I love LDS teens and young adults. These days, around here at least, they seem to be good kids trying to follow the pattern of the church in attending seminary and institute, enrolling in higher education, planning for missions, and thinking about marriage. For the most part they have very, very high personal standards. Unlike my generation when the girls weren’t afraid of test driving the new boy in the ward’s lips, the majority of our Mormon kids today seem to be extraordinarily restrained and ‘good’, particularly if they’ve gone through the wash at EFY!
But while we were more wanton, our generation seemed to be more politically engaged. We joined political parties, we were involved with the student’s union at the university, talked about Dialogue type issues and honed a kind of Mormon identity which didn’t see us ceding from the world in a chaste retrenchment.
While we were more unruly in terms of not having mastered 100% all of the disciplines prescribed by ‘For the Strength of Youth’, we were alive and engaged with the issues in the world around us. Growing up in New Zealand we were the children of a social democracy, where politics and politicians were literally on our doorstep. Where quotes from Monty Python became embedded in our social commentary, where the ironies of power and the silliness of university education weren’t lost to us because we watched Black Adder and the Young Ones. Where joining the Labour party bought us within speaking distance of those in the highest echelons of national authority. Where we frequently cracked open a book about Mormonism and wondered why the one, not published by Deseret Books, seemed to have an entirely different, refreshing and edgy flavour. Where we had names for a certain breed of ‘perfect’ Mormon such as ‘Peter Priesthood’ and ‘Molly Mormon’, neither of whom we aspired to be.
And our parents seemed to watch us with admiration. They didn’t bubble wrap us, they didn’t lecture us or express their tearful disappointment in the decisions we made that might lead us down the path of sin. Rather they seemed to look on with respect awaiting an opportunity to hear about our newest theory on life and the way the universe ought to be operating. I never got any sense, despite my philandering boy loving ways that I was a disappointment or a worry (although I’m sure we did cause a few grey hairs). There seemed to be a celebration of my bourgeoning political and social consciousness, and though I expressed it awkwardly as I joined the adult world in their musings, it was all part of my maturation as a woman and a feminist. That I was frequently seen around church locking lips with my boyfriend didn’t seem to ring the kind of alarm bells that they do today. Granted it might have been efficacious to tap us on the shoulder sometimes and ask us to take a breath, but there were no obsessive worries that had everyone hovering with paternal or ecclesiastical concern. I look back at my Laurel and young adult years as a wonderful time. Full of stupid mistakes, but equally full of independence, an intellectual and social flowering and an awakening into a world of philosophical consciousness that was conflating beautifully with my developing theological identity.
So with all of the complexity facing our kids, with the barrage of information they need to negotiate as digital natives, you would think that a path would be open for our Mormon kids at church to reconcile their vibrant, information filled, ‘ism’ filled lives with their theology. But our church needs a short sharp smack on the bum for letting our kids down and valorizing a kind of daft, literal, smug, answer-filled Americentric neo-liberal Mormonism that suffers deeply from a sense of doubt in itself. As my 18 year says, ‘How can you form an opinion when opinions have already been made for you?’
My sense, as I help my children navigate the ideological traps set in the curriculum material (seminary in particular), is that our young people are told too often that their primary concern should be with ‘being’. Be good, be faithful, be chaste, be disciplined, and be nice… But how, I have to ask, are they being asked to think? How are we nurturing their minds? How are we helping them make sense of the complexities and contradictions in our religion, in their faith journeys, and in our faith tradition’s history, so that they feel empowered to speak up, participate, talk back, question, interrogate and critique? How can we honor their spiritual yearnings while at the same time respecting their minds?
How can we hold these wonderful and thoughtful minds in the church where our theology, our church, our religion and our doctrine is relevant and meaningful and worth a lifelong investment because they are confident that the church and their communities can, should, and will progress because of their staying? How are we encouraging them to move out into the world as thoughtful, transgressive social commentators with a commitment to bring about a world where the pursuit of social justice is a central tenant of their religious praxis because they have been trained to see it as the essential message of both Book of Mormon and the Bible?
So, to the cohort of wonderfully disciplined young people who are so very very ‘good’, I honor your commitment to personal standards, and don’t wish to take anything away from it, but I want to ask you for more and remind you, in the words of Hugh Nibley:
The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable, with its granite walls and steel vaults, its bronze gates, its onyx trimmings and marble floors …and its bullet-proof glass – the awesome symbols of total security. Keeping her orgies decently private, she presents a front of unalterable propriety to all. (1989, p. 55)
And here again is BY himself:
Being driven from city to city…is nothing compared to the danger of becoming rich and being hailed by outsiders as a first-class community.
My eldest is planning on serving a mission at the end of the year. And while on one level I’m pleased with this very Mormon of Mormon decisions, I have to worry just a little bit. I don’t want him to come home drugged by Mormon orthodoxy, I don’t want him to bury his sparking intellect or his political awareness for the pursuit of ‘a professional occupation with a six figure salary’ like so many Mormon returned missionaries aspire to. I want him to be part of a young Mormon vanguard who are deeply aware of what a Zion community looks like and have the nuts to pursue it with commitment, spirit and passion.