be “extraordinary” to have enduring value or be recognized as a “higher” form of enlightenment, but Abraham Maslow disagreed and stated it this way:

    “The great lesson to be learned from the true mystics. . . is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, [work], and family, in one’s back yard. . . . To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous”.

    What is more ennobling-an abstract, painted rendering of the Atonement, or a personal witness granted by the Holy Ghost while reading a scriptural account of the event itself? What stirs the soul with more truth-a complex melody sung by an operatic diva or the simple words of a Primary song sung by an innocent, faith filled child? What has the ability to expand the intellect more-a science fiction novel with a “Mormon” protagonist or a period of deep meditation in the Celestial room of one of the Lord’s temples?

    Talmage said it this way-“Not all knowledge is of equal worth. The knowledge that constitutes the wisdom of the heavens is all embraced in the Gospel as taught by Jesus Christ; and willful ignorance of this, the highest type of knowledge, will relegate its victim to the inferior order of intelligences.”

    Like you, I’ve reached a point in my life where the source of all beauty, all art, all wisdom, all knowledge is far more fascinating and worthy of my time and adoration than the human tools He paints, and writes, and sings through…

  59. Kent Larsen on October 6, 2008 at 6:47 am

    mlu (57):

    I’m skeptical of the whole enterprise of trying to create a new channel whereby intellectuals will be able to transmit their “higher” understanding to the ignorant masses.

    Um, when did we suggest that?

    First, remember that ALL the post did was suggest that we don’t have a way of transmitting information about culture, except as filtered for religious meaning through Conference and worship services.

    Second, except for the post by Dave (52), I don’t think there has been any particular proposal made for what should be done and how it should be done. Just because I pointed out that a basic knowledge of national “high” culture is often transmitted by schools doesn’t mean I think that should be done for Mormon culture. In fact, I said in the post “this can’t happen in Mormonism.”

    I think you are worried about a bogey man.

    My preference would be for Mormons to form their own k-12 schools.

    It won’t happen anywhere outside of the Intermountain West. There just isn’t the concentration of members to justify the expense (unless you want kids on buses for multiple hours each day).

    It also seems like a particularly isolating idea. I suppose this is part of the problem, in a broad sense. How do we transmit our culture when we are really just a portion of a larger culture. Having our own schools tends to cut us off from the broader culture, while not maintaining some kind of separate cultural institutions means our culture can be overwhelmed by the broader culture.

    I don’t have an answer to that one.

  60. Kent Larsen on October 6, 2008 at 7:16 am

    quin (58):

    I agree with what you are saying, and feel much the same way. It seems to me that what Kent really wants is to “popularize” Mormonism in the secular world, and so is attempting to build an argument that denies the reality that Latter-day Saints not only HAVE a culture, but that it is arguably the most enlightening and noble canon on the planet; one that crosses all world and culture boundaries, as witnessed by the fact that a Saint can enter a church building or temple two continents away and “feel right at home”.

    No, I’m quite sure I never intended anything of that sort, even though there are some interesting elements in what you say.

    While it would be nice to “popularize” Mormonism in the secular world, I’m much more concerned with the internal workings of our culture. If you read the post carefully, you will see that I do think we have a culture. I just think that many valuable cultural elements are ignored or have been lost because they don’t fit in LDS worship services.

    Take Leroy Robertson’s Oratorio from the Book of Mormon. Have you ever heard it? Did you know it existed before reading the comments to this post? If you wanted to hear it, where would you go?

    I’ve never heard it myself. I’ve read about it, and I’ve been told by those whose opinion I respect that it is a very fine piece of classical music. I do know that I can’t just go to Amazon.com and buy a CD of the Oratorio (its been recorded once, on LP in 1979. Its a little hard to find a copy of it).

    Should we use it in worship services? I don’t see how. Its too long to fit the format of any of our worship services. The best we could hope for is that it could be used as background music for a Church film or audio presentation. [Perhaps it has, I wouldn’t know.]

    So while I won’t argue with your contention that Mormon culture is “enlightening and noble,” I also think that we have left behind many elements merely because they aren’t the right format for worship services, and even though Mormons consume similar elements from the broader U.S. culture continuously.

    You seem to be content with the idea of Mormon culture being limited to what happens in worship. I am not.

    Its the canon that is not part of our worship that is being lost.

  61. mike on October 6, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Perhaps off topic:

    I had nothing to contribute to this discussion until last Sunday evening. I offer this account as an example of something parallel to what I dream about coming from LDS musical artists eventually.

    One of the members of my family attends an evangelical Protestant Church and I was invited to an evening service, sort of like a Protestant fireside. The service was held in a large modern neo-gothic cathedral that cost 17 million to build with 50 ft high vaulted ceiling and the most beautiful stain-glass windows I have ever seen. It had nice soft seats and excellent acoustics with state of the art digital audio system. This sanctuary holds about 3000 people and about 1000 attended. The words of the hymns were projected digitally onto screens on the wall.

    The audience consisted of mostly young families, some with adolescent children and also quite a few single adults. The event was part concert, part sing-along of modern hymns and part short Biblical readings from Psalms or the New Testament. The performers were from Ireland with cute witty accents and they featured center-stage a beautiful young woman vocalist wearing a green dress, her husband and MC at the piano, a tall blond in a black dress playing a violin, a young clean-cut guy on the electric bass guitar (who was teased about being single and available) and a drummer. None of the group seemed over 30 years old.

