A Response to Matt Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.2 of 3)

This 3-part series is a response to Matthew Bowman’s excellent Slate article, “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.”

I’m going over my three quibbles: First, the article paints a flatter evolutionary model of LDS history than I believe Bowman himself advances in his book. Second, as a result, Bowman glosses over some important distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials. Finally, Bowman also might have drawn attention to how the shifts he describes directly relates to the present discussions of “official doctrine.” Nitpick #2:

II. Glossing Correlation and Broader Mormon Culture

Bowman traces the present conservativism of the Church to “a collision between the social upheavals of the 1960s and the progressive ideals of the early 20th century.” This is a crucial, and I think accurate, frame. But notice how he glosses what I see as a crucial gap (or perhaps a fuzzy border):

Brigham Young University banned facial hair and instituted a formal dress code. When the sexual revolution began, Mormon leaders issued a pamphlet titled For the Strength of Youth that instructed teenagers in proper dating etiquette. And 1973 brought Saturday’s Warrior.

Bowman goes from BYU policy to official church publication to a lay Mormon theatrical production created sans correlations direction and direct filtering. Why bring Saturday’s Warrior–a theatrical production which present American Mormons largely still embrace for nostalgic reasons, if they aren’t simply mocking it as quaint–into the mix? Bowman might be accused of privileging the exotic over the ordinary here. He might be accused of making a silly comparison for comparison’s sake between the present Book of Mormon Musical and Saturday’s Warrior. But Bowman doesn’t employ the musical in order to simply poke some fun; instead he contextualizes it to tease out what it might tell us about the values and beliefs of that earlier Mormon  moment, which echoes in the present Mormon moment.1 I think Bowman’s case is astute not because of its quirkiness, but because the show can be understood as both shaping and being shaped by wider Mormon theological imagination and cultural concerns. Despite its non-correlated status, the show’s presentation of the plan of salvation has potentially influenced the present Mormon imagination as much as any correlated manual.2 This must be why Bowman sees Saturday’s Warrior as “a remarkable relic of the midcentury bureaucratic reform effort that gradually became the defining force of 20th-century Mormonism.” But he lumps it in with BYU honor code stuff (apostles sit on the Board) and officially-produced church literature without drawing any distinction.

While Bowman points to several of what he sees as beneficial outcomes of correlation (observations often ignored in present complaining about the depersonalization and seeming dumbing-down of correlation), he again glosses the gap between correlated and non-correlated Mormon fare by resurrecting the “Mormon Rap.” An outsider might easily get the impression that the “Mormon Rap” was at least a quasi-official effort by the Church to appeal to the mainstream, being discussed alongside the present “I’m a Mormon” campaign. But the Mormon Rap was never intended to be anything more than a tongue-in-cheek inside joke, a Single’s Ward film-type effort at exploiting Mormon stereotypes for cheap laughs–a Ward road show compressed into a little plastic cassette tape for mass distribution to insiders. And even for insiders there was some ambivalence about its acceptability–perhaps a result of its emerging from outside of the official correlated channels. My own dad, a former Bishop, confiscated my copy of the jam, not because there was something wrong with rap or anything, but because the song itself annoyed the hell out of him, and he thought it was a cheap way to exploit Mormonism for a few bucks. If the “Mormon Rap” is evidence of any particular Mormon impulse, it might be the awareness of being perceived as a bunch of squares within the wider culture. Juxtaposing the white bread Mormon culture with an edgier music genre makes for the joke’s payoff. The Mormon Rap is further evidence of Mormonism’s “peculiar people” impulse, not an attempt to mainstream. (The Church’s own “Bounce Back!” cassette, on the other hand, seems a more legit effort to sound more hip in the late 80s. And it was part of a commercial campaign and distributed by missionaries, to boot. Check out some of Michael McLean’s jazziest numbers. It, too, had a bit of playful tongue-in-cheek.)

My chief complaint, then, is that Bowman glosses over differences between lay Mormon products and correlated productions. To me, the interesting question becomes: What is the connection between correlation and broader church culture; between committee-approved manuals and lay membership efforts?3 In official church settings, teachers are to stick to the approved manuals, but now blogs and other venues provide places for “uncorrelated Mormons” to present and explore their faith(s).4 Bowman glosses over the “official/lay” distinction by focusing on the types of morals Mormons seek to promulgate which are manifest in Mormon-produced pop culture like reality tv and vampire fiction. Mormons are mainstreaming, he says, but again, this isn’t new, the Osmond’s were pioneers, too. Moreover, church magazines print stories by non-General Authorities all the time, and members are asked to create personal profiles on mormon.org with personalized testimonies.

These last efforts, though, receive some measure of correlation! Official…Lay… distinction…blurring….Which brings me to final point in the next post.

Footnotes:

1. The exotic/ordinary distinction is a tension identified by religious studies scholar Jonathan Z. Smith in the introduction to his Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), xiii.

