At this time, when so much effort is being put into explaining, defining, spinning and presenting the LDS faith, it may be time to Quaker up. By that, I'm referring to the Quaker way of approaching their own faith. A lot of people have pre-set views of what Quakers are, and are often surprised to find that these folks do not dress in black or raise barns or live on farms in Pennsylvania. The original Quakers didn't even do that. The public perception of Quakers is fixed on a certain moment, a certain generation, but the most defining characteristic of Quakerism is transferrable to lots of different cultures and times. The gentle pursuit of a virtuous life, by drawning upon the "inner light," can "look" like anything. If Quakers actually proselytized, I imagine they'd have tremendous success.
The genius of Mormonism is its ability to incorporate so much of 19th-Century life into the modern world. It's not that anybody wants to go off in a covered wagon. It's just that there were truths, discovered by previous generations living the adventure, that can sweeten or spice our own lives in the modern age. It's an interesting twist on the idea of "being in the world but not of it." For 19th-Century Mormons, life was a curious combination of the "Old and New Worlds." When Mormons went west, their exodus was inspired by Israel's eastward exodus from Egypt, an exodus that also inspired a Jewish westward exodus from Babylon. These people saw themselves as reinventing or restoring New Testament Christianity (with a lot of help from the Old Testament).
Mormons today cannot be the Mormons of Joseph Smith's day, no matter hard they may try. They live in a different world. But the Mormons of old were, themselves, a "peculiar people" because they weren't quite living in the 19th-Century, either. They cherrypicked elements from a variety of ages synthesizing it all into a way of life that worked for them. The Church, under Joseph Smith, was not identical to that under Brigham Young, nor was the Church in the age of Brigham exactly what it would be under Heber J. Grant or Joseph F. Smith. Times change. So do circumstances and cultures. It's not just a matter of evolution. It's a matter of fit. The LDS Church may be the "same" Church in Japan as it is in Mexico, but Mormons in Japan and Mexico are not identical. There is a place between assimilation and cookie-cutter replication. If one leads to "scattering" and oblivion, the other restricts the definition of "Mormon" to something inaccessible (and undesirable) for most people.
There is no "Golden Age" to go back to, just as there is no "promised land" to move to as "Zion." When I first met her, my wife was expecting to pull a handcart to Jackson County, Missouri. Today, such notions of a Mormon ghetto in Missouri have largely given way to the realization that the entire world is a "promised land" if you want it to be. "Zion" is the pure in heart. It isn't about flags flying. It's about dropping your buckets where you are.
Some years ago, Bob Dole made an unsuccessful bid at the White House by calling himself "a bridge to the past." Clinton shrewdly turned it inside and out and called himself "a bridge to the future." In truth, every generation is both, though the virtues of Bob Dole's comment were lost in the noise and tumult of an election. Why would any generation need a "bridge to the past"? The answer lies in what every generation finds, as it makes its way through its own version of "the lone and dreary world." Life is a challenge. Anybody struggling to survive in the not-quite-familiar terrain of the present would be well-served to receive counsel from those who have gone before. It's not that we want to become our parents, or our grandparents. This is our time. But maybe "the elders" have something that could help us struggle through a moment that would have been foreign to them as well.
Joseph Smith added a phrase to the Mormon lexicon, one that applies quite well: "The blood and sins of this generation." As I teach History to mutants, I'm always reminded of how the past is as odd to this generation as our present would be to all those folks in the graveyard. I've got kids who can't understand why there was a Civil War, why slavery was allowed for more than a century. They don't understand the realities confronting previous generations. They just think that previous generations were "stupid." Not that the institution of slavery merits much better. It was a huge crime that lasted longer than the Holocaust and affected more people. It's just that thoughtless dismissals miss the relevant point that each generation confronts a unique set of circumstances. Each generation has its own collection of challenges and opportunities. But while "righteous judgment" requires an understanding of the circumstances, each generation is resposible for its response to those circumstances. We strive to be "clean from the blood and sins" of our own generation. To transcend the blindspots of our time, it's helpful to look to the wisdom - and sometimes the mistakes - of other generations.
There's something to be said about having one foot in this world and the other somewhere else.
This weekend, the funeral of Whitney Houston reminded me of what a vicious place the world can be - and not just for Mormons. If you look at her, as far back as "You Give Good Love," the early Whitney was beautiful - and had a five-octave set of pipes that was amazing - but she was awkward and shy. Watching 23 of her videos in chronological sequence, I got the distinct impression that this woman battled with issues of self-esteem. While the lyrics, arrangements and production values were somebody else's doing, there were patterns that leap out, especially over the arc of 23 videos. Beginning with "Saving All My Love for You," Houston began a pattern of flipping back and forth between competing images of herself. For part of the video, you would see Houston as she was packaged. The image would periodically revert back to another image, one of Houston as she must have seen herself. So, for example, in "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," she's practically blonde (and Cyndi Lauperish) in some scenes, and then more ordinary in others.
As the videos progress, Whitney becomes whatever her handlers want her to be, and the way back is not so secure. When Cyndi Lauper was outflanked by Madonna, Whitney became Madonna. You can see the influence of "Vogue" on Whitney's "I'm Your Baby Tonight." When Michael Jackson pushed past "Thriller," Whitney turned into Janet Jackson on videos like "So Emotional." "All the Man That I Need" opens with shots that are reminiscent of a Prince video. "Miracle" features a Whitney who is more comfortable in her own skin but "My Name is Not Susan" is clearly trying to connect with the break-dancing street feel of the early 90s. The glamorous, somewhat settled, Whitney of "I Have Nothing" and "I Want to Run to You," gives way to the hypersexualized "Queen of the Night." By the time we get to "Fine" and "Million Dollar Bill," so much has changed. These are beautiful videos, and it's amazing how well Houston kept herself current in such a changing landscape, but what a burden it must have been on the way down.
I don't want to get into the soap opera of the abusive husband and the drugs. My point is that the world is "lone and dreary" all over. There's some benefit to letting go of the anxieties of the present and of finding community with others who have agreed to leave their cares behind. Some will say that church isn't "the real world," but I wonder if people would continue to show up if it were. You can get as much "real world" as you like - 24/7. For every six days of labor, there may be something to be had in embracing one day of rest. The world - and its troubles - will swallow you whole, if you let it. Steve Jobs went out advising his crowd to "Stay foolish." There's something equally appropos in staying "peculiar," not odd in the Ward nutcase sense, just odd in the sense that part of you was never meant to fit in, not completely at least.