Downright Strange

Mormon culture. Utah culture. Ack. We all, even us living in Utah, sometimes cringe at the topic. Let’s be frank here, we are wierdos. I grew up in Michigan, not living the culture so much, but even there: Mormons? Strange. We’ve got strange language, strange meetings, strange rituals. To say we are peculiar really isn’t much of a stretch.

I love it. We’re strange, sure. But we are wonderful. We make casseroles for each other (and who doesn’t love a good casserole on occasion?), we have meetings to share our feelings with each other. We clean our own church building, we sing about magical apricot trees. We really believe that God loves us, and wants us to be happy. We talk about sighting octogenarian General Authorities as if we were sighting rock stars. Our culture is wildly vibrant and dynamic.

My Stake President has been really pressing us recently about being covenant people. He has spoken many times recently about shrugging off this culture and living the gospel because we have covenanted to do so. I think maybe he’s responding to some cultural ease here in Utah. Here, there’s some seriously good peer pressure. Would you see me outside washing my car on Sunday? Not a chance. So, am I keeping the Sabbath day holy, or just responding to peer pressure? You can see his point.

I’ve been pondering my activity in the church lately. Not in the “should I leave the church” sense, but in the way I perceive our Stake President wants us to. Do I respond to a request for casseroles, teaching, or scrubbing toilets at the church because I am a truly converted disciple of Christ? Or do I do it because my neighbor is the one who called to ask me?

These cultural norms are so defining for LDS women. That very word however — defining — also equates to another word: limiting. Are we limited by the definition we have created for ourselves? And really, sometimes don’t you wonder where the culture ends and the gospel begins?

I’ve heard heated arguments about whether a young man could pass the sacrament if he wasn’t in a white shirt. I’ve heard similar discussions about the proper way to take the sacrament, approach the podium, and arrange the speaking order of a sacrament meeting. Come on, you know you’ve heard it, too.
CULTURE? I really don’t profess to know. What do you think? What do you do to extract yourself from the culture of your ward/branch to move toward being a covenant person?

About Justine

(Advisory Board) is a mother to five children, and has a husband lodged somewhere (probably in the den). She is not very fond of speaking of herself in third person.

27 thoughts on “Downright Strange

  1. Well, while I was in Utah, i felt that it helped to stay close to my friends who would have been my friends *without* the Church. We have a few very close friends who we would love and cherish and would have become friends with even if we were in another religion, and we try to go to the temple with them, and help each other in our journey.

  2. Great post Justine. I am always a little envious of the women in our church who love the crafts, the play dates, girls camp etc. I wonder if it might be easier for them to love the gospel and be Mormon.

  3. My biggest issue with my ‘mormoness’ is the hard time i have making friends out of the church. in the ward it’s almost mcfriends they are so drive-through readily available. now that i am in utah it’s even harder for me to find someone ‘not of my faith’ to befriend. but i think that i use the ward too much for friends and don’t feel like branching out becuase i really don’t need too. i’ve been commented to about LDS people and how they stick to their own kind. we have some friends from my husbands work who say the same thing. they asked us ‘why don’t any of you mormons hang out with anyone from work?’ well first, we are the only ones with kids and second we already have our families here and we have our church friends. so i’m trying to open myself up for more options. man this post made me sound lame but oh well, that’s what it made me think about.

  4. Courtney, what do you mean “easier for them to love the gospel and be Mormon”?

    Growing up in the gospel has to be easier because one is following the set pattern from their “mother in good standing,” if that be the case.

    Sometimes I have to kick myself because I think I cannot befriend or share the gospel with one more person because I just don’t have the time. Is that truly selfish or what?

    I was whinning a while back to my oldest daughter about not having one day off in almost 2 months and told her I needed a mental day off and Sunday might be a good day. She put me in my place by saying, “Sunday is not your day to make that decision. It’s the Lord’s day.”

    And who still makes casseroles? I thought we were eating healier now.