    This group composed almost all of the hymns that they played, one finished as recently as two weeks ago. I thought they were excellent. Some of the hymns were familiar to the audience and apparently some of their hymns are commonly used in contemporary evangelical worship services across America and Europe. The hymns were entirely Christ centered, every line referred to some aspect of Christ’s life or ministry or our relationship with Him. There was no mistaking the topic of every hymn and nothing obviously inconsistent with LDS doctrine. A prayer of redemption was nicely woven into their program about a third of the way into the performance. The hymns included vocal, violin and piano solos, along with various mixes and about half included the louder more powerful electric guitar and drums. I will long remember a hymn with a soprano voice bemoaning the crucification, coupled with a violin solo describing the despair of the grave, followed by the power of the entire band triumphantly announcing the resurrection with the bass guitar thundering off the walls.

    Some of their more contemplative hymns sounded like they might fit into our standard LDS repertoire, but were performed with much more energy and enthusiasm. The hymns spanned the energy range all the way up to what you might hear at a mellow rock concert. I can not describe it adequately but it was reverent and it was loud at times. For an encore they did an old Protestant favorite about the power of the blood of the Lamb with full audience participation and it felt more like a pep rally for Jesus than anything.

    Some of the audience was moved to the point of waving their hands in the air and many had tears streaming down their faces and a few irreverent immature souls were bleating at every mention of the Lamb; but the noise level prevented adult women nearby from hearing and bopping them. I did not see any jumping of pews, dancing around, rolling on the ground, barking like dogs, speaking in tongues, etc.; all of which I have witnessed in revivals in the piney woods when I lived in Mississippi in the 1980’s. I thought it was at least as inspirational as General Conference, entirely Christ centered, and quite a bit more entertaining and pleasant. It lifted my soul. I don’t think but a very few if any noticed that it ran several minutes over the two hour allotted time. The artists mingled with the audience after the concert and seemed like humble decent young people devoted to witnessing for Christ with their talents. However, dang git, there weren’t no green punch and cookies fer ‘freshments.

    I live far from the central LDS strongholds and I do not know what culturally is going on there. But I can not imagine anything like this coming out of the LDS religion at this point and such artists traveling around to visit my ward and sharing their talents with us. The Osmond’s were perhaps similar but they were producing pop music and they happened to be Mormon. (And although more popular, I personally don’t think they were near as talented as what I heard last night). The Osmond’s pretty much kept up a decent reputation that would not bring shame upon their church. Nobody is perfect. But their material could not be described as modern LDS hymns suitable for church services.

    (I have deleted a long and tedious paragraph complaining about the crappy music in my ward.)

  62. quin on October 6, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Kent,

    Here’s where you and I disagree-I do not believe that Mormon culture is limited to what happens in “worship”-if by worship you mean the Sunday meeting block. Most Mormons understand that their faith/religion is not a “Sunday only” or formal-worship-only part of life and that it extends into all aspects of daily living. Because of that, the sheer volume of material elements that apply in meaningful ways to our culture could not possibly be defined or contained within Church curriculum or worship format, nor should it be. Sunday meetings are for worshiping God, renewing our covenants, strengthening our testimonies, and being taught core doctrine.

    With very few receptions, most religious worship services consist of established rituals that are familiar to their congregants, and have been since ancient days. Catholics know what to expect from Mass, Jews know what to expect when attending synagogue. Mormons are no different in that. But Mormons, like Catholics and Jews have access to libraries, databases, museums, and activities that provide a more extensive “canon” or expression of their personal religious beliefs. I may not have the name Leroy Robertson, or the title “Oratorio from the Book of Mormon” before reading this comment, but it took me only seconds to pull his biography and the history of the “Oratorio” up on google and another couple of minutes to actually hear part of it in mp3 format.

    There are numerous databases and resources available online to every member of the Church in which the “canon” that extends beyond that of our Sunday worship manuals are safely kept and archived for our own perusal and that of our children. Art, music, and lectures are everywhere or free, and for a small monthly subscription fee, one digital online library stores literally thousands of LDS literary works, along with other non-LDS classics that can be read, researched, cross referenced, and filed for future reference in a personal online account. I view this as the complete opposite of “being lost” because members today have more choices and more access to everything LDS than any other time in history and it takes minimal effort to access it or obtain information on how we can.

    But no true culture consists of just the “highest” elements of its society; culture reflects many different aspects from the lives of all its members. If the members of one main culture are multinational, multiracial, or from a variety of religious backgrounds- there will be an equal number of resulting subcultures of the main one. IF in your own personal upbringing the “higher” forms of secular art, literature, and music were emphasized, either by family, community or school system-then your desire to emphasize those same areas within an LDS context is natural. But not EVERYONE who falls into the LDS culture was raised the same way, feels the same way, or has any desire to be that way. Some people might feel that such things are necessary to advance any given society and some might not. Some think that such things are the most profound expressions of the language and intellect of a given society, and some don’t.

    Of all the things enumerated in the scriptural canon of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will bring about Zion on earth, things like paintings, music, sculpture or literature aren’t even in the top 20. The things that MATTER THE MOST within LDS culture, are not things at all, they are traits like faith, hope, charity, obedience, covenants, and the divine plan of our Father. I agree completely that art and music can and does enhance our spiritual experiences and that many such talents are God-given as a means of benefiting all who participate in our culture. But no religious culture considers the artistic by-products of its members to be “part” of their doctrine or official canon-why should they? Do you view Michelangelo’s work as part of Catholic canon? I don’t, and I don’t know anyone else that does, including my Catholic friends. There are literally hundreds of famous Jewish artists and yet none of their work has been “canonized” by those of Jewish faith according to my Jewish inlaws.

