excerpt – “Proving Contraries”
Robert A. Rees
are those who listen
when no one is left to speak.
Were you here,
we would talk about the straight seam
that divides sea from sky,
and how the world is not like that at all.
We would talk about these caves,
how the one, resplendent with ferns,
seems like a flowering heart,
and how the other, which the sea
has washed to blackness, is like the mysteries
we sometimes explored. We would tall
of falling towers and civilizations and how
in dark times we hold poetry in our hearts.
But you are not here, and so I listen alone
to the sea’s soft sibilants, the pelican’s
cry, the liquid splash of dolphins
just off the shore.An enormous log, washed against the far back of the cove
by winter storms, once stood tall in the Santa Cruz mountains,
drinking underground rivers and reaching toward the sun
for as many years as you lived among us.
It too speaks through its multitude of markings—
curved lines, strange scribblings, deep scars,
words of bark and bugs, voices of rivers and seas—
the runed and ruined language of the world.As light fledges over the horizon and cumulus
shadows crowd the skies, I listen.
* * * * *
This festschrift honoring Eugene England was begun several years before his passing, even before the illness which ravaged his mind and his body. It was my expectation to present the collection to him on an occasion when his life’s work would be celebrated by those who admired, respected, and loved him. The initial impulse to honor him and his work came during a period when Gene was depressed over the way he had been treated by administration and faculty at Brigham Young University. As was his inclination, he questioned his own motives and behavior when others were critical of him, yet in spite of his efforts to make peace with his detractors and to negotiate a graceful exit from the university, he was still treated in ways he did not deserve. I thought, therefore, that a tribute validating his enormous contribution not only to Mormon culture but to the lives of thousands of students and others might be an anodyne to the depression and self-doubt he was experiencing.
Unfortunately, Gene’s illness exacerbated his self-questioning about his life’s work. No doubt, the pressure caused by a tumor on his brain affected him in a number of ways, resulting not only in inspiring some of his most searing insights and most powerful poetry, but also in deep and sometimes dark reflections on his existence. During conversations over his past months, I kept reassuring him that his life indeed had been worthwhile and, in fact, of great value to many, and certainly pleasing to God. I believe history will show that outside of some in the general church leadership, perhaps no Latter-day Saint of our generation enjoyed such wide and deep affection and respect as Gene did, especially among his students and that “little flock” of intellectuals and artists who help constitute the leavening in the Lord’s loaf.
This collection reflects the broad scholarly and expressive interests that characterized Gene’s professional life. With the possible exception of drama (which he taught for years), he wrote in all of the genres represented here: personal essay, scholarship, poetry, fiction, sermon, scriptural commentary, and autobiography. As an author, collaborator, anthologizer, editor, and reviewer, Gene produced an enormous body of work. As a teacher, editor, and guide, he influenced other writers, offering incisive but kind and charitable suggestions for improvement. Margaret Blair Young’s essay in this volume, “Gene—Sorry I Missed You. (P.S. I still do.),” is a personal witness to Gene’s influence. Her essay captures not only Gene’s astute critical sense but also his courage and compassion. All of the contributors, at some point in their careers, have had their writing improved by Gene’s insightful critical mind and his generous heart. Many participated in writers’ groups that Gene organized for mutual support and fellowship. Undoubtedly, all have within their possession manuscripts with Gene’s scribblings in the margins. It is a loss for many of us to no longer have the luxury of his critical insights.
I believe Gene would be pleased with this gathering of Mormon writers, all of whom are honored to call him a friend and brother. The rich variety of expressions heralds the dawning of a brighter day of Mormon letters, which Gene championed. Mormon fiction is now recognized as a regional type, and two of its most gifted shapers, Douglas Thayer and Karen Rosenbaum, have contributed stories that reflect “faithful fiction” (a term coined by Gene to mean, I believe, being faithful to good writing as well as to teaching us something about what it means to live with faith). In his review of Levi Peterson’s collection of Mormon fiction, Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Short Stories, Gene wrote, “Good fiction strikes me with that same mysterious combination of exhilaration and grief that comes from new knowledge, from new visions that replace the dear old ones.” In the same review he argued for writing that “gives us new visions of life, filtered and energized through a unique and serious moral intelligence as well as a gifted and disciplined artistic sensibility.”1 Thayer’s “Crow Basin” is about a doctor who “loved the cleanness, the simplicity” of a fishing camp in the mountains, “as if the world for that moment had been swept free of disease, contagion, accident, and fatality.” But soon, the doctor faces an experience that shakes the idealistic cloister of his fishing camp. In Rosenbaum’s “Unfinished Prayers,” the central character, Wren, a student at Stanford University, similarly deals with the unpleasantness of life and its “big questions,” matters of faith and love in a world where both are difficult.
