Long Live the Revolution!

On Monday, my wife asked a class of BYU students how many of them had heard a Mormon say “I hate Mormons” in a group of Mormons. Every single student raised his or her hand.

Now, some of us have probably heard an American say “I hate Americans” in a group of Americans, and it’s not entirely unheard of for a black person to lash out at black people. Once upon a time, there were also plenty of honest-to-goodness self-hating Jews out there, but nowadays Judaism is so fragmented, you can just roll your eyes at the Lubavitchers instead of having to complain, tackily, about “Jews.”

But there’s a significant and vocal number of Mormons who are sort of embarrassed by Mormons collectively. Common complaints? We’re boring. We’re naive. We’re obsessed with appearances. We’re spiritually shallow and try to make up for it by being excessively legalistic and talking down Richard Dutcher movies. We are all too prone to wear ugly, outdated clothes and the reason people still tell lame Jell-O jokes is that we actually do eat embarrassing quantities of the stuff.

It’s not terribly surprising, of course, that smart Mormons are often tempted to expound on these and other sad truths about “Mormons.” After all, unlike in most churches, in ours you actually have to listen to other people talk. Other people whose professions and associated biases do not match yours. You have to hear what they’re thinking about in large conversations where you can’t just change the subject or signal that you’re bored. You have to listen to them teach, sometimes in your very own home, although they have virtually no qualifications as teachers. People of other faiths and communities don’t have to go through all this, so it’s no wonder they can be nicer about each other.

And then, of course, there’s the outside cultural pressure. We may be Mormons, but we’re also Americans and Germans and Brazilians and Fijians. And pretty much no matter what outside culture we come from, it’s got at least some baggage about what Mormons are. In German culture, we’re a cult. In the individualistic culture of America, we look a little like the Borg. And so on.

What to do?

We could, of course, leave the church in the hopes of separating our distaste for Mormons from implicit self-hatred. But then we might have to spend our lives explaining to people that if we’re a little broken, it’s because we were raised Mormon, which is something they will never entirely be able to grasp.

We could also stay. We can train ourselves to be content sitting on the margins of American culture during the week, and then in the foyer for as long as possible Sunday. Or we take a more active approach: try to convince America we’re with it and hip and give interested Mormons remedial lessons in how to be acceptable.

Alternatively, we could do our best to ignore America altogether. It probably wouldn’t entirely work, and we’d probably still feel a bit gawked at or undervalued and have to compensate by being acknowledged by our fellow Mormons as the Mormonest Mormons of them all. Who cares if the neighbors think your life choices are weird if your district leader is really impressed with you?

But most of us, I think, try some variant of C. M. Malm’s approach in a comment yesterday, which is to keep a foot in both our host culture’s world and our religious world by asserting that Mormonism is the Revolution. We can be comfortable about the way the host culture looks down on us because we know we’ve got a secret for them, and any moment they may realize they’re chasing illusions and things of no worth, any moment they may feel the void in their lives and coming asking us what it is. Seeing Mormonism as the Revolution can also make us more comfortable with the church world around us: that brother may say dumb things, but he’s adding weight to the stone that will fill the earth. And long after the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have melted away into dust, their self-contradictory ideologies long forgotten, the sister-whose-politics-I-don’t-agree-with will still matter because of the contributions she made to the faith.

I’d like to get together a bunch of writers some day and give them a week to respond to the prompt “Gospel Dreams vs. American Dreams.” And then I’d like to get a big rally together so that we can all listen to stories that celebrate the identity we’re choosing, that celebrate the blessings and burdens of passionate commitment to the Revolution.

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17 Responses to Long Live the Revolution!

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Somebody needs to make James Goldberg as Che t-shirts.

  2. Absolutely love this. Thank you!

  3. C. M. Malm says:

    I hadn’t really thought of my approach as “Mormonism is the Revolution.” An interesting idea–I shall be contemplating it! :~)

  4. Th. says:

    .

    One thing that bothers me immensely about Sunstone Magazine is the Borderlands section. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, it’s a section of the magazine dedicated to those who don’t feel either fully in or fully out of the Church.

    I think what bugs me about it is knowing that there are probably people who assume I’m a “Borderlander” and I am not. To be a Borderlander, it seems to me, you have to surrender the definition of What the Church Is and What Being a Member of the Church Is to someone else. Someone ill-defined and probably imaginary.

    I yam what I yam and I yam a Mormon. Take a look. This is what they look like.

    I don’t feel a lot of pressure if other Mormons don’t look or talk or act like me because I’m the prototype, dannit.

    So yes. Mormonism IS the revolution. And we all have the option to be Che.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    dannit

    Dude. Spelling.

    Danite.

