The illusory allure of clean culture

The online magazine Slate recently posted Hanna Rosin’s review of Daniel Radosh’s new book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. Her (and Radosh’s) descriptions of Christian attempts to create safe knock-offs of popular forms of culture and entertainment will sound strikingly familiar to anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge of the Mormon market.

For example, Rosin writes:

A Christian can now buy books, movies, music–and anything else lowbrow to middlebrow–tailor-made for his or her sensibilities. Worried that American popular culture leads people–and especially teenagers–astray, the Christian version is designed to satisfy all the same needs in a cleaner form.

The review is a must-read for Mormons. And it sounds like the book is too. I have already ordered it from my local library (I’m not alone in my interest in it though — I probably won’t get my hands on a copy until June). I’m going to get to some of the more choice bits of the review in a moment, but first a reminder: Although it’s tempting to write off the Mormon cultural project as a weak imitation of the Christian one (and in some areas it is just that), there are important differences. I’m not going to go into a lengthy treatment of them — but AMV has been exploring them throughout its’ whole history. Not so much in contrast to the Christian market (although we have done that from time-to-time), but more in the more positive vein of pointing out examples and exploring possibilities of a unique, yet not disconnected form of Mormon culture that both celebrates and critiques our own history and practice and beliefs as well as those of the broader American (and other) culture(s).

That said, some of these quotes from the review should be painfully familiar:

1. Trinkets and chick lit and rap:

At a Christian retail show Radosh attends, there are rip-off trinkets of every kind–a Christian version of My Little Pony and the mood ring and the boardwalk T-shirt (“Friends don’t let friends go to hell”). There is Christian Harlequin and Christian chick lit and Bibleman, hero of spiritual warfare. There are Christian raves and Christian rappers and Christian techno, which is somehow more Christian even though there are no words.

The trinkets and actions figures abound in the Mormon market. There’s less of a market for raves, rappers and techno, though (unless there’s some huge Mormon underground that I’m aware of). Generally, if a Mormon is interested in that style of music, he or she is just going to listen to the artists in that genre (although there may be some artists that he or she chooses not to listen to because they push things a bit too far. Sort of that PG-12 is okay, R if it’s just violence and a little bit of language is okay for some, too much sex and gratuitous swearing is not okay).

2. Commercialization and branding:

At some point, Radosh asks the obvious question: Didn’t Jesus chase the money changers out of the temple? In other words, isn’t there something wrong with so thoroughly commercializing all aspects of faith? For this, the Christian pop-culture industry has a ready answer. Evangelizing and commercializing have much in common. In the “spiritual marketplace” (as it’s called), Christianity is a brand that seeks to dominate. Like Coke, it wants to hold onto its followers and also win over new converts.

Because of the LDS Church’s missionary efforts and the fact that there is no real competition for the Mormon brand (none of the various splinter groups are serious competitors in the “spiritual marketplace”), this is a little less of a concern. Or rather, the institutional church already does so many branding activities that the evangelizing aspects of Mormon pop culture are not as dominant. The Mormon market tends to be more a way of providing a “safe” haven for those already in the faith.

3. Commercialization and belief:

What does commercializing do to the substance of belief, and what does an infusion of belief do to the product? When you make loving Christ sound just like loving your boyfriend, you can do damage to both your faith and your ballad.

I think that this might be a bit overstated by Rosin. At the same time, I do itch to blame Mormon pop for the weakening of our Christology among many of our youth (the whole sappy Jesus as friend thing).

4. The creative bind:

Creative Christian types find themselves in a similar bind: They want to make good, authentic music. But they are also enlisted in a specific mission which confines their art.

This creative bind, whether the limits spark or smother creativity and expression, is the subject of numberless discussions among Mormon artists. I won’t rehash all the arguments here. And one difference is that this sense of being enlisted in a mission is less straightforward of a transaction for Mormon artists — except perhaps for those who are mimicking the Christian approach and going straight for the Deseret Book market. In other words, those of us who know we aren’t going to sell big, don’t worry so much about being “evangelists” and worry more about staying within the parameters of the LDS Church (and what those parameters actually are or should be is a subject of much discussion). We don’t want to betray our faith and our people, but we also don’t have any compunction about exploring the fact that this is a human, imperfect culture/people/institution.

5. The danger of pale imitations:

For faith, the results can be dangerous. A young Christian can get the idea that her religion is a tinny, desperate thing that can’t compete with the secular culture. A Christian friend who’d grown up totally sheltered once wrote to me that the first time he heard a Top 40 station he was horrified, and not because of the racy lyrics: “Suddenly, my lifelong suspicions became crystal clear,” he wrote. “Christian subculture was nothing but a commercialized rip-off of the mainstream, done with wretched quality and an apocryphal insistence on the sanitization of reality.”

