Culture Shock in Orem

KC KernCulture 11 Comments

A couple Sundays ago in our singles ward, we were reminded on no uncertain terms that if we were not currently enrolled in a BYU religion class, then we should attend an institute class. I have finished all my BYU required religion credits, and as such, fell into the speaker’s target audience. I figured he was probably right and I could benefit from an institute class, so I looked around for what was available. Apparently there was a Stake institute held at the stake center, and also the Orem Institute, located on UVSC campus.

I was able to get a hold of an Orem Institute course catalog, and was surprised to see the variety of classes offered—this wasn’t just the Sunday school rotation curriculum, they had classes like “Dating and Courtship,” “History of the Church part 1 of 3,” “Women of Faith” (which specifically noted “Men Welcome”) and many others. I figured I would go check it out.

The following Tuesday at 7:00 I made my way to Orem and found the institute building. I parked, got out of the car, and headed in. As I was entering, I was surprised by the unexpected environment and atmosphere I encountered. To explain my reaction, let me give a little background:

I should first say that I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy my experience at BYU and have a great deal of respect for the institution, its role in the community, and the positive influence it has on those who attend. BYU expects a great deal out of its students, and to standardize things, has established a collection of standards and rules regarding ethics, behavior, and dress and grooming known as the honor code. There have been countless discussions on and off campus about the pros and cons of the honor code, and my purpose here is not to attack or to defend its existence, but I would like to point out an interesting side effect. Because BYU is a church sponsored institution, it often acts as a quasi-representative for the church. In a matter such as how one should dress or behave, dictum originating from BYU can sometimes be construed to be church or gospel mandates.

Let me illustrate. I had a non-LDS friend who was attending BYU. He knew the basics about the church, he had read and signed the honor code, and seemed fine complying with it and co-existing with Mormons as long as he was attending. One day, I was showing him some pictures of a trip I took with some friends. One of the friends, a University of Utah student and returned missionary, was shown with some facial hair in one of the photos. My non-LDS friend looked in shock at the picture, asking, “Is he not Mormon?” I glanced at the picture again, verifying that there wasn’t a beer bottle or cigar in his hand, and seeing that there was not, replied, “Yeah, he is… what makes you think that he’s not?” “He’s got a beard!! Mormons can’t have beards, I read it in the honor code!” I burst out laughing out loud, as I instantly remembered that pre-David O. McKay, your Mormonism lacked legitimacy if you didn’t have a burly beard to match your top hat. I explained that the beard thing was simply a BYU policy, not a commandment.

But it gave me pause; as a community, BYU abides by (for lack of a better phrase) a “hedge around the law.” Again, steering away from the debate regarding whether this is a good or bad thing, the fact is that either by ignorance or by subconscious conditioning, the BYU environment has a formative effect on one’s sense of determining what is “appropriate,” what is “decent,” and what is “unacceptable,” in a realm that remains untouched by scriptures, or even modern Church pronouncements.

So, as I entered the Orem Institute, I saw people with beards, with hair that covered their ears, sideburns that went down to their cheeks, and overall images that did not seem congruent with what I understand BYU’s vision of student image to be. A few double-takes later, I had a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment, and had to remind myself that I’m not in a BYU building. As I shuffled around the building to find the registration, some skater-styled guy with shaggy hair came up to me, grinned, and said “hey bro, you lookin’ for the registration office? It’s over there dude!” I thanked him, and found that his grin was contagious. I quickly shook off the initial culture shock, and was very pleased to verify that the LDS young adult culture does indeed expand beyond the bound of honor-code conformity.

I didn’t feel any need to conform to anyone else’s concept of acceptability, but rather felt surprisingly in accord with the Church Educational System’s original slogan “I Belong.” In fact, I found myself having a perticular esteem for those at the Orem Institute, many of whom were UVSC students. They did not need to be enrolled in order to graduate, it was entirely voluntary. And based on the interactions I had there, I found they were much more concerned with maintaining a welcoming environment than they were with determining the length of my whiskers.

Before this experience, I certainly wasn’t naïve enough to think that the whole LDS community was an enlarged carbon copy of BYU, as I have spent considerable time abroad, experiencing the Church in multiple cultures. However, being a BYU student, the BYU snow globe is the reality that I interact with on a daily basis. If nothing else, it was very refreshing to see a sanctioned LDS environment that harbored a more colorful rendering of LDS young adults than I was used to. I plan on continuing to attend the Orem institute this semester, and I think I will very much enjoy it.

Comments 11

  1. I loved that story. Especially because I have a beard! I have always wondered why the church and its members seem to strive for such homogenity in appearance regardless of where in the world you go. I have to admit I was quite amused when I saw male Tongan church members with tapa cloth skirts and white shirts and ties!

    While the real church world is somewhat different than BYU, those long hairs and beardos at UVSC will conform at some point in their lives if they stay active in the church and accept leadership callings. The most daring they will get is wearing a colored dress shirt to church.

    I am just amazed and frustrated that I can’t work in the Temple or teach at BYU during education week or teach seminary, because I have a beard. The missionary thing I can see, but I’ve never gotten a reasonable explanation why from any leader of the church other than “because the prophet says so.” And, frankly, I’m not so sure he did.

  2. I have attended the big three Church schools (BYU, BYU-Hawaii, and BYU-Idaho). Out of the three, enjoyed BYU-Hawaii the most and did not shed a tear when I left BYU_Idaho.