    Truth is not subjective, it is objective. The doctrines of our Church are eternal and exist outside of any mortal expression, and defining their extent and scope and applications as THE CANON of the LDS Church is the duty and obligation of those who lead the Church. Everything else is garnish and reflects the individual interpretations and perspectives of those who live within the culture established by the OFFICIAL canon.

  63. Kent Larsen on October 6, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Quin (62):

    Here’s where you and I disagree-I do not believe that Mormon culture is limited to what happens in “worship”-if by worship you mean the Sunday meeting block. Most Mormons understand that their faith/religion is not a “Sunday only” or formal-worship-only part of life and that it extends into all aspects of daily living. Because of that, the sheer volume of material elements that apply in meaningful ways to our culture could not possibly be defined or contained within Church curriculum or worship format, nor should it be.

    NO, We don’t disagree with this. Once again you aren’t getting the concept. Its not about what exists, its about how knowledge of it is transmitted.

    A cultural element might as well not exist if it is unknown.

    Mormons, like Catholics and Jews have access to libraries, databases, museums, and activities that provide a more extensive “canon” or expression of their personal religious beliefs.

    Name one database that most Mormons know exists AND that identifies items as Mormon in a useful way.

    And, in any case, the problem ISN’T whether or not you can find the item somewhere once you know it exists. Its whether or not most educated and active members know that the most important/valuable/worthy items exist or not.

    I may not have the name Leroy Robertson, or the title “Oratorio from the Book of Mormon” before reading this comment, but it took me only seconds to pull his biography and the history of the “Oratorio” up on google and another couple of minutes to actually hear part of it in mp3 format.

    Again, the issue isn’t whether you could find it. Its whether or not you knew that it exists.

    The point is that we don’t have any way of letting members know what works have already been done. We might as well not have an Oratorio from the Book of Mormon, given that so few Mormons know it exists.

    But no true culture consists of just the “highest” elements of its society

    No one is saying that a culture does or should. But most cultures do have some way of educating their members about what they consider to be the most relevant works — those works that most members should know about. In the U.S. we generally teach about these works in high school English classes.

    Mormonism doesn’t have a way of teaching members about these works, not outside of General Conference and our worship services, because teaching about such works isn’t their function!

    Of all the things enumerated in the scriptural canon of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will bring about Zion on earth, things like paintings, music, sculpture or literature aren’t even in the top 20. The things that MATTER THE MOST within LDS culture, are not things at all,

    I don’t think I said that the arts were the things that matter most. Nor did any of those commenting.

    BUT, even the general authorities seem to know how important culture is in the lives of members. We are told regularly to “seek out the best books” and cautioned about what is in the arts we consume.

    My own feeling is that cultural elements have a significant effect on things like activity rates. A stronger culture retains members better and probably gains converts more often, all other things being equal.

    So, perhaps cultural elements are not the things that matter most, but they are also not irrelevant.

    But no religious culture considers the artistic by-products of its members to be “part” of their doctrine or official canon-why should they?

    Um, did someone here say so?

    The “Canon” we are talking about here is NOT the scriptural or doctrinal canon. We are talking about the cultural canon.

    There is a big difference between the two.

    I think Mormonism does an excellent job of educating members about the doctrinal canon. It doesn’t do so well with the cultural canon.

  64. quin on October 6, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    K- “Name one database that most Mormons know exists AND that identifies items as Mormon in a useful way.”

    Q- Um…THE INTERNET??? Most “educated and active” Mormons know that if they type “LDS art”, “LDS Literature”,“LDS Music”, or “LDS Library” into a web browser, thousands of resources become instantly available.

    K- “Again, the issue isn’t whether you could find it. Its whether or not you knew that it exists.”

    Q- Is a knowledge that the Oratorio exists essential in some way to my life? Or salvation? Can I “lose” something that never existed to me before? What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

    K- “Mormonism doesn’t have a way of teaching members about these works, not outside of General Conference and our worship services, because teaching about such works isn’t their function!”

    Q-Exactly! The function of the Church is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. Promoting Mormon art, literature, and performance media is the function of all those websites google pulls up.

    K-“But most cultures do have some way of educating their members about what they consider to be the most relevant works — those works that most members should know about.”

    Q-Gordon B. Hinckley said “ When all is said and done, there is one purpose for this Church, and that is to assist our Father in Heaven in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of His sons and daughters.” Thus, the most relevant works to the Church are those that contain the gospel (scriptures) and those that expound upon it.

    K-The “Canon” we are talking about here is NOT the scriptural or doctrinal canon. We are talking about the cultural canon. There is a big difference between the two. I think Mormonism does an excellent job of educating members about the doctrinal canon. It doesn’t do so well with the cultural canon.”

    Q-You stated the reason for this yourself- K- “We simply don’t have the institutional and logistical tools to be anything else, and I don’t think we ever will have those tools, because they don’t fill a religious purpose. The Church therefore won’t see a reason to create them, and no one else is likely to either.”

    I agree. People become members of the Church FOR religious purposes, not in the hopes that we have great art and music. Mormonism is a religious culture. And while maybe for YOU (as you state in post #36 )”the “big answers are not… even really where did I come from, why am I here and where am I going” …for the vast majority of members of the Church, these are THE biggest answers that exist!

