Mormons, Hipsters, and how we forgot about Jesus

My friend David and I have a sort of dueling blogs kind of relationship. He writes over at Catchy Title Goes Here, and we tend to have pretty divergent views on Mormon culture and how it should interact with the world around us. I guess we can get away with this sort of thing because we avoid name-calling and we’ve known each other since forever.

Recently, our circle of friends is talking about the New York Times article To Be Young, Hip, and Mormon. My friend David talked about how he felt this was an affront to what the Church stood for, that it’s just an article about how to compromise with the world and avoid following certain commandments:

And the most offensive part of the article was at the end where the New York Times writes about What the Church Says and How to Get Around It. The very idea that you want to “get around” the commandments and doctrines of the church, just so that you can fit in with the cool kids, is just unthinkable to me. Either you are a Mormon, you want to be a part of the faith, you want to believe and accept the tenets of this faith, or you do not. And if you do not, then don’t. No big deal. There’s no one forcing you to be Mormon, there’s nothing, other than social pressure, which is, ironically, the only thing encouraging people to be hipster.

The offending portion is in the end of the article, where they write a tl;dr version:

Rebelling, If Only Just a Little

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Many adult Mormons follow the practice of wearing the temple garment, which for men, means long boxer briefs and a scoop-neck T-shirt and, for women, knee-length shorts and a top with cap sleeves.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

For men, tank tops are out, but you can stay on-trend in a button-down plaid shirt, rolled selvedge jeans and boat shoes. For women, one popular option is the “Zooey Deschanel look” — ruffled blouse, bow collar and a high-waisted pencil skirt.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Mormons are told not to “disfigure” themselves “with tattoos or body piercing.”

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Cover up the tattoos or at least try a compromise, like getting a tattoo of a beehive, a Mormon symbol of working together for the common good.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No beards on missionaries or Brigham Young University students.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

An allergic reaction to shaving, demonstrated by razor bumps, can score you a “beard card” at B.Y.U.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No consumption of alcohol, even at social functions.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Drink Pellegrino and don’t bother to correct other party guests who assume you are in recovery.

What I found so interesting about all of this is that outside of the tattoo advice (which blatantly defies the “no tattoos” rule our Church has), none of this actually advocates breaking any of the commandments. A beard card is a legitimate tool at BYU for wearing beards. No one said anything about altering or forgoing garments; they suggested clothing options that were still “hipster” yet modest. And nobody advocates drinking at parties; the author advocates drinking fancy bubbly water. In fact, if you simply changed the setting (say, for some bizarre reason, this appeared in the Ensign), this is all legitimate advice in being a faithful member but participating in this subculture (which, for some reason, you wanted to).

I actually found this to be a fun, if not somewhat banal, fluff piece. Why the New York Times is interested in Mormon hipsters (outside of the incongruity with our public image and the hipster fashion movement) is beyond me. Why do they care so much about us? I suppose we really are experiencing some kind of Mormon Moment.

However, a lot of people were really offended by this (or at least upset). David wasn’t the only one; my “Mormon Folks” Google Plus circle was all a-Buzz (see what I did there?) with commentary on this article, mostly negative. They view this as compromising our Church’s core values with the desires of the world. And this is the part I get upset about, for two primary reasons.

First of all, let’s not pretend that the Church has never compromised our core values with the world (see also: Polygamy). Speaking of the document that is now known as the Manifesto (and is actually, very curiously, canon), then-current Church President Woodruff wrote about the Lord’s justification on why we stopped practicing polygamy — the opposition was too much. We’d lose control of our temples; all of our leaders would be jailed; the entire religious movement would collapse under the strain. The impetus was revelation, that God said it was okay, but the explicit justification given (by God, if you are inclined to believe so) is to compromise to the pressure of the world.

Or let’s even talk about tattoos. In certain cultures (such as in Polynesia), tattoos are a vitally important part of their society. It marks rank, age, social prestige, etc. So what did the Church do when large numbers of Polynesians joined the Church? They compromised. Polynesian men can still get tattoos which are important to their culture and standing in society, but with Church permission on a case-by-case basis. This is hardly a strong, black-and-white stance that we often advocate here in the United States.