    For me, BYU-Idaho was not a good experience. There was this pressure to conform unlike anything that I have experienced aside from my mission. Also I did not appreciate the inherent institutional distrust I found there. It seemed as though some thought that if you do not live all of “our” standards, you will commit adultery or some other heinous sin and the rest of your life will be horrible.

    Towards the end of my stay I began to wonder,”will they ever trust me?” I had served an honorable mission, was active in the Church, held and used a temple recommend, and have strong testimony of the restored gospel. Why don’t they trust me?

    Eventually I decided that staying was not the best thing for me. I decided to transfer anywhere I could get in. Thankfully I got in to BYU-Hawaii and had an experience that was very different from BYU-I. I found that at Hawaii, the students were trusted to make the their own decisions.

    As I have thought about BYU-Idaho, I have thought about the oral tradition and the law of the Gospel. I think it is important that we follow the charge of the Old Testament to not add or take from the Law. What got the Jews in trouble was not the Law of Moses, but the oral traditions and rabbinic commentaries that put added requirements to observing God’s commandments. It was the oral tradition that caused many to miss the fact that these things were to point their minds to the Messiah and missed him at his coming.

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace are two of the best kept secrets in the Church. It is sad because grace as both a concept and theme run throughout the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and, believe it or not, the Old Testament. Why are we afraid to teach grace and mercy. I believe that if we did, our retention rates would be much higher, and some of our institutions could trust those that attend.

  3. This brings back a culture shock memory from my freshman year at BYU. Being from the east, I had never really been to UT before. I was studying with a boy in the library for an upcoming religion test, and I found him staring at me. Then he leaned in and said, “I really like you, but I can’t ask you out because my family would never approve of me dating a girl with such short hair.” I don’t remember what I said in response to this outburst, but it always struck me as laughable and weird.

  4. I know you wanted to avoid the “goodness or badness” debate about the honor code KC, but frankly, I don’t see how you can. Any code that is focused strictly on outward appearances has the effect of normalizing certain appearances and making other appearances taboo.
    The fact that you found yourself wondering if these unkempt people were in the right place, or if you were, illustrates the subtle indoctrination of expectations.
    It saddens me deeply to think that generations of my fellow Mormons’ expectations of what a “Mormon” is has been colored by such a superficial, literally skin-deep description.
    If “the lord looketh upon the heart,” why are we so concerned with such ridiculous things as hair length, beards, tattoos, and earrings?
    As Chris said above, The Gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace are two of the best kept secrets in the Church.
    And it’s not going to change until the BYU students under these ridiculous codes grow a spine and stand up for what the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  5. Hugh Nibley, one of my academic heroes, had issues with the honour code. I always enjoyed his veridicality…and the administration could not really argue with his candidness.

    All the responses here have been great aswell. I belive that most people are inherrantly good. And I think that we should celebrate our differences. I am glad to see so many lds members exercising their agency in a way that is psychologically healthy.

  6. Post

    andrew, I do indeed have my own thoughts and opinions about the honor code, but it is a can of worms that I feel deserves its own post. With this post, I wanted to illustrate a cultural divide that exists within the Utah Valley LDS young adults, but stay tuned, I think I’ve got a post brewing about the honor code. I used to work as a resident assistant in the BYU dorms for a year, and one of my duties involved being an “honor code police officer” of sorts—so I’ll let you in on some juicy insider details. 🙂

    But I didn’t mean to suggest that I was dodging the honor code debate, my intent was rather to compartmentalize the discussions.

  7. When I was at BYU, I used to extrapolate with toungue in cheek the 12th Article of Faith, “We believe in being subject to Kings, Presidents, Ruler, and Magistrates in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law (AND CULTURE).”

    On one hand, doctinally there is nothing binding about an honor code violation. On the other hand, I think what instutitions like BYU (and our General Authority and missionary dress code) do is to telegraph to the wider world how banal we can be so that we don’t call attention to our esoterics. We tried to emphasize our cultural esoterics and all it did was get us into trouble with the govenment and our wider culture. I see the honor code as another example of the pendulum continuing to telegraph to the wider world that the LDS people can fit in a corporate boardroom and run for president. We get our power through our integration into the wider world polically and economically because God has yet to save us in our esoterics against those that do not like them or want to suppress them.

  8. Great post, I did indeed reap joy from reading this mass of words. I went to Snow College my first year of college, and when coming back from Christmas break I had grown a goatee. I went back to school with my aunt and uncle, who where MTC branch presidents, and went to church with them. It was a fun experience to go to church in the MTC in a suit, 19 or so years old, but with a goatee.
    I comb my hair from back to front, for a slicked back look. On my mission, I often made sure people knew that the rule for hair was long enough to part, but not necessarily parted.

  9. Great post.

    But what of BYU telegraphing messages that aren’t appropriate? The only specific example I can think of off the top of my head is that caffeinated beverages are against the WoW, but I get asked about that all the time in Ohio at grad school. For some reason all my classmates know about that.

    I found my institute experience at the UofU to be fantastic, but totally dependent on the instructor. Some weren’t any better than a seminary teacher. There was luckily a broad enough selection (of teachers) for all of the different flavors of students – the deep doctrine from Norman, the lecturing exegesis from Wilcox, the historical, liberal views from Peterson, etc. etc. – that you really could find what you needed to “belong.” I hope your institute experience continues to be a good one.

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