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 http://18.104.22.168:591/PDFs/46-3/The%20Value.pdf). 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.