Mormon Identity In the ‘Mission Field’

I’ve been pondering on the crisis of identity when who we  are  in New Zealand feels so  dissimilar from the culture of an  indigenous American church to which we also belong.  For the Mormon church IS deeply American, and wears the stories, mythologies, politics and culture of its roots upon its loins.  The part that New Zealand holds in that lore is more ambiguous.

We in New Zealand seem to have made little impression on the metropol except that a few Americans came here on missions or other assignments and a few New Zealanders have emmigrated to ‘Zion’.   So it would seem  that the work of sense making belongs to the periphery.   The work of finding one-self in the competing streams of discourse belongs to the mission field.  Who are we in a space and time which has been constituted by the rhythms of a place that few people in New Zealand will ever visit?  The names of towns and cities in Utah: Salt Lake City; Provo; Pleasant Grove; Sandy;  Spanish Fork; Manti; St George;  are as familiar to New Zealand Mormons as well as our own neighbouring suburbs.  But organizing these towns and cities in their correct geographical relationship with each other is less straightforward.

Likewise making sense of Mormonism from afar is like trying to install Mustang parts into a Prius chassis. The work of assuming a Mormon identity at the periphery is thus more contested and complicated.  More than tea and coffee and illicit sex we give up more of ourselves in this quest to belong than our pioneer progenitors have ever had to.  The titles ‘President’, ‘Brother’, ‘Sister’, ‘Elder’ and ‘Bishop’ fall that little bit more grudgingly from our lips.  It is considered presumptuous to call anyone a ‘saint’ let alone to refer to oneself as a ’saint’ yet there is some pressure from the ‘Brethren’ (church leaders) to do so (notwithstanding some recent PR branding around the epithet ‘Mormon’). Our association with the church is admitted only reluctantly in polite company, and our enthusiasm for the political positions and cultural activities of what we perceive to be the Utah church sits somewhat uneasily with our own national political orientation.

Yet, bonded we are to the USA, in an uneasy truce between the two parts of ourselves, the part which seeks spiritual reconciliation via a unique and idiosyncratic corpus of religious doctrine, and the part of many New Zealand Mormons who seek belonging and identity as social, political and economic participants in our national community.

To add to the burden of uncertainty and dislocation is the matter of femininity and the women’s place in the Mormon church.  At the periphery we are called upon to manage ideological competition.  To assert ourselves as adherents of an American faith tradition is one thing, but to assert ourselves as women in the same tradition which is unashamedly patriarchal complicates our sense of who we are.   Yet such is the ambiguity of the Mormon discursive territory that its own cultural politics become the points upon which resistance is born.  On the one hand Mormon girls are told they are ‘queens’, priestesses, are supernal, capable, intelligent and brilliant.  On the other hand we are surrounded by correlated materials which insist that despite our brilliance our greatest fulfillment and life’s purposes will be most aptly met in our primary roles as wives, mother’s and home-makers, and then on the other hand we are exposed to close and frequent readings of the church canon which gives every indication that Jesus’ position on femininity was one of graciousness, respect, and an acute awareness of the contextual constraints placed upon women to rise to their fullest spiritual capacities. The tension created between these places of opposing certainties might give rise for some women to a kind of activism as they hack away at these spaces and carve out a place of reconciliation.

  • Andy jones

    Great post Gina ,although as a bloke I can’t really identify with the feminist perspective.however at the recent elder cook fireside it did strike me od that all the local community leaders invited were female and the only role that the visiting LDS women had was to sit alongside their husbands and smile with perfectly coiffered hair mutely.What subminal message did that send to our dignitaries??

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      That does seem to be out lot. Wear dresses and pantyhose, smile sweetly, behave mildly, and bake good angel food cake.

    • http://gravatar.com/melanierc melanierc

      um, there were three men from local community leadership included in the group who attended (1 MP, 2 Interfaith Council). Just saying…

      • http://gravatar.com/melanierc melanierc

        @ Andy Jones – Oh… and seven other men including 2 Male MPS were invited, they just declined to attend. just saying…again…

  • Sophia Grey

    I’ve always found the way the gospel teaches women to “rejoice in womanhood”–that is to say, that we are queens, priestesses, &c, and the way the Saviour treated women to be somewhat at odds with the vanillia, conformist attitude I encountered in Utah that did not celebrate individuality in the way I feel the scriptures do. It is most probably simply a cultural morman thing, but does Jesus really care what you look like, or if your blond foils are just-so? No. He’s cooler than that.

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      I love it Sophia! Awesome! Yes, its baffling how all of this got in to our culture buffet? Probably blokes – after all, its run by blokes. That’s the kind of discriminatory villainy you get when the influence of the sexes isn’t balanced.

  • Sophia Grey

    True–the influence of the sexes /isn’t/ balanced. Despite the leaps and bounds that feminism has come in the past hundred years or so, we in the West still live in a rather white, paternalistic society, and the church is not exempt from this. Part of me wonders if the cards women were dealt is just part of our challenge in life, or some hangover from that slice of the Mormon mythos that says that the women are always more righteous than the men are thus somehow being punished–sorry, given “trials” to prove their divine nature… But (though I may be wrong), I truthfully think that’s rubbish. It is what it is, through no specific divine plan to elevate males above females. Heavenly Father can’t dictate everything in the world.
    I think the whole situation for us further complicated by our geography, however. We are once removed from the “Utah-ness” of Utah, but still expected to have their Mormonism as our primary culture. New Zealand, being culturally confused as a nation anyway, does little to strengthen this perceived relationship between religious identity and gospel. I, for instance, grew up with the subliminal message that men were superior because they held the priesthood–which I now know is an untruth, but it was just the what I felt as a young child. It’s only now that I’m unlearning that. But I always had the feeling at the back of my mind that kiwi women were strong and every bit as good as men, which was probably a by-product of growing up about forty years post- sexual revolution, it was at odds with what I subconsciously felt at church. It’s certainly food for thought in any case.

  • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

    Yes, food for thought indeed! Well said Sophia! That discomfit between cultures can be deeply alienating. You need to be the vanguard of young women feminists Sophia!

  • Amber B

    (Here thanks to my Blackie Furness, one of my “other” mums)

    I recall one day, as a teenager, explaining to my dad the reasons I was considering not going to church. After years of other girls there telling me I didn’t belong (cos I have never been a normal Mormon girl), I told Dad, “I believe in the gospel; I just don’t believe in the culture.”

    And then Dad said the thing that has helped me stick around ever since. “It’s not the culture you don’t believe in. The true LDS culture is that which is rooted in the gospel. What you can’t stand is the pop culture, all those things that people take for granted are part of being Mormon but don’t have root in any gospel principles.”

    I run into it less often here in my Seattle ward than in any other ward I’ve been in (we moved a lot), but when I run into things, I just ask myself whether it’s rooted in gospel principles. And, when it isn’t (and it often isn’t), I easily brush it aside and get on with my life;

    Unfortunately, only four others can claim to have the same dad that I have, so most the world sees the Utah Mormon thing, the Mormon pop culture, and assumes that’s important. I hadn’t thought how that must read outside the States. Reading your blog, I’m starting to get the picture. And, though I hadn’t thought it possible, I’m even less enchanted by that pop culture than ever before. Fortunately, as Sophia noted, Jesus doesn’t get hung up on your hair colour. He *is* cooler than that!

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      Hey Amber! Welcome aboard. Thanks for your comment. I’m really curious to find out how Mormon Americans respond to being culturally critiqued from the periphery. I suppose the big problem is when Mormon popular culture embeds itself in gospel principles so that the only lens we are given to see that gospel principle is through a mormon cultural artifact. Anyway – is the gospel are set of discrete principles or is it more whole and organic than that….mmmm you have me thinking.

      • Amber B

        I’m afraid I’m not your average Mormon American, so I’m not a representative subject. But I’m always interested in stepping back and looking at things in other ways. (I got my degree at university in Philosophy…and managed to maintain my faith regardless!)

        I think that, at least for the way that I evaluate what’s right for my own choices, if I can’t find it in scripture or clearly sanctioned materials, I don’t consider it gospel. (For example, I constantly remind myself that, whilst he said some things I really adore, Brigham Young also said some completely mad things that were certainly not gospel.)

        That said, I also believe that this gospel is a living thing. Just as the law of Moses was a completely right path to follow for many generations, but then changes came when Christ fulfilled it, I believe that the gospel has room for changes that God ordains as necessary. I also believe deeply in the necessity and power of personal revelation and testimony (remembering, of course, that personal revelation is for self and those over whom one might be argued to have a stewardship), which means I believe in the necessity and power of, as the scriptures say, working things out with God. I was raised to ask questions (as long as I was appropriately respectful…drove my mum crazy whilst it made my dad proud).

        I believe that sometimes things have gone in ways they probably shouldn’t due to human prejudices (such as the issue of blacks not receiving the priesthood…what an unpleasant chapter in our history). I believe that, because we are imperfect, we sometimes misunderstand what the Spirit, our leaders, or the scriptures say to us. I believe that, unless it goes against the gospel, the Lord might indeed prompt someone else to do something that is entirely not right for me and vice versa. (Because I also believe in the very personal nature of truth, of need, and of God’s love for each individual. I always like that the Law of Consecration doesn’t mean each person gets the exact same things, but that each should get what they need for both survival and happiness. Which is why God helped me get a drummer and helped my sister find a sale on clothes for her babies.)

        I believe that, just as our mortal eyes limit us in understanding how God works or seeing beyond 3 dimensions, they also prevent us from seeing the fulness of truth. That all truth is part of the gospel, whether we learn it at an LDS church or listening to pop songs or reading a Buddhist blog. And, if all truth is part of gospel, that includes things that are true in a moment and things that are eternally true (and, really, it is eternally true that, for a moment, that thing was true in a moment). And that truth includes science and natural laws.

        You’ve only got a few entries, but I’m grateful for a chance to read a new perspective. I know that, even if I’m not an average American Mormon, it doesn’t mean that I’m free of biases or culturally induced perspectives.

        And, as a final thought before I finally get some sleep, I think that the reason so many people go along with the pop culture of whatever groups they are part of (religious, national, social, etc) is that it’s easier. And when you look at religious pop culture and you have some sense of fear that missteps will threaten your eternities, I think people will tend to be even more cautious. They’ll want to take what appears the obviously easy and safe way rather than risk questioning and coming to their own (potentially wrong) conclusions. Sometimes, the pop culture gets it right. Sometimes, not so much. But at least there’s safety and community in following the cultural norm, right? (Not that I’m meaning to criticise the norm…I have siblings who are, at their heart, very much the norm. And they are brilliant, loving, beautiful people without whom my life would be less.)

        Thanks for letting me be part of the conversation. Hope I can add something positive to the journey!


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