I love that description — a “tinny, desperate thing.” Mormon culture and history is rich and generative, imo. I think we could do a better job of transmitting that to our youth. I think we do so fairly well in terms of belief and praxis. And I don’t think that cutting out all outside culture is wise (and it’s certainly not fun) even though I think it’s perfectly valid to pick and choose what you consume. For all the I sometimes grouse about Orson Scott Card (okay, just his later work), is there any doubt that his work (and the work of others) has helped create a generation (or two) of Mormons who have a fairly sophisticated relationship with speculative fiction, one that allows them to consume the best of the field without damaging their faith?

6. The new generation:

The new generation of Christians is likely to be a different kind of audience. Raised on iPods and downloadable music, they find it difficult truly to commit to the idea of a separate Christian pop culture. They might watch Jon Stewart or Pulp Fiction and also listen to the Christian band Jars of Clay, assuming the next album is any good. They are much more critical consumers and excellent spotters of schlock. The creators of Christian pop culture may just adapt and ease up on the Jesus-per-minute count, and artistic quality might show some improvement. But in my experience, where young souls are at stake, Christian creators tend to balk.

And I think that this is where Mormons might just be ahead of the Christians. Yes, there are some Mormons who grew up fairly sheltered culturally, but, in general, many young Mormons watch Jon Stewart, and listen to indie rock and play Halo (and even GTA), and consume Web comics, and read Grisham and Grafton or Eggers and Sedaris or Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, etc.

And yet, I think that all of us who are interested in Mormon culture (in creating, critiquing, consuming and marketing it) should think about how we could better reach this new generation of young Mormon consumers and explore how they define and arrive at their conception of Mormon-ness and how that relates to their place in and interaction with American culture.

15 thoughts on “The illusory allure of clean culture”

  1. Wow. Fantastic post, William.

    “Mormon culture and history is rich and generative, imo. I think we could do a better job of transmitting that to our youth.”

    I don’t know how to solve this one. Immigrant subcultures here in the US generally have language classes for their children that pass on language and culture. But I can’t see Mormons doing anything similar. Seminary doesn’t work because it concentrates on theology to the exclusion of culture.

    “I think that all of us who are interested in Mormon culture should think about how we could better reach this new generation of young Mormon consumers.”

    Yes. In my view this is anything but easy. The “culture” they’ve seen to date has turned the new generation off, and I’m not sure that can be easily overcome.

  2. I think one other downfall of this sort of practise is that when less commercial art comes along, Mormons don’t consume it. If you ask the average Mormon to choose the better film of Other Side of Heaven and Brigham City, they’d probably choose the former.

  3. I enjoyed both Brigham City and Other Side of Heaven. But in my opinion Other Side of Heaven is a better movie. Not so much production values and direction although they were superior to Brigham City but the story itself was more interesting and engaging. It was based on a true story. I’m sure it was one of many stories that could be told about the experiences of LDS people.

    I recently watched an old movie called “Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck. It was about a Catholic priest who lacked confidence in his abilities and felt worthless. He was sent to China in the 1930s to reopen a mission. His lifetime of work there was a struggle but successful and to the end he maintain this lack of confidence in his abilities which in fact made him a humble servant and more receptive to the blessings of God. The movie resonated with me but did not make me want to join the Catholic Church. Other Side of Heaven had the same feeling. Can’t other LDS stories reach this level and I don’t just mean missionary stories. Lack of faith or loss of faith and the recovery of faith can make for inspiring literature and movies. Also they don’t have to be tools for member missionary work. watched an old movie called “Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck. It was about a Catholic priest who lacked confidence in his abilities and felt worthless.

  4. I liked your “wretched quality” quote.

    Having been raised in a home where quality was a primary consideration, whether that meant Pete Seeger or Jascha Heifetz, religious pop culture has never held much of an attraction.

  5. I know I’m posting here late, but this post has had me thinking for more than a week, and I couldn’t not post. (The topic is DEEPLY appreciated, by the way, William)

    “There are Christian raves and Christian rappers and Christian techno, which is somehow more Christian even though there are no words.”

    On Techno being ‘Christian,’ I must admit that I’ve had a similar perspective for a long time. I’ve always taked Steve Reich as an ancestor to techno (and what a large bubble that is, very little of which I am conversant about). In this frame work, the repetition, rather than the beat, emphasizes the spirituality of the genre. Every orthodoxy that I’m aware of is founded in repetition. Worship is meant to be repeated. Specific works by Reich have integrated liturgy into the musical repetition (like his Tehillum), but I find his ‘wordless’ works far more spiritual.