Now, yes. The key point to every Mormon here is that all of these “exceptions,” if you want to call them that, are regulated by the Church ecclesia proper. Yes. But there are other compromises that were not exactly brought about by revelation. In the beginning, the early Church Fathers taught vehemently against the idea of rampant capitalism; they taught that the nuclear family (a product of the Industrial Revolution) destroyed traditional kinship relationships and was a product of selfishness. They taught that communitarianism was more important than making money. Well, we’ve mostly forgotten those lessons. Sure, you see shades of it here and there, but we’ve actually gone and sacralized the nuclear family structure (See also: Proclamation to the World: The Family) and a good part of States Mormons embrace capitalism wholeheartedly.

Or take women and working. Twenty years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson said by no circumstance should women ever work outside the home. Ever. Then, in the 2000s, we had prophets saying it’s okay when necessary, but should be avoided. Now, in the 2010s, we have an I’m A Mormon ad celebrating a Mormon who is…you guessed it, a working mom who loves her job and doesn’t intend on quitting any time soon.

But this is not what really irks me and really more of a side point than anything else. Here’s my real beef and my second point. The New York Times article is banal and trivial; don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a fluff piece and nothing more. I think the whole hipster movement is kind of ridiculous. But that’s the thing. Our negative responses by and large have done the same thing — we’ve reduced our vibrant, beautiful faith into a banal list of outward appearances.

The advice in the article is really, really shallow. Mormonism isn’t about beards and blouses and skinny jeans and glasses and drinking sparkling water at loft parties and tattoos. Not really. Mormonism is about a beautiful cosmology, about a God who is our Father and who loves us, who sent His Son to die for us in an attempt to save us all from our wretched natures and exalt us to his level. We believe in a religion that not only saves us, but extends the salvic power of Jesus through the chains of our ancestors and our descendants, in infinite web of humanity all embraced and linked together through the power of God so that we can all become kin, and all re-enter into our inheritance as the offspring of deity.

Nowhere in the article (or in the complaints) is this idea. The article is not advocating denouncing Jesus, or abandoning baptism or membership. They’re talking about wearing modest clothing and still looking hipster, for Pete’s sake. And here in lies the Big Problem, both for our perception to the outside world, and our own perceptions of ourselves.

What makes a Mormon Mormon? Is it the way he dresses? What she drinks and where and why? Is it whether or not she has a tattoo or whether or not he has a beard? God forbid this is what we think of ourselves. But this small slip reveals a lot — we don’t require that you just believe in Mormonism, you need to look the part, too. Which I think is sad. How sad is it that we see a guy with a beehive tattoo and we think, “He must not believe in the core doctrines of this Church.” How sad is it when we see a girl drinking sparkling water at a loft party and dodging questions about why she doesn’t drink to avoid social scorn and then looks dejected when everyone else around her is drunk and she’s not having any fun, we think “She has no moral values. I bet she doesn’t even believe in Jesus.” Because that’s what we’re saying. We’re drawing the line in the sand on what makes you a “good” Mormon, and it’s not what you believe, but it’s apparently how you dress and your attitudes towards loft parties.

Sure, people will extrapolate motivations from actions. If you want to get a tattoo but the prophet told you not to, then you obviously believe in the prophet. But then again, I’ve yet to meet a Mormon who is perfect in everything the prophets tell you to do (in fact, every General Conference, my feeds are flooded with Mormons publicly confessing that they could always do better). Whence did all this judgment come from? And why do we keep doing it?

We’re all sinners here. To pull an old card from classic evangelic street preaching, have you ever lied? Have you ever thought an inappropriate thought? Have you ever called your brother a fool? Then you have sinned, and we all stand in need of the atonement of Christ. I love the I’m A Mormon ad campaign precisely because it broadens the idea of what it means to be a Mormon. Sure, they hook you in with the fact that this guy is an edgy photographer, or this guy makes handmade books, or this lady raises bees or this guy skateboards professionally. But when you get to the center, what makes them Mormon? Is it the leisure activities they do? No. It’s what they believe. It’s how they structure their worldview, and what they hope for in this life and the life to come. That’s what makes you a Mormon.