Contributors of poetry, what Wallace Stevens called “the supreme fiction,” include Robert Christmas, Emma Lou Thayne, Bruce Jorgenson, and Dian Saderup Monson, all poets Gene admired. Their quality of expression reflects the care and precision, as well as the passion, of Gene’s own poetry. In his editor’s commentary to his and Dennis Clark’s anthology, Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, Gene argued that “poetry is one of the arts of time as well as of language. … A skilled poet, using the carefully developed resources for rhythmic expression in poetic forms, can control the remarkable effects of rhythm on emotion and cognition with more subtlety and power than the prose writer.”2 Robert Frost spoke of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion,” which is why we turn to it in times of grief. Frost defined it as “a thought-felt thing,” and, in an essay entitled “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he said poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” He added, “The figure is the same for love.”3 It is that combination of thinking and feeling, of delight and wisdom, that leads ultimately to love—love of language, of others, and the world itself—that characterizes the best contemporary poetry, including that contained in this collection.
Gene also championed, and was one of the most skillful writers of, the personal essay, a genre he called “most congenial to the Mormon vision and experience.”4 His own personal essays, some of which were collected in his Dialogues with Myself and Making Peace, and those he influenced of friends, colleagues, and even strangers, constitute one of the most significant windows into the experience of Latter-day Saints through which contemporary readers are blessed to look. The essays in this collection continue that same high tradition. Mary Bradford, who speaks of the essay as a “fragile form,”5 writes about what it means to face a single, solitary life as a widow in a church that has an increasing number of singles but which has not yet figured out how they are to be integrated (marriage being “essential to completeness”) into the culture. Bert Wilson, who grew up with Gene in rural Idaho, writes about his Idaho childhood as the grounding of his life, as I believe it was also for Gene’s. Over the course of Bert’s life when, to use Frost’s expression, he finds himself “weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood,” he returns to that place where he began to find steadiness, reassurance, and comfort.
In other personal essays, Carol Lynn Pearson’s “My Homeless Man” explores the serendipity she finds abundant in contemporary life and how it brings gifts of grace to those who have eyes to see. In “Mud Season in New Hampshire,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich bridges experiences of reading college blue books at the University of New Hampshire and Harvard University with the news of having won the Pulitzer Prize for her historical study, The Midwife’s Tale. In Armand Mauss’s “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways: A Personal Essay on Mormon Popular Culture,” he focuses on two symbols—scriptures and Kleenex—to illustrate changes in Mormon sacrament and testimony meetings. For Mauss, the “contrast between a speaker whose main resort was the scriptures (or other books) and those who need the tissues” is a metaphor signaling “a major change in LDS pulpit style during the twentieth century from doctrinally-based discourse to emotionally-based talk.” Mauss sees this change reflected not only in sacrament meeting discourse and testimonies but also in music and missionary lessons as well as the “softer” image of the institutional church as presented by the Public Affairs Department.
Levi Peterson’s “A Woodlot in the Wasatch” is an essay about an annual ritual of cutting and gathering firewood in the Wasatch Mountains. It is also about language, learning, labor, and love and how they intersect in our lives. Going to, and leaving this, autumnal rite of providing fire and light against the dark winter cold, Levi and his wife pass Monte Cristo, one of Gene’s favorite places and the title of one of his essays. Reading Levi’s essay, with its close observation of nature and its sensitivity to natural beauty, reminded me of the last sentences of Gene’s essay: “I think often of Monte Cristo and the river that flows on with no human visitation … I think of deer that come down to the beaver ponds to drink and how they spook the fish, how the hummingbird appears and is gone. I think of those red-throated fish measuring the pools in their shadowed flight, as swift as the jet shadows measure, in the silent noons, that continuing valley.”6
Gene was first and foremost a teacher and, like the legendary Jewish rabbis of old, was always teaching. It is therefore fitting that one of the pieces in this festschrift, Wayne Booth’s “Are We Losing Democratic Education?” should focus on Gene’s lifelong vocation and passion for teaching. Wayne has been one of America’s most influential literary critics. His return to the Mormon intellectual community in the past several decades was influenced in no small degree by his friendship with Gene.
