The Golden Citations

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When I was a youth, the Church encouraged us as members to engage our friends in conversation about the Church using the Golden Questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? and Where am I going to? My father even had a lapel pin for his suit that was in the shape of a question mark, meant to elicit conversations using these questions.

I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be good to have some similar system to elicit conversations about Mormon Culture and literature.

I don’t mean to imply that Mormon Culture and literature have the same import as the gospel. I don’t think we need to fidn ways of discussing LDS literature with our non-member friends. The audience is different and the need for cultural knowledge is probably not as crucial.

But, I don’t think we are using the cultural materials we do have to promote Mormon culture at all. In the past few weeks, as I’ve looked at the books that General Authorities referred to in General Conference, I realized that much of Mormon culture is largely absent from their references. Yes, there are references to doctrinal works, but not to fiction. “A Tale of Two Cities” is retold, but not “Greg & Kellie.”

I’m sure that “A Tale of Two Cities” and a host of other cultural works are widely cited because they are widely knows. But as I’ve observed before, General Conference is our Mass Media — the principal way that Church members find doctrinal and cultural elements. Thus, we have a kind of “chicken and egg” problem – General Authorities don’t know about Mormon literature and don’t cite it and wouldn’t if they did because most members in general don’t know about it. But they won’t know about it, until it gets cited in General Conference or in other major sources of Mormon cultural information.

When the items referred to are important and well known, they do become cultural references — touchpoints for our culture, things we mention in conversations or even in talks from the pulpit. It sometimes takes a long time for this kind of growth to happen.

But I think it has to start with those that do know these stories, quotations and other materials using them. Shouldn’t we (those of us that do have some knowledge of Mormon culture) retell stories from LDS fiction in our talks? Refer to the best of LDS literature in conversations with others? Reinforce the cultural knowledge that we have found valuable?

I kind of wish I had a database of summaries of LDS stories and literature, something that would help me figure out what to use when I have the opportunity. Short of that, I guess I’d better get to know Mormon literature better, or come up with some kind of golden lapel pin to wear at Church.

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14 thoughts on “The Golden Citations”

  1. So, Larry, are you suggesting that I wear Gauguin as a lapel pin?

    I suppose I could do worse, but I’m not sure how it would draw other members to a discussion of Mormon art and culture!

  2. This chicken and egg problem doesn’t begin in General Conference. If church magazines shrink from publishing, reviewing, or even mentioning contemporary fiction written by living Mormons, what hope is there for finding it in other sanctioned forums?

  3. There’re a lot of reasons why I think contemporary LDS lit and art doesn’t get cited in Gen conf, or in church magazines.

    1-A bit one-Current general authorities don’t want to appear to “endorse” a living author’s work by citing it. Hearing something in conference elevates it nigh unto scripture in the minds of many saints.

    2-The quotes from the classics have stood the test of time. Honestly, not all the classics are as good as new stuff. I’ve read some that I couldn’t stomach. But they’re old and accepted as important. The contemporary mormon repertoire (?) simply isn’t old enough to matter much yet.

    3-The authors of the classics are dead. Not only does this mean that an endorsement means less to them, but it also means that they can’t refute anything that’s said in the interpretation or the application of their quote.

    4-I think you’re dead on with the obscurity issue. They tend to quote things that are better known. Partly because they know them themselves, and partly because there’s a better chance that the audience will know them. Still, a good quote is a good quote, no matter where it comes from, right?


  4. Can we explore what to do about it?

    Should we be citing LDS arts and literature in our Sacrament Meeting talks ourselves?

    Do any of us know LDS arts and literature well enough to cite it?

    I know a few works fairly well, but I certainly haven’t pulled out quotes or thought too much about how to use LDS materials in ways that could promote it.

    Has anyone?

  5. So many people quote from Especially for Mormons and other anthologies and works that you can get at Deseret Book (at least here in Utah), I don’t see how it could hurt to raise the literary standard by citing and discussing other non-DB/Seagull Book arts and literature. I think it should be used, however, to illustrate a doctrine or principle, as per the proper aims of a sacrament meeting talk—to speak of Christ and what we might do to build his Kingdom.

