As I was reading the comments to Scott H’s recent AML blog post Moving Culture, I had the following thought:
In modern Mormon American communities when the notion of “be in the world but not of it” is raised in relation to culture, it is almost always the “not of” that is emphasized rather than the “being in”. And so most Mormons draw their various lines (which, as I wrote almost 10 years ago, I don’t have a problem with as long as they are honest with themselves about those lines) for what they will and will not consume, enjoy the works that fall within their lines, and then (perhaps) look askance at those who draw their lines in different places than they do.
But the problem is that this method (which I will admit to employing myself quite often) is actually addressing neither the “being in” nor the “not of” because:
1. Any culture you avoid means that you are cutting yourself off from those parts of the world and thus are not being in it. Now, obviously, there are places (and in this case I mean cultural places as in: specific works/creators and/or communities that form around those works/creators) we should not be in. And there are places that some of us can be in without causing major damage to our souls while others can’t. But we are not called to cloister ourselves, and if we have no frames of cultural reference with which to approach others, we can’t really claim that we are in the world.
2. I think (and this is based on my reading of Christ’s ministry on Earth) that being not of the world is less about not partaking in things and more about how you approach your presence in and interaction with the world. “Not of” means that the world doesn’t override or distort your Mormon worldview (at least not too much — I also believe that no one is untainted by the world). And it means bringing your worldview into play in an active, interrogating, subversive, filtering, enveloping way.
What I think that adds up is that to be “in the world,” one must be engaged with culture, and to be “not of the world” is to act upon rather than be acted upon by culture. This is easier said than done.