    K-“ My own reading of the hard questions in literature leads me to conclude that while the Gospel gives us an important guide to life, it doesn’t mean we have no need for faith, for reasoning, or for personal revelation, all of which are indicators of the uncertainty of life. We need great art that examines this uncertainty and the details of what the answers we have mean for us in our lives.”

    Q- Huh? The Gospel is designed to give us access to “faith”, pure “reason” and “personal revelation”. The Plan of Salvation dispels the uncertainty of life and tells us what the events and experiences of mortality really MEAN. Every single LDS adult I’ve ever met knows that, not just the “educated and active” ones, and I’m fairly certain that “great art” had nothing to do with the process by which they obtained that knowledge.

    The Church magazines expose people of all ages worldwide to the “culture” that develops when human beings embrace and live the doctrines of the LDS Church. The Ensign (and LDS Church) sponsors a yearly Music, Writing and Art Contest, which exposes millions of members to the “culture” of LDS artists and authors, and the Ensign contains an LDS Distribution Center catalog every year filled with items such as DVD’s, CD’s, and the Distribution Center website displays HUNDREDS of fine art prints from the Church museum. You seem to be under the impression that Deseret Book only sells romance novels and LDS “pop culture” T-shirts, which is a mistaken impression. They also sell LDS history books, poetry books, doctrinal books and even non-Mormon classic literature, and their website has a searchable catalog. Deseret Book also owns and provides subscriptions to Gospelink.com- which is yet one more Mormon database filled with literally THOUSANDS of books and works.

    Maybe you were not aware of all the sources that I listed above, but most of the Latter-day Saints I know are.

  65. Kent Larsen on October 6, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Quin, I think this is getting past the point of usefullness.

    You seem to have a completely different conception of this subject than I do.

    I’m NOT talking about what is important in the gospel or what is essential for your life. I am talking about what builds Mormon culture and gives us a better basis for discussing concepts. If you don’t think that the kind of information I’m talking about is useful in your life (I get the feeling that you don’t), then why do you keep hammering on your claim that it isn’t part of the gospel? No one says that it is!

    You seem to be confusing Mormon culture and the Church. While they are related, they are NOT the same. Just because the purpose of the Church is one thing, that doesn’t mean that ALL Mormon culture must also serve that purpose.

    This really seems to be getting down to a difference of outlook — perhaps an Iron Rod vs. Liahona kind of difference (to use a perhaps worn-out metaphor). I disagree with a lot of what you wrote in #64, especially because you seem to want to see everything as a doctrinal issue of some kind. And I am trying to avoid bringing doctrine into this discussion. While perhaps not strictly necessary in a doctrinal sense, I believe that Mormon culture is an expression of the Mormon people, and there is room in it for things that aren’t doctrinal.

    BTW, the INTERNET is NOT A DATABASE in any meaningful way. It does not identify meaningfully when a cultural expression is Mormon. The other sources you mention (I’m well aware of ALL of them) are either limited by the fact that it is ONLY related to doctrine and worship, or is simply not available to most Church members. Not one of those sources is either known by most members, or offers a dependable overview of Mormon cultural expression outside of worship.

    And, you do me a disservice to suggest that I don’t know what Deseret Book carries. I understand very well. In fact, see my three Motley Vision posts (here, here and here) on why I think Deseret Book is actually a disservice to the Church AND to Mormon culture.

  66. mlu on October 6, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks, quin.

    In a sense I agree with you, Kent. I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing I could find “Mormon” cultural works apart from the usually quite simple materials that come through us in worship services. It’s part of the reason that I do find the Internet a huge blessing, including this blog, where I’ve been led to quite a lot of what I wanted.

    Still, while perhaps I didn’t respond precisely enough to exactly what you had said, my discomfort comes from a distrust of cultural authorities in general. I’ve spent my life preparing myself to pass on a cultural tradition, and it’s led me to admire the work of the Brethren more and more as I’ve come to distrust the work of intellectuals more and more.

    “But most cultures do have some way of educating their members about what they consider to be the most relevant works — those works that most members should know about.”

    But of course, “cultures” do no such thing. It is always “authorities” within those cultures that make these decisions. It’s those authorities I distrust. I expect they will quite soon consider themselves smarter than the General Authorities, like so many posters on these blogs.

    My assumption is that any institution you set up to transmit what you want is likely to become a toy of some quite proud advocates full of the desire to make a name. To build a great tower. Which is fine with me, as long as it remains the unauthorized project of private citizens, so the rest of us can pick and choose.

    Start a magazine or a website or a publishing house. I think that would be fine. I promise to give you some business.

  67. mlu on October 6, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Some of the audience was moved to the point of waving their hands in the air and many had tears streaming down their faces and a few irreverent immature souls were bleating at every mention of the Lamb; but the noise level prevented adult women nearby from hearing and bopping them. I did not see any jumping of pews, dancing around, rolling on the ground, barking like dogs, speaking in tongues, etc.; all of which I have witnessed in revivals in the piney woods when I lived in Mississippi in the 1980’s. I thought it was at least as inspirational as General Conference, entirely Christ centered, and quite a bit more entertaining and pleasant. It lifted my soul.

    Mike, I’ve attended non-LDS church services where the music was beautiful in ways typical LDS services are not, and it’s made me wonder. Certainly we have room to improve.

