I grew up in New Zealand hearing a term that was frequently deployed in order to remind us that certain cultural practices don’t comport with one’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Gospel Culture has become a ubiquitous term that reminds us non-Americans that we are obligated to ‘pursue a distinctive way of life, common to all members of the church.’ That culture, according to Elder Dallin Oaks, comes from: the plan of salvation, the commandments of God and the teachings of the living prophets.
Except, that’s not where culture comes from.
Culture is a complete way of life. It arises in-situ over time and includes a whole suite of human behaviors – from what we consider important to know; to what we choose to believe; to how we respond through artistic expression; to what we consider to be right and wrong; our community agreements; our daily habits; how we socialize our young; the customs we preserve and the languages we speak.
Culture is so ‘everyday’ that being in it feels like breathing. Culture is largely unconscious, taken for granted and doesn’t need to be formally learned – it feels natural or normal. So natural in fact that when you are in a context that is markedly different from your own some people experience a form of physical and existential shock.
For instance – when I learned that the stories of white pioneers who trekked across the plains were far more important to Jesus than our own stories of New Zealand’s early pioneers – I was shocked.
When we were told that the language of the church was English and any use of the Maori language contradicted the gospel culture – I was shocked.
When we were told that Maori claims to our cultural, linguistic, political and legal rights was not in keeping with the gospel culture because it required protest against white colonial patriarchal imperialism – I was shocked.
When I was told that ones life chances were predicated upon ones behavior in a pre-existent life – I was shocked.
When I saw Maori at church being asked over and over again to choose between being Mormon or Maori – I was shocked.
When I learned that Maori funereal practices were not welcome in church buildings but English and American ones were – I was shocked.
When I saw the culture of visiting American dignitary adulation where our elders (including our elderly women) had no right of response – I was shocked.
When I realized that Utah shuts down for the BYU/U of U football games and not the All Black rugby test matches – I was shocked.
When I was told that Utah was Zion – I was shocked.
When I realized that to be a Mormon in good standing and out of suspicion with your Utah Country neighbors you ought to be a gun toting, anti-gay, GOP voting, white supremacist, ponzi-scheme loving, constitution touting capitalist – this democratic socialist about keeled over!
Recently the church waded in on the question of Bride Price in Africa ruling it incompatible with the Gospel Culture.
My response is simple:
I think the LDS church needs to shut up about the practices of other cultures and instead allow the local people to explore their own cultural adaptations in the face of the transcendent reality of Jesus.
I also think the chaps on Temple Square need to look in their own back yard for cultural practices that are out of step with the gospel.