Another side of Gene’s character was his serious and insightful study of scripture. He loved the Bible, along with the scriptures of the Restoration and sacred writings of other traditions. Some of his best and most valuable writing was on scriptural themes, especially those contained in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Several contributors to this volume expand our understanding of the canon, while at the same time enlarging our felt joy in its richness. In her sermon, “Foot Care,” in part a meditation on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13), Frances Lee Menlove writes of holiness she experienced administering to the emotional needs of New Yorkers after the attack on the World Trade Center.
Steve Walker’s “‘Turned to the Contrary’: Comic Reversal in Esther” is equally appropriate not only because it shows how a careful reading of scripture can enlighten our understanding but also in revealing how our usually serious-minded reading causes us to miss the humor that delighted ancient writers. In “The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood for the Unordained,” Edward Kimball argues persuasively that the promises made in Doctrine and Covenants Section 84 extend to women and children. His careful parsing of this Mormon scripture shows how it has heretofore been read too narrowly to notice its amazing inclusiveness.
Dennis Clark’s “Power in the Priesthood,” ostensibly a close textual reading of Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, is in reality a hybrid of scriptural exegesis, doctrinal commentary, church history, and personal essay. As such, it is a provocative and challenging exploration of what it means to bear the priesthood of God and act in his name. Tim Slover’s “Sinners’ Prayers” is an expansion of scripture, although based on an imaginative rather than critical reading of the original source—the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Slover presents, in dramatic form, the thoughts of the three Pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus and of the woman herself, memorializing the dramatic moment that was charged with hypocrisy, forgiveness, and love. Gene, for whom this scripture had particular meaning and who taught theater with Slover in London for a number of years, took particular delight in this short play when Tim first shared it with him on one of their London trips.
No festschrift in honor of Gene could fail to include an example of scholarly writing. Gene’s own critical writing was wide-ranging, including not only the panorama of Mormon history and culture but Shakespeare, American literature, politics, philosophy, and contemporary culture. In “Joseph Smith’s Sisters: Shadowy Women of the Restoration,” Lavina Fielding Anderson completes a neglected but important chapter in the early history of Mormonism. Drawing upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources, she provides a precise but ultimately heart-breaking portrait of three ill-fated women from the Smith family who have been all but forgotten by historians.
The final piece in this collection honoring Gene is my own indulgent speculation about the heaven he inhabits and where he must be writing, thinking, teaching, fly fishing, and probably raising a little hell. My musing is intended to be both humorous and serious. In a tribute to his mother, e e cummings wrote, “If there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have / one.” That kind of solitary heaven is not the one in which Gene would be comfortable. He loved nothing more than to participate in what the Anglo Saxons called umbesitendas, a group of friends sitting around a fire or mede table sharing stories and telling tales long into the night. I imagine him there somewhere in the celestial spheres sitting with a group of friends, teaching, reading, writing poetry, watching a little celestial basketball, organizing theater trips to Kolob, and as Lowell Bennion expressed it, working alongside Jesus. It is pleasant to think of joining him there.
* * * * *
Feelings, Faith, and Folkways
A Personal Essay on Mormon Popular Culture
Armand L. Mauss
A few years ago, I was visiting a ward in California during the monthly fast and testimony meeting. One speaker arose and walked to the pulpit to share his heartfelt appreciation for a certain gospel principle that had recently proved important in his life. Wishing to emphasize his point, he alluded to a relevant scriptural passage and then reached under the lectern in search of the books of scripture often available to pulpit speakers. To his mild surprise, no such books were in their customary place. He contented himself by simply summarizing the scriptural passage as best he could remember it, bore his testimony, and returned to his seat.
Three or four later speakers bearing testimony at the same pulpit were so deeply touched by their feelings that they were brought temporarily to tears. To clear their eyes and noses before going on, they also reached below the lectern—not for scriptures this time, but for the dependable box of Kleenex tissues. Later I reflected on this meeting and was suddenly struck by the metaphor in this contrast between a speaker whose main resort was the scriptures (or other books) and those who needed the tissues. For me, that metaphor epitomized major change in LDS pulpit style and discourse during the twentieth century.
The Softening of Doctrinal Substance
I had become increasingly but only vaguely aware of this change from my boyhood in the 1930s to the present time. Yet, I had never been quite able to articulate it until I recognized the importance that a box of tissues had assumed in our meetings and not only in testimony meetings. Of course, it is not by any means the case that tissue boxes have displaced scriptures in all or most LDS chapels; nor are the two accoutrements mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, in my travels during recent years, it has seemed to me that the tissue box is more likely than the scriptures to have a conspicuous place at the pulpit. Perhaps this is because scriptures have become relatively inexpensive and the Saints are encouraged to bring their own copies to all the meetings. Of course, tissues are inexpensive too. Still, it is remarkable to me that they have become so common at our lecterns.