    But it also took me years to learn to appreciate the General Authority speaking style, which I once thought was flat and dull. Mostly now I think what a delicate thing it is to create a space where a listener can hear the still, small voice. It was Kierkegaard, of all people, who helped me quite a lot with that: can the speaker speak in a way that calls no attention to the speaker, who should not be the focus at a worship service?

  68. mike on October 7, 2008 at 8:32 am

    MLU#67

    The group I describe did not call as much attention to themselves as they did to their message of Christ lives in their lives.They managed to do it without being flat and dull. If we are honest that describes our General Conference at the superficial level. I think the Spirit can touch people in different ways and they are not mutually exclusive. Old guys with a dull flat delivery may get through to a people who are brought up with that as their expectation of holy speak. Many contemporary evangelicans are getting through to large numbers of people across the world in a variety of ways. The message is not the same and we have our differences which are substantial. But perhaps we could learn something from each other. Not every fireside needs to imitate the style of General Conference.

  69. Wes Dean on October 7, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Familes are responsible for teaching culture to their children, just one more way our modern familes aren’t living up to what the Lord would have us do.

  70. Craig H. on October 7, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Kent, thanks for the post. I thought it very provocative; it made me think, for instance, that along with the transmission (or lack of transmission) of high culture, there is a transmission (or not) of culture with a small “c,” the way anthropologists use the word. Especially here there’s no neat line between doctrine and practice, as they mix together pretty easily. I thought of the comments by Annie Clark Tanner in her autobiography, that when “celestial marriage” was taught in the 19th century it meant plural marriage. I doubt most Mormons nowadays know that, and how the concept (or doctrine) has changed since then. Or it made me wonder how many Mormons in say 80 or 100 years will even know that at one time black men could not hold the priesthood? Maybe scholars or a few other eggheads? We’d rather forget the parts that aren’t popular any longer. Thus even some of the small c culture doesn’t get transmitted, and you wonder how harmful, or helpful, that is.

  71. quin on October 7, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Mike,

    I don’t know where you live, but I can think of countless Church groups that produce and perform programs that sound very similar to what you describe. BYU -Utah has 18 different groups in their Performing Arts department that perform and compete more than 400 times in 140 cities and 20 countries annually. BYU-Idaho has similar touring groups as well as a program that provides funding for “significant works of performance and visual arts”.The number of annual “temple” pageants (such as the Manti pageant and the Hill Cumorah pageant) is growing as well as the number of original major productions that are organized and hosted in the Conference Center. The talent and dedication to the fine arts that “comes out of this religion” is phenomenal.

  72. quin on October 8, 2008 at 12:35 am

    Kent,

    Let me see if I can clarify a couple of things.

    First of all, we both agree that there is a big difference between a culture and the works produced by, in, or for that culture. Contrary to the title of both this thread and the one on “A Motley Vision” (AMV) this discussion is about “works/products” and not culture.

    Edward B. Tylor, the cultural anthropologist whose definition of “culture” you agree with AMV, says the following things about cultures and societies and their products: “Cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions, whereas societies are groups of interacting organisms.” … “Human societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other. People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations.” “While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society. Cultures are not the product of lone individuals. They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other.”

    Tyler doesn’t limit the “products” of a culture to art, music and literature either. He states that “our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man made things are merely the product of culture they are not culture in themselves.”

    Second, in your initial post on this thread you state:
    “For most of us, our national culture, and especially our “high” culture, was learned more through school than through the events that normally happen in our lives. We (Americans) read Wordsworth and Melville in high school, not because it was popular literature passed around among our friends or because it dominated what was on television. Brazilians are most often introduced to Machado de Assis and Camões through their schools, not through music or film or their neighbors. The French, Germans, Italians and every other culture teach their children through schools about the best of their culture.”

    I want to agree with you in theory, but can’t in reality because what is taught in every high school in America is not the same, the textbooks are not the same, and the “best” or “high culture” chosen for emphasis is not the same. For example, I may have heard about both Melville and Wordsworth in high school, but I was never assigned to read them or instructed that they represented the “best” of my culture. I chose American Literature rather than English Lit so I studied and read the American Poetry of Emerson, Longfellow and Poe. Melville and Wordsworth are both Romantic Poets from England and while their works are known by many Americans, their works are not products OF American culture. My point here is that in reality “most high school students” are probably as aware of and have as much access to “the best” of their own culture as “most Mormons” are and do. You obviously think otherwise and that is fine, but until you produce some solid numbers, I can’t agree with your comparison.

    Third-several other posters have brought up a critical point that you have yet to address and it is this: Determining what works are “the best” or “the most valuable” products of a given culture requires that a consensus of some kind is established FIRST. Do you believe that all “Mormons” deserve to be a part of the process that decides who among them is best qualified and what method is the most accurate to reach such an agreement? Or do you believe that a select group of Mormons should be chosen for that honor? Who chooses that group and who creates the means for informing “most Mormons” about all of it? I ask because as evidenced above, if “most” American adults who were once a American students being taught by American teachers in educational institutions sponsored by the same American organization (government) do not know and agree upon what constitutes and expresses American culture in “the best” or “most valuable” ways, then the system you insist NEEDS to be established to both preserve, and disseminate Mormon culture to all Mormons worldwide will have to be far more accurate, more comprehensive, and more rigidly regulated than the American educational system.

