Several lifetimes ago in Southern California, I found myself listening to a lecture on abstract expressionism. My professor was a painter from west Africa. He wore colorful dashikis with large bone necklaces, spoke with a musical cadence that combined with the droning summer fans and aromatic paints made his class enchanting. He pushed us- he could tell if we were playing it safe. Most of us students were accustomed to praise, and the first time he threw one of my works in the trash and told me to leave if I wasn’t serious, I was stung, umbraged, offended- and deep down, under the pride, I knew he was right. He didn’t want art from privileged kids who had been petted for their talent all their lives- everyone at that school was talented- he wanted to teach us to be fearless. How to examine our motives, to tear away our safety nets, and build our own wings as we were falling.
Which brings me to Jackson Pollock. If a person knows nothing about modern art, they know Jackson Pollock. And almost everyone has heard someone exclaim, as they look at a Pollock: “My [small child of various bladder control ability] could paint that.” One day a student in Mr. West Africa’s class made the mistake of making just such a statement. Fury sparked, and he turned on the student. Paraphrasing, because this was nearly 20 years ago, he said:
If YOU painted that, it would be like a child. If YOU painted it, you would be a liar. But Pollock earned the right to throw his paint at the canvas, because he walked the path to get there- he honed his talent, and when that could get him no further, he went ahead anyway, and the emotions he felt are what you see on that canvas. This ART that you disparage so lightly is not about product, it is pure process. And if you think you can lie and take shortcuts to get there, you can get out of my class and welcome to a life of mediocrity.”
I can still hear the stunned silence, punctuated only by the whir of the fans as every single person held their breath.
Which brings me to the Church and the Gospel- and I do differentiate the two. We belong to a church with a lot of rules. We could argue till the cows come home about those rules- but no matter what you perspective, love it or hate it, the fact is there are a lot of rules for being a Mormon. There is a structure, correlated cadence, if you will, to Mormon life- and rules are a large part of why.
When you first come into the church, in my case as an adult with no other related members, the rules are part of how you bring this new Gospel to your practical daily life. The rules are how you delineate your Old self from your New baptized self- they are spiritual and cultural markers of aligning yourself with your community.
Rules are a necessary part of life. Rules provide the parameters in which the framework of a good life can be constructed. Rules can instruct, inform or improve their intended audiences, and we’ve all heard the platitude about fences being for our own safety. Our children start with the simplest rules- don’t hit, be nice, say sorry- and then we move on to more complex, nuanced rules as our understanding increases.
So many of our rules have moved from doctrinal to cultural, and in creating cultural rules, we eliminate the complexity of personality and individual nuance and try spelling out all issues. Yet, one of the greatest messages we have as a church are the words of Joseph Smith himself: I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” and it’s one of the things it seems we lose sight of most often.
As I sit in Relief Society or Sunday School yet again, and find my bosom burning and my arm creeping up because I am positively aghast as something a teacher has said, I wonder how I can speak up- because honestly, I have to- without breaking the rules. We must. Like Mr West Africa rejecting inauthentic art, if a teacher submits a fallacy, we are not loving him/her if we accept their work. It is not polite- it is perpetrating an errant cycle. We shortchange and demand less of ourselves and our brothers and sisters than is required for our growth.
Is it possible to cull through the culture, and discard what doesn’t serve the individual (or the community), and yet still remain faithful to God and His church? Yes. Yes, it is. It might be messy- but not only is it possible, it’s required. We must have these dynamic discussions, we must not sit on our hands because we are polite, or are fearful or for any other reason.
It’s a process. It’s a refining. Like the art student who thinks he can let his three-year old paint a Pollock, a spiritual novice or initiate cannot walk in and claim the rules are stupid, or they don’t apply. An initiate must walk the path, experience the fullness of time, place, culture and faith, and only then can s/he sift through their experiences with anything akin to moral authority and figure out their place in the plan.