It is as though the tissue box symbolizes a more frequent resort to tender feelings at the expense of an earlier greater reliance on intellectual substance in preaching. It symbolizes the triumph of feeling over understanding; of a softer worship style over a harder one; perhaps of an evangelical—or even pentecostal—homiletic over an analytical style; of personalized adaptations of scripture over appreciation of historical context. It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression.1
I hasten to add that I do not necessarily intend an invidious comparison between these two modes of religious expression. Our religion, as I understand it, teaches that both are important in principle. We have all been touched to the point of tears by a poignant and inspiring story from the scriptures or from personal histories. We have all been intellectually inspired and uplifted by the hard and incisive doctrines in a sermon by Joseph Smith or B. H. Roberts. What interests me is not whether the one mode is more authentic or more spiritual than the other, but rather how and why the one gains prevalence over the other with the passage of time.
This is a personal essay, which means I am writing out of my own experiences, observations, and impressions rather than in the detached social science framework I have more often used. Furthermore, my experience is primarily with wards and stakes on the west coast rather than in Utah, although I have visited widely around North America and in Europe. Whatever I lack in geographic breadth, I can perhaps make up in chronological length: I have passed my “diamond jubilee” and have thus been an active, adult participant in Mormon culture for about sixty years, a period of enormous change in that culture. I therefore have many “then vs. now” comparisons to offer, although I am rarely asked for them! I would sum up these comparisons by saying simply that Mormon popular culture in teaching, preaching, and even in music seems increasingly to define spirituality as an expression of tender personal feeling and emotional anecdotes. At its extreme, this form of spirituality is difficult to distinguish from a mixture of sentimentality and superstition.
When I think of my earliest recollections of sermons and testimonies, they are from sacrament meetings and stake conferences in the Oakland and Berkeley Stakes. As a small boy, I did not enjoy those meetings generally, but I was attentive to the truly animated speakers even when I did not fully understand what they were saying. Stake conferences occurred quarterly, almost always with a visit from a general authority of the church. Stake presidents such as Eugene Hilton and W. Glenn Harmon were intellectual as well as spiritual leaders and speakers. Ward meetings were rather staid events, but occasionally they, too, provided stirring sermons, usually by rough-hewn and modestly educated but devout local leaders and members. The monthly testimony meetings were often boring and interminable for youngsters even though they had a far larger proportion of narrative testimonies about specific experiences rather than the generic and formulaic declarations such as “I know the church is true” or the obligatory expressions of gratitude one hears in today’s services.
My recollections of testimonies from those days (1930s-50s) include many that were fervent and persuasive without being tearful. People often cited scriptures or history as well as logic in support of the meaning they offered for their narrative testimonies. Occasionally lips would quiver and eyes would moisten, but such lacrimose outpourings as might require paper tissues were rather rare. This is in contrast with my contemporary experience in various wards where it is uncommon for any testimony meeting to pass without at least one very tearful rendition and often as many as three or four, amounting to perhaps a third or more of the testimonies delivered at the meeting. The loss of composure, furthermore, is as apt to occur during the utterance of a general platitude such as “I know the gospel is true” as during the account of a specific personal revelation or spiritual experience.
Let me pause here to make my point perfectly clear: I do not mean to criticize or ridicule tearful testimonies or church talks. On a few occasions over the years, I have been deeply enough touched to break down at the pulpit myself. My point is that the church, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, seems to foster a more emotional, or softer, quality of popular pulpit style than what was common in most of the twentieth century. This quality is not necessarily better or worse, but it seems different as a general reality. It is different, on the one hand, from the popular pulpit style of earlier generations which I remember were fervent but more restrained emotionally and rarely tearful. It is also different from today’s official pulpit style and discourse, exemplified in general conferences, which I would characterize as formal, unemotional, and lacking in fervency. How I miss the LeGrand Richards school of preaching in the days before general conference addresses were written out and correlated!
Pulpit styles are not, of course, set forth in the scriptures, so any number of different styles might be expressed across times and cultures, not only in Mormonism but in other religious traditions as well. The styles we experience in given times and places are likely to be influenced by developments in the popular culture of the surrounding society, the tastes and needs of incoming converts, and no doubt other influences. When a certain style gains currency within a given community, it tends to provide both the permission and the formula, or even a script, for others in the same community to adopt for their own pulpit appearances. In that way, the style gradually spreads to the entire community as it is learned by the youth and by converts.