2. I don’t know if any in-depth research has been performed using Saturday’s Warrior, but it would be a treasure trove for analyzing unofficial  public presentations of Mormonism. The play follows a family from pre- to present- to post-mortality, and the LDS Church hierarchy, ordinances, etc. are largely absent (aside from regular missionaries and a mission president). Its soteriology is basically equated with family harmony- I don’t recall Jesus being mentioned! Just a few off-the-cuff observations.

3. Daymon Smith has been emphasizing this theme as well. Perhaps if he’d walk away from the grindstone for a minute his observations would carry more heft.

4. And to explore cracks in the manuals!  The number one response to those posts? “You should have posted these sooner.”

Comments

  1. 8th Grade Reading Level says:

    Thanks Bhodges. I also admire Bowman’s work. He’s really the first non-lds scholar/journalist I’ve read that understands the Mormon position well enough to really make some keen observations about theology and culture without sounding like an opponent. He gets us (or at least me). I trust him.

    That might by why I was so bugged by his inclusion of the the Mormon Rap in this particular way. The idea that anyone in the Church would think the Mormon Rap might help “foster [our] image” offended me to the core.

  2. (Psst, 8th Grade: Matt Bowman is very much a Mormon. He gets us, because he gets himself.)

  3. Matt Bowman is LDS. This may explain why he does not sound like an opponent.

  4. I thought the Mormon Rap was mostly harmless, but it went too far by referring to the Relief Society as “bitches.”

  5. Matt’s a secret Mormon, 8GRL! I wonder if Matt really intended to present the Mormon Rap in the way you and I understood. He ties it to the idea that Mormons were seeking to “reach out, to find in the non-Mormon world things to value.” Really, I think it was just a funny/lame tongue-in-cheek way to juxtapose the uncoolness of Mormonism with an apparently cooler musical genre. Matt adds: “Since then, Mormons are increasingly adept at reconciling the demanding moral code of the correlated church with participation in broader American culture.” Yes, there was no swearing in the Mormon Rap, but again that is part of the joke: the rap was in no way intended to cross over into the mainstream where rap lyrics are much more crass.

    In all, though, Matt’s inclusion of the rap makes for a funny, quirky factoid for us to recall, and for outsiders to learn for the first time. I just don’t know if many non-LDS will catch that the Mormon Rap was Mormons making some fun of Mormons, not trying to be cool/relevant in the 80s-early 90s. (Perhaps unlike the officially-disseminated “Bounce Back! cassette.)

  6. 8th Grade Reading Level says:

    Ardis – You are obviously right. I think i confused him with Max Mueller, who also writes for Slate, and did a recent podcast with Blair. No wonder I keep repeating the 8th grade.

  7. How awesome is it that a clip of someone playing NES Excite Bike is a related video to Bounce Back on youtube?

  8. Blair, and others: while I agree the distinction between lay and correlated material is important (and probably could be developed with greater distinction here), two things: First, Robert Orsi (who you cited last time) Carlo Ginzburg, and a number of other scholars (including Jonathan Z. Smith) have called the lay/official divide into question, asking what, exactly, it gains us interpretively. After all, the people who write the manuals, just as the clergy who administer rites in other religions, are themselves practitioners and believers, as subject to the pressures of culture, time, and change as are their followers. It is not as though a religion’s leaders have access to some pure form of the faith that the laity then take and mess with. Nor can we argue that influence only goes one way, from top to bottom, both places where too many interpretations of “lived religion” have gone.

    So, and second, one of the basic assertions of the essay is that correlation is more than merely an official program. It was a bureaucratic effort that changed a lot of things about the practice of Mormonism, and helped to foster, eventually, a certain cultural tone. The men (mostly) who administered it were as subject to that cultural tone as anybody else; it is not as though they were evil geniuses foisting it upon the flock. Correlation becomes, then, a shorthand for a certain way of being Mormon, a constellation of values. That is why I see Saturday’s Warrior as every bit a product of correlation as the manuals are (and thus treat it in that chapter of my book), and, that is why, though a joke it may have been, the Mormon Rap was indisputably, as I call it, an effort to fuse Reagan era beatboxing with Mormon values.

    Now, amusingly, this leads me toward the same place where you’re going – the blurring of the lay-official divide. You seem to be implying that this is something that happens as correlation’s power wanes; I don’t think it is. It’s something that’s been happening all along. I would certainly wager that there have been general authorities whose views have been shaped by Saturday’s Warrior, just as there were probably general authorities whose views were shaped by Added Upon. It’s wrong to think of culture as a top-down phenomenon; rather, it’s more like a lake we’re all swimming around in. Which is why I don’t think there’s any such a thing as an “uncorrelated Mormon;” these tend to be people who are just as much a product of correlation as you or I are, and yet are rebelling against certain values of the system to which they ascribe negative values (like, say, bureaucracy) while still, unconsciously, embracing others (like correlation’s recent attempts to promulgate cultural diversity).