  5. Hmmm… do we always need to extract ourselves from the culture of our ward to be a covenant people? At the risk of sounding like all is well in Zion and Zion prospereth, I think the ward I’m in has a covenant culture going on. People are so kind and welcoming and friendly. If anything, I need to act more in tune with the culture, and be like the sister who randomly brought me dinner the week of my C-section, or the other sister who randomly brought me dinner when she heard I had a 104 degree. I think if I aligned myself more with the goodness of these people, I would be more covenanted than I am now. (Also, none of them cares that I don’t scrapbook.)

  6. You know, its funny, a few weeks ago I was talking to a non mormon friend (I live in Maryland), and I was trying to explain to her why I didn’t want to live in Utah. She couldn’t get her head around why a MORMON wouldnt want to live in UTAH. I think she went away from the conversation with the mistaken impression that I was not as hardcore as you guys. It was funny in a “these people will never understand me” way.

    I really enjoy this topic, thanks for the post and comments.

  7. Emily, I don’t think we need to purposefully extract ourselves, but I personally need to make sure I’m not just “going with the flow”. I want to take my covenants seriously, and act according to those covenants, not react to my neighbor.

    And for me, I’ve found our peculiar-ness everywhere I’ve lived. I happen to currently be in Utah, but have lived in the deep south, New England, and squarely in the mid-west. We are wonderfully interesting people everywhere we’re found. I’ve learned not to knock Utah, and have grown to deeply love the people here.

    And Glenda, bring on the Cream of Chicken soup!!!

  8. I have a hard time with Mormon culture in the heartland. In my experience the culture sometimes overruns the gospel. I really loved living further away from Utah and seeing the gospel lived with different cultural “window dressing.” Many aspects of that experience felt more genuine to me. But on the flip side, it was often those with Utah roots who were the stallwarts in the ward there, who gave even when it was inconvienent, and who kept the various auxilliaries functioning. Why was that? I don’t know, but I suspect that those who have been raised with a strong LDS family culture expect that level of committment from themselves. And in outlying areas, where there are not 10 strong people available for every calling, willingness to serve, for whatever reason, goes a long way towards holding a branch or a small ward together.

    Great topic.

  9. Justine, you are right: we need to act according to covenants, not according to our neighbors.

    I have been thinking a little more about your question–where does culture end and gospel begin? I don’t know. I think the Spirit communicates to each of us ways in which we, personally, need to be living the Gospel more effectively. I think the culture that frustrates us, the judgmentalness and peer pressure, happens when we start applying the individual whisperings of the Spirit, given to us personally, to others. Like if I start thinking to myself that if you change out of Sunday clothes, you must not be keeping the Sabbath holy, just because I wear a skirt all day… Or when, as Justine said, we start living a certain way because others do, not because that’s who we are or what the Spirit has told us we should do.

    So when we mix together everyone’s personal Spirit-given interpretation of how they need to live the gospel, and then impose it through peer pressure / judging on others, that’s when we get the culture that frustrates people. And I think we get rid of the culture problem by returning to the Spirit, and figuring out how it’s teaching us to live . . . another name for “returning to covenants.”

  10. Glenda I meant “Mormon” in the cultural sense. Some of us have testimonies but don’t necessarily subscribe to the culture of “Mormon.” And I think that is okay. Isn’t it?

  11. This discussion and the questions that prompted it remind me of the personal essay “Elizabeth’s Quilt” featured in one of the Segullah issues. The author’s experience of learning to serve someone in her ward she had initially dismissed. When Justine asked “What do you do to extract yourself from the culture of your ward/branch to move toward being a covenant person?” I thought of the culture that a particular ward/branch creates with its own “in” and “out” groups. I read “Elizabeth’s Quilt” as a story in which the author learned to serve a girl, whom, based on her description in the piece, was in the “out” group. Because of Elizabeth’s tragedy, the author realized that Elizabeth was also human.