    Levi Petersen provides, perhaps, a good example: his essay, “Juanita Brooks: The Mormon Historian as Tragedian” (published in the Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 47-54 and republished in Tending the Garden 135-45), was first “presented from the pulpit of the LDS Parowan Ward, 30 April 1976,” or so his biographical note in Tending says. Although he may have had a more “political” agenda for doing so, he uses the example to encourage us to confront tragedy because, as he concludes, once “the Mountain Meadows massacre,” as read by Brooks, is “[n]o longer denied,” the tragedy “will work in Mormon hearts the paradoxical alchemy whereby affirmation and relief arise from pain and despair.” He thus affirms the atonement through his discussion of one aspect of Mormon culture and letters.

    I, for one, may just try to work something into my next talk. Besides, if people can talk about and pass Twilight along informally at church, why can’t we more formally, if with an informed degree of discrepancy, raise awareness of other Mormon arts and letters as well?

  6. No, I am not suggesting you promote Gauguin’s version of the the Golden Questions. I just think of him ever time I here someone in Church use the phrase ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? and Where am I going to?”

    I don’t believe that promotion of Mormon art and cultural properties are going to come from the top down unless the leadership can see it as a missionary tool. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir come to mind and maybe the Osmond’s, although I noticed that Marie was wearing outfits that would not accommodate garment tops during her performances. I think that awareness will and should come from a grassroots level. As the Church continues to expand beyond Utah’s borders I hope to see changes in the culture and more acceptance of different experiences and expression. No offense to you Utah Mormons out there but us folks in the mission field don’t agree with some of your cultural ideals.

    This may be off the subject and at the risk of being called a hippie and a liberal, I don’t think calendars of missionaries without their shirts should be considered horrifying and lead to such harsh consequences. Although for the producer of the calendar his forbidden fruit sales are probably quite good. It could of been a missionary tool instead of an anti-missionary tool. I’m not saying the calendar is art but this kind of incident can lead us to self censorship from the fear of offending a Bishop or Stake President with our art. If honest stories are told of redemption then there is a need for the Fall. In my case that would at least be a PG-13 or maybe an R rating.

    The more we as artists talk and blog each other the more we can establish a network to promote each other. I was curious about the so called Mormon fiction you guys talk about. As a non-fiction reader, I needed a recommendation for a book of Mormon fiction and was able to email Patricia from this site and get that recommendation. We have never met face to face but with her blogs I felt I could trust her judgment. I think this is just one way to get the cultural ball rolling, communicate with each other. With the internet our culture can not be experienced at a global level.

    Before you use material in a talk, bring up the subject at the Ward Christmas party, then priesthood or relief society meetings. Line upon line, precept upon precept. We wouldn’t want anyone going into culture shock.

  7. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Larry.

    I trust you to let me know if after reading the book you think I was wrong.

  8. I think that the leadership already does see culture as a missionary tool where that culture is a point of interest and attraction to enough people. Consider the Polynesian Cultural Center. Granted, that took a grassroots-ish effort by a single person with vision to accomplish, but look at the wonders that take place there. And many of the performers don’t wear shirts 🙂 (don’t read too much into that comment, please).

    The problem as I see it is not with the way the Church leadership views culture itself as much as it is with the complexities that we and others are all discussing around this issue. I don’t think the benefit outweighs the risk in the eyes of many of the brethren. I don’t think they want to open that can of worms while there are still so many others to deal with.

    Also, I agree with Larry that it shouldn’t come from the organization. In my admittedly unsophisticated mind, it seems that the structure of the church is among the least permanent of its aspects. President Uchtdorf basically said as much in his Ensign message this month. Understand that I’m not talking about Priesthood authority or anything like that. I mean the organizational relationships we share and spiritual development programs we undertake. Such things can be seen as a function of culture, to an extent. The gold standard was stated by Joseph Smith: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

    From that perspective, culture (which won’t be going away in the eternities and which isn’t entirely based on doctrinal teachings) shouldn’t be dictated from the pulpit which, as Mark observes, is exactly what would happen were General Authorities to start quoting contemporary Mormon lit. in Conference. Instead, it should develop around the lives and uniqueness of the membership of the Church – something far more lasting than the things mentioned above. In that way, we can be of one heart and one mind while not being all the same person. Incidentally, I also think spirituality should develop in this way. The brethren probably get tired of telling us what to do.

