What Do You Contribute to Mormon Culture?

[ 16 ] Comments

by James Goldberg

Lehi in the WildernessWe all agree that there’s a difference between the gospel and Mormon culture. And we know the gospel is good, so culture takes the blame whenever something drives us crazy.

But what is culture? In a broad sense, it’s the values, attitudes, folkways, and traditions of a people. Sometimes the word culture is used more specifically to refer to the aesthetic traditions of a group—their art, music, literature, food—probably because the stories and images we find beautiful say a lot about our values and practices.

If you are one of the many people who is satisfied with Mormon faith but unimpressed with Mormon culture, what are you doing about it? What stories or artworks are you sharing and celebrating or even creating to help build a more aesthetically adorned Zion for our children and grandchildren?

I believe deeply that the scriptures call on us to develop a culture that better reflects the beauty, richness, and depth of the gospel values that bind us together. I believe that we as a community have a lot to gain by developing our own storytelling and other traditions.

And I’m doing something about it. Twice a year, I help run a contest for short Mormon poems and stories and essays and comics and whatever else comes out of creative Mormon minds. If you have a talent in creative writing or know someone who does, check out the submission guidelines for the Second Annual Mormon Lit Blitz.

Submissions are due April 27th. We’ll start publishing the finalists on May 13th.

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About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

16 Responses to What Do You Contribute to Mormon Culture?

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    Yeah, I have been told that since we have developed such a rich and unique culture, many anthropologists consider Mormons to be the only true ethnic group to have originated in the United States.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard people wonder about whether we’re an ethnic group. Depends how you define ethnic, I suppose.

      We certainly do have a sense that we are a people. As Gabriel points out below, we are a people with many different national cultures, and so the pioneer-influenced culture of the “Mormon corridor” is really only one subculture within the larger unit of global Mormon culture.

      I actually wonder whether one distinctive trait of Mormon culture in any country is a heightened awareness of other countries through their Mormon communities. Through mission experiences, church media, and relationships with immigrants in ward settings, Mormons probably get more close contact with people from other parts of the world than the average person today. I’d like to see stories from across the world become an even more important part of our culture. We’ll get closer to the gospel, I think, if we see how it plays out in many different contexts.

  2. Gabriel says:

    As a non-American Mormon who does not live in the United States, i find this idea that Mormons are an ethnic group troubling. These anthropologists overlook the millions of non-Americans who are Latter-day Saints. In that sense, i am not sure it even makes sense to speak of a distinctive Mormon culture (in the U.S. and Canada, sure, but when you take into account all the millions elsewhere… are they not Mormons too?) However, i do appreciate James Goldberg’s point on his own blog that the Gospel is great but the culture we may build around it is what we might make of it. This applies to American literary contests, Belgian lunches after Ward conference, and Ecuadorean stake soccer tournaments for Primary-aged children!

    • Becca says:

      I am assuming that the previous commenter (Joseph Smidt) was being facetious.

      I appreciated that you pointed out that the “Mormon culture” may be different depending on where you are in the world. I think that is a very valid point, and something many ethnocentric Americans fail to take into consideration when they become disillusioned with the gospel and the way things are in America. The “wear pants to Church day” comes to mind. I read several personal anecdotes from women who lived in Europe that no one batted an eyelash at a woman wearing pants to church because it was so common, and so the “movement” was very American Mormon, rather that simply Mormon. I think it is important, especially for Mormons who live in the “Mormon corridor” (Idaho/Utah/Arizona/Southern California and parts of Colorado and Nevada) to remember that the rest of the world (where the majority of Mormons live), let alone the rest of the United States, does not always share that culture.

      All that said, I do appreciate James’ positive contribution to Mormon culture.

      • Gabriel says:

        I am in the process of reading The Five Books of Jesus, and i would agree with you.

        Interestingly enough, that is the kind of contribution that you need enough Latter-day Saints with a high-enough concentration to really get out there.

        I think other places where that could happen, perhaps not right now but in the future, are Brazil and Mexico.

      • Becca–as I mention above, I also have heard of theories that Mormons make up an ethnic group.

