By James Goldberg
“I know just what you mean—I hate to be in big groups of Mormons” said a Mormon girl to her Mormon friend at a party attended entirely by Mormons who’d met in a BYU creative writing class.
“You mean like this one?” said another girl, giving voice to a thought I wouldn’t have had the minor guts it took to share.
The first girl laughed. “No, I love you guys. But you know what I mean.”
We let the matter drop there. After all, whether we agreed or not, we did know what she meant: she wasn’t the only one of us who used “Mormon” to conjure up a caricature of a conservative, bland, appearance-obsessed Pharisee sect. She’s not the only one who sees her own community through the eyes of a post-1960s, post-punk, find-yourself American culture. And let’s be honest: through that particular lens, we do come off looking like the Beehive Borg.
Like Parson Weems’s George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. When I was a little boy, I’d stay up well past my bedtime watching the reflection of Star Trek: the Next Generation reruns in the living room window through a crack in my door, and I’d shudder involuntarily when the half-cybernetic swarm appeared in their giant space cube. Years later, when I was a missionary, the obviously rehearsed tones and matching suit-tie combos of impressively pale role-playing missionaries with clip-on microphones in training videos stirred up those childhood memories and once caused me a minor anxiety attack. I’ll admit it: I had a late-1990s high-school obsession with the works of Abbie Hoffman, and I still smile when I think about his proposal to undermine American capitalism by filling bank safety deposit boxes with “sentimentally valuable” rotting fish. And it’s true: one thing I love about my current ward is the relatively large number of elders and high priests alike with facial hair.
That is to say: I am prone to wearing the same cultural lens as the girl at the party, the one that makes some of us a little ashamed to be counted among those boring “Mormons.” I am not holier-than-her. I am probably also not holier-than-thou, although according to the “Mormon” stereotype, I think I’m supposed to secretly compare us. I’ll have to pencil that in for another day, though, because now I want to say this: hip or not, in my heart of hearts, I think Mormonism is the Revolution. And I wish that instead of talking about how we’re bored with the politics of the Intermountain West, or how we can’t stand the conformity and social pressure, we’d take the time to articulate in our generation’s language the reasons for the hope that is in us.
So welcome to my Manifesto. I present to you four (of a planned ninety-nine) theses on why I’m excited to be a Mormon at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
I. Ecology and the Word of Wisdom
I think I once read that Gandhi said, “Every religion is true, but each is truest in its own time and place.” However, I’ve failed to find the source of this quote and suspect that whoever said it first, it wasn’t Gandhi. (In fact, thanks to my posting it on Twitter, Google now attributes the statement to me.)
As I’ve contemplated this (hallucinated?) quote, though, I’ve asked myself a question: Is it possible that Mormonism’s time and place is not so much the nineteenth century, where it began, as our own present, or perhaps the near future? Is the Church more of a blessing for us, in some way, than it was for our apostles when they were young?
After all, this is basically what we believe about Family Home Evening: when instituted in 1915, its primary contribution was to make sure the Church’s various auxiliaries left open at least one night of the week. At the time, electronic devices didn’t compete with parents and children for each other’s attention. At the time, no one dreamed a No Child Left Behind Act would mean that even five-year-olds could have enough homework to interfere with collective family time. And Family Home Evening isn’t the only example. In an essay I wrote last year about elders quorum moves, I explored the idea that our early history of migration may have prepared us to forge communities against all odds in an age of globalization-driven migrations. How often does revelatory experience precede the full unfolding of a need by generations?
To the best of my knowledge (though as my experience with that supposed Gandhi quotation indicates, the best of my knowledge isn’t always very good), no one was talking about climate change when the Lord first revealed the Word of Wisdom. But at our last family reunion on my mother’s side, my aunt gathered together the cousins and preached to us about how nearly a third of the world’s arable land is wasted on the raw materials needed to make alcohol and drugs. Replace 30% of the world’s farms with trees, and you have much better carbon dioxide absorption rates. Alternatively, turn alcohol grain, fruits, and potatoes into actual meals, and you’ve pretty much solved world hunger.
