Why Mormon culture is important to the future of Mormonism

Because of the current socio-cultural situation for Mormon Americans, culture is important to the future of Mormonism, especially when it comes to our youth.

Josh Allen posted some thoughts about the AML and student participation over at Dawning of a Brighter Day. He identified correctly an issue and provided some solid ideas for how to make things better. James Goldberg countered/ complemented with a solid diagnosis of one of the issues with the AML: its’ tendency to take a very broad approach to its mission. Julie Nichols also commented on the specific situation for Mormon letters at UVU and the perception that “Mormon lit is a joke.” And others added their voices. It’s an excellent discussion. Of course, I came in and got all manifesto. Which really isn’t fair because it’s easy to write that stuff and seem energetic, but the trick is to be able to unpack that stuff. So I’m going to try do that.

Assimilation and youth

I wrote: “Mormon culture is our best chance to save our youth. Assimilation has taken its toll and will only get worse and those things that made it easy to assimilate become less effective.”

It’s no secret that the LDS Church is experiencing a crisis of inactivity when it comes to our youth. It’s not unique to our church. It may not be as bad in our church, but it is a problem, and part of the reason that it’s a problem is that we have so successfully assimilated into American culture — it’s easy to slide away from Mormonism into the culture at large. Let go of just a couple of practices and you can easily pass. But, paradoxically perhaps, we are also reaching a period in our history where the post WWII assimilation that has been so successful is under increasing pressure because of changing social and economic conditions.

Whether or not culture is of use in addressing this issue is up for debate. I for one think that it is so it is with that assumption that I proceed with the rest of this post.

Literary respectability

I wrote: “Those who lust after the fleshpots of American culture; who yearn for literary respectability; who dismiss native materials do so at their own peril and especially at the peril of the youth they are charged with educating.”

Look, I understand the appeal of literary respectiblity. I understand the provincial’s ashamed-ness of their roots. I understand snobbery and elitism. I really do. I also know that chasing respectability is a sucker’s game. It’s how the powers that be (innocuous and nice as they may be) gentrify and co-opt the foreign and the weird.

And I am convinced that dismissing native culture and attempting to cosmopolitanize our youth is a recipe for disaster. Now, of course, education is a process of opening avenues and experiencing the world and other cultures. And, of course, there can be an ugliness to provinciality. But that process can be an additive one — one that isn’t dismissive of what the student brings to the feast. That’s what I experienced at Berkeley, which because of its emphasis on a truly democratic meritocratic-ness and the almost pathologic commitment to diversity and cultural sensitivity never made me feel weird or bad to be a Mormon, and, in fact, equipped me with the tools of the ethnic, the hybrid, the emerging, the marginal.

Is the Church enough?

I wrote: “We think that the Church is enough. But the Church can only go so far in its modern form because of the strictures of late capitalism and modern democracy. There is still a need for culture that exist around and among and aside from the faith as is.”

Many assimilated American Mormons live bifurcated lives. Not in the sense that they are Sunday-only religionists. Or that they hide their faith from others. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, when it comes to culture, they consume church-sanctioned culture, and they consume American culture. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. It works for some people. But there is a danger there, a danger when the culture and the Church collide and Mormons, especially Mormon youth, think that a) they have to decide between the two or b) that the official discourse and praxis is all there is when it comes to their Mormon identity and yet feel something missing.

We weren’t always like this. We didn’t always live like this. But this is where assimilation has brought us. For all that it is the kingdom of God on earth, the Church operates within the constraints of our socio-political situation as well as within the boundaries of its own bureaucracy and official discourse. As I have said in the past, unlike many other culture-makers, I have no problem with this. I even think that the Church does quite well within its constraints. But I see signs (both in myself and others) that that isn’t enough. There are cultural gaps that the Church can’t (and probably shouldn’t, at least not in our current society) fill. Yes, there are those for whom what the Church provides is enough. And they have their hobbies and cultural consumption that’s separate, and it all works fine together. Not all of us are like that, and I worry that especially our youth aren’t making it work. The Church is enough to provide exaltation, but culture can help make that process work better and work for more people when friction arises. Culture can help us understand others who struggle. Culture can help us with our own struggles, offering ways to vent off steam or approach things differently or renew our engagement with the official.

Retreat into isolationism

I wrote: “The retreating into isolationism only works in a few cases and a few locations (and I would argue never truly works).”

In the face of what I’ve written in the sections above, it’s tempting to deploy isolationism as a strategy. That never works, and it especially doesn’t work in a networked world. As I’ve written before: things that are forbidden often become quite attractive, especially for youth.  In addition, isolationism always unnecessarily constricts the boundaries so that those with individual interests think that they are partially on the outside of their culture so why not just go all the way out? Rather we need to draw the circle around them (mostly around them — some stuff does need to get left out in the cold).

This is to not to say that we don’t do what we can to mitigate exposure to certain things or that we don’t create boundaries to what media we consume. We definitely should and do. But the world always intrudes. Our youth need to be equipped to deal with such intrusions.

Orthopraxis, cultural pride/expression

I wrote: “The only viable road to safety is to yoke orthopraxis with cultural pride and expression and create an engine with which to enact acts of piracy and subterfuge and illusion against the culture. Outmaneuver the co-opters; make foolish the naysayers; jujitsu the haters; lure the curious; forge bonds with the friendly.”