    I think one way we can extract ourselves from the ward/branch culture is try to look at the congregation and honestly assess with whom we associate and why, and also who is in the “in” group and who in the “out”. Its seems that we easily categorize people as worthy or not of our attention based rather shallow attributes like economics, race, marital status or attractiveness. I believe as I try to become more covenant, that these labels matter less, that I can go against the ward culture that says “we don’t associate with Hispanics” or “if we ignore the ward members in low-income housing, they’ll go away.” Or I suppose it can be as something as simple as personal biases, like “We have nothing in common. She doesn’t even scrapbook!” (or in my case, “We have nothing in common. I don’t even understand scrapbooking!”). Its awkward, as the author of “Elizabeth’s Quilt” felt, but, as mentioned in an earlier post, if we’re open to getting out of our hierarchies and comfort zone, the Spirit will guide us and help us.

  12. courtney-dang tootin’ it’s okay! (or maybe i just think it is since i fall into the “mormon cultural misfit” category big time).

    here’s my take:

    first, the church is so big now, so diverse that i might posit the majority of its members are unfamiliar with “utah” mormon culture altogether. is their experience as followers of Christ lacking? i say, no way.

    second, “Do I respond to a request for casseroles, teaching, or scrubbing toilets at the church because I am a truly converted disciple of Christ? Or do I do it because my neighbor is the one who called to ask me?”
    great questions, but i’m not sure they’re mutually exclusive. here’s a little story in which i reveal myself to be an embarrassment to relief society sisters everywhere but in which i learn a good lesson: in the sadly not-so distant past (last summer) my three-year old and i decided to play outside in the sprinklers. since i didn’t own another bathing suit, i threw on the old two-piece and headed out into the yard. sprinklers at full throttle, we’re having a great time, but i notice that the grass is a little long. andy (my husband) was out of town for work, so i took it upon myself to git ‘er done. and yes, because i’m a little compulsive and since i was out there anyway, i went to the garage and got the lawn mower right then and there. and there you have it friends, the returned missionary, married-in-the-temple, principles-of-the-gospel-teaching mother of a child out there in a bikini mowing the yard. and in the heat of that gorgeous summer day i probably wouldn’t have noticed the truck full of teenage boys circling the block (which really is funny because i have the figure of a 14-year old boy) had it not been for the moment when i looked up from the yard to see the missionaries pedaling their bicycles right up our street, had it not been for the second in which our eyes met, when that poor young man’s face went flush as a beet and i saw him lean to his companion and say what i can only imagine was some version of “elder, sister carman is mowing her yard in a bikini. put your head down and pedal for your life.” they banked sharp down a side street and disappeared. and needless to say i was mortified–for any number of reasons, but mostly because i felt like i’d been caught for the desperate housewife that i was. and really, that’s not what i was at all and certainly not what i wanted to be thought of as being. in a moment of admittedly lapsed judgment i’d done a dumb thing, a thing that did not represent me well as a committed follower of Jesus Christ (and pretty well lumped me into the w.t. category). i’m glad for the “peer pressure” that helped me recover my senses. it wasn’t that i’d given up on trying to be a covenant keeping woman, just that i was dumb for about 20 minutes. in other words, i’m glad for a visiting teaching companion who i respect enough to not want to let down, or a spouse whose expectations i really want to live up to. goodness knows where i’d be without them, cause i’m not perfect. i fall off the path in little ways all the time, and i think that’s true for most people. in the end, i know i’m accountable to the savior alone, but here in this crazy world maybe having a few tangible folks (neighbors, ward members, etc.) to whom we also feel somewhat accountable is kind of a good idea, even if all it does is keep us from galavanting around the neighborhood half-clothed.

  13. I think the culture that frustrates us, the judgmentalness and peer pressure, happens when we start applying the individual whisperings of the Spirit, given to us personally, to others.

    I really liked this.