  9. #1
    I don’t know much about Bowman’s work (although I did read the newspaper piece). On this side of the Atlantic, Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University does an excellent job of explaining us. Last time I checked he was non-LDS.

  10. gst is back!! Celebration time.

  11. Matt B is da bomb, and comment #8 is another reason why he’s on another level than most of us. I think his slate article is dead-on.

  12. Awesome, matt, thanks for the reply.

    You seem to be implying that this is something that happens as correlation’s power wanes; I don’t think it is.

    Implication unintentional—I don’t think it’s a matter of waning, or even waxing really. In this post I wanted to draw attention to some of the distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials, even while acknowledging they definitely inform each other. They are neither separated by an impenetrable wall, nor do I think they’re simply equatable.

    So when you place the “Mormon Rap” in the same basic category as Saturday’s Warrior based on their similarly being a combo of gospel values+pop culture, I see too much equating. Maybe this is because of the genre of the respective productions. You say “though a joke it may have been, the Mormon Rap was indisputably, as I call it, an effort to fuse Reagan era beatboxing with Mormon values.” But you also call it a spectacular failure, too. What makes it a spectacular failure, as though it was really trying to be culturally relevant in more than a funny Weird Al type way? (Good grief, I’m sort of defending–in a way–the Mormon Rap. I srsly never saw this coming!)

    As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I don’t know if many non-LDS will catch in your column that the Mormon Rap was Mormons just making some fun of ourselves, not trying to be cool/relevant in the 80s. I suggest the officially-disseminated “Bounce Back!” cassette is a better example of that impulse, not simply because it was an “official” product (the boundaries are permeable, as you note). Its official status apparently did place some constraints on the product itself, and it differs from the “Mormon Rap” in its being geared for a broader audience. You could listen to 90% of it without realizing it was a Mormon thing. So considering the goals behind it, as much as the venue producing it (Lex de Azavedo or Correlation), highlights interesting differences which I think your article glosses (again, largely due to its truncated nature and its intended audience, I reckon).

    And this is exactly why I thought a few blog posts would be good. Your #8 comment talks specifically about how Correlation seems to be working on the inside, amongst Mormons, whereas your article, written for a broader audience, seems more outward focused. My question, “What is the connection between correlation and broader church culture; between committee-approved manuals and lay membership efforts?” isn’t addressed in the column, I figure because it wasn’t your purpose. But I think your comments in #8 draw out some interesting elements of greater interest to us navel-gazers (as Ben P and others seem to enjoy!).

  13. I never heard of this Mormon Rap until today. I didn’t join The Church until 1995. I looked it up on YouTube. Oh…my…goodness. What on earth was that??!? Having been an outsider in 1988 and on the ground floor (geographically) when rap was gaining momentum I have to say that you guys are seriously lucky a lot of people did not know about this thing. I was so embarrassed to be a human being while that was playing.

  14. (Not that it matters as far as the content, but FWIW the second paragraph of part 1 read to me to suggest that Bowman was the “former member of the church” referred to in the first paragraph – maybe that explains the confusion in #1. BHodges might want to edit that wording if Bowman is sensitive to those sorts of things.)

  15. Bowman’s actually a Mormon! Why hasn’t anyone shoved 8 GRL’s face into that moist cow pie?

  16. I don’t know about shoving anyone’s face into a cow pie (gross) but I was under the impression that people had corrected 8GRL saying he was a non-member. At least from what I understood.

  17. Thanks, man, now I have that chorus in my head. Do the muh-muh-mormon rap. I thought it was hysterical at the time, but I’ve always loved a good parody and even a bad parody or two.

  18. For a totally correlated complement to Saturday’s Warrior, there was an official church short musical play called All in Favor from the late 60′s./early 70′s, featuring two young men preparing for missions, their relationships with their girlfriends, and finally their triumphant return home from their mission.

    I participated in my ward, not as the lead, but the wingman character. One of the keys to the play was that the wingman was totally obedient, never even kissed his steady girlfriend before his mission, while the lead character was somewhat more “uncorrelated,” but eventually saw the errors of his ways, and chose to serve his mission.

    I remember the final scene where the missionaries came home, we had fake mustaches that we were wearing, and our girlfriends were horrified. However, we both ripped off the fake mustache, thus restoring our honor, and redeeming ourselves in the eyes of the girlfriends. No theological creativity involved, just a strictly didactic exposition of keeping the wagon wheels as far away from the precipice as possible.

    In retrospect, it seems kind of lame, but it was also a motivating factor in deciding to grow a mustache that I then kept for 30 years.

  19. I find the idea that Saturday’s Warrior was a product of correlation mildly amusing. It is hard to think of anything genuinely Mormon less likely to come out of correlation than Saturday’s Warrior. As an example, my mission president, from my perspective as upstanding and reasonable CES administrator by background as there ever was, forbade the missionaries under his charge from listening to it, almost twenty years after it came out. Too subversive, apparently.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,701 other followers