Sorting out the virtuous and praiseworthy: Incorporating the gospel-compatible elements of an existing culture

As the Church’s membership has become predominantly non-American and non-English speaking, the question of how to construct a Mormon ethnic identity within the wide variety of existing cultures worldwide has become a present concern for millions of Latter-day Saints. What of my old life as a non-Mormon in my native land should I carry over into my new life as a Latter-day Saint? What is inconsistent with my new life?

Of course, this is not saying that being all aspects of the American lifestyle are compatible with being LDS, but the points of conflict (e.g. the Word of Wisdom) are the subject of many of the sermons and lessons we receive in the normal course of our Church experience.

Others are better qualified to address this cultural issue in a broad perspective. I will offer my narrow slice. I served my mission in Japan (1969-1971). I was also born there, have a Japanese mother, and worked there three years with the US Air Force.

When I was growing up in Salt Lake, for several years my family attended the Dai Ichi (“First”) Branch, now a ward, which served first generation (Issei) Japanese immigrant converts as well as college students and families like my own of mixed parentage. A lot of returned missionaries have gone there for various lengths of time because they specifically like the cultural mix, where the pot luck food includes sushi along with the funeral potatoes. I still visit there occasionally when I am in town.

There are similar “ethnic” wards and branches in Salt Lake as well as places like San Francisco and Los Angeles (Quentin Cook’s stake in San Francisco had Tongan and Samoan wards). A big part of the ethnic bond is speaking a language other than English.

The Dai Ichi Ward has translation for sacrament meeting speakers (usually from English into Japanese), and a Gospel Doctrine class in Japanese, and therefore taught by Japanese members. That is one place where the cultural discourse comes through, as the teacher uses Japanese historical similes to get across the message, e.g. Mount Fuji subs for Timpanogos.

Japanese culture seems very westernized from a distance, but there are aspects of it that are hostile to living the gospel. The attitude toward sexual morality is very different; working in a revealing costume in Japan is not a moral infraction, but a “low class” thing that is done mainly by people who are too poor to avoid the indignity of it.

Japanese have historically treated Saturday as a work and school day, so Sunday is the only day in which one has the time to engage in an avocation with others, especially because travel involves hours that prevent more than one activity in a day. These Japanese avocations or “shumi” are taken much more seriously than “hobbies”. They are sources of individual identity (an auxiliary group, characteristically Japanese, rather than an individual activity). To illustrate: When I was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, I was asked to help translate for a visit by the Chief of Staff of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. During lunch I joked that, while SAC’s motto was “Peace is Our Profession”, referring to the deterrence of nuclear conflict, I said that the corollary of that motto was, “War is our Hobby.” He gravely nodded his head. He would expect us to be using our free time to perfect the skills of war. The Church in Japan has to take on the social and emotional functions of the shumi for members to stay active.

Another serious conflict between Japanese culture and the gospel lifestyle is higher education. Japan does not have one or two national admission tests like the ACT and SAT. Every university has its own exam, which is given just once a year, and the best schools (which often include scholarships) have the toughest exams. One’s opportunities in life are largely determined by one’s diploma and the associations one acquires at college. Japanese students feel they have to devote ALL their free time to preparing for the exam, and if they fail they just start over. The five to seven hours it takes to attend church on Sunday (even with the 3 hour block, plus travel time and activities like home teaching and youth meetings and any callings) is seen as a conflict with this plan, especially if your parents are not church members, but sometimes even if they are.

Once you pass the college entrance exam, if you want to interrupt your education for two years to serve a mission, you have to either pay full tuition for the time away to hold your slot, or recompete to reenter (like the US military academies used to do, and West Point still does, with those who went on missions). BYU-Hawaii has been given the assignment to serve as an alternative means for college education for members in Japan. Besides flexibility, its tuition can actually be less than many Japanese universities, and acquiring fluency in written and (more rare in Japan) spoken English (including missionary service with Americans and sometimes outside Japan), and a degree from a US university, can sometimes have added cachet. It also helps to build relationships that fulfill the function of those in typical colleges, both in Japan and with other LDS around the Pacific Rim.

I remember going to a local matsuri (festival) held at a local Shinto shrine, the proceeds of which support the priests through the year, and seeing local LDS clapping their hands in “prayer” for good fortune before tossing in some coins to the donation box. The picture came to mind of how we Americans may wish on a star, or make a wish before blowing out birthday candles, or make a wish before pulling apart the turkey wishbone, or make a wish when we throw a coin in a fountain or a well. There are a lot of cultural artifacts that really have no eternal significance in the gospel. As long as we don’t take them or ourselves too seriously, I don’t see the harm in many of them, as long as we don’t fall into the syncretism that has some Japanese who think they can be Christian as well as Buddhist and Shinto (most Japanese are both of the latter, with marriage in Shinto and funerals in Buddhism).