That said, the rainforest isn’t being cut down only to make new fields for cocaine and coffee. I recently read, or maybe imagined, an article that blamed the majority of Amazon deforestation on beef. Raising cows to eat certainly required far more land and water than growing the grains the Word of Wisdom advocates, thus eliminating the middle-cow except in “times of famine and excess of hunger.”
How much would we get out of following the more detailed counsel in the Word of Wisdom? I think a general authority once pointed out, probably in one of the many sessions of general conference during which you kept nodding off, that livestock in America eat enough grain to feed 840 million people, and that it takes 57 fossil fuel calories to produce a single calorie of lamb. I can’t remember whether he said it takes 13 pounds of grain or 30 pounds of hay to get a pound of beef—come to think of it, maybe I was the one nodding off during the session and just dreamed that talk.1
Whether that talk was dream or reality, though, the original revelation’s counsel to eat meat only in times of shortage is game-changing ecological advice. So go ahead and complain about the number of Utah Mormons who believe global warming is something Al Gore made up shortly after he invented the Internet, but give the religion credit for teaching the kinds of restraint that might get us out of this mess (and that goes deeper than the Word of Wisdom: don’t even get me started on the environmental disaster of American divorce).
My point is this: owning our Mormonism can lead us pretty quickly to concrete contributions to environmental preservation. The problems of our day don’t create a need for an alternative to our faith; they increase the stakes of living both the lower and the higher laws already associated with our religion.
II. The Sabbath is a Blessing and a Rage against the Machine
As serious as our ecological problems are today, it’s worth pointing out that virtually no one wakes up in the morning with the express desire to get back at God for cursing Adam’s soil by intentionally destroying the environment. Pollution and environmental degradation are symptoms, not the disease.
The disease, according to crackpot armchair diagnostic socio-physician James Goldberg, is consumer culture. In Jesus’s days, they just called it Mammon, and it was the number-one most popular alternative to God.
Mammon is probably the better term. After all, “consumer culture” was formulated as a critique of capitalism, but both capitalism and communism are clearly sides of the great, big, idolatrous Mammon coin. In communism, the central idea is that people have value because of the goods they produce—when I was on my mission in the former East Germany, it was fairly common to hear to the old Marxist mantra, “Ich bin Materialist” (I am a materialist) as a reason for a person’s lack of interest in religion. In the Marxist version of Genesis, I’m told, everything was economics in the beginning, and only later did wily Pharaohs add culture, identity, and religion as so much smoke and mirrors.
Capitalists promote basically the same beliefs but in the opposite order: People have value in more or less direct proportion to how much they own and consume. Culture, identity, and religion may have existed independently once, but really ought to be commodified, customized, and sold. “Finding yourself” means buying and packaging yourself: picking your own brand of smoke, your favorite mirror.
Let us, for a moment, stretch our brains enough to imagine a real alternative to these twin philosophies. Let us imagine a revolutionary movement that stages day-long protests against idolatrous views of production and consumption every single week! These protests aren’t empty rhetoric: those who participate pledge that on each protest day, they will check out of the entire system, refusing altogether to buy, sell, or produce. In short, they will stubbornly insist on being community members instead of customers, humans instead of human resources. The most zealous among them will extend this protest even to the media-industrial complex, avoiding normal uses of the Internet and TV.
When you go to church, the choice is yours: you can critique the unprofessional talks (speeches typically too rough and unpolished to be called sermons) or you can exult in the protest that extends its enacted critique even against the assumptions of across-the-board professionalization.
Personally speaking, there’s nowhere I would rather be on a Sunday than in a big group of Mormons.
III. Gollumization, Callings, and Eternal Identity
I like to read Venkatesh Rao’s blog, if only because I know how likely I am to actually find his work again by Googling his name. On 6 January 2011, Venkat wrote a post called “The Gollum Effect,” inspired in part by an old Katie Couric interview with hand supermodel Ellen Sirot. Now, the interview originally aired one Sunday morning, while probably both you and I were busy at our weekly anti-Mammon protests, but thanks to the magic of the Internet and the rare reliability of my memory, you can follow a link from Venkat’s post to see for yourself just how unsettling Ellen Sirot is.2
She strokes her hands (“I like to say my hands look good naked” she says) as she goes through a list of everyday activities she can’t do lest her preciousssses be spoiled or soiled. Though her hands are often featured in photos of cleaning products, she herself doesn’t clean. She doesn’t cook or take out the trash. She won’t open windows, doors, cans. Gardening might spoil her hands’ remarkably even skin tone—and sports are absolutely out of the question. Though her hands appear to be her career, identity, and obsession, her day-to-day life is even more restricted than if she had no hands at all!
