Why we need Mormon Culture

A week ago the Washington Post took the unusual step of writing about the LDS Church in Nigeria, and in the process made a very interesting characterization of the Church there:

Many scholars say the Mormons’ decision not to adopt more local customs — such as incorporating African drumming or dancing into Sunday services — is one reason the church has not experienced the same remarkable growth as other denominations. Pentecostals, a lively evangelical Christian movement, can draw half a million worshipers to their all-night services here.

Like many LDS Church members, I’m not bothered by the lack of dancing and drumming in Sunday services — quite to the contrary, I suspect I would roll my eyes at such affectations, or feel uncomfortable somehow. It doesn’t seem worshipful to me, but then its not my culture.

But I am curious about what the decision means about our doctrine and culture.

Should I take the decision that drums and dancing aren’t incorporated into worship services in Nigeria to mean that doctrinally it is wrong to use drums and dancing in church? Or should I take it to mean that the Mormon culture that has developed on the Wasatch Front is the best model, and that’s what is being imposed in Nigeria? Or, should I take it to mean that this was the best decision for Nigeria and its people? If so, are we saying that the association in Nigerian culture of drums and dancing with spirituality is somehow wrong?

Of course, I’m not going to even try to answer these questions. I have no idea what it means, and since I’m not a Nigerian, nor familiar with Nigerian culture, nor even an LDS Church leader responsible for these kinds of decisions, nor even someone with enough experience to understand all the implications that these decisions might have. [Although I should acknowledge that, right or wrong, these decisions have caused the Church problems in the past.]

I can say that I am glad we don’t decide to change our Church services merely to get converts.

But I think that this situation makes a little clearer why I say we need a more developed Mormon culture, and more thought about what is Mormon. This claim came under a little bit of dispute last year, in comments to my post,
Celebrate RamaChristmaHanaKwanzaSmith Day!, in which I called for more Mormon holidays. Katie P. disagreed, saying that she liked being able to be “fully Mormon and still celebrate whatever culture you find yourself in,” and that identity and culture don’t need to come from the Church. In response, I promised to tackle why we need a Mormon culture.

Of course, a good part of the difference of opinion between Katie and I could simply be a matter of semantics — specifically our definitions of culture.

So, let me try to describe what I mean when I talk about culture. My definition is quite comprehensive. Its probably closest to the definition used by cultural anthropologists (I’ve recently discovered). In his 1871 book Primitive Culture, English anthropologist Edward B. Tylor defines 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.” (see http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm)

In the past 30 years or so, anthropologists have gone further, expanding Tylor’s definition to recognize: 1. that cultures can exist in many different places at once (especially with the Internet today), 2. that a person can have more than one culture (especially true of immigrants – who often participate in subcultures specific to their home country), 3. that cultures are variable — even though we are both part of the same culture, we may have different interpretations and reactions, and 4. that culture is often the subject of controversy or competition between groups in a culture — such as political parties disputing what policies should be followed.

In my view, it is simply not possible for culture not to exist in a group of people. Every family has its own mini-culture, simply because of the way that they interact, and the knowledge, beliefs, etc. that its members share. We can’t help but create some kind of new culture every time some enduring group is created. Because culture is the shared knowledge and practices of the group, as soon as the group has these shared elements, a culture exists.

This definition does have certain implications in the Mormon context. First, it clearly means that a Mormon culture (or, more properly, subculture) exists. Mormonism has its own knowledge, beliefs, art, law (of a sort), morals, customs, etc. These don’t exist independently of other cultures (hence a subculture), but many features are unique.

Second, this culture is clearly rooted in the Church and its practices. Probably the dominant element of Mormon culture is our Sunday meetings. Mormons go to church on Sunday, we have sacrament meeting, sunday school, priesthood meeting and relief society, etc. But there are also many other elements, everything from fasting and paying tithing to hanging temple photos in your home or reading President Hinckley’s books. Some of these are doctrinally required, while others are simply driven by the personal desires of members.