I have noticed an inclination on the parts of some church members these days to question the authenticity of a testimony lacking the familiar formulaic platitudes and emotion. Some seem to wonder whether speakers or teachers with formal and analytical styles really “feel” their religion—whether, that is, they truly “have the Spirit.” For my part, I sometimes wonder about people who are always on the verge of tears when they preach, teach, or bear testimony. Does that indicate they are being touched by the Spirit? Or might it mean they are simply adopting a style learned from youth camps; or for some, might tears be simply a reaction to the stage fright many inexperienced speakers feel in front of an audience? I admit to a strong preference for a more constrained and cerebral style of expression, but I withhold judgment on the sincerity and real meaning of other people’s religious talks and testimonies. I ask only that they do the same for me.
Feelings and the Conversion Experience
What is evident in our classes, pulpits, and youth camps, we see in today’s missionary lessons where prospective converts are invited to “feel” the confirmation of the Holy Spirit during the missionary’s testimony and are assured that what they feel is indeed the Spirit bearing witness of the truth of the message.2 Such is a very different style of proselyting from what was common in earlier times. Of course, there were no standard missionary lessons at all until about 1950, and the earliest of these, the so-called Anderson Plan, placed more emphasis on reasoning from the scriptures than on feelings. Earlier in the century, much reliance was placed upon missionary tracts, which again urged the reader to reason from the Bible, often but not always in proof-text fashion. Indeed, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the standard hand-out to investigators was not the Book of Mormon but Parley P. Pratt’s A Voice of Warning, a substantial and powerfully reasoned tract of more than 100 pages. Throughout much of the twentieth century, we had the Penrose series of tracts (Rays of Living Light),a Widtsoe series, Ben E. Rich’s A Friendly Discussion, and others, all of which led the reader through a line of reasoning rather than a search of his or her feelings.
To be sure, it is also true that conversions took longer in those early days. On the basis of anecdotal evidence from the New England mission in which I served in the late 1940s, I would say that the retention rate of converts was greater then than it is now, although I cannot quantify that. Certainly the recent retention rates (20 percent in most of the world, perhaps 40 percent in North America) are not convincing evidence of the lasting effectiveness of today’s proselyting approach.3 One thing which the current approach will do, however, and which it is doing, is guaranteeing that converts entering the church in recent years will be inclined to depend heavily on feelings in assimilating their new religious culture, whether official or popular. In other words, an emotional approach in proselyting converts or recruits selects those among the investigators who are most influenced by affective, as contrasted with cognitive, foundations for their religious commitments.
A cognitive approach urges us to reason logically from agreed-upon pieces of information, assumptions, or premises to further information in a linear fashion as we do in science or, indeed, as we do in our lives generally. Flaws in logic, data, or assumptions can be pointed out and discussed. What is the counterpart of that approach if we depend on our feelings? These might or might not be replicable from person to person. How do we teach someone to distinguish the promptings of the Holy Spirit from other feelings involved in intense encounters with missionaries or LDS friends and relatives? Conversely, how do we convince people to “hold to the iron rod” when their feelings have been deeply wounded by perceptions of mistreatment or malfeasance on the part of church members and leaders? A reliance on feelings can work both ways, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to articulate clear criteria for distinguishing divinely inspired feelings from any others that might seem equally strong. Not that a strictly cognitive foundation for a testimony is a guarantee of its durability, for disillusionments and other feelings can disrupt even the most logical reasoning.4 Obviously, a solid religious commitment will require both a cognitive and an affective component. The challenge is to find the right mix so we are not “driven with the wind and tossed” (James 1:6), either as investigators or as long-standing members or even defectors.
Defection, indeed, is often an eventual consequence of so-called blind faith, in which feelings overwhelm reason. It is faith derived not so much from thoughtful deliberation upon scripture and doctrine as from fear of reasoning and deliberation–fear, perhaps, that firm beliefs prematurely embraced will not stand the scrutiny of reconsideration. We inadvertently instill fear in our youth and converts also when we teach them that “follow the prophet” means that church leaders are infallible and can be questioned only at the risk of “falling away,” or at least the risk of disapproval and rejection by loved ones. We encourage our youth to embrace holy writ more emotionally than rationally when we teach them that the scriptures should be accepted literally and loved and read as artifacts—somewhat like rosary beads—rather than interpreted thoughtfully in historical context.