In Salt Lake every summer there is a Bon Odori, a big circle dance for the Japanese community that involves wearing traditional clothes and dancing in a circle to folk music and drums. The origin of the festival is a Buddhist “Day of the Dead” celebration, with similarities to the Mexican festival, with the goal of remembering and honoring the dead, and, in the original Buddhist practice, making offerings to relieve the suffering of dead parents and ancestors in the afterlife. Though organized by the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, it draws in other varieties of Buddhists, Japanese Presbyterians, and Japanese Mormons. There are all the festival aspects, including ethnic foods and fish ponds for kids, sale of trinkets, a couple of lectures in front of the Buddhist altar by the Reverend, and performances by the Ogden Buddhist Temple Taiko drummers (those big drums that show that Japanese have rhythm). It is not a religious festival for most of us, but it does hark back (as so many things do in our inherited culture) to concepts like the “round dance” that Hugh Nibley talks about as an apparent descendant of the prayer circle in First Century Christianity, and the Temple worship patterns of myriad cultures that seem to have common points, such as the circular walk around the Kaaba at the Haj and the circular path of ascent up the artificial mountain at Borobodur, which is echoed in the spiral ascent through the Salt Lake Temple during the Endowment.

So perhaps one of the ways to weigh the cultural interface of the Church with various cultures is to identify those aspects that may be echoes of the full gospel which Mormons, almost alone in Christianity, believe was taught to Adam, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. Any LDS missionary to Japan has heard about such intimations in aspects of Shinto, such as the three treasures that represent the legacy of the Imperial House, which literally runs back to the time of Moroni, which are the sword, the mirror, and the jewel, which have a suspicious parity to the sacred items which the Nephites passed on to denote kingship, and which were buried with the Book of Mormon plates. The warrior culture of Japan, and the vestiges of feudalism that infest all of Japanese cultural inheritance, have points of correlation with the prophet warriors of the Book of Mormon.

As someone 58 years old, I have witnessed repeated efforts by the Church to simplify its program so there is a core that can be more easily translated into other, new cultures, and operate in areas where all ward members are not a 5 minute walk from their meetinghouse. Thus, the block meeting schedule, the Liahona magazine, the centralization of finances that prevents rich wards from creating an expectation of ward youth excursions to Disney World, and the leveling of missionary costs around the world. The planting of temples worldwide democratizes temple worship, and is a point of local and national pride (of the good kind) for Mormons in each nation. The numerous missionary training centers allow the Church to draw on cultural resources and local experience for teaching each missionary.

The 13th Article of Faith is a call to us to be constantly weighing the culture around us and embracing what is good, and therefore leads to Christ. It is an explicit call to build a culture that is symbiotic with the gospel. That is one of the great functions of the BYU system, where the best of every culture can be preserved (think of the Polynesian Cultural Center) and transmitted, not just to members from that culture sphere but also to all other Mormons, so we all appreciate the many different ways in which one can be a good Latter-day Saint. The MTCs and language training, and the experience of missionaries living and teaching the gospel in cultures far different from their own, builds cross-cultural knowledge that breaks down barriers of misunderstanding and is growing a Mormon culture that is international in scope, with common touchstones and appreciation for what is necessary, what is hostile, and what is compatible with the gospel.

Even what looks like “white bread” Mormonism in a place like Idaho Falls is, on closer inspection, full of people like John Groberg, missionary to Tonga and Mongolia; parents whose sons serve in Russia, Latin America, Australia, Africa, and Britain; children adopted from Russia and from black communities in the east; and people like myself. Mormons from Mongolia and Kenya have proselyted in our ward, and members from Japan have attended BYU-Idaho and married local Mormons. One member of our ward is Elder Lynn Mickelson, a native of Idaho Falls and fluent Spanish speaker (he was involved in the translation of the LDS Spanish language Bible) who spends most of his time as Area President for Mexico, a true international Mormon.

Mormon culture is a growing thing. It is becoming international, and reaching back in history, as we try to match the scope of the gospel itself. The mission of the Church is driving cultural encounters at a far faster rate than any one of us would likely seek them on our own. Bringing the best parts of these diverse cultures into Mormondom is part of achieving the unity that is one of the defining attributes of Zion.

11 comments for “Sorting out the virtuous and praiseworthy: Incorporating the gospel-compatible elements of an existing culture

  1. Great post.

    However, I think there is reason for caution when it comes to implementing this advice:

    So perhaps one of the ways to weigh the cultural interface of the Church with various cultures is to identify those aspects that may be echoes of the full gospel which Mormons, almost alone in Christianity, believe was taught to Adam, Enoch, Noah and Abraham.