    Elder Oaks, who has been somewhat of a crusader for “gospel culture,” with
    three General Conference talks
    in the last five years that directly speak to the issue, defines it as a culture of “commandments and covenants and ordinances and blessings.”

    He gives various specifics in the three talks linked to, but I think that may be as far as the brethren will – or should – take it.

  9. Adam, Larry:

    Just to be clear, my assumption in writing this post was what WE (as in readers of A Motley Vision, readers of Mormon Literature and individual members of the Church) should consider doing, NOT what the brethren should do. Personally, I try to avoid telling the brethren to do anything at all. That’s not my calling.

    As for how culture should develop, Adam, I would suggest that how that happens depends a lot on Church member’s ignorance or knowledge. Its awfully hard to include a literary work in the culture that develops “around the lives and uniqueness of the membership of the Church” when the vast majority of the members don’t know that the work exists.

    All I’m suggesting is that we, Church members–i.e., we who have some knowledge of Mormon literature–should make an effort to include and reference Mormon literature (those elements–quotations, stories, ideas–we think are worthy) in our conversations, in our blog posts, in our writing and maybe even in the talks we give in our wards and stakes.

    I’m not expecting or asking the General Authorities to do this (of course, they can if they wish). I fully expect that might happen IF Mormon works become popular, well known, and important enough that the General Authorities believe they aren’t endorsing them and citing them adds to their talks.

    In the mean time, if Mormon literature is to get that kind of recognition, its up to us, isn’t it?

  10. Kent,

    I think your last line is the point we were all getting at in various ways, although I suppose I did get a bit carried away in my last comment. Sorry for that. I was trying to give voice to my train of thought without really being too careful to stick to the issue at hand. I wasn’t trying to tell the brethren what to do either – just musing on the possible implications of some things.

    I also agree with you on the difficulty that arises from ignorance where cultural development is concerned – I know my statement about that was not very helpful. I recently had a conversation with my bishop in which I mentioned a book that I thought, based on what I know about him, he might have read. He hadn’t, but the reference I made enhanced our conversation. I imagine that’s the sort of thing we both think makes a difference.

    Thanks for putting me back on track.

  11. Adam:

    I hope I didn’t come across as too snippy about that. Comments that seem a little off point often indicate that the point hasn’t been made well enough, so I wanted to see if I couldn’t clarify to make sure that the point was well communicated.

    Your last comment does extend my point quite a bit — IMO, not only can the kind of reference you made in your conversation with the bishop enhance the conversation, it also may influence the bishop to actually read the book. And with enough references like this, the book becomes more than what it was, it becomes a more significant part of the culture.

  12. Kent,

    All snippiness has been kept within tolerances. 🙂 My earlier comment used as a springboard Larry’s thoughts more than yours, I suppose.

    I’m glad we’re following the same line of thinking in terms of the desired outcome of conversations like the one I described. Let me describe another one that I think was more powerful.

    The other day I was talking to my four-year-old daughter about something. What it was doesn’t matter, but she didn’t understand. My wife and I try to use art to teach our children, so I made reference to a film that I know she likes in which a situation illustrated the principle I was trying to teach. I think you would have been as pleased as I was to see the dawn of understanding on her little face as she made the connection. As far as I’m aware, it was my first success (though not my first attempt) at directly connecting a work of art that I intentionally exposed my child to with a real-life situation in an edifying way. The message she got was not just the principle in question, but I think she also began to see movies as helpers to her life, not just pastimes. I know she already sees books that way. She was excited about it. So was I.

    We can change the culture within the Church dramatically in one generation if we effectively teach our children. That may be the most significant thing we can do.

  13. The “golden questions” are “How much do you know about the Mormon church,” and “Would you like to know more?” Not “where did I come from, where am I going ….” (I still have the golden lapel button from my missionary days.)

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