Exchanging Orthodoxy for Orthopraxy

I tend to make few comments during lessons in Sunday School or Priesthood, even when something is said that I deeply disagree with. I don’t want to be labeled as one who “stirs the pot” or the “ward liberal”, so for the sake of maintaining harmonious relationships in the ward I usually keep my thoughts to one-on-one interactions I have with closer friends in the ward. When asked to comment (or to speak in Sacrament), I try to do it in a way that facilitates conversation without sparking controversy.

Over the years I’ve found other ways of making my personal opinions public. I rarely wear a suit, and most weeks I don’t wear a white shirt (I’ve even worn a bow tie a few times!). I also let my hair grow long enough to have people ask when it’s going to be cut. I found this method much more subtle because it doesn’t seem to confront others directly in as much as it plays on ambiguities (“Oh, he’s a poor grad student, and only has his old mission suit.”). 

I’ve decided recently to speak up more, and have actually been called to teach. Fortunately we live in a large ward with a high turn-over (coupled with the fact that I was in primary for the last year), which means that most people don’t know me and probably won’t even notice a change in appearance (this becomes significant below).

I still try to formulate my ideas in ways that are not blatantly offensive, but I’m also confronting the issues that I see as important for us in our time. In 2Nephi 5 for instance we discussed issues of power relations (Nephi reluctantly becoming king), race (the curse on the Lamanites), and gender (Nephi’s sisters which are mentioned for the first and last time).

In order to mitigate some of the ill-will this may cause I’ve changed parts of my appearance. I cut my hair and have worn suits (dark-colored of course) with white shirts and rather standard ties. So far few people seem to notice a significant change from before. It could be said that I’ve exchanged my “orthodoxy” for “orthopraxy”.

I’m wondering what you think of my strategy. Am I worried about nothing? Or perhaps too crafty? Or is there some truth to the idea that people will be more open-minded and willing to grapple with difficult problems when it comes from someone that “looks mainstream”?

25 Replies to “Exchanging Orthodoxy for Orthopraxy”

  1. Honestly, I think it is all about tone. You can get away with saying amazingly subversive things if you decorate them properly and get in hot water over mild things presented in a hostile way.

  2. I agree that tone is important, but I also think that there is more. I like what you’ve done: avoiding conflict in the past speaks volumes about your motives. I’ve always been a short hair/black suit guy—out of personal preference rather than conformity—so I don’t have the same “problem” as you. But I still have to use caution when asking my class to consider “alternate views.” I typically present such ideas as my own sincere questions: “Why doesn’t Nephi mention his sisters? What’s going on? Was that just ‘how things were’ or should Nephi have been more enlightened, seeing that he was a prophet?” Because I am sincere in my questions, and because I insist that all of our discussion be scripture-based, my class doesn’t mistake my motives as hostile. You want to reassure your students that you and they are ‘on the same team’.

    By the way, I like how this post follows on the heels of a few others on this blog.

  3. Why “strategy?” Why “crafty?” I think its all about motive. I think “…people will be more open-minded and willing to grapple with difficult problems when it comes from someone that…” is genuine and sincere in their concern for eternal truth and the eternal welfare of their fellow beings.

  4. I would be the guy with short hair and wearing a suit and looking for the respectful opportunity for saying very subversive things. But I would do it with a smile. 🙂

    I would quietly listen to your talk, knowing my place as the outsider, but then I am sure we would get into quite a fervent discussion in the ward hallway, Smallaxe.

    I think “exchanging orthodoxy for orthopraxy” is a strong, heavily relied upon, well-used strategy within wards across the country.

    Have a good weekend.

  5. Julie,

    If I’m understanding you correctly you’re saying that not only is tone the most important factor but also the only factor in fruitfully engaging issues. Does appearance not matter then? If the same question or comment is raised in the same tone from two different people–one wearing the suit and tie, and the other not wearing a white shirt or a tie, for instance–would the question be taken the same way? Or does appearance somehow contribute to tone?


    Did you really ask your class if Nephi could have been “more enlightened”? If so, and they weren’t taken back by it, then wow. How did you sincerely pose that kind of question without raising a few eyebrows?


    This post is also about the perception of motive. Obviously word choice is an important component; but to what degree does one’s appearance convey one’s motive?


    Do evangelicals face similar issues?

  6. I did something similar when I was called to teach a sunday school class. I never felt very good about it. I always felt like I was deceiving everyone for not putting my “real” self forward.

