As a follow-up to my last post (see below “Going global but not imperial: conversion without deculturation”), and heading in what may seem to be the complete opposite direction, I’d like to qualify my concerns with the Americanization of foreign converts with what I see as a positive American influence. When living in Taiwan, I was surprised at how often Taiwanese Saints would speak about the Mormon pioneers and their difficult exodus to the Desert of Utah. It came up frequently in Sacrament meeting talks. Speakers would often speak of the persecutions the early Saints endured and then naturally move into speaking about Brigham Young, the difficult journey across the desert, and the final settlement in Utah where they established Zion. This seemed to be a very meaningful narrative that was shared or alluded to over and over.
I’ve wondered since just what it was about this story that makes it so meaningful. I’ve always figured it was so meaningful to so many Utah Saints because of a sense of ancestral heritage; it links them to their ancestral past with a sense of continuity: they continue the legacy at least to some degree out of gratitude for what their ancestors did—so their sacrifice is not in vain. But what of these Taiwanese Saints? Why is the same narrative so meaningful to them?
Perhaps it has to do with the universality of the pioneer archetype. As converts to a church that is still relatively young in their country–a church that requires (or at least encourages) some major changes in lifestyle, beliefs, and worldview–the pioneer symbol resonates. Each convert has to cross their own desert in the process of conversion. The ward community becomes their Zion settlement in that new, unfamiliar land. Themes of sacrifice, displacement, transition, endurance, dedication, and community really resonate with their own experience.
Perhaps it is partially because the Church is young in these areas that stories from the American past are so prominent. Maybe with time more stories of the establishment of the LDS Church in Taiwan will become more prominent in their meetings. Maybe stories of certain individuals from among the Taiwanese Saints will become more well-known and will share pulpit time with Brigham Young and the early pioneers. Maybe some of today’s Saints’ own children will relate more and more their own parents’ conversion experiences for the same reasons the exodus to Utah gets told so frequently. Even then, the exodus narrative will probably not die out completely, nor does it really need to. Some symbols are universal: there will always be new beginnings and new pioneers; thus genesis and exodus themes will always be meaningful. It will be interesting to see if new, more local narratives gain prominence as the Church grows. If recent trends in Ensign article selection serve any indication, perhaps they will.
When I arrived in Taiwan at the beginning of a 5-month English-teaching stint, I was very curious about Taiwanese religion. After spending a few weeks in Taiwan, visiting a few temples, I determined that religion was very much a thing of the past–a distant relic that is no longer really practiced but is preserved as cultural heritage (sort of like Catholicism in parts of Europe). Over time, however, I realized how extremely superficial and simply false my initial impression was (sort of like the statement I just made about parts of Europe probably is). Despite the technological modernization of Taiwan, the country is soaked in religion. But Asian religiosity is so different from Western Christianity in certain respects, that it took me a while to recognize it. I began to notice little things I hadn’t before: people burning paper in a little barrel in the street or in furnaces outside of neighborhood shrines; red paper on the doorposts of houses; charms hanging from every rear-view mirror. As I began asking my students about these practices, I learned that they involve a very real and deep religiosity. Rather than a sort of dogmatic set of doctrines, however, this religiosity is more of a worldview that entails an explicit belief in the reality of both the continuity and contiguity of a spiritual realm that is actively involved in this world. They burn paper money and other items in order to provide those items for departed spirits. This is done both to provide family members the things they need and cannot provide for themselves during their spiritual sojourn as well as to placate spirits that might otherwise become mischievous and troublesome. The red on the doorposts and the charms (I’m sure there is a better word for these) on the rearview mirrors are to ward off such spirits.
Through my experiences living there and teaching children, I realized more and more how prevalent this worldview was. I began to wonder what happens to this worldview when Taiwanese individuals convert to Mormonism. I sort of suspected that such a strongly held worldview probably was not simply dropped and swapped for another. So when I saw some missionaries, I asked them. “Yeah,” the Elder responded, “we get a lot of converts who will continue to visit the temple and burn spirit money.” I was fascinated by this, but he seemed less enthused. “We try to get them to stop, but its easy for people to fall back into false worship.” I asked if the mission president had set a policy for it. He said that the president had instructed the Taiwanese Saints that it was okay to perform such rituals for their ancestors if they did it only as a sort of cultural recognition, sort of like how Westerners put flowers on their loved ones’ grave sites. But it was nonetheless discouraged.
This exchange raised several questions in my mind. While I was glad to hear that the mission president offered some leeway, I wondered if even his qualifications of the practice were necessary. Is the practice of burning paper objects to provide ancestors with those things they need really incongruous with Mormon belief and practice? Is it really that different than performing proxy ordinances for them–providing with something they need but cannot secure for themselves? And are we suspicious of it because it is somehow incongruous with Gospel principles or simply because it is not Western?
This raises a larger issue. Since Mormonism was restored and socially constructed in America, it has surely has picked up some American trappings and baggage (and thus Western trappings and baggage). Yet Mormons believe that at the core are eternal, universal principles. As missionary work expands globally, we are faced with the challenge of determining what those core elements are and what the cultural trappings are. Obviously conversion entails some change; but does conversion to “the Gospel” also need to entail Westernization and Americanization? Do strong Asian traditions really need to give way to what may be Western biases? I do not believe they do. But how do we go about determining just what those core beliefs are and what may or may not go with or against them?