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.
One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
Yesterday morning I had an interesting dream that near the end turned in to me being the client/creative director on a TV ad shoot for some consumer product and all my family members and some other Mormons were working as extras and then I walked from the set up a hill that was thronged with LDS and started following Bill Bennett and followed him into a cultural hall with a stage and a group of Eastern Orthodox priests and I finally caught up with him and asked him if works of art can be redeemed. Not really bad ones but complex ones. I woke up before I got an answer.
Yesterday morning I awoke from the strangest dream. That is not all that unusual. I seem to have rather vivid dreams. What was unusual was that a) there was a Mormon arts connection and b) it expressed portions of my subconscious that are very close to my conscious conscious. Usually, I’m just fighting off ninjas or exploring houses, etc.
I don’t remember the first part, but at some point near the end of the dream, I’m all of a sudden on a film set. And then I’m the client and the creative director for the shoot, which is an ad shoot for some consumer product (a cleaning product, I believe). And then when I’m done with the main shoot, I move over to a set that’s like a huge kitchen with one wall but the rest is open and we’re filming some cheesy reaction shots where extras are holding out the product and smiling. And there may have been some cheesy line or actual exclamations of approval. And the extras are family members and members of wards I have lived in. They’re all LDS. And for some reason I walk away from the set, which is nestled up against a hill, and walk up the hill. There is a wide path and alongside it are throngs of Mormons, all watching the goings on below with the filming of the commercial.
And then I see Bill Bennett walking up the path. Yep. That Bill Bennett. He and I are the only ones that are walking to the top of the hill. I follow him. I follow him at a distance, but feel quite anxious to talk to him. Finally, we reach the top of the hill. I follow him into a room (this one also has one wall open to nature, like a movie set) that looks like an LDS cultural hall (complete with stage with curtain — it’s a set within a set). There is a a group of Eastern Orthodox priests there. I think they are working on putting together a play or some sort of performance that will take place on the stage. Bill Bennett starts talking to them.
I walk up to him and interrupt his conversation. I’m incredibly anxious and verklempt but not distraught. It’s a weird feeling. I can’t tell if I’m confronting him or seeking reassurance from him. Maybe both. This is what I ask: “Will works of art be redeemed?” My mind is specifically on the resurrection; I feel all these works of art floating in the back of my mind like spirits. And then I qualify myself: “Not, you know, the stuff that’s really bad (except I didn’t use the word bad. I can’t remember what word I used). But the other kind” (and by that I mean non-didactic, complex, faithful works of Mormon art. Or in other words the stuff I read and write). I pause and try to explain further, but nothing more comes out. I’m still hoping for a response. I’m looking Bill Bennet in the face. He seems like maybe he is going to respond. But I can’t tell for sure. His face is placid. His eyes distant even though he is looking at me.
Saturday began the ALA’s annual Banned Books Week, its effort to call attention to censorship and attempts to censor books in the United States. The good news is that the number of challenges (attempts, usually unsuccessful, to restrict or make a book unavailable at an institution–library, school, etc.) has hit its lowest level in 20 years. But last year an LDS author’s work made the top 10 most challenged books for the second year in a row.
Benson Parkinson, founder of the AML-List and co-founder of Irreantum, was kind enough to send me a copy of his essay “Three Kinds of Appropriateness” for posting here at AMV. It used to be posted on the Association for Mormon Letters website, but it got lost in the shuffle a while back. It hopefully will be back up on the AML website soon, but since I refer to it often and will be referring to it again in the future, I’m thankful Ben has given me permission to post it here. It originally ran on the AML-List in January 1997 (and sadly those early days of the List, which featured several excellent essays/columns are no longer archived online).
LITERARY COMBINE: Three Kinds of Appropriateness
Morality is a mark of Mormon literature. It probably wouldn’t have to be that way, but even the most fringe Mormon offerings generally get around to taking a moral stand. People say that everyone has a different idea of appropriateness, a different degree of tolerance for sex, violence, bad language, and depictions of sinful behavior. I find that, when it comes to appropriateness, Mormon literature tends to be of just three kinds. more →
OK, you are the Bishop. The Relief Society has decided to have a book club as one if the enrichment groups. Your ward has a normal distribution of both conservative and liberal Church members. What restrictions do you put on the books to be read?