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May 14, 2009
In The Village
Culture that's out of control
by Orson Scott Card

How do these things get started? And why do they so quickly get completely out of hand?

We Mormons are sensible, practical people, aren't we? Ditch-digging irrigators, that's how we started, anyway. You do what it takes to get the water to the crops, and then you go to priesthood meeting. Right?

We have a long tradition of avoiding wretched excess. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," that was the slogan. Enough is enough.

But there's another stream running through Mormon culture -- fads and fashions that leave the rest of us shaking our heads and wondering how things got so out of hand.

I remember when one of our children was about to be baptized, and the bishop came to us. "We're trying to get our baptismal services back to reasonable proportions," he said. "Would you mind setting an example by not serving refreshments or, really, doing anything except a little music and a few short talks?"

Since this was exactly what we had planned already, we readily agreed. Then the bishop sighed and said, "You wouldn't believe what some people have wanted to do."

We assured him that we would believe just about anything, and so he told us: The long videos and slide shows of the child's life; the refreshments that approached banquet status. "The worst thing is that it's become competitive," he said. "People trying to show how much they love their child by putting on the biggest feast and the best show."

I remember the first missionary farewell I was aware of as a three-year-old in San Mateo, California. There was a nice little program, professionally offset printed (this was before Xerox), with a picture of the missionary on the front.

The whole sacrament meeting was devoted to this missionary -- his life, his family, with all kinds of music. And afterward, there was a reception in the cultural hall with elaborate, almost wedding-like decorations and refreshments.

Then, a couple of years later, I attended a funeral for the first time, and was struck even then by the similarities. The same little printed program with a picture. The same absolute focus on the person rather than the gospel.

The Brethren keep trying to get these things under control -- and in our ward, at least, the "missionary farewell" is no longer a eulogy for a 19-year-old. All that happens is the departing missionary gives a gospel-centered talk. His parents do not speak, which means that they will not speak about him. It's a sacrament meeting.

Those old farewells were so ridiculous: heaping adulation on a young man who, after all, hadn't done anything yet. What we need is for the missionary to show us that he's a competent teacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, you can't stamp out everything. People are free to hold parties or open houses in their homes after the meetings are over, and these serve a purpose -- friends have a chance to bid the young man farewell without scheduling individual visits.

But we've recently heard that in several wards in the Mormon Corridor, half the ward leaves church immediately after sacrament meeting and goes over to the missionary's house for a big reception.

I was stunned when I first heard of this practice, but I've had it independently verified -- there really are people who have such twisted priorities that they blow off Sunday school, priesthood meeting, Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary in order to have a party.

The fact that the party is in honor of a missionary excuses nothing -- in fact, it makes the contradiction even sharper. If the Church is important enough for this kid to spend two years of his life trying to get people to join it, then maybe his family and friends should wait to start their party until the church meetings are over for the day!

And even the parties that don't conflict with church services are still prone to that sick competition that makes families feel that somehow they're slighting their child if they don't spend hundreds of dollars putting on a completely needless festival in his honor.

If, after paying for his clothes and luggage and setting aside the funds for his mission, you still have enough cash to put on a banquet, then bake a few dozen cookies instead, and give the bishop the rest of the money you would have spent on the party -- clearly you have a surplus.

If we compete in any way, it should be to have the simplest possible reception, showing off (if we must show off) our prudence and good judgment.

Lately I've heard of an even-more-appalling fad that is sweeping through the Church: bunko parties!

A relative reported on one such party. She was asked to fill in for a regular bunko player who had to miss a session. When she showed up, she learned that everyone was expected to chip in ten bucks; the total amount was then given to the person who won the day's gaming.

"But how is that not gambling?" said the guest player.

Apparently no one had ever thought of it that way. (Oh, yeah, right.) But they decided that, because of the objections of this guest, they would have everybody ante up only five bucks, and then the day's money would be given to a charity.

I hope this sounds as funny to you as it did to me. If they were now going to give the money to the poor, why did they cut the ante in half?

There's a reason why the anti-gambling division of most big-city police departments was called the "bunko squad." It's because bunko is gambling! And just because the people you're gambling with are in your Relief Society or priesthood quorum doesn't make it better -- it makes it worse!

It's like the old Mormon tradition of tossing food scraps into the "happy fruit" or "funny fruit" jar on the kitchen counter, where it "aged" and then got added to punches or desserts.

It wasn't "aging," kids, it was fermenting. Just because it was brewed at home didn't mean it wasn't an alcoholic beverage that violated the Word of Wisdom!

I wonder what those "good Mormon" bunko winners do about tithing. Your bishop can't accept tithing paid on winnings from games of chance -- bunko is no different from slot machines, poker, or state lotteries on that score.

I've heard of one Mormon bunko player who figured out an elaborate way to pass his winnings through various hands until it became tithe-able. But let's get real here, folks: If you have to launder money in order to pay tithing on it, you really need to turn in your temple recommend until you get this problem under control.

The idea of joining together in congregations of the faithful is to strengthen each other in righteousness. Not to compete in giving parties for missionaries and baptizees. Not to make a little money by gaming in each other's homes.

If our pioneer forebears had foreseen some of the silliness and wretched excess of their descendants in "Zion," would they have bothered to sacrifice and suffer and struggle to get their families to the "tops of the mountains"?

And yet these follies continue to crop up -- and then sweep from one ward and stake to another. The Brethren continue to have to try to stamp out these wildfires of idiocy wherever they crop up.

I have a mental picture of two angels looking out upon these bunko-playing, competitive-party-giving, meeting-ditching Saints, and Joseph says to Brigham, "What are they thinking?" and Brigham says to Joseph, "Who are these people?"


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