The Cultural Critic as Apologist

Those who “criticize” the church fall into a variety of camps. There are outsiders who criticize because the church’s teachings or practices conflict with their view of “truth” or “righteousness.” There are former or disaffected members who seek to explain their decision to leave. There are even faithful critical insiders who belong to or use their connections to church leadership and administration to silently work behind the scenes to improve things and are likely the force behind any change in church policy or practice. However, I don’t want to discuss any of these critics. Rather, I am interested in discussing the cultural critic, the insider who has no direct ability to affect change other than by making their voice heard. Unlike the first two kinds of critics, these critics share more with the third kind because their motivations for their criticisms comes from a deep love of the church.

The cultural critic is forced to go outside of traditional avenues to affect change because they do not have any access to them. These critics make their voices heard often through independent publications, including Sunstone, Dialogue, and Exponent II. But even these venues were limited to a certain kind of insider. Today, the blogs offer the most common locus for cultural criticism.

The point that I want to make is to distinguish between different kinds of criticism of the church and to explore the value of the cultural critic. This individual is one who loves the church and the gospel, wants to share it with others, and to live in the church fully, but nevertheless finds something which unncessarily, in their view, impedes one or more of these goals. For instance, the oft-repeated teaching that righteousness leads to prosperity might be criticized by such an individual for a variety of reasons. Some women find it hard to share the gospel with others given the church culture and contemporary social norms. Others might find that involvement with same-sex marriage opponents alienates members and investigators with opposing or ambivalent views and stigmatizes gay Latter-day Saints.

While it is certainly possible to hold contrasting opinions on these controversial topics, the faithful cultural critic raises these or other issues as areas of further reflection and conversation because they want to see the church be a better place, a place where the ideals of Zion can be realized, and a place that will bring more into God’s fold and keep others from feeling that they don’t belong. They desire to widen the stakes of Zion, to extend the length of the iron rod, and to persuade with love-unfeigned.

Unfortunately, the discourse of criticism and obedience in the church fails to distinguish between different kinds, and the faithful cultural critic is quickly cast in the role of the unfaithful critic.  There is little ground left, if any, for the faithful critic when all criticism can be discursively cast as definitionally unfaithful.  The burden, however, lies on the cultural critic to produce this very ground from which they may speak.

10 Replies to “The Cultural Critic as Apologist”

  1. “They desire to widen the stakes of Zion, to extend the length of the iron rod, and to persuade with love-unfeigned.”

    Whoa. My Freud-dar totally just went off. Obviously this says more about me than about TT. Carry on.

  2. Thanks TYD! I think that the “Alternative Voices” piece is quite close to what I am doing, though I think that the self-categorization as “alternative” already sets one off on the wrong foot by ceding the ground of the center.

    Oudenos, lol! I suppose I should have caught that myself since I’ve been so into psychoanalysis lately. Coincidentally, I wrote this post a month or so ago right after I had been reading Freud!

  3. TT,

    What category would include people who don’t necessarily believe the core truth claims of the church (saving ordinances, exclusive priesthood authority, etc.) but whose “Mormon-ness” is so essential to them that they can’t just walk away, and would love to remain active with the freedom to believe in their own way? I have no illusions that I can affect change in the church. I have no desire to improve the church’s ability to gather converts. But I view me being Mormon like being a Jew. It is as much my ethnicity as a religious affiliation. I don’t have specific goals to help it or hurt it, but it is my world and I do like to talk about it for good or for bad. What kind of critic would that be?


  4. Hey Clay,
    It’s a good question, but I’m not sure I would put such a person as you’ve described them as a “critic” at all. Inasmuch as this person doesn’t desire to change, help, or hurt the church, they don’t engage in criticism.

  5. Clay,
    Perhaps the term you’re looking for is Unorthodox?
    And, I would join you in that label (or another if it fits better).

    It’s interesting that you mentioned Jews, one of my Jewish friends from HS wrote a blog post recently about Mormons like us, who are on the margins, and why the church doesn’t have a place for us, the way Jews have a place for all kinds of observant/non-observant Jews.

    TT, great post.
    Thanks for articulating these ideas in a very positive way.

  6. You make an excellent point, TT. As you observe, official discussion of critics lumps them all together, ironically sometimes assuming they take on characteristics that might describe Clay–not really believing. As you point out, though, he’s not really a critic. It’s often those who do believe who care enough to criticize.

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