    In my mind, the key way to keep doing things for covenant’s sake is to “always remember Him.” If we are serving with casseroles or quilts or moving trucks or whatever else we are asked to do, do we do it with love for Christ and the people in our hearts? The more we do things with pure charity (love for Christ and love of Christ in our hearts) then I think we are moving closer to being truly covenant people, because we are remembering the One who makes the covenants binding and real and meaningful and eternal, and who can make us into the people we need to become to make this life worth it.

    BUT, this is all a process, and sometimes we do things just cuz that is what we do and the Spirit can nudge and help us along the way to see beyond the rigamarole of it and start to see and be more like the Savior in what we are doing.

  14. SISter CARman! That is a good, funny story. Last night at enrichment I was thinking of the “peer pressure v. covenants” discussion while I listened to the story of the Nauvoo sisters collecting pennies for the temple. It made me feel connected to them. You know, the “Hey, I’m just like them” feeling, like when you first read Shakespeare.

  15. I couldn’t help but think of a book that we read in book group that dealt with this same issue of “CULTURE vs. COVENANTS”. The story is about the orthodox jewish community in Tennesse, but as you read it you can see the parrallels to our own culture. I highly reccomend you read “The Ladies Auxillary” by Tova Mirvis. Not only will you see sister so-n-so in this or that character but you will realize just how easy we have it. Such a good book. This was the type of book that you miss the character’s in it when you are done reading it.

    I grew up outside of Utah and moved to Utah after HS and there is a definite difference in the “mormon culture” here, both good and bad. But I agree that we should focus more on being a covenenant people and truly following our own beliefs and keeping our own self in check than base it on “what would the neighbor’s think”. I know that I have been guilty of shopping on a rare sunday and making sure the garage door is shut before getting the bags out so the neighborhood doesn’t see. But that is VERY rare!!

  16. Brittney,

    I think part of the cultural baggage of the Utah-centric membership of the Church is captured perfectly in your post: WHY would anyone think there was anything sinful in you deciding to mow the lawn in your swimsuit? (Although I’d want you to wear safety glasses and steel-toed sandals.) WHY would the elders be so afraid of seeing someone’s tummy that they’re embarassed and have to pedal like heck to, um, avoid lustful thoughts? Puh-leeze. You weren’t being dumb, but maybe your neighbors were being too judgmental. Moments like that should result in giggles, not blushes or shaming. What you were doing was perfectly appropriate for a hot day in your own yard. Obviously showing up to Sacrament dressed in a tankini is outside the pale, but context can be everything. If anyone living near you takes an incident like that and decides that you’re not a committed member of the Church who values her covenants, then they need to go buy a sense of humor (for sale at Toys R Us, next to the Nerf dart guns). We’re just too uptight as a culture.

  17. Space Chick,
    You mean I can finally forgive myself for being so harsh on my own imperfectional behavior from years past (I didn’t even wear a swim suit to mow, it was shorts above the knee and bra-less under the T, and in my fenced back yard, yet I felt so guilty doing so.)

    So culture vs. obedience. I wondered about that when I took that 2nd pair of earrings out of my ears (per the prophet) and the new female missionary in our ward from India had a stud in her nose. She said to me, “It’s our culture.”
    At what point or what percentage does the american way of dressing become culture? Here in our ward (Florida) at least 50% of the women wear some sort of flip fops. Back west it was always hose and heels. What’s acceptable is determined by location, location, location? Or the stake president? (Being a matter of obedience, my husband had to shave his beard.)

  18. I think positive peer pressure isn’t inherently a bad thing. I am influenced by it all the time. I just want to be working toward being propelled more by my internal compass. Sometimes I think I’m getting better, most of the time not!

  19. WHY would anyone think there was anything sinful in you deciding to mow the lawn in your swimsuit?

    If we are going to keep a line between culture and covenants, I think it’s important to know that it’s actually (per the First Presidency) covenentally not appropriate for an endowed member to do yard work in a swimsuit. :) (NOTE!!! This is NOT shared to condemn Brittney, because her story illustrates the importance of not judging others because we never know what is really going on! I appreciated her sharing it, actually, because that was a perfect example of a situation where one could misjudge and where her “outward appearance” did not reflect her heart or motives. :) And, as we know, what the Lord cares about is the latter.)