        Gabriel–I read last year that a Brazilian Latter-day Saint made his country’s bestseller list. I also talked with Margaret Blair Young recently about a Zambian Mormon playwright who recently passed away. I’ve read wonderful books by Gerd Skibbe (a German Mormon) and Sylvester Lamin (a Sierra Leonese Mormon).

        Your point is well taken that not every nation with Mormons will have its own national Mormon subculture (though Samoa, for example, probably already does). But thanks to modern media, I think a global Mormon culture can emerge that draws on Mormon experience in all sorts of places. We have a long way to go, to be sure, but I look forward to the day when more American Mormons are reading short stories translated from brothers and sisters who first wrote in other languages.

    • There are stake primary soccer tournaments in Ecuador? Awesome.

      I think Mormons throughout the world would benefit from knowing more about the customs of Mormons in lots of other places. I would love to read a short story set against the background of that stake soccer tournament, or featuring a Pioneer Day bullock cart ride in Bangalore, India or set during one of the places in postwar East Germany where the whole ward moved into a single building and lived together to survive hard times for a year or two.

  3. Liz C says:

    Direct contributions in teaching actual historic history to those who go on to volunteer at and work with LDS museums and sites, plus music; indirect contributions by birthing an artist, a musician, a dancer, and a tiny blonde person who is just sort of decorative. :)

    I was highly encouraged when I went with my artist-child to the opening of the Youth Art Competition in Salt Lake (since her work is in the exhibit, we got to go to the gallery preview). There is so much REALLY good art in there, stuff that doesn’t need to be labeled “LDS” to qualify as “awesome”, and is fully spiritually mature, too. Gives me hope that our best “culture” days are still ahead, and that we’re starting to see them happen.

  4. Tiffany W. says:

    I like this thought that we must do something to contribute to our culture in positive ways. I highly doubt that I will ever write a novel, compose a song, or paint a picture, nor do I desire to do those things. I can support those who do contribute in those ways by buying excellent works of art in any of those genres. I can support my children in their efforts to contribute.

    I think far more importantly, my contribution to our LDS culture is to be more Christ-like, more compassionate, and more kind with my fellow church members. I am sad to say that I often feel more compassion for those who are outside of those church, partially because I feel impatient when my fellow church members should know better. So that’s my resolution–to be more loving with my fellow saints and more compassionate.

    • NotMolly says:

      That’s a fantastic contribution to the culture… more and more of us need to focus on it, too. :)

      • Gabriel says:

        Ditto!

        If we strive to be that kind of Saints, then the contributions to this thing we call culture will happen naturally, whether related to art or not.

    • I agree with NotMolly and Gabriel about compassion being a great contribute to culture. But the patronage is helpful, too–and not just the financial component that comes with buying. Paying attention to and talking about good art is a good way to elevate its place in our culture.

      • Tiffany W. says:

        I agree, James. I’m really happy with the works that are coming out of our community recently. Some really great, thought-provoking stuff.

        When we talk about great LDS books we’ve read with others, point to great artistic works or share inspiring music with our friends, I think that qualifies as patronage of a sort.

        I also think the Whitney awards are great because they highlight some great books by LDS authors.

        We may not all be artists, but I bet there is a bit of a patron in all of us.

  5. I guess I will submit a poem to your contest– whether or not it adds anything to Mormon culture.

  6. brenna says:

    Your post made me think about the Mormon Feminist movement that has seemed to pick up even more steam lately. I think that, without branching off too much into those troubled waters that I try to stay out of, there is wisdom in remembering that not only do we belong to a church of Revelation, but to a church that is world-wide; and that in that church there are various cultural pracitces that clash with belief, sub-American Mormon cultures, and various national LDS identities all brewing together in one big melting pot of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. So many times the demands of people with good intentions fall short of the global perspective; and what may seem to hold one group back allows another to gain roots and catch up. By seeing all the various Mormon cultures in the world, we can remember to look a little more broadly. There’s always the joke of “first world problems” but it is important that we not make those “first world problems” the only problems that we expect our Prophet to take to the Mountain of the Lord and return bearing answers.

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