    I too served a mission in Asia. Missionaries constantly speculated about the roots of Chinese culture, looking for signs of a “full gospel” that was supposedly revealed to China long ago but is now only visible in cultural and linguistic artifacts. When I returned to university and studied Chinese language, history, and culture, I realized that many of the conclusions we had arrived at were obviously erroneous. I now think that, in attempting to identify gospel analogs in Chinese culture, we were often projecting our own heritage onto another, on the basis of unjustified assumptions about the roots of Chinese civilization.

    I think that identifying similarities between cultures is productive. However, I also think it’s important to accept a culture on its own terms, rather than to try to make it a subset of our own.

  2. Fantastic post. I’d never heard of the Dai Ichi ward–thanks for sharing information about it.

    Among all the media misinformation out there about Mormons, I think a failure to explore the vibrant culture and surprising diversity in our church is but one of the many sad missteps.

  3. I tend to be a minimalist. If there’s not a policy governing it, there’s no apparent benefit, and if the *only* reason for doing something is “well, that’s how we did it 20 years ago”, I’m pretty willing to drop it. [Yet, and I’m a HUGE fan of overly complex graduation pomp and circumstance. Go figure.] You can take a minimalist program and apply local flavor to it more easily than you can a program infused with baggage from another time and place.

    I think one of the challenges is that sometimes local members adopt a mindset of “well, what do they do in Utah?” and the Utah transplants are all too happy to tell them, whereas I think that local Mormon “culture” should be organic and develop on its own. But we’re all too happy when we’re transplants to try to impose our own sense of propriety.

    Art is an area where we try to bludgeon local flavor in favor of an approved Central Committee look.

    I noticed in South America that a lot of members still had the fancy painting of La Virgen with the Sagrada Corazon next to their picture of Joseph Smith. I remember a lot of missionaries being really offended by this — “Hermana, don’t you know that you’re supposed to stop idol worship when you join the Church?” I think I remember a member of the 70 trying to explain to a zone conf that we needed to be careful about recognizing the injunction — that the artistic representation of Mary in and of itself wasn’t a problem, it was the worship. I’ve been in Russia and seen some really great Orthodox representations of saints (St. George comes to mind) — to me, it’s art, not idolatry. DW collects creches, and has dozens of small holy family statuettes, and some of her VTs have expressed concern (although, they have no problem accepting them for the Christmas Creche collection).

  4. Yeah, I still remember my Freshman History of Civ interdisciplinary class taught by a prof of literature and a visiting scholar from Japan specializing in Japanese literature. The class was sort of a history of civilization taught via works of literature from various periods and continents.

    Unfortunately I, the recent RM, had imbued far too much Nibley that semester. So for my paper on China I decided to do a paper on how Chinese temples related to Mormon temples. There are some interesting parallels but the naive Freshman that I was I didn’t understand why context and differences were at least as important if not more important. The visiting scholar was not impressed.

  5. One of the best professors I had was Paul Pixton in the history department, who was a big proponent of trying to understand a culture through their eyes and motivations and context, not just your own. (Either that, or he was tired of RMs trying to explain jihad through a Provo mindset.) He was also very good at trying to explain to new RMs that just because a concept was new to them, didn’t make it interesting.

  6. Raymond, I very much enjoyed this. Sometimes what is missing in our discussions about international church culture is specific illustrations — how are white bread westerners whose chief brush with the international consisted of mission experience, where real engagement with the culture is often superficial, supposed to understand? In our discussions, I usually sense vague-to-definite disapproval of my own culture, without really understanding what the questions are. Your concrete examples, and the absence of disapproval of my culture, are much appreciated.

  7. Great case study, Raymond. Lots of questions to be answered…

    I really do wonder what the global church will look like in 10 or 20 years.

  8. Nice vision, Raymond. Yes, I think the Church is “internationalizing” itself faster than most of us recognize. On a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, we just don’t notice change, but looking back a generation or two shows how far we have come, as indicated by the changes you mentioned. It also gives a hint at how far things may go in the next twenty or thirty years.

  9. Re #7 (AH): I have read through the first part of the linked site, which is a comparison of customary Japanese Shinto religious practices with those of ancient Israel, by a Japanese Christian, hypothesizing that these indicate that some remnant of the Lost Ten Tribes found their way to Japan. I have seen a few items like this privately circulated by members of the LDS Church but this is far and away more detailed and original in several respects.