While inevitable, culture is still quite important. University of Pennsylvania Anthropologist Paula L. W. Sabloff points out that “Culture is the prism through which we not only understand people today, but also yesterday, tomorrow, and far into the future.” (See To me that sounds quite important. If Mormon culture influences how we see the rest of the world, then it influences our missionary program, our relations with other Churches, and our attitudes toward everyone else.

I think it goes beyond that, however. The ‘people’ that Sabloff mentions includes each of us. Culture influences how we see and understand ourselves. We express our faith through our culture, and through that culture, we strengthen each other’s faith. Without a Mormon culture, our understanding of the gospel is impaired.

I observed in the comments to the post on Mormon holidays, that “there is a significant difference between activity rates in Utah, where there is a sort of Mormon culture, and outside Utah, and, worst of all, most international areas, where there is little or no Mormon culture available.I won’t argue for members that remain so merely because of Mormon culture. But I’m certain that even for the most doctrinally-oriented members, culture helps maintain and strengthen faith.”

Let me make some things about this issue quite clear:

  • I don’t think that the Church needs to promote culture (although it can’t help but do so and does so regularly). Its certainly not the Church’s function to promote culture. Culture is a byproduct of the fact that the Church is an organization.
  • We all belong to multiple cultures. There isn’t any conflict between being Mormon and any cultural group. In fact, since Mormonism is a subculture, everyone who is Mormon belongs to at least one other culture, and many to more than one. In a very real sense, I feel that I adopted an additional culture when I went on my mission to Portugal.
  • Because we all have other cultures, its not really possible for Mormonism to become everything or provide all our culture. I can certainly see how our religion can feel overwhelming at times, especially if you include those things that aren’t required in the gospel. But for many people, these additional cultural elements can be a source of strength and pride.
  • Culture is sometimes confused with the art it produces — with books, art, music, etc. These are really products of a culture. As such, they are a kind of evidence of that culture at a particular point in time. Now, if these products become well-known, part of the common knowledge of a culture, then they can be a part of the culture.
  • We actually have a surprising number of products that have come from Mormon culture. Books alone must total more than 25,000 titles. Films number in the hundreds. There is dance, opera, theater, and even performance art. Virtually all of it in English, FWIW.
  • Just because these products have been produced, or cultural knowledge is part of Mormon culture, doesn’t make them doctrinal. But it is inevitable that these non-doctrinal cultural beliefs exist. Some of them have a long history — such as conceptions about the pre- and post-mortal existence found in Added Upon and, more recently, Saturday’s Warrior. Likewise, cultural beliefs aren’t necessarily historically accurate.
  • Of course, these non-doctrinal and non-historical beliefs and cultural elements may cause confusion for some members and new converts. But, as noted above, culture often involves conflicts. Just because something is part of the culture doesn’t mean everyone must accept it.

Perhaps my definition of culture is somehow wrong. I’m not an anthropologist, nor do I have extensive training in this area. But the above makes sense to me. And if its right, then culture is quite important.

But I think the most important observation of all of this is that we are all involved (whether we like it or not) in creating Mormon culture. We do it every time that we talk with friends at church or participate in lessons and fulfill our callings. How we do these things, the language we use, and even the unconscious expressions and movements we make can have an effect on others, and through that Mormon culture.

I believe that understanding these ideas will help us do better. And, as importantly, I hope that a better understanding of culture will lead to Mormons asking for better products of Mormon culture.

21 thoughts on “Why we need Mormon Culture”

  1. Fascinating post, Kent. Thank you. And timely – just this morning I was preparing my seminary lesson for tomorrow on Exodus 19 – where God through Moses instructs the Israelites to become a nation of kings and priests – a “peculiar treasure.”