This is a deeper problem with the labor theory of value and consumption-based approaches to culture: people can first specialize, then identify themselves with their specialization, then let the rest of their selves atrophy until we are all secretly a little bit like Ellen Sirot. If you don’t believe me, go talk to my uncle about his old accounting partners at Ernst & Young, for whom it was a point of pride to sacrifice life for work—so much so that they’d respond within the hour to messages left at four in the morning during their vacations. If you don’t believe me, go to a party and meet a few new people. What will they ask you first? Not which clan you’re from or how many siblings you have or what you’ve been thinking about lately. They’ll ask what you do, and you’ll answer by telling them what you are, as if your vocation is the essence of both doing and being.
At the party I described in the introduction to this manifesto, my friend spoke as a creative writer. Because she is a creative writer (by virtue of her major, if not yet her career), and because she’s surrounded by people who share that core identity, it’s easier to talk in a disassociated way about her religion. Vocational identity in the front seat, please: everything else will have to shove itself into a half-forgotten back.
I almost managed to do this at church recently. I’d been in teaching callings for several years, and told my wife happily that I thought I’d teach in church forever. Within a week of this comment, I was called as a quorum secretary. So much for my in-church identity! In the Mormon community, you can never be defined entirely by what you do.
Neither can my uncle be defined by his career in the way many of his colleagues are: his church callings provided him a variety of other vocations through the years and consistently reinforced his belief that his identity as a father and as a son of God is worlds more important than his professional identity can ever be.
It may come as a shock to some of you that the Church’s system of callings can compromise the quality or competence of work that gets done in church. Although we’re traditionally very proud of our lay clergy, I will admit to you that I don’t see trained clergy systems as being entirely without advantage. But the next time you can’t stand a Sunday School teacher, or your bishop is saying something you wish he wouldn’t say or doing something you wish he wouldn’t do, remember that in this era, our callings help keep us human. And it’s worth sitting through a thousand boring or even offensive lessons if they’ll preserve whole human souls.
IV. Diversity and the Spirit of Elijah
Let’s get back, though, to the worry that Mormons are the Borg. Or else that, as one non-Mormon student at my college back east admitted, he’d always assumed that Mormonism is a religion for “angry white men.” Now, unless your only church experience has been in extremely isolated settings, odds are that you have worked with members with many different skin colors, linguistic heritages, and national origins. But somehow the worry that we’re a vanilla religion in more senses than one still sort of sticks.
Many of us are also still a bit haunted by the history of priesthood restriction. It’s confusing and painful. We hurt for those who had to wait so long for full employment in the vineyard, and we wonder whether that delay has destroyed our credibility in the diversity department forever. Maybe we secretly ask ourselves whether the relatively low black membership in the Church up through the 1970s has permanently stunted our cultural vibrancy. And yes, we know that African men are now one of the quickest-growing demographics in the Church—but we also know, deep down, that there’s a reason “Weird” Al Yankovic featured Donny Osmond’s dancing in his “White and Nerdy” music video.
Yes, maybe it has next to nothing to do with color and everything to do with culture. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they get to say “Opa!” and drink while they dance; in Sister Act, everyone sings like it matters. We eat Jell-O. Many of us in the Mormon corridor live in neighborhoods that look disturbingly like the one in Edward Scissorhands. Our only unique holiday involves dressing up like the Amish and pulling wooden carts. No matter how many colors are represented in our pews, we figure, no religion this uncool will ever feel diverse.
After we take a moment to wallow in awkward self-pity, let’s talk about the future of diversity in an increasingly interconnected world.