If such blind faith and scriptural literalism have been the main foundations of a religious commitment, young people and converts might eventually find such a basis inadequate or even false in light of increased education and experience. In reaction, not a few of our youth, and others not so young, have left the church in disillusionment—which is usually due to an emotional rather than a rational response to cognitive dissonance. In other words, it is possible that undue reliance on emotion can set up a person for emotional defection later on.
The Musical Dimension of Modern Worship
If I am right about a trend in Mormon popular culture toward a worship style that is softer and less confrontational, that process would parallel a contemporaneous change in Mormon musical styles. Trends in Mormon music have been documented by British scholar Warrick Kear, primarily on the basis of the American LDS Church setting, though to some extent in Britain as well.5 Kear notes a process he calls “feminization” in reference to a certain softening of the rhythm and melodic lines that congregations have come to prefer. He finds the trend both in LDS hymnody and in the popular religious ballads that sometimes appear in LDS meetings, also called soft rock or Christian rock. This trend has been acknowledged by LDS musicologist Michael Hicks in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.6
Using definitions admittedly somewhat subjective, Kear’s feminine musical characteristics include “a gentler rhythm and pulse, slower tempi, less angular [and] more flowing melodic lines, with more introvertly personal or devotional lyrics,” as for instance Hymn 143, “Let the Holy Spirit Guide.” By contrast, masculine music is “generally energetic, with jaunty rhythms, fast tempi, strong pulse, wide-ranging melodic lines, and powerful up-beat lyrics,” such as Hymn 243, “Let Us All Press On.” In comparing the latest LDS hymnal (1985) with the earlier one (1948), Kear notes that seventy hymns were dropped and ninety-two new ones added. Of those dropped, 41 percent were masculine and 29 percent feminine by his criteria, while the ratio was drastically reversed for those newly added, with only 14 percent masculine and 64 percent feminine.7
Aside from hymnody, the special musical renditions even in LDS worship services, to say nothing of cultural events, consist increasingly of ballads inspired by the rock musicals of composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber.8 These new religious ballads are “basically sacred words set in a popular, contemporary musical style–if you will, the sacred set to the profane.” Sometimes called “sacred ballads, their compositional style fits our feminine criteria.” Furthermore, they are mostly “written by female LDS composers, the most prolific of whom [is] Janice Kapp Perry. … Not surprisingly, the young women of the church were first to adopt these new songs as their own.”9
Indeed, it is significant to me that I cannot recall the last time I heard a young man or boy, or even a male youth chorus, provide the “special musical number” for a sacrament service. By contrast, teenage girls are regularly featured, crooning at the microphone with loving words about Jesus set to melodies reminiscent of romantic ballads. Kear points out that the church in recent years has simply not provided music that male youth are inclined to sing. After Primary, boys are musically disenfranchised, as it were. In the early 1970s, the church discontinued publication of earlier collections attractive to male youth such as M.I.A. Let’s Sing and Recreational Songs, which contained many tunes “geared for the outdoor, robust pursuits and aspirations of boys and men.” For the girls, the new sacred ballad rushed in to fill the vacuum, but no corresponding genre has become available for young males aside, perhaps, from the popular, often profane hard rock of the outside world. In that connection, Kear offers a sobering final thought:
If the young men of the church are singing the songs of Zion only on a Sunday, and that reluctantly in many cases, and humming the songs of the world the rest of the week, so to speak, it does not auger well for the perpetuity of the church’s rich musical culture.10
Toward an Explanation for Affective Motifs
Whether or not one uses conventional gender stereotypes to label such developments in popular Mormon culture, they seem palpable to anyone with a long enough chronological perspective. At least in the American west, if not throughout North America, pulpit sermons, public testimonies, and music have all taken on a softer quality than I remember as a youth. Affective expression (emotion) has taken precedence over the somewhat harder cognitive articulation and analysis of scripture and doctrine. If this is so, how might one explain such a development? In part, the answer is to be found simply in the importation of popular culture from the surrounding world generally and more specifically from the expressive “low church” evangelical denominations that have arisen in recent decades.11 Many of our converts have come from the same constituency that is attracted by these other churches and often, indeed, from their very congregations.