    And yesterday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson touched on 1 Peter 2:9 – informing us that were are a “chosen generation.” The Bruce R. McConkie quote in the lesson manual was insightful in helping elucidate the fact that being a chosen “generation” has less to do with when we are born than with what we choose. This dispels the concept that we are somehow superior by birthright and encourages us to seek out and choose consciously whatever it is that will make us “peculiar.”

    As I read your post I was reminded of one of my favorite April 2006 conference talks, Zion in the Midst of Babylon by Elder David R. Stone. Let me quote a bit.

    What an insidious thing is this culture amidst which we live. It permeates our environment, and we think we are being reasonable and logical when, all too often, we have been molded by the ethos, what the Germans call the zeitgeist, or the culture of our place and time.

    Because my wife and I have had the opportunity to live in 10 different countries, we have seen the effect of the ethos on behavior. Customs which are perfectly acceptable in one culture are viewed as unacceptable in another; language which is polite in some places is viewed as abhorrent in others. People in every culture move within a cocoon of self-satisfied self-deception, fully convinced that the way they see things is the way things really are.

    Our culture tends to determine what foods we like, how we dress, what constitutes polite behavior, what sports we should follow, what our taste in music should be, the importance of education, and our attitudes toward honesty. It also influences men as to the importance of recreation or religion, influences women about the priority of career or childbearing, and has a powerful effect on how we approach procreation and moral issues. All too often, we are like puppets on a string, as our culture determines what is “cool.”

    There is, of course, a zeitgeist to which we should pay attention, and that is the ethos of the Lord, the culture of the people of God. As Peter states it, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

    So, looking at it from Elder Stone’s perspective – what is a part of the culture of the people of God and what is a part of the insidious cultures of men?

    I would posit that principles of the Gospel constitute the culture of the people of God. Being willing to mourn with those that mourn is a cultural trait of the Saints. Being willing to consecrate our time, talents and energies as well as things we have been temporally blessed with is a cultural trait of the Saints. Ordinances are cultural practices of the Saints. The Scriptures are the literature of the Saints.

    I don’t think, however, that outside of official church canon, much else belongs. I served a mission in Japan and saw the devastating and unfortunate rift created by artificially imposed cultural differences. There were Japanese families who had lived in the states or who spoke English who had LDS novels and movies and the like in their homes and tended to view them as a little more of the “higher” Mormon culture that they were privy to. I saw apocryphal crap creep up from emails and Xerox copies and unfortunate translational errors become doctrinal debates in Sunday School classes and other places they didn’t belong.

    My mission cemented my testimony in the universality of the gospel, but also made me keenly aware of the dangers of letting human culture creep in where doctrine (the Lord’s culture) belongs.

  2. Anneke, my mission also cemented my testimony, and it opened my eyes to the beauty of Portuguese culture, their warmth and compassion for others, their appreciation for poetry, their ability to live with and have fun in multigenerational groups.

    But the Portuguese culture doesn’t conform to the Gospel exactly. It promotes drinking alcohol, among other things.

    Should I therefore, like Elder Stone seems to suggest, reject the culture I experienced on my mission as an “insidious culture of men?”

    I guess the question comes down to one of emphasis. Are we IN the world but not of the world, or are we in the world, but not OF the world? Are we building the kingdom from within or are we influencing the world for good?

    As I mentioned in my post, its also important to recognize that each of us can have more than one culture, that we can interpret and react to culture differently, and that there are conflicts within cultures about how to act and what to do.

    It may be, as you suggest, that the principles of the Gospel constitue the culture of the people of God. But I think culture may be more a filter through which we see the Gospel. The cultural traits you mention are important, things that are, or should be, part of Mormon culture. But culture also involves things like what we talk about in the foyer at church and how we make the decision between two equally good actions, such as whether or not to go home teaching or visit a sick member in the hospital. The Lord doesn’t command in all things, and culture becomes involved with the things in which we are not commanded.