  7. Why could Hugh Nibley get away with all the criticism he gave? Because everyone knew that he was “one of them” and he was calling for people to be better, not more worldly. When you adjust your dress, you are communicating. When you smile, you are communicating. When you go “goth” you are communicating something about yourself. I try to make sure that whatever I am communicating, I am inviting openness and acceptance. You get what you give.

  8. Axe: I’m currently in nearly the exact same boat. The only difference is I have the 14 yr olds and they don’t mind a little non-conformity (I wear a blue shirt and long hair all the time). My only problem is I have to focus on the basics and that keeps us away from too many controversial subjects. If I were you, I’d do just what you’ve done and slowly slip back into the place you are comfortable with as you gain their respect. Besides, a good teacher always has to personalize something for their audience, be it content, presentation, clothes, or whatever.

  9. I can really relate to your problem. I too am wise and sophisticated beyond the simple folk in my ward, and I struggle with just the right look in order to win their trust so that I can impart some enlightenment to them.

  10. Since (anecdotal assertion to follow) many LDS think that doctrinal apostasy follows directly from not “living the commandments” I try to make my loyalties obvious without going overboard in doing so- doing hometeaching, going to my meetings, being a willing participant. My orthodoxy and goodwill are established, so that when necessary, I can undermine or shoot down garbage, whether from the mouth of a class member or the teacher.

    I agree with Julie, that tone can make a huge difference in who one’s comment is perceived as well.

  11. Actually, I’ve had a beard for most of my adult life, and that hasn’t seem to have stopped me from being called into two different bishoprics, several teaching callings, and multiple times as a ward mission leader/stake missionary.

    I was released as Gospel Doctrine teacher (after 2.5 years) and called as the ward mission leader a month or so ago. I was touched (and amused) last week when two old-time members of the ward — both in their 70s — told me together how much they missed my teaching and said that they both refused to “vote to release me” from being the Gospel Doctrine teacher when that was presented to the ward. 🙂 I’m not sure I’ve ever had a nicer complement on how I’ve fulfilled one of my callings. ..bruce..

  12. SmallAxe, I didn’t ask that exact question because I haven’t taught that lesson yet. But I have asked questions like that. My class is not bothered by it because: I am sincere, they know that I am totally dedicated to scripture study, and I don’t do it frequently (as though I am being controversial for the sake of attention or whatever). In fact, every time that I ask questions like that I end up “raising a few eyebrows,” but it hasn’t been a problem.

    (Actually, the only times I “got in trouble” were when I disagreed with the Bible Dictionary and when I used a non-KJV bible. I still use non-KJV, by the way.)

    I might use a stretched analogy: there are passengers who rock the boat and there are passengers who explore the boat. I find that Mormons are very tolerant of—even happy with—the later but not the former.

  13. I think this may be more of a Utah issue. I am fairly confident if I had intelligent things to say, I could wear a different colored shirt, have a beard, etc, without any issue. Suggestion, move to Texas.

  14. SingleSpeed,

    I did something similar when I was called to teach a sunday school class. I never felt very good about it. I always felt like I was deceiving everyone for not putting my “real” self forward.

    I’m not sure I believe in something such as a “real self”, although I do believe that there is such a thing as deception, which is certainly wrong. In this case I see a change in appearance as more of a concession I should make in order to have more people take me seriously.


    OED has both (and ‘orthopraxis’ is listed second).


    I live in Texas.

  15. harumph! (note to self: get rich, subscribe to OED :))

    Actually, your pragmatic question aside, there’s an interesting argument to be had about whether what Mormons mean when they say “orthopraxy” (or orthopraxis for the snottier) really fits into the definition of that term. My understanding is that the word is most often used to describe the correct performance of ritual (i.e. mass) in contexts where such performance is held to have salvific value per se. I don’t think we really have that concept of ritual, with a few exceptions, like maybe saying the sacrament prayer verbatim or ensuring complete immersion during baptism. What you’re talking about here are arguably cultural rather than religious practices and thus not, strictly speaking, constitutive of orthopraxy (or -is).

