One reason I am uncomfortable with the Mormon influence on my children is the constant drum roll of mediocrity within the culture. Being exceptional within Mormonism means following the rules more than anyone else. Outside Mormonism it means the opposite.
For example, one of my personal pet peeves is the narrow Mormon perspective on what qualifies as sacred music. The policy keeps even international Mormon meetings firmly 19th century North American prairie white. But what if you are not white, not American, or not born more than 20 years ago?
The other day while visiting an ex-Mormon site, I came across a talk by the infamous Mormon leader, Boyd K Packer in which he details the rules or Mormon artistry and musicianship. For those who don’t know, only the organ and piano are really the only approved instruments in typical one dimensional Mormon meetings. This talk attempts to explain the reasoning for what type of music is appropriate:
We are under resistance from some highly trained musicians who insist that they can get as much inspiration from brass instruments or a guitar solo as from a choir. I believe that an organ perhaps could be played at a pep rally in a way to incite great enthusiasm. And I think a brass section could play a hymn in such a way as to be reverent and fitting in a worship service. But if it should happen, it would have to be an exception. We cannot convey a sacred message in an art form that is not appropriate and have anything spiritual happen. But there is a constant attempt to do it.
Never mind that organs ARE regularly used in stadiums to “incite great enthusiasm.” And never mind that a solo trumpet is regularly used by the military to convey reverence. Did you catch the implication? Exceptions are bad!
I grew up firmly trained to not think of myself as an exception. We don’t try to be an exception and we don’t search for exceptions. Almost every Mormon rule, commandment, policy, behavior and expectation applies quite nicely to pointing everyone towards the highest point of the bell curve.
Anything which draws attention to an individual or causes one to inhabit the fringe of the bell curve is discouraged. This one characteristic is why Mormons tend to not be great artists. You have to make daring and bold choices in art and music. You have to stand out to be great.
For me, the essential problem with Mormon culture is that I’m weird. I’ve always been weird. As a teenager, I was the only white boy I knew in our suburban town with a natural afro. And when you attend church in a building whose central feature is a basketball court but you don’t play basketball very well or even care to play…you stick out even further. I preferred show-tunes over popular radio tunes.
Tonight I just completed an annual ritual… watching the Kennedy Center Honors. Each year the Kennedy Center selects five extraordinary individuals whose artistry has contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world. For me, it’s better than the Tony Awards or the Academy Awards combined. This year’s honorees were Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins & Meryl Streep.
Guess what? They’re all pretty weird people. Look at the list of past recipients and they’re weird too. In fact I’d say that to be exceptional like these artists you have to be a bit weird. You have to think of yourself an an exception.
The exceptionalism you’ll find in Mormonism is within careers and industries where mediocrity and charm is rewarded and admired…places where rule keeping and achievement follows a pattern…such as law, business, insurance, sports, public service. And none of that is all that exceptional in my book.
Look at what it has done to someone already on their way to creative exceptionalism! It made singer David Archuleta think he SHOULD give all that up and serve a mediocre mission like any other 19 year old Mormon boy… I’m not particularly fond of the kid myself but I felt sick for him when I heard the news of what he’d been convinced to do.
My kids are exceptional, creative, musical, funny and weird. I love them all the more for that. I only hope Mormonism doesn’t squelch that part of them like it did in me for so many years.
I want them to stay weird, embrace their weirdness and look for the exceptions in life!
That’s the only way to be exceptional!