But we’ve yet to absorb the message. We ignore the message entirely, in fact, and often descend into a destructive, futile attempt at brand control. When a newspaper writes a fluff piece about Mormons trying to look hipster while trying to keep the faith and working around commandments that clash with their cultural surroundings in the least conflicting way possible, suddenly we descend, upset and angry, that they have somehow misrepresented us, as if Mormons struggling to blend in with the crowd while maintaining their faith makes you imperfect, a sinner, less than us, and unworthy to carry the Mormon name. The fact that an article which never mentions their faith in Jesus but mentions maybe getting a tattoo or complaining that loft parties aren’t fun (don’t our “strong” youth always complain about how worldly parties aren’t fun in the New Era anyway? When did this suddenly become a sin?) gets us so riled up is sort of telling, and what it’s telling is not pretty. In fact, to me, it’s really ugly.

We’re all trying. And every day, we have to make little compromises here and there, in hopes that our neighbors don’t burn down our houses and drive us out of the country to, oh, I dunno, Nunavut or something. Our compromises just aren’t visible ones; we’re the lucky Mormons. Let’s have a little bit of faith and a little bit of charity. Even for hipsters.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Mormons, Hipsters, and how we forgot about Jesus

  1. Gammapod

    The article itself said “here are some normal people who happen to be Mormons, and some things they do to fit in with non-Mormon society.” The problem comes at the end when it says “How to get around it.” That one sentence completely changes the meaning of the article to “here are some tricky Mormons who craftily bend the rules of their religion in order to get what they want,” which sort of came at me from nowhere. I’m 98% sure none of the Mormons in the article thought that way, so it was pretty startling. If they just removed that summary, I wouldn’t have had any problems with the article.

  2. Christina Phillips

    I didn’t like the end of the article, not because it suggested ways to blend in with those around you, but because of the “HOW TO GET AROUND IT”. It’s kind of a rebellious phrase. Any time we try to get around something, it’s usually because we don’t like that something and we’re trying to find a loophole to get out of it. Yes, I know it’s just semantics, but that’s how that phrase makes me feel. I do think that you make some excellent points, though.

    • Ted

      The article’s ending was bizarre, especially since three out of four of those suggestions didn’t really “get around it” at all. I would chalk that up to an author trying to be super edgy, but failing miserably at it and just looking like a silly person to both sides.

  3. To me, it’s less irritating as to how the media portrays us, and more so about how people think they can live “rebelliously”, as the article is clearly trying to show.

    As far as cultural exceptions, etc., this happens periodically (i.e. lava-lavas and sandals). That being said, the man with the tattoo parlor knew he was doing something contrary to what the prophets had said. I’ve never heard of an exception for tattoos in different cultures; on the contrary, I’ve heard countless stories of people that have rejected those “traditions of their fathers” in following the Lord’s counsel to not get them, despite the cultural consequences. Another thing they had to reject was kava, which was phased out (full article mentions this Tongan’s take on tattoos as well) much like the Word of Wisdom that we know was. Just because it’s a cultural aspect (i.e. teatime in London) doesn’t mean you adopt it. Instead, we need to keep the “righteous traditions” (Cheryl C. Lant, April 2008 General Conference).

    Likewise, signing an honour code at BYU about the grooming standards, then tucking your long hair in a cap? That’s an outright disobedient thing to do. It doesn’t matter if long hair is not a commandment. How about being honest?

    I’m not saying I’m better than anyone in the article. I’m sure I’m not in many ways. I can’t judge them as individuals and, truly, I don’t even want to. However, I can judge that their actions, willing or not, are rebellious, which is indicative of the trend that is apparent in so many of our youth and young adults in the Church and which is contrary to the nature of a Zion society that we are meant to seek.