    And finally, according to your own definition, Mormon culture is the “knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by members of the Mormon Church.” The LDS Church is a religious organization and religious organizations are differentiated from one another by their unique traditions, values, teachings and beliefs-(their cultures). My point HERE is that for some reason you seem to be unaware that the teachings and beliefs of a RELIGION are synonymous with, and even commonly referred to as, it’s DOCTRINE! This is why I believe that ALL “man-made” products that result from or bear the distinction of accurately reflecting or expressing “Mormon culture” (to a greater extent than they reflect or express any other culture or traits that are NOT unique to Mormon culture) will inherently represent one Mormon doctrine or another.

  73. mlu on October 8, 2008 at 2:09 am

    This is an aside to an aside, but one of the things that strikes me forcefully is the gap between what young Americans really should be taught by way of preparing them to face the world that is already here and the content of the literature curriculum selected for them by authorities of the high culture.

    Detail: Melville was quite American, and though he wrote some poetry, that’s not what he’s usually remembered for. As a poet, though, he sometimes touches on some of the issues raised, to Kent’s distress, on this post:

    The Ravaged Villa

    In shards the sylvan vases lie,
    Their links of dance undone;
    And brambles wither by the brim,
    Choked Fountain of the Sun!
    The spider in the laurel spins,
    The weed exiles the flower,
    And, flung to kiln, Apollo’s bust
    Makes lime for Mammon’s tower.

  74. Kent Larsen on October 8, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Wes (69):
    True, but does that mean that the rest of society shouldn’t help out? I think most of the world decided back in the 1800s that leaving education up to families meant that some would be educated and some wouldn’t. By the 1900s, education in the primary grades was compulsory in the U.S.

    I’m NOT saying that education about mormon culture is so important that is should be compulsory. But I am saying that our culture could benefit from some better way of transmitting culture.

  75. Kent Larsen on October 8, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Craig H. (70): I think you make a very good point. One of the difficulties with our (Mormon) current method of transmitting culture is that it relies on transmission through the Church. Your examples show how elements of our culture can be lost because of this reliance. I do suppose that some of these losses are part of the natural change as culture grows and develops, but I’m also not sure that all these changes are even best for the Church.

  76. Kent Larsen on October 8, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Quin (72):
    Your first item seems irrelevant to me. For what we’re discussing here, does the distinction between culture and its products really matter? And to whatever small extent that it does matter, let me point out that I’ve tried to emphasize knowledge about cultural products, rather than the products themselves.

    As to the second, the issue isn’t so much whether you have read them, as knowledge of them (and you’ve made a small misstep in suggesting that Melville was an English Romantic poet – try American novelist, best known for Moby Dick). Its foolish to suggest that everyone should have read the classic works of our culture. BUT, its reasonable to assume that most people at least know that Shakespeare was the author of some of our best-known plays. I’m talking about knowledge of our culture, not the products themselves.

    And regarding your third point, I have deliberately avoided the details of how such a consensus would be built. One thing at a time. If we haven’t thought about whether we need some way of transmitting culture, its probably jumping the gun to suggest a full-fledged system for doing so.

    I’m not sure about a lot of your statements about who and how a canon of Mormon Culture might be selected and established. In particular, I’m not at all sure that such a system “will have to be far more accurate, more comprehensive, and more rigidly regulated than the American educational system.” I think I would be satisfied with something that helps members know their own culture at all.

    As for your characterization of a religious culture as purely based on doctrine, well, lets just say that I disagree.

  77. quin on October 8, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Kent,

    Thank you for your cordial response, and I mean that.

    You’re right that I mis-categorized Melville, which while embarrassing, only proves my point. I didn’t have to read Moby Dick in high school, and while I’d guess that most Americans know the title of that book and probably even the plot, I wonder how many high school students today could name the author. Culture changes and when it does, the old classics are replaced by new classics.

    “I think I would be satisfied with something that helps members know their own culture at all.”

    Isn’t that what happens when people live the gospel? “Cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions”, our thoughts, actions, beliefs, and wisdom. When members apply the principles of the Church to their lives, they CREATE Mormon culture.

    This might seem like a small distinction to you, and I realize that you disagree, but the fact is that your position is not about helping members know their own culture, it is about helping members become familiar with the PRODUCTS of their culture, and even more specifically, about products that are not created or officially endorsed by the governing body of their culture. I’m NOT trying to say that I believe you are secretly an evil marketing mogul who only wishes to profit at the expense of the Mormon people. I AM saying that I believe if your sincerest desire is really to help others know their culture as accurately and purely as possible-you would be encouraging members to seek “products” commissioned by those who have been given the keys and mantle of responsibility OVER this culture by the SOURCE of this culture.

    I want you to know I LOVE books, music and art-and my home not only holds a library but my garage more boxes than I care to think about that are filled with books, CD’s etc. But even I recognize that books, music, art etc are ONLY the personal interpretations and expressions of individuals who are members OF a culture-they are not THE culture. If you painted a picture of a temple for example, in ANY form-impressionist, modern, abstract, pointillism etc-it would not help me know my culture-it would only help me know how another member of my culture interprets and expresses one product of our culture (the temple) through the creation of another product.

    “As for your characterization of a religious culture as purely based on doctrine, well, lets just say that I disagree.”

    Pray tell, what defines a culture as a religious one if not it’s religion? What sets a Mormon apart from a Catholic? What distinguishes a painting that reflects Mormon culture from one that reflects Catholic culture?