Monsters & Mormons is just an anthology of Mormon-themed genre stories, and I would definitely not have wanted submitters to attempt to intentionally accomplish the theoretical foundation for it. But is it also an attempt to do what I describe in that tortured engine metaphor? You betcha.

This is not easy to do. And I couch the enterprise in language that is not entirely comfortable for modern day latter-day saints (for more on that, see the radical entry in my radical middle series). But after more than a decade in the business of thinking about, reading about and discussing Mormon culture, this is where I have arrived. And I’m not talking about some shallow use of Mormon materials to exotify ones cred with the broader culture (especially the elite literary culture). I’m talking about working in tandem with orthopraxis — the living of our religion; the practice of it within our institution — to create products, and perhaps more importantly to create role models, viable alternatives that provide diverse but faithful ways of being Mormon. Look, if the Church can employ a PR agency to enlist Brandon Flowers to appear in a YouTube video, surely, we can do something just as cool and resonant (or even more so).

In fact, I just realized that the LDS Church has outflanked me: I’ve been mulling about how to use cultural and modern storytelling to create a sense of Mormon pride and to showcase Mormon creativity. Duh. That’s exactly what the I am a Mormon campaign is trying to do. Of course, watching a bunch of I am a Mormon commercials isn’t quite the cultural experience of reading a novel, viewing a film, playing through a videogame. And the Church can only engage in so much jujitsu and subterfuge (see the section above about constraints). That’s where we come in.

In short:

The summary isn’t anything groundbreaking but hopefully how we’ve arrived here is new or at least useful: culture is an important aspect to Mormon identity. Assimilation has been both a boon and a curse. Moving forward, our young people will need to be able to consume and create via Mormonism rather than apart from it. This will help them continue along the path of dedicated orthopraxy because they will feel more whole as individuated but connected Mormons. That’s why culture is important to the future of Mormonism.

9 thoughts on “Why Mormon culture is important to the future of Mormonism”

  1. William,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to copy here part of what I said in reply to your post over at the AML blog:

    Art as propaganda lacks sophistication. Art as imitation of the larger culture lacks distinctive identity. Art as private expression lacks cultural importance. Art as a retreat into isolation is fragile and ultimately lacks the power to compete. Art as subversion, on the other hand — as witness the history of African American art — is capable of both sophistication and distinctive identity, has exciting cultural (as opposed to purely private) importance, and possesses the capability to take on the larger culture and win, if by winning we mean being heard, respected, and imitated. (Which of course brings its own dangers of being coopted, but Mormon letters should be so lucky.)

    Youth go where the excitement is, where they can feel that they’re making a difference. Youth want a revolution, even if it’s such a poor revolution as signaled by the “Who are these children coming down?” of my youth. Perhaps the problem in Mormon letters is that we who are trying to promote it haven’t been extreme enough in our claims or revolutionary enough in our rhetoric. (Though a little more institutional support from places like BYU would be helpful, too.) Maybe what we need is not to imitate Shakespeare and Milton and Tolkien but to dethrone them. Moderation has built up for us a respectable body of individual works (that continues to grow), but hasn’t brought us the energy to take Mormon letters to the next level.

  2. Inspired by aspects of this post, I’m going to throw some (possibly dumb) ideas out on the table:

    1. What about Mormon lit pass along cards (digital and e-mail-able, of course)? With quality poetry or flash fiction and links to Mormon lit websites on them?

    2. What about posting “I’m a Mormon Writer” videos on YouTube modeled after the “I’m a Mormon” campaign?

    3. What about a Mormon literature social networking site? Or at least a Mormon Writer profile site like Mormon.org?

    4. What about a Mormon literature portal where people can find links to blogs like this one, or mine, or Dawning of a Brighter Day, or the sites of individual Mormon writers?

    5. What about a Motley Vision sister site for youth who write Mormon fiction?

    6. What about creating a site like the James is now suggesting on Dawning of a Brighter Day or an online version of Irreantum (not unlike what Segullah has going on)?

    7. And what about greater efforts in seeking out and roping in existing free radicals? The only reason I’m a part of the Mormon lit community right now is because Andrew Hall (I think) found my blog and Jonathan Langford reached out the initial hand of fellowship and brought me in. I’m certain there are more people like me out there.

  3. Scott H., those sound great! Go ahead! Let me know when you get them up and running–I’ll come use them for sure! If you want, you can even do it all under the name of AML–we’ll let you!

    We would love for AML to be a central clearinghouse for all these kinds of fantastic projects. We just have a little, tiny problem with having to be the ones to actually do, you know, the work.

    William, such new and interesting thoughts these are to me. Thank you! I think you’re spot on, and I had never thought of things this way before.

  4. Creating your own culture is hard, probably impossible, and the general culture we participate in is falling apart or at least atomizing. I agree that the gospel needs its own subculture for all the reasons you state and many more, but as with so many things in life, failure is an option. Perhaps the only option.

  5. This is one of the reasons I started The Porch here in Provo. I love storytelling and think that our Mormon stories make for entertaining, thoughtful, and inspiring shows. I don’t require that all stories have to do with Mormonism, but encourage storytellers to speak from their own experiences. Many of them end up touching on their Mormon lives, and I absolutely love it.

    Thanks for posting this article!

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