    Though I lack the vocabulary to describe it, there’s a notable distinction between Reich’s work and Glass’s work (the two are often mentioned together, much to my dismay). Glass, whose work I can’t stand in most circumstances, is rooted in secularity in my ear.

    The difference between Arvo Part’s work and Reich’s work (both being rooted in repetition and orthodoxy) is that Reich (the forefather to techno) makes the repetition rapturous.

    As per Kent’s comment to William’s
    “Mormon culture and history is rich and generative, imo. I think we could do a better job of transmitting that to our youth.”

    The only existing structure to allow this transmission, imo, is the FHE program.

    As a youth, I was impressed while visiting our Bishop’s house while they had their 11 children gathered around before FHE began. My Bishop, a Urologist by trade and a speaker of 8 languages, held open a large print book with prints of Italian frescoes. He asked who remembered what the title of each was and what year they were painted. The children’s ages ranged from 6 to 20, but all of them seemed to be involved.

    On the other hand, A friend of mine told me that he regretted that his children knew all of Buster Keaton’s short films, but they didn’t all know who the sons of Mosiah were.

    this stuff is really, really tough.

  6. Thanks, Trevor.

    Do you really have to know the names of all of the sons of Mosiah, though? There’s Ammon and then the rest of those guys. You can understand and benefit from that section of the Book of Mormon without being able to name check them all.

    Buster Keaton’s work, however. That’s a necessary education.

  7. how true!

    One woman here in the boonies of Poland, is among the most faithful members I know and she’s never once read the Book of Mormon. She is blind, but I am almost positive she’s never even opened a copy, let alone learned the difference between Alma, Amulek, or Ammon. She still lives the gospel better than I think I do.

    But then again, she’s not really big on silent film, either.

  8. .

    I think the tinniness of borrowed culture (like Stripling Warrior tshirts etc) is what drives people away from hiqual Mormon culture. Just as the good can lead readers to the great, the lousy can lead them right out the door and back to BnN.

    That said though, I don’t think similarities between “our” art and “their” art is necessarily bad. There’s is plenty of room to learn from each other and try things on for size. My main beef is with products (yes, ‘products’) that don’t know whether they are sincere or parodic and don’t care, so long as they turn a quick buck. That’s why artists like Sally DeFord are so refreshing: whether you like her stuff or not, she’s obviously not trying to milk us.

    (I took my three-year-old son to see The General. He loved it.

    )

  9. I’m very late to the party, but Th.’s last comment (specifically, the reference to Stripling Warrior T-shirts) made me wonder: has anyone here ever discussed the blatant trademark violations of a lot of LDS pop culture? I’m referring to the “Mormon Boy” shirts made in the image of Tommy Hilfiger’s, for example.

  10. Actually, Luisa, I sent a letter to the first presidency some time ago about that. And other things along those lines.

  11. Luisa,

    Are you suggesting that the derivative works aren’t covered by fair use as a parody? If so, what’s your rationale?

  12. Ah, but replace holy with cultural, and it seems like exactly the kind of thing we should be doing. Of course, there’s parody and then there’s parody.

  13. Katya, I am not an IP lawyer; I’m only married to one–and he’s up at Scout Camp right now, so I can’t call him for back-up.

    As I understand the trademark fair-use parody, though (as distinct from copyright fair-use parody), the parody must comment on the original work and not solely have been created for commercial gain.

    From an article on Trademark Parody written by a Florida IP firm:

    “Even absent confusion evidence a Washington District Court rejected a parody defense in the “Hard Rock Cafe” case. A Washington State maker of transfers for tee shirts created a design with the words “hard rain” in the center of a circle with the word “cafe” under them. The design was essentially identical to the “Hard Rock Cafe” logo which the defendant admitted was famous. The defendant claimed that the design was intended only as a parody on the plaintiff’s design, a parody which tourists to Washington State would find humorous because of the almost constant hard rain that falls in Washington. The court rejected this argument, saying that the copying was not slight nor the subject social commentary. Although the court did not use the word “misappropriation”, it stressed that virtually the entire Hard Rock Cafe logo had been used, solely for commercial gain.”

    (http://www.lfiplaw.com/articles/trademark_parody.htm)

    The T-shirts and other merchandise I see marketed in various LDS-aimed catalogs–including that of Deseret Book–strike me as misappropriation for gain as defined above. The copying is not slight, nor the social commentary directed at the original work.

    Of course, the courts’ opinions are subjective to a degree.

    As I said, my knowledge is second-hand, gleaned from 20 years of marriage to someone who feeds our family through defense of intellectual property rights.

  14. Now, *that* was a long comment. Clearly, I’m gaining confidence in this milieu. Don’t crush me, people, or I’ll go all monosyllabic again.

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