    I guess what I’m saying is that culture involves things that aren’t at issue in the principles of the gospel. We can do many things culturally that aren’t proscribed in the gospel.

    You are right that these issues become most obvious in non-English situations, such as in Japan. My interpretation of what you saw is different than yours. The English-speaking Japanese members, starved for additional culture, went after whatever they could find available, and spread it back to their homeland, in bad translations, xerox copies and “apocryphal crap,” as you put it.

    Of course this is unfortunate. We already experienced this in English (and continue to experience it), and I’m sure every other area where LDS congregations exist experiences the same thing.

    But the answer isn’t to exclude “human culture” (in fact, there culture requires humans, so…). The answer is to create and support more responsible and valuable venues for Mormon cultural expression. You may remember that I’ve already tackled this a bit in my post English only? two years ago.

    My position is that we need MORE Mormon culture, more members creating works, especially in other languages.

  3. I agree with you that shunning all outward culture is unnecessary and unfortunate.

    Maybe what we need is a firmer definition of what is church sanctioned and what is cultural?

    I would have no problem with a Shakespeare play being put on in an LDS meetinghouse. Not in the chapel, perhaps, but as a social activity – just as in Japan one of my wards had a mochizuki party, which is a traditional New Year’s event with ultimately Shinto roots.

    There is definitely a time and place for cultural activities outside of the doctrine of the church. But how do we draw lines and define?

  4. I think the way to discern the line between where culture interferes with religion is whether or not the Spirit is present. I don’t think that you can create hard and fast rules for these kinds of situations.

    The inverse of the questions, when does religion interfere with culture, is perhaps a bit thornier. I’m of the personal opinion that the church has to come before cultural idiosyncrasies, but I’ve not come up against the kind of conflict that the Nigerians experience.

    Although, I do sometimes wish that our church hymns weren’t quite so boring.

  5. This is an excellent post, and I agree with what you’re saying. It’s not something I really thought about or felt lacking until I went to Llama Fest at the Hari Krishna temple in Spanish Fork here in Utah Valley. The Hari Krishna temple has festivals about 4 times a year, I believe, and they are incredibly popular. Hundreds and hundreds of people attend to throw colored powder at each other, dance, watch the plays and burning effigies, and eat vegetarian food. They’re hugely popular with BYU students. I mean hugely popular. Everyone goes. It made me think that these festivals fill some lack in our own religious culture.

  6. Anneke, you are right. We do need to figure out better what is Church sanctioned and what is cultural.

    I’m not even sure that most of the LDS Church’s hierarchy has it figured out yet. And even if they do, the definition clearly changes over time. For example, it used to be that the Church supplied certain doctrinal works directly, such as The Miracle of Forgiveness, The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and The Discourses of Brigham Young. These titles are now Deseret Book titles, not titles published by the Church. I assume that the Church has decided that these titles are no longer part of the official, Church-sanctioned, material, and have passed into the cultural area. There could be other explanations, but it looks to me like the definition changes.

  7. Cory, I think you are right about the need for the spirit in decisions that involve distinguishing between religion and culture. But I’d argue that most LDS Church members don’t actually have to make these decisions that much. Bishops and Stake Presidents, and General Authorities deal with more of this stuff.

    Perhaps it is not really possible for those of us who are not in these leadership positions to ignore the issue. But I do think we can go on creating our cultural products and participating in Mormon culture with just an eye towards this issue.

    As for the inverse question, I like the thought. Personally, I think religious participation in culture can be a good thing. But your suggestion that religious ‘interference’ could be dangerous is correct, I think. While I too would generally place the Church first, I think we do have to remember some of the problems that have arisen where Mormonism is or was the dominant cultural force.

    As for the Nigerians, I wouldn’t call the issue a “conflict” necessarily. I assume no one is trying to force the Church to introduce drums and dancing into our Sacrament meetings there. But the cultural difference there clearly does have an effect.

