Culture and being in, but not of the world

4.23.14 | | 17 comments

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.

17 comments: “Culture and being in, but not of the world

  1. Th.

    .

    I like your distinction that favors acting upon rather than being acted upon. That is indeed how Christ seems to have functioned.

  2. Jonathan Langford

    I, too, like your distinction. Although I have to say that ever since encountering a rather trenchant Nibleyism to the effect that the scriptures don’t actually endorse being in the world, but rather warn us to “flee out of Babylon,” I’ve been a bit nervous about taking too much comfort in this distinction…

  3. William Morris Post author

    Nibley read James Joyce. And would not have been able to create the synthesis he did without engagement with the world of culture. When we draw lines, we often are deciding how much Babylon we will let in; whereas, I’m suggesting we need to think about how we can resist/steal from Babylon to create our own cultural spaces.

  4. Sarah Dunster

    … and drawing lines as an artist is, I think, far trickier than drawing lines as a consumer. When you write (or paint, or perform) you are supposed to put yourself into a portrayal. And I am always motivated to make things “real” and not “edited” but what does that mean? What is “gratuitous” and what is needed to make a story “real?”

    I think that often, in the beginning stages of development, artists actually end up crossing those lines in order to find them. Luckily, my line-crossing happened out of the public eye because I wrote several manuscripts and developed my idea of where those lines were, for me, before being published.

    I guess what I’m saying is we also need to honor the producers of art and literature as human and imperfect and searching just like anyone. Which is why it infuriates me when people say that a certain piece of art is “not in line with the gospel.” Am I not a part of the gospel? Anyway.

  5. William Morris Post author

    Yes. And to turn it back around to cultural consumption: although artists bring in observations and experiences from real life, most of what they know about the lines (and there are many and the run in many different ways) comes out of the culture they consume. All the more reason for Mormon artists to bring both an openness to being in the world, but also a resistance “being of the world” into their interaction with culture.

  6. Sarah Dunster

    THat is true as well.

    What I find difficult is how different people seem to think their own definition is a pat-answer. If for instance, we went with what Deseret Book is willing to sell or not as our line-drawing definition of being “not of” the world, I would be pretty depressed. And feel quite constrained. Even though that does happen to be the audience I am writing to right now… I’d like to think the field is wider than that.

  7. Sarah Dunster

    (as an example, Lyle Mortimer was recently quoted as stating that Deseret Book had turned down a story portraying beer cans under a seat in a car)

  8. Sarah Dunster

    (And another example, in my story Mile 21, when Abish walks into the room and meets Bob, initially she was accidentally in just her garments, then they made me change that to accidentally in a large, ratty T-shirt, and then DB marketing specialists made me change it to in her pajamas. So she walks into her living room, sees Bob, and is soooo embarrassed she’s in her pajamas. I thought the garments things was awesome, but i understood. But a large ratty T shirt is also too much?? Pajamas aren’t even funny, and every reference after that throuhgout the story where she remembers and cringes at being seen in “only her pajamas” made me cringe at the uber-molliness it conveyed, uncharacteristic of my character.) Sorry. Still stewing a bit.

  9. William Morris Post author

    Specific examples are important. Thanks for sharing them, Sarah.

    in regards to DB, etc.: everyone feels like they have the right answer. Including me. But I hope that part of the jujitsu of my particular answer is that it challenges everybody. Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine I talked about:

    Variety — Novelty
    Consistency — Complacency

    in relation to how we live the Gospel. The World tries to use both novelty and complacency against us. And by the world I mean everything that tries to coerce us into certain behaviors and habits by using technology, socio-economic factors and culture (and that includes properties owned by the Church, such as DB, that engage in marketing). It’s all rather inescapable. That’s why to me creativity and relationships (including our relationship with God) are so important. Creativity is naturally resistant to coercion. And relationships can build ties between bodies/minds/spirits that are, if not separate from, then, hopefully, stronger than what the world can influence. Both end up getting mediated by the forces of the World. That’s unavoidable. But again this is where we have to make as much as possible “not of” the World. Thus families. Thus friendship*. Thus art. Thus the covenants and the temple.

    *One of the things we have lost (or weakened) as a people is the radical bonds of friendship that Joseph Smith wanted his people to develop. Although I still think we’re doing a pretty good job of it considering the forces against it.

  10. Th.

    .

