I have been asked on numerous occasions why Linescratchers features LDS musicians. One of the earliest forms of this question came from extremely early on in Linescratchers history – before I even published my first post. I had sent out a bajillion emails to various and sundry musicians to try and find active Mormons who were musicians. One of the random folks I sent an email to wrote back and said something along the lines of (I don’t have the email anymore): “I have some friends you should interview! They’re not Mormon though. But they totally deserve a little publicity!”
And I responded to them by saying, “Well, that’s awesome and everything, but really the point of this website is to feature Mormons only.
And they responded by saying, in effect, “That’s pretty unfair and judgmental that you would only feature Mormons, there are lots of good musicians out there who need publicity who aren’t Mormons. You shouldn’t judge them just because they’re not Mormons.”
And I responded by saying, in effect, “…”
It seemed obvious in my head that I would be accomplishing something very specific and important by only featuring LDS musicians. I was completely caught off-guard by the idea that this was judgmental and unfair, and I didn’t have much of a response to that. Now over the years, I think I’ve refined my message a bit, but in a lot of ways the response I got that day has stuck with me. I have asked myself more than once, “Why LDS musicians? What’s the point?”
First of all, Mormons are fascinated by other Mormons in the spotlight. A lot of it has to do with a sort of tribal loyalty, and another big component is our need to be assimilated into American culture (we want to feel like we’re normal). This has given rise to plenty of rumors about which celebrities are Mormons/have taken the discussions/owned a Book of Mormon/burned garments on stage/were baptized as children but stopped going, etc., and I’m here to tell you right now that those stories, for lack of a better term, are stupid.
However, I believe that there are deeper reasons to find out what kind of art Mormons out there are creating. In short, being a Mormon these days is tough.
Mormonism requires a great deal of faith. As much as we like to forget this fact, we are in a high-tension faith in our culture. We want to feel assimilated and normal, but on the other hand, we constantly point out the ways that “the world” is collapsing and degrading. We whine when orthodox Christians don’t call us “Christian,” yet we vociferously complain when breakoff Mormon sects try to call themselves “Mormons.” We want to embrace and defend our history while simultaneously distancing ourselves from it. In short, we are indeed a “people of paradox.” This isn’t easy. It means we’re also a people of cognitive dissonance.
A very interesting thing happened when I took a New Testament class at the University of Kentucky. It was a secular class, and the professor strongly used modern secular Bible scholarship, but it was full of southern Evangelical Christian students. The interesting thing for me was that, as I read the New Testament for what I thought was the hundredth time, verses and stories popped out at me that I swear I’d never seen before in my life. Colors, flavors, and historical details were unfolded in ways that never happened in Gospel Principles or Sunday School. It was bittersweet. I felt like I was reading the New Testament for the first time.
We discussed the Sermon on the Mount in that class, and the professor pointed out something very interesting. Matthew and Luke shared very different versions of this event. For instance, for Matthew, Jesus preached on a mountain. His apostles sat below at his feet. The common people stood afar off. Images of Moses standing on the mount and calling to the iniquitous below were conjured as we read Matthew’s account. On the other hand, Luke painted a very different picture. In Luke, Jesus wasn’t on a mount at all – he was on a plain. There with him, all standing on the same level, were people of many nationalities, mingling together, and Jesus healed them all as equals. Here, Jesus brings together all different kinds of people and teaches them on the same level.
Now an apologist might twist himself over backwards trying to reconcile these two accounts. Maybe he was standing on a plain next to a mountain. Maybe these are two different accounts of two different times the same speech was given. Possibly. But think about Matthew’s audience. He was writing to the Jews, and to the Jews, prophets stand on mountains and preach down to the people, just like Moses. If Matthew was trying to make the case that Jesus was a prophet, one would expect him to do what Moses did, and that’s exactly how Matthew wrote. On the other hand, Luke was writing to a gentile audience. For Luke (and possibly the mind behind Luke was Paul), it was important to emphasize that Jesus taught people of all nationalities, and that he considered them all equals. Thus, it would make sense for the sermon to be on a plain. The fact of the matter is, you don’t even have to reconcile the stories once you realize that the message is basically the same, it’s just packaged in two different ways, tailored to two specific audiences. What really happened? Well, that seems less important to the authors of the Gospels than the message they were trying to convey.
Many people asked Bill Watterson the same question about Hobbes in his strip, Calvin and Hobbes. The question is, “Is Hobbes a magical tiger that transforms into a stuffed toy, or is Hobbes simply a figment of Calvin’s imagination?” The question always puzzled Watterson because he never thought of the stories in such dichotomous terms. For Watterson, when Calvin looked at Hobbes he saw a living, speaking tiger, and when anyone else looked at Hobbes, they saw a stuffed toy. It’s not about imagination or magic, it’s just about the fact that people see things differently, and that’s that.
I think we can learn a bit about life through paradoxes like this. The human brain really hates paradoxes. They puzzle, amuse, and enrage us, and cause us fits because we’re always trying to make everything fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. We just like things to be orderly and predictable, and paradoxes throw the Universe into disarray. However, anyone who has been paying attention to quantum mechanics, metaphysics, or philosophy over the years has made the same, unsettling, yet obviously true discovery: the Universe is not predictable and orderly. There’s no real objective world “out there” that exists apart from our subjective experience – the former must be filtered through the latter. And we all have our own sense of the subjective that differs in deep, fundamental ways from others’. The fact of the matter is, life is a paradox.
As such, instead of trying to fit the pieces together forever, we should probably just increase our tolerance for cognitive dissonance. So at this point you might be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with Mormons who play music? Where is he going with this?” The answer is that, if any of you have felt puzzled, confused, angered, or saddened while standing at the intersection of Mormonism, the rest of the world, and you as an individual, you’ve probably felt like you’re living at the nexus of incredibly irreconcilable worlds. Now, more than ever, our youth are having difficulty finding a place for themselves at this nexus. I think that one key to navigating a life at this nexus is to increase your tolerance for uncertainty and paradox. Other Mormons are struggling in the same ways, and some of them have a God-given gift to create art forms based on this friction. There’s something you can learn from those art forms, and our job is to help introduce you to the music created by those gifted people. So enjoy the music you find here, and see what it can teach you about what it is to be Mormon.