Beyond the obvious importation, the softer forms of popular worship these days are partly understandable as concomitants of other changes internal to the LDS Church itself. Kear identified one of these as the correlation movement with its “reduce and simplify” motif.12 The church now publishes only two hymnals, one for children and one for adults. The music provided for choirs takes the form of hymns or hymn arrangements, with the advice that these are the officially preferred kinds of music for LDS choirs. Gone are the earlier special collections of classical or majestic, although more demanding, music for LDS choirs from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, and Haydn.13
Centralizing, standardizing, and simplifying ecclesiastical music and lesson manuals are apparently intended to make them more convenient to produce and more readily accessible to an international membership often lacking the relative sophistication of Wasatch Front Mormonism. An unavoidable consequence is a dumbing down of music and manuals to the lowest common denominator of musical and doctrinal literacy. One need only compare the thin fare in today’s lesson manuals with the substantial Sunday school manuals written by the likes of Lowell L. Bennion in the 1940s and 1950s and the challenging priesthood lessons on the Book of Mormon prepared by Hugh Nibley in the same period.
Such a soft and simple approach is easily compatible also with two other trends in modern Mormon culture: (1) the anti-intellectualism in much of the popular discourse in our classes and sermons and (2) the public relations efforts to show the world that Mormons are not an heretical or confrontational sect but just relatively new and neighborly members of the Christian community. This anti-intellectualism, which to be sure is found in the headquarters culture as well as at the grassroots, can be seen in the widespread tendency to avoid serious consideration of troubling issues. Any controversy is diverted quickly by citing reassuring platitudes about needing to “follow the prophet.” Official counsel, as well as the general wariness about “unapproved” sources of information for our lessons, keep all but the most adventurous teachers and speakers from resorting to outside sources such as Dialogue or BYU Studies even when selections from that literature would be relevant, informative, and faith-promoting. For contemporary Latter-day Saints, the cultivation of spiritual feelings has taken clear precedence over the cultivation of a cognitive understanding.14
The softer popular culture is highly compatible with the softer public image which has been deliberately cultivated in recent decades by a highly professional Public Affairs Department. Especially under President Gordon B. Hinckley, we can see a public presentation of the church which emphasizes its allegiance to Jesus Christ and de-emphasizes its more confrontational sectarian doctrines.15 Especially for investigators and visitors to LDS meetings, this softer public “feel” of Mormonism converges more smoothly with emotional affirmations of faith in “Jesus as my personal savior” than with sermons on disquieting doctrines about chosen people becoming gods. Similarly, the bland hymnody and sweet religious ballads in our sacrament meetings harmonize better with a Christian public image than with a militantly Mormon one.
One of the consequences of the correlation movement in the contemporary church organization, although presumably unintended, is therefore the creation of a partial vacuum in the intellectual and musical content of our worship services and Sunday classes. This vacuum is made possible by the combination of what church leaders control versus what they do not or cannot control. For instance, they maintain control over the selection of teachers, of sacrament meeting speakers, and music available in hymn books and standard choir collections.
What they cannot really control is the spontaneous bearing of public testimonies, the dubious doctrine and folklore offered by members of Sunday school classes, and the music selected for special renditions at sacrament services—often solos or duets by teenage girls. Furthermore, local leaders are disinclined to control or discourage folklore and improvised doctrine if these are somehow faith-promoting, even if their implications are quite heretical to thoughtful listeners. It is the vacuum created by this cultural space that church leaders cannot or do not control that is eagerly filled by the softer popular culture of sweet religious songs in place of formerly majestic anthems of praise; of tearful and emotional testimonies about a loving Jesus in place of doctrinal treatises and bracing calls for separation from the world. The one tendency has not completely displaced the other, but the process seems far advanced.
Mormon worship, as I have experienced it, has acquired a kinder and gentler expression compared to that of earlier decades. But I cannot help wondering whether kinder and gentler is what the Lord had in mind with such injunctions as: “Teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C 88:77), “The glory of God is intelligence” (93:36), and “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (131:6). As for worshipful music, none of us can be sure what pleases God the most. Yet, I think the Psalmist had in mind something closer to George Friedrich Handel than to John Rutter when he declared: “While I live will I praise the Lord: I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being” (Ps. 146:2); “Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God,” for his “understanding is infinite” (147:5, 7). Somehow I think God enjoyed the stirring anthems by the ward choirs of my boyhood more than the sweet Jesus ballads of today.
1. Eugene England, “Faithful Fiction,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Winter 1985), 196, 199-200.
2. Eugene England, “A New Tradition,” Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, eds. Eugene England and Dennis Clark (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1989), 285.
3. Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, 1964), v-viii.
4. Eugene England, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Mormon Literature after 150 Years,” BYU Studies 22 (Spring 1982), 132.
5. Mary L. Bradford, “I, Eye, Aye: A Personal Essay on Personal Essays,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 11 (Summer 1978): 81.