    Missionaries in Japan in my era (1969-70) passed along the story that when Joseph Fielding Smith visited Japan and Korea in the 1960s, he suggested that such a relationship was possible, citing the following passage in Jacob Chapter 5:

    19 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Come, let us go to the nethermost part of the vineyard, and behold if the natural branches of the tree have not brought forth much fruit also, that I may lay up of the fruit thereof against the season, unto mine own self.
    20 And it came to pass that they went forth whither the master had hid the natural branches of the tree, and he said unto the servant: Behold these; and he beheld the afirst that it had bbrought forth much fruit; and he beheld also that it was good. And he said unto the servant: Take of the fruit thereof, and lay it up against the season, that I may preserve it unto mine own self; for behold, said he, this long time have I nourished it, and it hath brought forth much fruit.
    21 And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard.
    22 And the Lord of the vineyard said unto him: Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore, I said unto thee, I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit.
    23 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto his servant: Look hither; behold I have planted another branch of the tree also; and thou knowest that this spot of ground was poorer than the first. But, behold the tree. I have nourished it this long time, and it hath brought forth much fruit; therefore, gather it, and lay it up against the season, that I may preserve it unto mine own self.

    Japan is certainly a land that lacks natural resources to a great extent. Lack of flat land led to rice paddy terraces being cut out of mountainsides. Japan is on the fringe of the Old World. It is not of course something that we used in our discussions with investigators, and it is valid enough simply as a parallel in teaching the concern God has for those on the fringes. But there is also nothing specifically disproving the hypothesis that some remnant of Israel was part of the colonization of Japan, which seems to have had elements from both mainland Asia and the islands of Southeast Asia or even Polynesia. There are no written records prior to about 600 AD when Buddhist misisonaries brought Chinese culture through Korea to Japan. And of course the Savior specifically affirmed that, at the time he visited the Nephites circa 34 AD, there was also a gathering of descendants of the Ten Tribes that he would visit, who likely experienced an apostasy like that of the Nephites.

    The whole notion of such a connection might sound fantastic at first encounter, but we know now through DNA that a colony of Jewish priestly families carrying the Cohen “Y” chromosome ended up in southeast Africa and intermarried with the local people, leaving a tradition about this contribution to their ancestry. They apparently had traveled from Judea through Arabia to the coast of Yemen, much like Lehi’s group. At some point some of them set sail on the monsoon winds, like Lehi, which alternate between blowing south along the African coast and blowing north and east toward India.

    And of course, there was a definite belief among the initial members of the LDS Church that the blood of Israel flowed in the veins of their European ancestors. Jewish colonies were all over the Roman Empire in the First Century, even in Gaul. Certainly, within historical times, Jews converted to Christianity either voluntarily or under threat of expulsion or other persecution (e.g. the conversos of Spain). I have such an ancestor who lived in Sweden circa 1650, who was likely an immigrant from Eastern Europe since that is the largest cluster of his family name presently, and there is no record in Sweden of his ancestors. Given the movements across all of Europe by the Celts/Gauls, from Scotland and Ireland to Asia Minor, and of Turks and Huns from central Asia, there is no geographical reason to rule out some of the Ten Tribes merging into European populations circa 700 BC.

    Like the whole business of finding a photographic image of Joseph Smith, we must be careful to distinguish between the gee-whiz quality of these speculations, and the assertion that they are real, especially when it comes to mixing these ideas with the teachings of the Restored Gospel, which have plenty of remarkable and miraculous elements that are soberly attested to. We don’t want members of the Church confusing the two, and thus losing faith in the real when the speculative crumbles.

    On the other hand, so long as we have a robust mental distinction between what we believe to be real and what would just be fun if it were real, the only way we will conduct any kind of investigation to discover the facts is if we look into these oddities and historical anomalies. If science only devoted investigation to what was already rock solid established truth, we would never have found Troy or quantum physics.

    So does the partriarchal blessing that identified my Japanese mother as of the tribe of Ephraim mean she is adopted or an actual descendant? It is indefinite.

    #8 (Ardis): While a missionary’s experience of a nation can be relatively superficial, compared to, say, two years of study toward a PhD in that nation’s language and culture, it is a gateway for many of them into a mature appreciation over time, as they pursue studies in college and even graduate school and return to that nation in their careers and continue their association with natives. This is a major element in the high reputation of the BYU Business School. John Groberg is something of a legend in Tonga, about as honored as a non-native can be. Mike Young returned to Japan for a two year fellowship studying at the University of Tokyo and established the Japanese Law program at Columbia. At the very least, those who, like Joseph F, Smith, had intense experiences with people in foreign cultures in their youth have broken down barriers of prejudice. And in a certain number of cases, those experiences come to fruition as international marriages and families, about as intense a cross-cultural education as you can get.

    And these links are not just one way. The church sends some missionaries from places like Japan, Mongolia, Brazil and Kenya to places like Idaho Falls. Just think of the difference between the Church if it lacked these cross-fertilizing experiences among its members, and the reality of what it is, leavened by such experiences among its members around the world.

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