    FWIW, I agree about the hymns. But there are worse alternatives.

  8. Kathryn, you’re right on the money.

    One of the most important ways that Mormon culture keeps from becoming too narrow is our missionary program. Missionaries visit other countries, fall in love with the cultures they serve, and let the best of these cultures influence them throughout their lives. I think this is true regardless of where the missionary comes from, and regardless of where he or she goes.

    Of course, the influences of outside cultures in Utah and other areas dominated by Mormons help too, as your example suggests.

  9. The “insidious cultures of men” thing troubles me. Good and evil may be built into all human cultures. But I strongly prefer positive statements that encourage us to seek out the good beyond our borders (e.g., the 13th Article of Faith).

    Also troubling: the thought of a Mormon culture that is 100% correlated. That’s what this sounds like to me: “I don’t think … that outside of official church canon, much else belongs.”

    Yes, God before culture. And yes, culturally entrenched evil is bad. All the same, non-correlated Mormon culture is inevitable. The question is what it will be. (Our potential for joy and beauty and pleasure is great!)

  10. I’m certain that there are plenty of evidences of the local culture in every other aspect of LDS life in Nigeria. Ward activities, Mutual activities, Family Home Evenings, and Relief Society activities all would reflect their native culture just as it does our’s.

    Our critics don’t understand that we aren’t selling the Church. We are preaching the gospel, inviting people to elevate their lives to a higher level, and adding more truth to what they already have.

    I’d be more troubled if we were changing Sacrament Meetings to be more attractive to native Nigerians.

    PS I refused to raise my children to be “Molly Mormon” or “Peter Priesthood”. I don’t believe that has anything to do with living the gospel. For those of you who are Mollys or Peters – I have no problem with you. Live your life as you wish. But IMHO there is no “right way” to be a Mormon.

  11. There certainly seems to be a “right way” and a “wrong way” to be a Mormon though. I’m not saying there definitely is, but there definitely seems to be.

    I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been judged for wanting to be an actor, or to work in the theatre. It’s just not something that is conducive to a “family lifestyle” as my mission president put it…

  12. Look at all the cultural festivals that the LDS church puts on throughout the US and across the world that highlight the local culture with song and dance (singing and drumming.)

    There were Nigerian and Ghanaian singing and dancing (with drum accompaniment presumably) in traditional native costume at the cultural festivals associated with the dedication of their respective temples.

    Look at the church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center, with all its cultural dancing, singing, drumming, etc., even in polynesian-style clothing which is definitely at odds with US-LDS standards of modesty.

    Cultural festivals seem to now be put on a week or so before or after any new temple dedication. I read about one in San Antonio Texas which was held within a week of the new temple dedication there in 2005.

    Kent, you may be confusing which is the dog and which is the tail in regards to the dancing/singing type of Pentecostal services in Nigeria. Those flavors of Pentecostalism generally have singing/drumming, and lots of jumping and swaying type physical movement (don’t know if I’d call it dancing though) in their services in the US, and in all over the world.

    Pentecostal type churches generally have a band on the stage, with drums, guitars, tamborines, etc. It’s been that way in the US for at least 100 years. Evangelical type churches do too, but usually aren’t quite as boisterous as the Pentecostals.

    I think the Pentecostals are merely “plugging in” the local dancing/drumming/singing styles into their services which already have places built in for that activity. Same soup, just with some local flavoring.

    I think church leaders are already well aware of the questions you raise, and actively promote the sustaining of local cultures through these festivals.

  13. Bookslinger:

    I think we basically agree on this. I never suggested that the Church was wrong in Nigeria, in fact, in my post, I said:
    Of course, I’m not going to even try to answer these questions. I have no idea what it means, and since I’m not a Nigerian, nor familiar with Nigerian culture, nor even an LDS Church leader responsible for these kinds of decisions, nor even someone with enough experience to understand all the implications that these decisions might have.