    I did enjoy your take, though. Thanks for sharing. A few notes:
    *Ezra Taft Benson indeed affirmed that there are circumstances that require women to work, in the same vein as has been repeated several times over the years (mind you, he didn’t call for career women, but that’d be a completely different debate at another time). Here’s an article in which he quotes Spencer W. Kimball extensively and calls his words prophetic and true. And another, where he address that it can be necessary, though he hopes it is temporary for those that must. To me, this has been reiterated in the past and even today. Simply spotlighting a woman on Mormon.org that does work doesn’t mean she can’t be a great member, but it also doesn’t mean that that’s the ideal case (once again, a different debate).
    *To say the Church Fathers argued against capitalism is a stretch, seeing as what we know as capitalism is relatively new (200 or so years at the most). They did argue against Hellenism, or what at that time was the culture of the world, and gnosticism, which was an extension of an obsessive mystic subculture. I’m not sure as to your source on the selfishness of the nuclear family, tho’ kinship ties were definitely stronger than they are now as a whole (not that the Church has taught any different, though). Also, since when has the Church argued that money is more important than community?
    *”If you want to get a tattoo but the prophet told you not to, then you obviously believe in the prophet.” Perhaps it was meant to be read “don’t believe”? ;^)

    • Ted

      Thanks for your comments!

      I am the first to say that I am sure plenty of Mormon hipsters feel they are rebellious. In other instances, though, I could feel a sense of exasperation in navigating conflicting cultures. Some people just like beards; I have a friend who just always liked wearing a beard. He can’t really say why. He just does. When BYU draws a line on beards, though, because of its nature as a religious school, the entire topic becomes religious in nature. It’s slightly ridiculous that we allow this sort of thing to happen, but it does. Now, my friend must choose between going to BYU and hanging out with other Mormon kids (which he enjoys) but also an arbitrary preference choice for facial hair. It seems monumentally unfair, especially since I’m pretty sure God doesn’t actually have any issues with facial hair.

      Leaving that aside, while prophets often left a “loophole” of sorts with working women, the cultural stigma, as well as the rhetoric used concerning women who work, has definitely toned down in recent years, especially if you compare the climate in the 1980s to the 2010s. While spotlighting certain lifestyles in an ad campaign does not elevate it to protected status, I feel comfortable in saying that the Church would not espouse any lifestyle that goes directly against the Church proper. Thus, we can probably infer that attitudes towards women who work outside of “extraneous circumstances” has relaxed considerably.

      And the “nuclear family is evil” comment was probably a bit too strong! 😀 The nuclear family is considered the norm now, but as you are aware, it was highly disruptive to the traditional kinship models that had survived for generations before. The nuclear family was derived out of necessity — the increased mobility of jobs and the destruction of passed-down, skilled labor through the proliferation of mass production made it where families had to remain mobile as well, and left much of the material benefits of strong kinship ties irrelevant. Conservative groups (religious and otherwise) did not like this trend, which they saw as bucking the (dare I say Biblical) tradition. There are some old, old talks where authorities in the Church lament the “breakdown of the family structure” when we would consider them strong (and perhaps even impractically strong today!). I would have to dig them up, as I don’t have them on hand, however, which I admit, is going to be unlikely since school is getting hectic for me. :p

      I agree that the article had a rebellious streak in it, but outside of the tattoo advice, I felt the rebellious streak was incredibly harmless. Both sides, I felt, were making mountains out of molehills, while ignoring the real spiritual mountains that we have to actually offer.

      (Also, by Church Fathers, I meant our denomination’s “Fathers”, not Clement, Basil, Augustine and the like. While our Church has never taught that money is greater than relationships, especially family, I am sure that the “compromises” we’ve made in order to stay relevant in today’s economy would seem like betrayal to older Church members if they were suddenly revived and unaware of the changes in the past 100 years or so.)