Globalization has undermined cultural divides in two significant ways. On the bright side, it has increased intercultural contact and the average person’s exposure to multiple cultures: odds are, you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding whether you’re Greek or not, and you’ve probably tasted some of the foods featured in it, too. On the maybe-not-so-bright-side, globalization seems to be reducing cultural uniqueness: the sun may set on the British Empire these days, but never on reruns of The Flintstones or Friends. All this is to say that in this century there may be a major shift in the way almost all the world’s cultures are constructed as weight moves away from family and regional traditions toward market- and media-driven “customer segmentation.” In this century, questions about how to produce intercultural harmony may need to take a back seat to questions about how to link generations through culture in the first place.
Here’s an irony: in the same Utah where numerous people use anti-immigrant politics as a cover for cultural prejudice, festivals are held where groups of Latter-day Saints gather to celebrate their Icelandic heritage—this despite the fact that the entire nation of Iceland has a smaller population than Utah County today. My feeling is this: regional politics will come and go, but the Spirit of Elijah will keep Church members more invested on average in their own families’ cultural heritages than their non-Mormon counterparts.
I grew up on stories of Jews and Sikhs as well as Mormons, of Mexico and India as well as the United States, because that’s what even a basic version of my family history entailed. My wife grew up learning stories about her immigrant ancestors’ journeys from Denmark and England, about the Volga Germans her maternal grandmother descended from, about her great-grandfather who was a poor sheepherder in Sanpete County—plus she learned at least two versions of where his wife’s maiden name, Romero, may have come from.
What if we weren’t Mormon? I’m dark enough that I’d probably still have to explain—and therefore also remember—that I’m part Indian, but I probably wouldn’t know the name of the village where my grandpa grew up or know stories about his mother’s great-grandfather. But because my wife blends in physically with most white Americans, how likely is it that she’d have anything like the awareness of the family and cultural specificity she does if she weren’t a Mormon, taught to value family history? And what are the chances, for that matter, that a passing visitor would imagine the cultural complexity of her heritage?
My own brother has light brown hair, light skin, and blue-green eyes. He used to joke that he brought “stealth diversity” to his campus. As we honor the Spirit of Elijah, we all bring increased specificity and therefore diversity to our communities—stealth or otherwise. So while Mormons may present an image of homogeneity—assuming you don’t count the visually obvious multi-ethnic fabric created by migration and the worldwide expansion of the Church—Mormonism certainly fosters the internal diversity that comes with heightened family memory.
Therefore . . . What?
This is the question that, according to ancient legend, Elder Boyd K. Packer used to ask at the end of every meeting. We’ve sat and we’ve talked. Or rather, I have written and you have read. Therefore . . . what?
What I am thinking about now is a dream a great king once had. In the dream, the king saw a breathtaking masterpiece, a sculpture of brilliant gold, silver that shone like poetry’s moon, bronze that flowed and twisted like a system of rivers entwined around solid iron supports. And in the dream, there was also a rock.
“What does the dream mean?” the king asked the prophet Daniel.
And Daniel said something like: the statue’s pretty, but it’s melted in the heat of pride and forged in exploitation and the shedding of innocent blood. But the rock is the Revolution. It doesn’t look like much, but oh how it moves, and it grows and grows, and someday the statue will be obliterated; someday people will learn to see the beauty of the rock and they won’t look to the statue any more at all.
1. Come to think of it, it may have been an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 2003, 660–663, rather than a conference talk; and it may have been by two Cornell professors (David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel) rather than an LDS general authority.
2. Venkatesh Rao, “The Gollum Effect,” Ribbon Farm, http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/01/06/the-gollum-effect/ (accessed 21 May 2012).
Thank you and enjoy this article
Brilliant. Loved this.
Thanks for this enriching article. I’ve worked and traveled extensively in my lifetime, and met representatives from governments the world over. One cultural and historical constant is that men are prideful and easily corrupted. My own testimony has been strengthened as I witness the humility and integrity that the gospel and the priesthood instills in its leadership at all levels. This is really difficult to find anywhere else.
On another note, we Americans (and the Mormon subgroup) are so preoccupied by diversity while we fail to realize that most of the world (major cities like NY, London and Singapore excepted) is culturally homogeneous. It’s important to reach out and be inclusive, but all this hand-wringing seems very odd to others looking at us from abroad.
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