    So I am NOT advocating any change in Nigeria or anywhere else. Quite to the contrary. I recognize that I don’t have any place or knowledge or experience on which I could possibly suggest any change. And since I generally like the way Church functions in sacrament meeting (well, I will admit that I get bored sometimes ), I don’t want to see a change.

    I believe that if you read my post again, you will see that I’m merely trying to show that Mormon culture is important, and involves a lot beyond just what happens in Church.

    Culture is important, and the Mormon culture we have (outside of what goes on in Church itself and outside of the culture provided and promoted by the Church) does have an effect on what we do and who we are.

  14. Kent,
    Your questions do seem on target in terms of “what parts of so-called Mormon Culture should we export?”

    The easy answers are:

    Green Jello: no.
    Elders Quorum helping people move: yes.
    Taking families some food when there’s a new baby or a death in the family: yes.

    Modesty: yes.
    Clothing styles: no.

  15. Well, its certainly true that knowing our culture does help decide what to “export”, but I think we’re talking about a lot more than that.

    One aspect of what I mean appears in the current article by Terryl Givens in Meridian Magazine, in which he talks about Mormon Film. In the article, talking about the documentary New York Doll, Givens describes the contradiction in Arthur “Killer” Kane’s last months, in which the convert to Mormonism returns for a reunion performance with his proto-Punk Rock bandmates as follows:

    The central, brilliant irony of the film is the complete nonchalance of the protagonist, his comfortable evolution into his new life and role, and his obliviousness to the shock this transformation engenders in anyone observing the radical disjunction between the “before” and “after” photos.

    and later …

    … And that seems to be the point: the universe is not merely capacious enough to embrace diversity, but is a universe in which the real and palpable possibilities of infinite transformation make today’s differences negligible.

    It seems to me that there is a lot that Mormon culture can learn from Kane, and that those lessons can be invaluable in making Mormon culture follow the gospel better.

  16. All I know is that growing up in a branch with nearly all of its members converts, we had almost no “mormon culture”. I had my first real taste of it when I went to Ricks College and I was disgusted by it. 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.

  17. kygirl:

    Thanks for your comments. I want to be careful though to not equate “mormon culture” with Mormon culture. What you are talking about is quite different from what this blog discusses and promotes. 🙂

  18. Kygirl:

    Those are many of the elements that bother me about the way that many Mormons from the Intermountain West act. I’m often very embarrassed by these things.

    But, while I agree with William that these aren’t the kind of cultural things we discuss here, they are clearly involved in a lot of the cultural issues we write about.

    To be honest, there are a lot of elements of the culture here in the US that I don’t care for either. But when we talk about US culture on an overview level, we have to include all of it.. If I’m examining cultural trends, I can’t ignore something that might be an important part of those trends.

    I do think some of these elements can be explained by more basic parts of Mormon culture. The emphasis on morality and family and community does seem to influence many members to think that appearances and what your neighbors think are very important. So covering up our failings or being reluctant to acknowledge them is understandable, if wrong. There are probably other factors that influence these things also (and to be honest, its really beyond what I know).

    At our last stake conference, the visiting general authority took some pains to discuss culture and implied that we must try to align our culture with what the gospel preaches. Kygirl, you have simply identified elements that, IMO, don’t mesh with the gospel at all.

    But, as I suggest, these things are part of the culture (at least at the moment), and when we analyze or review the culture, we have to deal with them. Anything else is just lying to yourself.

  19. Th, I think that may be a bit overstated. I live in the same stake, and spoke recently in their Sacrament meeting. Yes, there is clearly some influence, principally because of the experience and culture of converts who are long-time residents of Harlem.

    But I suspect that a Baptist from one of the Baptist Churches in Harlem would still find the services there almost as foreign as attending a Sacrament Meeting in Provo.

    But, a member from a Provo ward may find the meetings in Harlem “quite Baptist.”

    Like anything, it depends on your perspective.

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