I revisit an old topic that is becoming increasingly relevant, especially in a culture where not only is bad called good and vice versa, but where neither is called anything. Indeed, we see this same element in part within our own theology where, as Joseph taught, “some things that are right under one circumstance might be wrong in another.” Our theology needs (and fortunately, has) a set of “inner controls” to keep its wild force in check and therefore, retain its usefulness to the world.
Being a Latter-day Saint graduate student in liberal arts can make for some interestingly awkward (or awkwardly interesting) conversations. Most of my effort is spent demonstrating to them that I can read WHOLE books and speak in complete sentences, that I don’t care for the Left Behind series, that I find C.S. Lewis to be only occasionally insightful, and that I don’t believe Jesus drives a tank. And yet I am willing to believe that a prophet of God came out of the upstate New York woodwork. Their thoughts probably vacillate between, “Radically intense!” or “Shouldn’t you be fixing moonshine somewhere?” Except that I don’t drink moonshine. Always full of surprises! So then there are all of the classic accounts of awkward moments at pubs, strange looks about the reason I know Hmong (“cultural imperialist,” they mutter under their breath), and various other oddities.
So at the end of the day, I ask: “Why?” The discussions about the reasons for the Word of Wisdom rage ad nauseum. Tit-for-tats continue about why we dress modestly, go to Church on Sunday, or do anything that we do ad absurdium. Is it written in the heavens, my heart crieth out, that one glass of wine a month is worse for you than two gallons of soda a day? Yet one earns sharp talk about health habits whereas the other gets a temple recommend thrown in the batch.
My answer? Postmodernism. Image politics. Divinely-inspired PR. Perhaps it sounds a little too Karl Rove-ish for some folks’ tastes, but it is well founded in scripture and modern revelation. Elder Maxwell taught: “We will find that not only are there strategic signposts of morality, but there are also tactical standards of morality with which we must be concerned if we are to preserve our identity in the way that is most helpful to us and to our fellowmen.” He cites Sampson’s long hair; there was nothing inherently strengthening about hair. He notes Paul’s injunction to the women that they keep their heads covered; there is no theology, Jewish or Christian, that tells us anything about the goodness or evil inherent in womens’ hair. What were these images for? Tactics…and seldom are tactics a reflection of eternal principles. Sampson needed to distinguish himself from the otherwise unrighteous Phillistines. The women, feeling a sense of equality from the Pauline epistles (“Ye are all one in Christ”) felt reasonably inclined to shed a certain aspect of their gender. Paul counseled against it if only to keep them distinct from the ladies of loose morals who were also known by their refusal to wear a head-covering.
How much of what we do is dictated because we want to be “peculiar”? BYU’s honor code? The Word of Wisdom? Modesty? perhaps BYU’s honor code (what’s better looking to the press than 30,000 clean-cut, modestly-dressed 18-25 year olds)? Notice, this possibility should not be used to delegitimize the commandments. After all, Elder Maxwell continued that the “prophet would help us set the tone of tactical morality when such is needed.”
Can image politics be the latest way to articulate the message while staying in touch with the postmodern zeitgeist? What think you?