An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

When our neighborhood book group discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn recently, one woman expressed amazement to learn of the poverty that existed in American slums in the early 20th century. How could she have lived for over 70 years without learning of the world beyond Utah? Unfortunately, this neighbor is not unusual. Mormons often isolate themselves from outside influences. Our son-in-law, Doc, a very bright guy, said he’d had no idea until he read Alex Haley’s Roots that African-Americans had suffered the kind of persecution Mormons had in the 19th century. Was his teen reading limited to Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites?

Utah Mormons are often criticized as insular by those living outside the state, but in my experience, Mormons everywhere tend to limit friendships to Church members—possibly because Church activity leaves no time for other people or organizations. Reading material is also often restricted to Deseret Book sources.

Devoid of outside contact, our vision of the world becomes skewed. A visiting teacher told me her domino group had invited a nonmember to join them. “She has high standards,” Sister Small told me, “and we set the example for her.” This kind of hubris—the notion that we are the only righteous people—may have been the failing President Ezra Taft Benson warned against in his 1989 address, “Beware of Pride.”

My sister’s loss of testimony began on her mission when she encountered, for the first time, good people with strong testimonies of their own faiths. Would Pelly have left the Church had she been prepared for the reality that good people, devout in their own faith, exist outside of Mormonism?

Joseph Smith counseled us that, “One of the grand, fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Contemporary Mormons frequently dismiss anything outside our church as unworthy of our time if not downright suspect. Case in point: Our neighborhood book group was formed from our disbanded ward Relief Society book group after the RS president tried to restrict the reading to Church titles. Locking ourselves into cultural insularity does not prepare us to live in the real world. Neither does it further the growth of the Church as a worldwide organization.

Comments on: "Being in the World, but Not (Aware) of the World" (6)

  1. My mother, a life-long Utah girl who was raised in the country continually amazes me with her lack of knowledge of the larger world. She has absolutely no understanding of other religions because hers is the “only true church”. A few years ago when my friend’s father passed away she commented about how sad it was because the Catholic Church doesn’t believe that “families will be together forever” in the afterlife. She still tries to connect the Buddhist dots with LDS dots and gets very frustrated when they don’t match up. Oh well, at least I give her credit for trying, which is far more than my sister gets.

    I just this morning finished the Chronicles of Narnia series. I’m not sure this will make much sense taken out of context but there were two sentences in one of the last chapters where Aslan the lion/God says “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me”. Loved it.

    • Numi,

      The Narnia quote makes perfect sense. C.S. Lewis made the Christian message understandable even to very young children.

      Kudos to yur mom for at least trying to connect Buddhist and LDS dots. I hope she can eventually appreicate the good points of each philosophy without insisting that they mesh perfectly.

  2. I think you are correct in the insularity of the LDS worldview, especially the Utah LDS worldview, but I genuinely think this worldview is changing, and if indications are correct, rather dramatically. I also think that the internet is having a dramatic role in this. Having glanced at your blog, I understand your views on Church meetings, but I would encourage you to attend (echoing Brother Fervent, if for different reasons) for the simple reason that I would like someone like you and your husband around. The Church as an institution really needs you, and more importantly the membership needs you.

    The Church, especially outside of Utah, is maturing, in my opinion, and I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. For the past roughly century and a half, the Church has been a regional faith, with little reason to even consider mores outside of the Wasatch region. As it expands, new ideas and new people are bringing new ways of thinking. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said in “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that you cannot legitimately touch another faith’s beliefs without touching your own, and I think we are seeing a maturation of Mormon thought because of the reaction to the legitimate interactions with other’s faith and worldview. Genuinely studying Muslim beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, Jewish beliefs has strengthened my faith, which strengthens the Church. I think as more people find themselves in a situation where they refocus on faith in the Gospel instead of faith in the Church, the Church will be strengthened. If you have faith in the Church, you will likely be unhappy. If you have faith in the Gospel, the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the Church are diminished and you can appreciate the Church for what it is, a collection of well intentioned leaders who are trying to do good, even if they stumble along the way.

    I have found that by strengthening my Buddhist practice, I am a better Mormon, and enjoy being Mormon more. I have read your opinion about garments, and I agree who cares what undergarments you wear, but I have tried to make garments a part of my Buddhist practice, which strengthens my Mormon practice. I know many Mormons who disagree and would frown at my Buddhist practice, to include zazen, but the results are hard to deny.

    Just a thought

    • Wonderful comment. I totally agree with Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote that we can’t touch another faith’s beliefs without touching our own. I hope you are right that Mormons are becoming less insular, but I suspect the fear factor keeps many Mormons from opening their minds to ideas that don’t originate at 50 N Temple.

      I love your advice to”refocus on faith in the Gospel instead of faith in the Church.” Happy journeying with your Buddhist/Mormon practice!

      • As an aside, however, my point of view comes from someone who has never stepped foot in Utah, obviously never went to BYU, and so I may be disconnected from the Utah mindset of the LDS community. I am basing my opinions of friends who are no longer in Utah, and numerous blogs. These might provide a skewed data set?

      • Your views are definitely not representative of the members of the Utah wards I’ve attended. Geography matters!

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