    Can you describe for me even ONE product (art, music,book) that would be an obvious representation of Mormon culture that is not inspired by or rooted in a teaching, belief, behavior, or principle unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

  78. Bryan Stout on October 8, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Ignoring the larger interesting discussion, I’d like to clarify the Mormon Creed itself. (I was aware of the Creed long ago, but that’s because Michael Hicks — the author of an article about the Creed — was my EQ president in grad school.)

    Thanks to BHodges (26) for including his link above. For those who didn’t follow the link, here is a pertinent quote from BY:

    “We are apt to neglect our own feelings, passions, and undertakings, or in other words, to neglect to weed our own gardens, and while we are weeding our neighbor’s, before we are aware, weeds will start up and kill the good seeds in our own. This is the reason why we should most strictly attend to our own business… if we, keep our own gardens clear of weeds, our neighbors will take a pattern by us, and produce from their gardens greater quantities of fruit another year.”

    IOW, the phrase “Mind your own business”, as the Mormon Creed, didn’t mean “Leave me alone”, it meant “Take care of yourself and your responsibilities.” It has a lot more to do with getting the mote our of your eye than leaving things in Las Vegas. :-)

  79. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 9, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    It seems to me that the de facto cultural centers of Mormonism are the 3 BYU campuses and the activities, including performance art and visual art, at Temple Square and the conference center. Clearly the 13th article of Faith does not state we are creating a distinct culture ex nihilo, but rather that we seek out the good and virtuous from what is already in the world, and as Brigham Young said, bring all truth into the Gospel. The Gospel acts as a sieve that extracts the good and uplifting from the bad and degrading, all based on whether the things at issue lead us toward Christ or away. We are not in the business of creating a distinctive brand name that can differentiate itself in a cultural marketplace. We are interested in gathering together anything and everything that has a tendency to make us better people. We also are tasked with training ourselves to develop a sense of what is good versus what is bad, to build our own personal and family cultural sphere that is compatible with living the Gospel.

    Culture includes not just commercial art, but also group activities. Just as some aspects of Japanese culture involve the various festivals in locations across the country, Mormon culture includes gatherings for performances, such as the Hill Cumorah Pageant, or one-of-a-kind plays or musicals. The program at Temple Square includes not only public high school music groups, but also community performing groups like the community choir here in Idaho Falls that performs more challenging music. There are special concerts at Temple Square, including a performance of the Book of Mormon Oratorio a few years back, and other complex pieces. Over the years, I have performed with three local stake/regional choirs to sing The Messiah, one in Omaha, one in the San Francisco East Bay, and another in eastern Washington.

    The Messiah raises another issue. We are taught that god inspires all men and women. There are good arguments for seeing inspiration in works like Handel’s Messiah. For example, how does the chorus “For He Shall Purify,” quoting Malachi, have any cultural significance for any traditional Christian? I cannot recall ever seeing a Catholic or Protestant sermon, essay, or anything else that keyed on Malachi 3 and 4. Yet this was the FIRST THING that Moroni quoted to Joseph Smith, and it was a theme that was increasingly filled out over the years, with John the Baptist’s ordination and reference to the Aaronic Priesthood in Malachi, with D&C 84’s covenant of priesthood, and with Section 128’s exposition of vicarious ordinances for the dead. I doubt Handel understood the full meaning of those verses, but then, neither did Joseph at first.

    I am glad that the Orchestra at Temple Square has been created to expand the Mormon repertoire into many other compositions. Mack Wilberg is an acknowledged genius in arranging and composing music. He is doing much to create a culture of art that provides a hospitable home for Latter-day Saints. We parents can do the same by our selection and winnowing of what is best in the world and bringing it into our homes.

  80. Kent Larsen on October 10, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Quin (77) responded to my comment: “I think I would be satisfied with something that helps members know their own culture at all.” by saying:

    “Isn’t that what happens when people live the gospel?”

    Well, no, it isn’t!

    When you live the gospel, you learn gospel truths, not culture.

    I agree that members living the gospel CREATES culture. But that doesn’t mean that they will learn what previous members have expressed after learning and while living the gospel.

    I’ll say it again, perhaps in a new way. The problem is what is the mechanism for passing on culture. The transmission tht happens at Church is limited to what is appropriate at Church. Knowledge about anything that isn’t appropriate at Church has a hard time being transmitted.

    I AM saying that I believe if your sincerest desire is really to help others know their culture as accurately and purely as possible-you would be encouraging members to seek “products” commissioned by those who have been given the keys and mantle of responsibility OVER this culture by the SOURCE of this culture.

    Um, who exactly has been given responsibility OVER this culture?

    You seem to be confounding responsibility over the Church with responsibility over Mormon culture. I reject this identification!

    We are told to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118 and 109:7), but we are not told to seek approval for those items. Quite to the contrary, we are told we “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” I don’t have the feeling that the Lord intends for us to correlate all those efforts (I haven’t sought, nor will I seek, approval for my efforts at Mormon Translation or Mormon Terms or any future efforts I make), nor do I think that the Brethren want to review every project that Church members take on.

    Given that, I don’t see how you could possibly believe that the Brethren are somehow responsible for Mormon culture (other than responsibility for speaking out on those things that are in conflict with doctrine).

    I recognize that books, music, art etc are ONLY the personal interpretations and expressions of individuals who are members OF a culture-they are not THE culture.

    Hmmm, I’m not sure that I completely agree. In my view, culture itself is an expression (by a group of people instead of an individual) of their perception of the world around them. I don’t see how culture can be truly independent of people.