  6. Wondering if there is a smiley plugin, because I’m sorely tempted to insert a “roll-eyes” smiley right now.

  7. Th. says:

    .

    Ha!

    Although, since we’re talking about it now, am I the only Mormon with dannit in my fake swearing vocabulary?

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    Yes. You are the only Mormon in the whole world who does that. Ever.

  9. Scott Hales says:

    True story: One of my friends said “dannit” once on a Boy Scout camp out when we were deacons. I remember this because after I told him to watch his language, he insisted that he said “dannit” instead of…you know…the other word.

    So, it’s out there.

  10. Jared says:

    Love it, James! Though I do feel a bit sad every time we need to be reminded that our faith is eternally progressive, revolutionary and most importantly, True. Why do we forget that so quickly and define ourselves by our insecurities of how we might appear to the rest of the world.

    I vote that Terryl Givens’ keynote address at this year’s Mormon Media Symposium should be added to our canon of “revolutionary” documents.

    And I want my Che’ Goldberg T-shirt in a medium. :)

  11. James Goldberg says:

    Jared,

    Looked quickly at Terryl’s talk: pretty cool. I like the thoughts at the end. Interesting, though: I was re-reading sociologist Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity recently and noticed a passage where he distinguishes between “sect” movements (which present themselves as more serious, committed versions of the current faith) and “cult” movements (which present themselves as new religions). Apparently, sociologists agree that sect movements tend to grow best among poor and working-class populations, whereas cult movements tend to grow best among urban and educated populations.

    One cool thing about Mormonism is that it can operate in the Christian world as both. For people looking for greater religious strength can turn in a Sunday church for Mormonism’s full-time applied Christianity. People looking for new answers and insights, on the other hand, can discover and embrace Mormon difference, find in it a new model for seeing the world that accounts for their feeling that something’s been lost in the models they grew up with.

    Essentially, Terryl seems to be saying at the end that we can present ourselves as cult (in Rodney Stark’s sociological sense) rather than as sect (again, in Stark’s sense). I see some advantage to having a faith which can speak both languages.

  12. James Goldberg says:

    C.M.,

    While I think writers can help do the needed work of “keeping it real” that Josh seems to be advocating, I really liked your reading in that comment. For you, Matchar’s article didn’t lead to self-conscious introspection: you assumed that she could see at least a little bit into Mormon ideology and practice as a refreshing alternative value system.

    If you consider all that modern Western society has going for it in terms of technology, economic capacity, educational infrastructure, etc., it’s sort of amazing what a mess we’ve managed to create. Consumer values seem to lead to narcissism, addiction, incredible waste (Coke spends 2.5 bn/year telling us it’s different from Pepsi. Seriously?), isolation, neglect of the physical, and so on until you get bored reading this comment.

    We desperately need an alternative to this kind of culture.

    I’m not saying Mormonism has all the answers. But I do believe that it has a lot, and I also believe that if we’re faithful to what we’ve got, we’ll get the rest line upon line.

  13. James Goldberg says:

    Re: T-Shirts

    I’m flattered by Wm’s suggestion that my face go on a T-shirt, but couldn’t we pick someone better-looking? Like maybe someone who doesn’t spend so much time in a basement apartment squinting at a computer? Th’s insight that we are all the face of the Revolution could be a very practical aesthetic lifesaver here…

    I also think that more than T-shirts, we could use a Revolutionary party. Like, with food and some animated talking and maybe some music afterward. Or some board games. We had a very nice Elders Quorum party in January with some board games. Come to think of it, when we planned it, I accidentally said it was a good suggestion for quorum socialism when I actually meant socialization. Well, at least I think that’s what I meant…

  14. I’m Stephen Gashler, and I approve this thread.

  15. Th. says:

    .

    I don’t know, James. I saw your face on a bulletin board in my parent’s ward and I thought the new beardcut was pretty awesome.

  16. Katherine Morris says:

    James, you say it so well.

    Wm, I really like the idea of James as Che. And he’s got the look for it too, especially when he lets his beard go untrimmed for a while.

    This reminds me of the idea I had to start a website called “Mormon Underground” that would be devoted to this kind of activism. I thought it would be fun to design T-shirts and armbands that said “Mormon Pride (the good kind).” Because, you know, it’s not Mormon-kosher to be proud (although it is Mormon-kosher to be blessed, so maybe we should have T-shirts that say something like “Blessed to be Mormon” or just “Blessed Mormon”). I occurred to me at the time that we’re probably the only subculture in America that feels the need to apologize for activism.

    Also–I think we should publish a booklet of these Mormon revolutionary documents in the Deseret Alphabet and distribute copies surreptitiously to other Mormons, preferably in phone booths and on street corners.

  17. Wm Morris says:

    What are phone booths?

    ;-P

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