    So, take this as a general FYI:

    “Church members who have been clothed with the garment in the temple have made a covenant to wear it throughout their lives. This has been interpreted to mean that it is worn as underclothing both day and night. This sacred covenant is between the member and the Lord. Members should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to answer for themselves any personal questions about the wearing of the garment. … The promise of protection and blessings is conditioned upon worthiness and faithfulness in keeping the covenant.

    “The fundamental principle ought to be to wear the garment and not to find occasions to remove it. Thus, members should not remove either all or part of the garment to work in the yard or to lounge around the home in swimwear or immodest clothing. Nor should they remove it to participate in recreational activities that can reasonably be done with the garment worn properly beneath regular clothing. When the garment must be removed, such as for swimming, it should be restored as soon as possible.

    “The principles of modesty and keeping the body appropriately covered are implicit in the covenant and should govern the nature of all clothing worn. Endowed members of the Church wear the garment as a reminder of the sacred covenants they have made with the Lord and also as a protection against temptation and evil. How it is worn is an outward expression of an inward commitment to follow the Savior.” (First Presidency Letter, 10 October 1988, quoted here.)

    In considering the line between culture and covenants, I sometimes think we want to make principles of modesty strictly cultural, and this suggests to me that they have a strong covenantal component. It’s up to each person to decide what that means in practice, of course, and, of course, this should not be used as a reason to judge others, but I think it’s worth tossing in there given the topic at hand. Hope that wasn’t too long to include here.

    [Courtney, have I now removed any chance of being your friend? :)]

  20. I grew up in Utah and moved as an adult to Maryland, and then to Virginia. I felt less oppressed by the “culture” of Mormonism (defined so well above as dicatating that personal revelation “should” correspond to the Mormon community as a whole) when I lived in Utah simply because there were many different wasy to be “Mormon.”

    Outside of the state, I have noticed that the members often use their Mormonism as their identity, a crucial part of the public face that they put to the world. And, in my opinion, this public face is easily (ab)used as a means to emphasize the outside commandments, those defined by looking the part instead of being the part.

    In Utah, I was able to find a Mormonism (speaking of the culture) that worked for me within the context of the covenants I made. There were lots of rights and lots of wrongs; many examples to follow. It’s been harder for me to find those enlightening and sometimes contradictory examples since moving away, and consequently, harder for me to “fit in.”

  21. Yeah, Michelle, thanks for pointing out that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel in our discussions here. Or re-interpret the wheel. That was a nice review of the facts o’ the matter.

    I enjoyed brittney’s story as a funny, instructive story about how we might find ourselves a little off the path. She doesn’t seem to be justifying it. Its okay to laugh at our foibles and try to do better.

  22. I have responded once before to a Segullah thread but it does make me feel like I’m crashing the girl party…
    The old urge to be heard, I guess.

    From my own experience living in Utah (I grew up near Eugene, OR then 4 years at BYU, then downtown SLC for 3 years) I came away with three valuable life lessons. 2 that can be summed up in axioms and one that could become an axiom.

    Axiom 1: Mind your own yard.

    Brigham Young said “Pay attention to what the Lord expects of you and let the balance go.” It’s telling that he offers no definition of what the Lord expects of me, let alone what He expects of you in relation to me. Fact is, even within the specific definitions of what our covenants mean there are interpretations to be had. E.g., we have a covenant to live the United Order, our Stake Presidency has an ongoing debate about what that means and trying to reconcile why it is that we aren’t expected to commit all of our time, talents, resources to the church right now. They each have their opinion. Then outside of the specifically defined gospel expectations, there is a huge grey area.

    Lately I’ve come across the philosophy of Japanese Architect Kisho Kurokawa who discusses how the Japanese concept of “ma”, which represents all the grey area between black and white, sets Japanese culture apart so heavily from Western culture which tends to see life in terms of binary opposites. So what implications does that have for Japanese disciples vis-a-vis American disciples? The basic fact is, that, sometimes even within the specfics, the Lord expects something different of me than of my wife, or of my daughter, or of individuals everywhere.