    The garments thing does make more sense, though I do wonder how that large an awkwardness would have changed my experience with the book.

    Wm—have you the audio of James Goldberg’s AML presentation? It would be an interesting wall to bounce these ideas off.

  11. William Morris Post author

    I thought I did, but it looks like I don’t. Anybody willing to share it with me (since the AML website is down)? Thanks!

  12. James Goldberg

    Re: Pat Answers

    We all rely on oversimplification in some part of life. It’s an efficiency issue: if you don’t settle for functional oversimplifications often enough, you probably have serious difficulty making it through life. Fortunately, our economy is set up to allow some people to specialize enough to discover levels of nuance that are beyond the practical limitations of a person who has to grow his/her own food. We are able to get beyond pat answers in our areas of interest today largely because someone else is farming for us.

    There’s a whole genre of jokes about an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician (see http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~riesbeck/mathphyseng.html for some examples) that deal with the space between the pat answer and the search for detailed insight. Some jokes in the genre poke fun at the mathematician for overcomplication and impracticality. Others poke fun at the engineer for oversimplification and resistance to nuance.

    In those jokes, we are mathematicians who are trying to work through physicists to get an end product in the hands of engineers.

    I think it may be helpful to acknowledge that.

  13. James Goldberg

    That metaphor (Mormon writers as engineers, Mormon readers as mathematicians) works as well: Mormon readers tend to have spent a lot of time thinking about questions of morality in principle-based terms and have not necessarily spent time thinking about how those principles ought to play out practically in the messy world of fiction.

    Whoever we cast as engineer or mathematician, though, the point I want to highlight is that Mormon writers have the luxury of developing nuanced approaches to morality and literature. Many readers see no reason to develop a similar sense of nuance largely because they have other priorities for their time and mental energy.

  14. William Morris Post author

    I agree with where you’re broader point, James. And it’s true of all cultural production and consumption.

    But if Mormons consume culture at all, then they are spending time and mental energy and other resources to facilitate that consumption. In what way do Mormon writers have any more or less luxury than any other Mormon? On an individual basis, sure (Although some of those freed up resources are there because of intentional decisions). That’s a class issue, but one that also has impact in all other activities as well so it’s unique to culture.

    Artistic producers potentially have an even more difficult time because on top of their cultural consumption and they family, work, church, home and civic duties/activities, they have to also carve out time and energy to produce art (and for me it’s the energy more than the time that’s the biggest issue). Not, of course, that I’m letting artists off the hook. In fact, I think it’s even more important for them to manage the being in but not of that I describe in the original post.

    I think what you’re getting at is that because of those other priorities, we shouldn’t expect. I agree. But when Mormons do engage in culture, I think they need to be more omnivorous and all of what I write above. And I also think that there is value in examining priorities and making culture a higher priority. In particular, because late capitalism uses culture (and the forms of culture) to wear away at an individual’s Mormon-ness and that artistic culture can operate in ways that official Church culture (which I’m a defender of) can’t. But I’m also keenly aware that the only real way to get those priorities re-examined is to create work that speaks to Mormons where they are currently at. Mormon artists aren’t automatically owed anything by the community.

  15. Moriah Jovan

    @Sarah re garments (non sequitur alert)

    Since I *don’t* write for a Mormon audience, I’ve been touchy about mentioning garments, when, how, and to what extent, but I finally decided this is a normal part of *our* culture and I am putting *our* culture out there for examination so that’s a necessary part of it within the stories I’m telling.

    In Magdalene, it was a curiosity issue that led to an epiphany for the nonmember, and would have answered any question of why I didn’t put them in in Proviso.

    In Paso Doble (May 1!!!), it’s a point of contention between the member and nonmember, but probably not in an expected way.

    In We Were Gods (May 1!!! also!!!), there’s a brief mention at a critical moment because everyone in the book is on the same page theologically / culturally (which was actually quite difficult to pull off when one is writing for people who are unfamiliar with it and also allergic to “As you know, Bob”s). BUT I felt if I DIDN’T mention it, it would be a glaring omission to members.

    I try to be sensitive and say as little as possible about it, but their existence can’t be gotten around if one is writing explicitly Mormon characters for a nonmember audience.

    As for your story, I would presume the audience would fill in the garments part (under the jammies), but it still loses impact and rhythm within the story, so while I haven’t read your book, I’m sorry that happened.

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