    Pray tell, what defines a culture as a religious one if not it’s religion?

    Off the top of my head, I’d say that the only thing that defines a culture is the people that create it and are part of it. Cultural expressions are notorious for resisting definition. As soon as you “define” a culture in one way, someone will find a way to express themselves outside of the definition.

    Can you describe for me even ONE product (art, music,book) that would be an obvious representation of Mormon culture that is not inspired by or rooted in a teaching, belief, behavior, or principle unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

    Well, your restriction is different than what you stated earlier. You originally claimed that Mormon culture was rooted in the Church and its doctrine, not in “behavior.”

    I do think there are literary works that talk mostly about the behavior of Church members and have little to do with doctrine.

    I should also point out that since there are few, if any, “teachings, beliefs, behaviors, or principles unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” I suspect that finding such works is relatively easy. For example, the classic work The Giant Joshua is largely about what life under polygamy was like, and polygamy is hardly unique to Mormonism. Likewise, Leroy Robertson’s chorus “The Lord’s Prayer” is about a subject that is anything but unique to Mormonism.

  81. mike on October 17, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Sorry, MLU #71, I don’t look at my computer every day. And our little slow motion interchange is swamped out by the bigger issues being discussed that are quite beyond me. And this conversation seems to have ended over a week ago.

    I guess you don’t comprehend what I am trying to express, asking me where I live. That is the point. Like over half the church, I live in the Mormon Boondocks and it is a cultural wasteland. The trouble with all the fine performances at BYU is that they never come to my ward. And none of those BYU graduates who move into my ward seem to have any talents; at least there is little chance for them to share their talents with us. What I find remarkable about this group from Ireland is that they are from the Evangelical Boondocks. When I think of the Bible Belt, Ireland does not pop into my mind. And they are good.

    Every two years our Stake has a cultural festival. Whether this represents Mormon culture or not I will leave to your judgment. One man exhibits several nicely done oil landscape paintings. My daughter who I consider to be among the top high school violinists in the state plays a classical piece, but she has been given so much flack at church over the years that she refuses to actually spend any time practicing for any church performance (yet alone compose something original) and just improvises. She has inspired a couple of other young violinists in the stake. A few other girls have musical talents that they display. One of our young Bishops, a very tall and thin Black man can do an acrobatic tap dance you wouldn’t believe and I can only describe it as being like a cross between the most impressive dance I used to see on the Lawrence Welk show and the Chinese circus. None of this has anything directly to do with being Mormon.

    A stocky middle aged Black woman (whose nick name is Mother Goose and she is a good friend of mine and if she is reading this she is going to kill me) got up on stage and with Robert Lund’s rendition of “Feel Like a Mormon” blatting over the sound system she translated it into sign language while dancing around rather energetically. (My son has the Lund parody of Clayton from Layton who doesn’t want to go to Bozeman on a mission memorized but he won’t do it in front of audiences.) I submitted a doctored version of the Ballad of Sam McGee to be read out loud except I slightly changed it into a story of two Mormon missionaries in the Yukon. “Elder McGee was from Tennessee….” But the stake activities committee reviews all entries first and rejected it as too irreverent, describing a missionary freezing to death and being cremated back to life by his companion.

    One year they had people bring food from their missionary days with descriptions. That was a sure recipe for disaster when you think about what most missionaries actually eat. I couldn’t bring myself to serve up any Japanese “mugi” (boiled wheat coarsely ground in an electric blender and certain to increase bowel motility the first time you eat it) or ramen noodles. I never learned how to cook any decent Japanese food on my mission. I had about 25 pounds of the best southern pulled pork barbecue left over from a girl scout event in the freezer and I threw a few finely chopped black olives in it and slow cooked it up again in Dutch ovens. I claimed my mission food was from Wyoming and I called it Dan Jone’s Saddle Stew with Bits of Boots and included a description of how handcart pioneers in my mission survived by boiling and eating their saddles and boots. Like, nobody dared to even try it until everything else was gone.

    Those are the high lights that I remember. Some low lights include a dozen shy youth who don’t want to dance to rap music in front of a bunch of strangers, badly written and unrehearsed plays depicting preachy church history events, and such. Our Spanish branch never submits anything before the night of the festival, but about 2 more hours worth of material just shows up that night and we don’t want to offend anyone. Unforgettable is this creepy hat dance with authentic costume and red death mask. It is fascinating, for about 5 minutes, but it goes on for about 40 minutes. He does it every time. Maybe if I understood the story he is telling with his feet it would be more interesting. And we generally hear about a third of the hymnal in Spanish. For some reason they cancelled the cultural festival this year.

    My impression is that most of the top notch performances MLU refers to are not spontaneous developments. BYU has many performing departments and groups and such that are institutionally established for their various purposes. Performers join and are trained. Same thing goes on around here with Emory University and Ga Tech and Oglethorpe and ten other institutions. Except it is not Mormon. We could count performances, give them ratings and divide by the population. So what?

    What I think is more authentic culture is what boils up from the grass roots. I am thinking of what went on in N’awlins in the 1920’s with the invention of Dixieland jazz, as one example. All these musicians grew up there playing and creating music to be performed in the little bars and whorehouses in the French Quarter and Storyville. I think what is going on in our stake cultural festival is closer to this than the best performance of BYU, but still not very good. I admit I could be narrow-minded or plain wrong.