To get an explanation of the series and see the entire series, click here.
I recently got an email with several questions, from a young woman who is investigating the LDS church, after she read several of the Mormon Moments Series posts. One of the questions is one that I get fairly often, and I so I wanted to share my original answer, and ask several other bloggers to answer the question as well. My response is not a complete answer, but instead, I see it as the beginning of a conversation.
If you are a blogger and were not initially invited to be one of the guest posters, feel free to email me findingmywaysoftly@ gmail.com or leave your thoughts as a comment.
Excerpt From Original Email:
I am not Mormon, but my boyfriend is. I have taken a few of the discussions, and the missionaries haven't really been able to explain the difference between Mormon Culture and Mormon Doctrine. We live in the Midwest, but my boyfriend and both of the missionaries are from Utah and Idaho. Is their confusion because their isn't a difference, or just that it isn't one that many people ask missionaries about? I really would like to know how to tell what things are cultural, (I think white shirts are probably cultural, but that was the only one my boyfriend came up with when I asked him) and I know some things, like baptism and prayer are definitely doctrine. Everything else can be hard to place.
Growing up I didn't have a very good sense of doctrine vs. culture. It took living in different wards and stakes, and even different states and wards with very different socio-economic groups, to start seeing that there is doctrine, and then there is culture. Even the cultural elements fragment into many subculture groups, which fortunately does make it easier to name the most obvious cultural differences, just visiting a few congregations in different places. I think you find those subculture groups, in their extremes, in the Bloggernaccle. (Which I think is why it sometimes seems like people commenting on a post don't seem to have much in common.) Don't worry that you aren't understanding, sometimes it drives me so nuts that I take a few days off from reading blogs, just to reground myself in the gospel and the real world. :-)
To kind of answer your questions about the missionaries and your boyfriend not seeing the cultural elements easily, recognizing where they grew up (Utah and Idaho) was a good guess as to their confusion. I think that the higher the percentage of Mormons in a population, and the smaller (area wise) a ward is, the more culture and doctrine get combined into the same thing. For example, if everyone is Mormon, you don't spend much time explaining the gospel to people who don't know much about it. If you don't have to explain the gospel, you don't have to think about how to explain it. It doesn't mean you can't think deeply about it, but there is no external pressure, pushing you to define the lines of your religious beliefs. You don't have to look at the culture you live in and pick and choose, based on gospel principles, what is in line with doctrine and what isn't. There is the assumption that since all of the community members (or at least most) believe in the gospel, the things we do as a community must be part of living the gospel.
Your boyfriend and the missionaries you have talked with, may have a harder time making distinctions, because they grew up in places where there was a high concentration of Mormons. If you want to get a perspective from people who grew up, or have lived in your area for a while, you might ask if you could have ward missionaries (members who live in the area and have a calling at church to help in missionary work, in the area or congregation, they live in) who might be able to teach some of the missionary discussions. They might be more able to help answer some of the questions that your boyfriend and the missionaries are struggling with.
In another question you asked me why "The God Who Weeps" is such a big deal on the Bloggernaccle. I think a lot of members look at it as a chance to take a step back, and take another look at the doctrine, without the culture being part of the equation. Of course, you can't ever completely pull one away from the other, but it is an attempt to take an intellectual look at the doctrine of Mormonism, and that is exciting for a lot of people in the church. (If other readers didn't catch this post, which started some of the questions from her email, you can check out all the Mormon Moment Series, including my look at The LDS Cannon and Intellectual Discussions.)
In a comment on a blog post about "The God Who Weeps," I said:
"I think it is great that the universalism of the early restoration is being reexamined and in an academically rigorous way. Inspirational books and talks are great, but without a variety of ways to approach the scriptures, we might miss something vital, that we need. Heavenly Father is not just the Father/God of Mormons. He "owns" us, but we do not own Him, and we do not have a unique claim on His love. He does not disown the billions who have not heard the gospel. He will judge them by the light and knowledge they have/had, and we will be judged according to that knowledge which we have. If we only believe in Christ, without believing Him, believing His teachings and following His example, do we really suppose He will claim us as His own?"
Please don't feel that there are any dumb questions. I have been a member of the church since my birth, and I still have questions. Answering them together is good for those with little to no knowledge, but it is also valuable for those of us who know a lot, but still need to learn more. We all get the chance to learn something new, when we share our questions, and answers together!