    /end weak attempt at face-saving aside/

    As to the substance of your question, I’ve always found it easier to conform in the relatively shallow ways demanded by LDS cultural practice–I don’t mind wearing a flowered dress with a lace collar if it means I get a chance to say things like “Jesus was a feminist” in Sunday School and still be reasonably well-regarded in my ward. The very best comouflage of all for an uppity Mormon woman? Maternity clothes! Ours is probably the only community where a belly bulge actually *increases* one’s credibility 😉

  16. I agree with much of what has been said. I also appreciate E’s comment, because I think it points to a deeper issue. I believe most, if not all of us, agree that sincere intent is the most important factor. The problem is with the expression and perception of this intent. E’s perception is that my intent is not sincere but arrogant and prideful.

    There seems to be a gap between intent and expression of intent. So the question becomes, how does one best express sincerity? And is the expression of sincerity dependent on skills that we all share equally, or do some innately have more skills than others? If some have more skills than others, does this mean that those with this particular skill set fair better than others despite the possibility that their intent is not as “pure” as other’s would be? Closely related to this is the issue of perception. Would E react differently if I used the same words and s/he could see me and I looked mainstream? Or if I was a bishop?

  17. smallaxe, while there are some who enjoy the “grad seminar” approach to church teaching, I think most Sunday School attenders don’t go to have their beliefs (standard Mormon beliefs) directly challenged. Maybe this is a variant on Julie’s comment #1 which said it comes down to tone, but maybe I would amplify that to include context and perspective. So I think a teacher can include controversial topics in a lesson from time to time, but it only works for an LDS class if the teacher can do that in a non-controversial way.

  18. #17 makes sense. Many members come to Sunday School because they “want their faith fortified and their hope renewed. They want, in short, to be nourished by the good word of God.” (Elder Holland, 1998, quoted in Nov 07)

    To me, when a teacher or student makes a sincere but possibly controversial comment about something it often is a good thing. Not because controversy is good, but because sincerity is good; because if the word of God is ‘alive and powerful’ then it usually cuts into us. We don’t like that, usually, so we find ways to protect ourselves. Many of those involve insincerity.

    Orthopraxis does help me gauge the sincerity of the speaker: being an orthodox Mormon is tough for us lazy folk, and so when a speaker is orthodox yet says something that might imply something unorthodox, orthopraxis helps me gauge that it is not out of sloth (as I so frequently suspect in myself).

    Sometimes I’m not eager to have my ‘real’ self seen, but rather the person or construct I am wishing to be. I’m not sure that is insincere; but on the other hand, I’m using a pseudonym :-).

  19. Kristine,

    I’m sure you’re right on both counts. However I should point out that my introduction to the term ‘orthopraxy/is’ was in the study of comparative religion and had nothing to do with Mormonism. I think its become something similar to the term ‘diaspora’, which is no longer used simply to talk about Jews but has spawned ‘diasporic studies’ in the academy. In these kinds of scenarios the original term gets manipulated (a ‘diaspora’ without forced exile?), popularized (a ‘Mormon diaspora’?), and (eventually?) theory laden.

  20. #5.
    Specifically, to answer the question is to be non-specific. For some, their appearance is directly correlated to their motive and for others it is inversely proportional to it.
    The motives range from either an open, uncaring about others, what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude on one end of the spectrum to an acceptance of the “norm” out of respect and appreciation for the norm balanced with an appreciation of individual expression to a Zelig-like conformity vs. a subtle attempt to manipulate and/or deceive by appearance attitude on the other end of the spectrum.
    And, I definitely agree that some folk cannot look past the verneer of the outward appearance to see the heart. For them, “praxy” is a major determinant of “doxy” – or, at least, their concept of both. That is their choice and burden.
    I have to ask, “What is my motive by how I appear? Am I clueless? Am I trying to be crafty? Am I uncaring about what others may think about me violating the ‘norm?’ Am I being vain and trying to manipulate the approval of others? Or, am I being respectful to God, man, and my own conscience and moral integrity?”

  21. I am most often confronted with this challenge when I focus on how I will be perceived and what the class will think of me and my presentaiton, rather than on what the presentation should be. If I find myself wondering if my “students” will think *I* amd smart, or insightful, or funny, or interesting, then I take it as a sign that I am focusing on the wrong thing. If, on the other hand, I really focus on what will lift and inspire and motivate, and seek the Spirit to convey that message to the class, I find the scripture (and even the manuals!) are rich with subject matter. Some of the subject matter is pretty coservative and orthodox, and some is new and even subversive. But if I am really motiviated by helping my students “come unto Christ,” any message (even that the scriptures might have been written by “sexists”) can be presented approrpiately.

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