    Axiom 2: Live and let live.

    As we know, there are often as many interpretations of what it means to live the gospel as there are those trying to live it. If I feel judged or pressured by someone else it may be that his or her intentions were something completely apart from judging me or pressuring me. If I expect to be left to live the Gospel the best I can, then I need to afford that priviledge to those around me.

    Likewise, if we spend a ton of our time worrying about how other people judge us or about how other people live the gospel, we’ll be missing time examining how we should behave as our own individual disciple.

    Possible Axiom: Don’t eat sacrificial meat before a Pharisee.

    They asked Paul whether it was bad to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols or bad to let it go to waste. He told them, if it’s going to upset someone, don’t eat it in front of them. That is, if my personal way about the gospel is going to negatively affect someone else then maybe it’s best (out of consideration even) to spare them the resultant negativity of maybe judging me badly, or of having the way they see the gospel called into question, etc.

    When it comes down to a question of Utah versus “other” Mormon cultures (there I go with a binary opposites scheme again…), a homogenous aggregation of people is always going to take on issues and challenges such as Utah has. For example BYU, which people bag on as the epicenter of “Utah Cuture” is comprised of mormons from all over the country/globe. It is especially interesting however, within a pardigm that is as nuanced and as often paradoxical as the Gospel of Christ.

    This thread brings up a great question: how do we define ourselves individually within our culture? Part of the seeing things in terms of the “norm” and the “other” difinitely poses a challenge to Mormons and perhaps always will. We see ourselves (the way we were raised, the way we think, etc.) as the norm, or what is good and right, and what others do as the other thing, other than the right/normal.

    In the Tokyo temple entry there hangs a decorative lamp from the Shinto tradition. So much of what we deal with is like that lamp. Some people thought it was inappropriate. Is it religious syncretism to hang a Shinto lamp in the Temple entry? I think not. No more than it’s bad that the Salt Lake temple borrows very heavily from the traditional Gothic (Catholic) cathedrals. That is simply trappings, not a question of right versus wrong.

    I think what Justine’s Stake President is getting at is that we need to get to the crux of what makes us individually Christ’s disciples. I believe that involves being mindful of the axioms I mentioned.

    And this stuff wouldn’t hurt us in trying to lighten up either.

  23. Courtney, I would love to be your friend–please consider yourself mine in return! brittney, ditto!

    Michelle, I do actually understand the importance of wearing garments–I received my endowments in 1994 and have since taught temple prep and gospel doctrine sunday school classes, been a relief society president, and currently teach RS. I consider myself a fairly staunch member, but I can also recognize that wearing garments to run through the sprinklers with your children would be as ridiculous as wearing them to go swimming. If, while you were out playing in the water, you had an urge to trim the lawn, you might go inside and change before attend to your yardwork, but I have no problem with Brittney grabbing the mower and getting down to business as she was.

    What I do have a problem with is the fact that she apparently felt her actions somehow undermined her status as a member of the church and gave her neighbors a reason to doubt her testimony. In this instance, her actions shouldn’t have been (and hopefully weren’t) a cause for censure, although they might make great fodder for a little friendly teasing. We all know there are 2 ways (at least!) that something can become a neighboorhood/ward story–one is the “I saw the funniest thing today…” version and another is the “I cannot believe what a brazen hussy that woman is…” option. What worries me is the way we seem to default to the second interpretation, assuming that every action is a clue to someone’s true evil nature, instead of laughing things off as the momentary slip they really are. It seems as if we always expect others to forgive our slips as accidents, not evidence of our true feelings or the depth of our commitment, yet we scrutinize their slips very carefully, and assign them the worst possible meaning. We should be as charitable with them as we are with ourselves, or more, but not less. I know there’s a CS Lewis quote somewhere which states this more succintly…

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