      • I do understand that you were trying to draw out a strong counter-argument, and am glad it’s not just me that tries to see the other side. As with the beard issue, I left a comment on David’s site that explains my thoughts: actions for the sake of rebellion are indeed disqualificatory (yes, I made that up) if that is the reason, even for as little a thing as a beard. At the same time, I don’t consider them evil or negative (and have sported one for the last 7 months or so). It’s a matter of attitude, which gets a lot more messy 😉 But as for BYU, I can see why the Church would want their flagship to be a standout in more than standards…as a whole, clean-cut rules traditionally lead to less sloppy dress, culture, etc. (not a rule, but a tendency). That being said, I’m shocked to see what I see on campus daily these days…

        On to the meat, though. I agree there has been a destigmatisation of women working outside the home (a stigma not propelled by senior Church leaders themselves, mind you), I do find that the message is consistent, whereas some say that women working is now more of a preference (work if you want). This has lead to an opposite, utterly wrong, stigmatisation of women who indeed are trying to do everything they can to be a stay-at-home mother. Never has this request, even command, changed for women. It is simply a softened approach, but the same principles apply. I see the same thing happening regarding the Church’s response to homosexuality. While the tact has changed numerous times, it has not, contrary to some members’ opinions, been at the expense of doctrinal tolerance.

        Glad you clarified “Church fathers” :^D I was perplexed at those statements otherwise. As far as the later early fathers are concerned, though, I’d argue they didn’t lambast capitalism, but instead the corruption and greed that it can lead to. In other words, they were more interested in social (read, moral) reform than economic reform. The so-called American dream of meritocracy has always, in my mind, been a true principle (not that we merit anything, but through the Lord, we can merit all).

        I do appreciate your point that they missed the entire message of the Church in their spotlight. I too am a bit irked by that. The main negative reaction I felt, though, wasn’t about the perceived “in” culture of some Mormons, but is your peeve on a spin: many of those mentioned in the article are representative of lesser and greater problems in Mormon society as a whole, where members fail to see why the gospel is really so cool: its teachings, revelations, and ordinances.

  4. Ted, you said, “What makes a Mormon Mormon? Is it the way he dresses?”

    I would agree that the NY Times piece you were commenting on was mostly a fluff (or ‘puff’?) piece. Not much about “substance”. But, then again, notice how often the Book of Mormon talks about how much the world and worldly and those headed in that direction get caught up in “fluff” (“vain” or of no real value, I would say, if the word used in the Bible for this)—

    7 And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots.
    8 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church.
    9 And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity.

    (Book of Mormon | 1 Nephi 13:7 – 9)

    13 They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up. (& fluffed up too)?
    14 They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ…
    (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 28:13 – 14)

    28 Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.

    (Book of Mormon | Helaman 13:28)

    26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
    27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

    (Book of Mormon | 1 Nephi 8:26 – 27)

    27 And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.

    (Book of Mormon | Alma 1:27)

    Clothing may indeed be, as is alluded to throughout the Book of Mormon, a kind of index, an indicator, of the state of people, their thinking, their behavior, and whether they are currying for favor or acceptance of “the world” or seeking for the favor, and approval, of God.

    What is important? Being clothed (period) vs ‘nakedness’ is important. Being ‘neat and comely’ without paying the max for stuff (“fluff”?) off the ‘rack’ (e.g. “…and they did not wear costly apparel…”)

    Personally, I think that, indeed, we have (and often still do) place perhaps too much on appearance (the outward man) and insufficient emphasis on the inner man.

    But, in the past year or two, we had a family move in (and recently moved out) of our ward, where the mother had a number of tattoos she had acquired when she was in her rebellious stage. Interestingly to me, she often referred to them when making comments in Sunday School class. Though she said she had repented and gone through the temple, it still, at least in her speech, often seemed to “consume” her, or the time she spent dwelling on it.

    How many times has a well coiffed and appropriately dressed man or woman viewed pornography or committed sexual sin, but appeared outwardly to be pious and proper? Tattoos, the tinge of tobacco, drink, etc, can be very evident. Sins that one cannot necessarily discern easily that often are far worse, don’t receive the attention more obviously hard to cover transgressions do.

    I am not trying to excuse either. But we too often over-emphasize the lesser sins versus more grievous ones, because they are more visible. But both seem to hold people back. And the “holding” back is not always a social phenomenon, but can be psychologically a self limiting thing.

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