Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Doctrine vs. culture

There’s not just one right way to be a Mormon woman... as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity.
--Chieko N. Okazaki
When I was in high school back in Provo, I had a fantastic piano teacher. She was a few years older than I, newly married, a brand new mom, adorable, talented and more than a little bit perfectionistic. One day when my mom came by to pick me up from my weekly lesson, she noticed Colleen* was looking very low and forlorn.

"What's wrong?" she asked, which was all that was needed to elicit a full confession. Colleen admitted woefully to my mother that she was feeling like a failure as a Mormon woman. She really wanted to make homemade bread for her husband, but her busy schedule was making it difficult for her to find time to bake bread from scratch.

Mom listened sympathetically. At last she said, "Colleen, honey. You're going to college full time, teaching piano lessons, running a household and taking care of a new baby. You don't have time to make homemade bread right now. If you feel bad, go to the best bakery in town, buy some really good bakery bread and feed it to your husband. At some other point in your life, you'll have the time to bake bread, but not now -- so don't worry about it. It's not that important."

I think about Colleen whenever I read blog entries and social media confessions where other Mormon women (and, to a lesser extent, Mormon men) fret that they aren't good Mormons because they don't fit into the "Mormon mold." They don't bake bread or home-can peaches or garden or sew or quilt or knit or create fancy cupcakes or keep up a Pinterest account or make the perfect funeral potatoes recipe. They're not even raising four-plus kids! OHNOES WHATEVER SHALL WE DOOOO.

Here's the thing: there's quite a bit of difference between Mormon doctrine -- the actual set of shared beliefs that form the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- and Mormon culture -- the set of traditions and behaviors particularly common to Mormons who live in the so-called "Mormon Corridor," running from southern Idaho to the Mexican state of Chihuahua. In many places where a plurality of Mormons live, Mormon doctrine and culture have become so intertwined that it can be difficult to determine which is which -- even if, like Colleen, you have been a member of the Church since you were eight years old. But I think it's important to extricate the one from the other, if only to be able to understand for yourself what is truly essential and what is optional.

My rule of thumb is to consider the elements of a true testimony. I have a testimony of the reality and goodness of God and the atonement of Jesus Christ, the power of prayer, the blessings that come from paying a full tithe, the truth found in the scriptures, the strength and power of modern revelation. I do not have a testimony of homemade bread, potluck dinners, glass grapes, uplifting mottoes stenciled on the wall, or green Jello salad with shredded carrots in it. Home crafts and home production are cultural, and as such they are fully optional; if you have the time and desire to learn how to do these things, or if you really enjoy them, go for it. If you're like my friend Fen who prefers to make chainmail, go for that instead (or as well). But for heaven's sake, don't beat yourself up over them, and don't get weirdly competitive about them. That way lies insanity.

Let's talk about some other cultural beliefs. I don't have a testimony of the three-hour church block; it didn't exist when I was a kid, and we'd all adapt just fine if it were done away with tomorrow. I don't believe for a moment that you have to be blonde and slim and descended from pioneer stock to be a "real Mormon woman"; I'm none of those things, and I'm as real a Mormon woman as you're likely to find. I don't believe you're a bad parent if your daughter doesn't earn an Honor Bee or your son isn't an Eagle Scout; both of these programs, while strongly encouraged in the Church, are optional. I also don't believe you're a bad person if you don't have lots of kids, or even any kids; in fact, come sit by me. Some women in the Church need to work outside the home, for a number of reasons including, but not limited to, their own mental health. Unmarried adult members are just as faithful as married ones. Nothing says the strength of your testimony is contingent upon being a returned missionary or a seminary graduate. There are no prohibitions on refined sugar, white flour or caffeine in the Word of Wisdom (on the other hand, there is an injunction against eating too much meat, which I'll admit I regularly fail to observe). For that matter, observing the Word of Wisdom is not the central tenet of a Gospel-centered life. And, for the love of all that's decent and holy, adult converts to the faith are not and never have been second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This last cultural assumption is pernicious and makes me fighting mad; my father converted to the Church as an adult, and he had a stronger and more abiding testimony of the Gospel than the majority of people I know who were raised in the faith.

I know I've said this before elsewhere, but it's worth restating here: have you seen those "I'm a Mormon" ads the Church started running a few years ago? The ones that show a wide diversity of Mormons from every country, culture and walk of life? I'm convinced these ads were created not just for people who were curious about the Church, but for other Mormons -- as a clear indication that there is no such thing as a "Mormon mold," just a wide swath of human beings who have discovered that living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the truths of the Restoration brings them a peace and happiness they can find nowhere else.

I realize this conflation of culture and doctrine isn't unique to Mormonism. It can be found in other churches, in philanthropic organizations, in political parties, in businesses, and pretty much any other group where the actual mission statement gets tangled up with common practices. And culture isn't inherently bad, either. It's just when culture becomes sclerotic, seemingly as set in stone as doctrine can be, that trouble starts creeping in. The ability to create and keep a flexible, adaptable culture around the bone structure of doctrine is what allows a group to experience healthy growth and allows for an influx of new ideas while still staying true to the group's integral nature.

And maybe, for the sake of everyone's health and happiness, it's important for us Mormons to chill out once in a while and remember not to sweat the small stuff. Remember that Mary Magdalene had a past, and that didn't matter to the Savior. Martha, for all her vaunted diligence in the home, never earned her Young Women medallion, and that didn't matter either. Consider the lilies of the field -- not a single one of them does crafts, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

And in the end, the only kind of bread really essential to our lives is the bread of life.

*not her real name


MarieC said...

LOVE this!!! I really appreciate being reminded of this now that I reside once again in the Mormon Corridor.

Soozcat said...

Thanks, Marie. Mormon culture exists outside the corridor, of course, and as I've tried to point out, culture isn't inherently bad as long as people understand it's optional. I've heard a number of people expressing the concern that maybe they don't belong in the Church because they don't or aren't [fill in this blank with some cultural item]. When culture becomes a kind of stumbling block to living the Gospel, then we have a problem to solve.

aunt choody said...

Here, here! Thanks for sharing.

Soozcat said...

Well, thank you so much!