Yesterday morning over breakfast, I was having a conversation with a couple of other Affirmation members. We were talking about the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Evita, a topic inspired by our locale! Adry mentioned another Weber musical he loved, Jesucristo Superestrella (known in English as Jesus Christ Superstar). I got excited. That's my favorite musical ever. I have the album and love listening to the music, especially at Easter time. I feel the Spirit when I listen to it, and there are so many songs in there that I find very insightful about the nature of Christ's ministry.
Beth said she was pretty sure some General Authority (she wasn't sure if it was an apostle or a seventy) had said that Latter-day Saints shouldn't watch Jesus Christ Superstar because it portrayed Jesus Christ as wrestling with his calling, occasionally feeling overwhelmed by it. We agreed on the theological merits of this portrayal of Christ. In Gethsemane, Christ prayed for the Father to take this cup away from him if it were possible. Part of the reason we love and are so grateful to Christ is because his earthly mission on our behalf was extremely difficult, one that was so difficult even he, the Son of God, recoiled from it. The musical simply took the expected sorts of artistic license to dramatize that aspect of Christ's ministry.
Now I don't know if a General Authority ever told Church members they shouldn't watch Jesus Christ Superstar. I can certainly imagine lots of Mormons recoiling from a rock opera that comes across as not quite reverent enough for the subject matter, or that may portray Christ in some way that seems incongruent with LDS teachings about Christ. I had to admit that I personally didn't feel at liberty to watch the musical until I had left the Church, but was glad I had watched it.
I said that one of the reasons I felt it was good that I had left the Church for a time is because it had freed me to find the good in things that I never would have found in the restrictive environment of "Mormon culture." There were so many things that Mormons assume to be part of the Gospel, but are not the Gospel at all, just our own cultural biases and prejudices cloaked in the mantle of religious respectability. And it was then I said, "Mormon culture does not interest me in the least. Only Mormon doctrine, only the Gospel interest me." And it was then I entered into a very interesting discussion with Beth, because, as she has described it, she is not so sure about Mormon doctrine, but she identifies "culturally" as a Mormon.
My bias (well documented in this blog, I think) is that I don't identify with the idea of calling oneself a "cultural Mormon." I disagree with John Dehlin, for instance, when he says that being a Mormon ought to be like being Jew -- namely that it should be about belonging to a people and a community, and not about our beliefs. For me, to be a "cultural" Mormon is to take the take the worst part of Mormonism, and leave behind the most precious part. Mormon "culture" has redeeming aspects, I'll grant. It's not all terrible. Though I would argue that the best parts of the culture are in fact the product of Mormon belief, the part of Mormonism that cultural Mormons want to jettison. That's my bias. I've named it right here.
Now Beth clarified that her definition of Mormon culture is inclusive of the beliefs; she sees Mormonism as the whole package, beliefs, culture, etc. She said that we can't really know what the beliefs are separate from the culture, because the beliefs come to us in a cultural context. And in fact it is impossible for a person to receive or interpret a belief outside of a cultural context. Which actually is all quite insightful.
I agree with that, and I would even go so far as to say that, assuming God is real and he transcends human culture, when God reveals himself to us, we can't help but frame our experience with God in our own cultural context. Though in my experience with God, there are always aspects of God's revelation of himself to us that shock us, that surprise us, and that snap us out of our tidy cultural paradigms. In fact, I think that's exactly how we can detect God's fingerprints in human history. We see traces of God's influence on human culture in those moments when revelation forces a break with the norms and values of the time and place in which God revealed himself.
I realized that perhaps what stood between me and Beth was the question of how, precisely, we define "culture." And I have a tendency to define "culture" as purely human production, that which we create for ourselves apart from God's influence, inclusive of all the various literal and figurative idols we create to bow down and worship. And Beth has a tendency to define culture as the human context for understanding anything, including God. Which I think is a very insightful way of thinking about culture.
Still, I am left with the sense that the process of exaltation, if you will, involves gradually changing our context for understanding God. In other words, there are aspects of our context that are immature, and that need to be trained, that require certain kinds of discipline and experience. That's what life is for! Life is designed to give us that experience and discipline, if we will accept it, if we will engage. That's what covenants are! They are us accepting certain kinds of challenges that will help us receive that discipline and experience.
Another way for me to think about it is that human "cultures" (Mormon "culture" included!) are never in stasis. They are in motion. A human society is always on some kind of journey. The journey can be very slow, so that it almost appears to be in stasis. But it's actually in motion. That's what history is about, both secular and religious history: tracking the motion, whether it takes place over decades or over millennia. And if a people are in covenant with God and in relationship with God and if they are open to and are receiving revelation, they will gradually be letting go of old aspects of the culture that are no longer helpful and accepting new concepts that align it more with a divine framework for understanding things. This can be a very uncomfortable process, if we're doing it right I think.
What I don't grant is that everything about Mormonism is culture, that it's all human production. That is the same thing as denying the existence of God. Which, given my experience with God, is as absurd as denying the existence of my parents. Or, had I had no personal experience with God, as absurd as denying the existence of my grandfather (whom I never met, because he died before I was born). Beth agreed with me on this. But the difficult question is to figure out where God ends and human culture begins. My sense is that the places to look first are those places where we are most troubled.
In any event, this is the truth communicated in that wonderful musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I love Mary Magdalene's song, "I don't know how to love him," which communicates an emblematic theme of the musical. All the disciples are portrayed as troubled by their relationship with Jesus because there are aspects of him that they just don't comprehend. (Very true to the biblical text, I think!) Judas Iscariot's problem is that he wants to force fit Jesus into a purely secular, political context:
I remember when this whole thing began
No talk of God then, we called you a man...
All Your followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds
It was beautiful but now it's sour, yes it's all gone sour
God Jesus, it's all gone sour
Listen, Jesus to the warning I give
please, remember that I want us to live
Come on, come on, listen to me
Won't you listen to me?
Isn't that the ultimate Christ-and-culture clash? And isn't the transformative moment when our failed solutions prompt us to stop asking God to "listen to us," when we finally still ourselves enough to listen?
Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that it is better to pluck out an eye and enter into Heaven blinded, than to keep our sight and be cast into hell. At some point, unless we allow our perspective, our "view," to be challenged we will never look to that which can exalt us.