6. Eugene England, “Monte Christo,” in Making Peace: Personal Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 221-22.
[to “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways”]
1. D. Michael Quinn points to the “eye-popping discussions” of various “deep” doctrines in nineteenth-century LDS sermons, which were then reprinted for the general membership in the Deseret News and Journal of Discourses (“LDS ‘Headquarters Culture’ and the Rest of Mormonism Past an Present,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 34 [Fall/Winter 2001]: 45). By the time I was born, Mormonism was in an assimilationist mode and such doctrines were less conspicuous. Yet even in that period, some of the more “speculative theology in the Journal of Discourses” (151) was referenced in stake and general conferences and in church magazines.
2. That this is a deliberate proselyting tactic is recognized by the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, where we are told that “Latter-day Saint missionaries, in particular, rely on testimony bearing rather than on logic or artifice to reach their listeners” (Clayton Christensen, “Testimony Bearing,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism [New York: Macmillan, 1992], 1,471). Note the dubious linkage of “logic” and “artifice.”
3. On the recent retention rates of LDS members and converts, see Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion and Lawrence A. Young, “The Uncertain Dynamics of LDS Expansion, 1950-2020,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 (Spring 1996): 8-32, esp. 19; and Gordon and Gary Shepherd, “Measuring Growth, Church Activity, and Missionary Recruitment,” ibid 33-57, esp. 45-48.
4. I would suggest that the danger of a counterfeit religious experience is every bit as great with spiritual feelings as with more cerebral or cognitive kinds of encounters. If it is true that when people “are learned, they think they are wise,” and apt to set aside “the counsel of God” (2 Ne. 9:28), it might also be true that undisciplined feelings can be mistaken for divine promptings. This is one of the meanings I attribute to James 1:26: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceive his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.”
5. Warrick N. Kear, “Music in Latter-day Saint Culture.” Ph.D. diss. University of Nottingham, 1997; and “The LDS Sound World and Global Mormonism,” Dialogue 34 (Fall/Winter 2001): 77-91.
6. Michael Hicks, “Music,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 975.
7. Kear, “LDS Sound World,” 84-85. In each hymnal, about a fourth of the hymns were classified as ambiguous in gender quality.
8. Kear (83) has in mind here such hits as Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell, and Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In addition to the music inspired by Broadway hits, I would mention the sweet and simple religious compositions of John Rutter, immensely popular in LDS and other church services and far afield from the stirring genre of the classical tradition which Crawford Gates claims is the main orientation of LDS sacrament meeting music (Crawford and Georgia Gates, “Sacrament Meeting,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1,245).
9. Kear, “LDS Sound World,” 83.
10. Ibid., 84.
11. As examples of these new expressive denominations, I have in mind the Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and other independent megachurches now found throughout our suburban areas.
12. Kear, “LDS Sound World,” 85-86.
13. Examples of anthems once in the standard repertory of LDS choirs will be found in Ruth Heller, ed. & arr., Sing unto God: Anthems and Sacred Choruses for Mixed Choir (Minneapolis: Hall and McCreary Co., 1952), with a “special edition printed for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Long abandoned by LDS music committees and no longer available through the church’s distribution center, treasured copies of this collection can still be found in a few ward libraries but are rarely used.
14. Quinn, “LDS ‘Headquarters Culture,'” 157-58. The studied avoidance of such unapproved sources as Dialogue and Sunstone is ironic in light of their favorable characterization in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1,387-90), which identifies their constructive functions as providing, among other things, “an opportunity to learn … new insights regarding theology, the scriptures, ancient cultures, historical events, and current practices” (1,389), phrasing that informed readers will recognize as reminiscent of the Doctrine & Covenants 88:78-79. Adding to this irony is that the encyclopedia itself cites Dialogue as a source over 100 times, while the Saints are generally expected to leave such literature out of church meetings.
15. This statement might seem contradictory to the thesis in my 1994 book, The Angel and the Beehive (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), which focused on a “retrenchment” motif in Mormonism and a resurgent emphasis on certain traditional and unique Mormon doctrines and practices. In retrospect, I realize I did not make clear enough my exclusion of public image-making. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the church has been somewhat “Janus-headed” in this matter, stressing “peculiar” aspects of LDS heritage inside the church (“strengthening the Saints”), while in public giving more attention to the conventionally Christian element shared with other denominations (“spreading the gospel”). All of this, however, occurs at the official church level, which is a different dimension from the popular level I have discussed in this essay. Cf. Quinn, “LDS ‘Headquarters Culture,'” 161-62.