One of the first Mormon meetinghouses in Scotland was built in the city of Dundee in the mid-fifties and dedicated by then-church president David O. McKay. It was the largest LDS building I had seen when I served my mission there, and I would wager it’s probably still the largest meetinghouse in the country. However, if it were magically transported across the ocean and relocated somewhere along the Wasatch Front, I doubt anyone would think it unusual in any way. It’s about the size of most modern stake centers, and it looks exactly like every other Mormon church in America, complete with a full-size basketball court in the center of the building.
There’s only one problem. Most Scots have never seen a basketball, except in stories and legends.
The only people who used the court were missionaries, 90%+ of whom were American. Locals used the court to play indoor football – sorry, “soccer” to us culturally unenlightened Yanks – and it was hard to even find a basketball on that side of the pond. More recent buildings have foregone the basketball standards and better reflect the preferences of the local populace.
This is the most benign illustration I can think of that demonstrates the quirkiness of Mormon culture.
As I prepared for my 40th birthday – yes, I’m 40, had a nice dinner and played laser tag, big whoop – I had a chance to reconnect with some old friends to invite them to my shindig. One is now a Church employee, and this anonymous friend resents the fact that he’s unable to comment about any peculiarities in Mormon life for fear of reprisal from his employer. My musings on temple marriage would likely have gotten this pal of mine into hot water if he’d posted it himself, and I think that’s unfortunate. I think there’s a lot of room for discussion and disagreement within the church, and I don’t think it’s faithless to join in the dialogue every once in awhile.
Where we get into trouble is when we confuse church doctrine with church culture. One is inspired; the other ain’t necessarily so. For instance, if one were to publicly preach that Jesus is not the Christ or that baptism is for losers, perhaps they’d be stepping out of bounds. But if you write a blog post that says building church basketball courts in Scotland is really, really stupid, I think you’d be making a valid cultural point while standing on firm doctrinal ground.
Doctrine changes only by revelation. Church culture, on the other hand, is, over time, remarkably fluid. Don’t believe me? Consider this, then: Brigham Young would have a very tough time getting tenure at today’s Brigham Young University unless he shaved his beard. Indeed, David O. McKay once told his wife that he’d never be called into high church leadership because he was incapable of growing facial hair. Nowadays, even a Richard L. Evans moustache would get you tossed out of the BYU Testing Center. And it’s an unwritten rule that bishops, stake presidents, and other church leaders must be clean-shaven. The Holy Ghost, apparently, now finds it impossible to penetrate through a thick sit of whiskers.
Why? Show me the doctrine on this, guys. It’s just not there.
When I was at USC, our bishop stood up in priesthood meeting and told us all the necessity of attending all of our church meetings while wearing a white shirt. Thankfully, I was wearing a white shirt at the time, but only because my cool black shirt was lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of a clothes hamper. I wore a white shirt from that point forward out of respect for that bishop – who is a great man and a wonderful leader – but I have yet to receive a spiritual confirmation from heaven that God is displeased with colored textiles.
There are plenty of other rules that seem equally ridiculous. Never applaud in a chapel. Woodwinds are acceptable in church meetings, but brass instruments are not. Missionaries must never go swimming. The Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board has a mandate from heaven. Church attendees must never stray from their self-assigned pews. Visual aids must be banished from sacrament meeting and confined solely to General Conference. Saying “you” instead of “thee” in prayers is almost as bad as swearing, but ending a sermon “in the name of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, Amen,” is appropriate, even if the people you’re speaking to don’t have a son by that name. She who births the most kids wins. Using wheat bread for the sacrament may occasionally be necessary, but that doesn’t make it right. And partaking of the sacrament with your left hand will make you go blind.
It all seems kind of silly to me.
I decided a long time ago, though, that none of this weirdness was enough to drive me away. I still wear a white shirt most of the time, and I’m usually clean-shaven. I’ve grown a beard on occasion, but I shave it off after a month or two, largely because I don’t care enough about the issue to start a crusade over it. I don’t really want to be “The Beard Guy,” striking a blow for Mormon goatees everywhere. If it’s not a big deal, then what’s wrong with going with the flow? Bishops have enough problems as it is – they don’t need a batch of beard crusaders making trouble.
My brother-in-law has a beard. He’s evil, you know.