Going global but not imperial; or converting without deculturating

By November 2, 2007

 When I arrived in Taiwan at the beginning of a 5-month English-teaching stint, I was very curious about Taiwanese religion. After spending a few weeks in Taiwan, visiting a few temples, I determined that religion was very much a thing of the past–a distant relic that is no longer really practiced but is preserved as cultural heritage (sort of like Catholicism in parts of Europe). Over time, however, I realized how extremely superficial and simply false my initial impression was (sort of like the statement I just made about parts of Europe probably is). Despite the technological modernization of Taiwan, the country is soaked in religion. But Asian religiosity is so different from Western Christianity in certain respects, that it took me a while to recognize it. I began to notice little things I hadn’t before: people burning paper in a little barrel in the street or in furnaces outside of neighborhood shrines; red paper on the doorposts of houses; charms hanging from every rear-view mirror. As I began asking my students about these practices, I learned that they involve a very real and deep religiosity. Rather than a sort of dogmatic set of doctrines, however, this religiosity is more of a worldview that entails an explicit belief in the reality of both the continuity and contiguity of a spiritual realm that is actively involved in this world. They burn paper money and other items in order to provide those items for departed spirits. This is done both to provide family members the things they need and cannot provide for themselves during their spiritual sojourn as well as to placate spirits that might otherwise become mischievous and troublesome. The red on the doorposts and the charms (I’m sure there is a better word for these) on the rearview mirrors are to ward off such spirits.

Through my experiences living there and teaching children, I realized more and more how prevalent this worldview was. I began to wonder what happens to this worldview when Taiwanese individuals convert to Mormonism. I sort of suspected that such a strongly held worldview probably was not simply dropped and swapped for another. So when I saw some missionaries, I asked them. “Yeah,” the Elder responded, “we get a lot of converts who will continue to visit the temple and burn spirit money.” I was fascinated by this, but he seemed less enthused. “We try to get them to stop, but its easy for people to fall back into false worship.” I asked if the mission president had set a policy for it. He said that the president had instructed the Taiwanese Saints that it was okay to perform such rituals for their ancestors if they did it only as a sort of cultural recognition, sort of like how Westerners put flowers on their loved ones’ grave sites. But it was nonetheless discouraged.

This exchange raised several questions in my mind. While I was glad to hear that the mission president offered some leeway, I wondered if even his qualifications of the practice were necessary. Is the practice of burning paper objects to provide ancestors with those things they need really incongruous with Mormon belief and practice? Is it really that different than performing proxy ordinances for them–providing with something they need but cannot secure for themselves? And are we suspicious of it because it is somehow incongruous with Gospel principles or simply because it is not Western? 

This raises a larger issue. Since Mormonism was restored and socially constructed in America, it has surely has picked up some American trappings and baggage (and thus Western trappings and baggage). Yet Mormons believe that at the core are eternal, universal principles. As missionary work expands globally, we are faced with the challenge of determining what those core elements are and what the cultural trappings are. Obviously conversion entails some change; but does conversion to “the Gospel” also need to entail Westernization and Americanization? Do strong Asian traditions really need to give way to what may be Western biases? I do not believe they do. But how do we go about determining just what those core beliefs are and what may or may not go with or against them?


  1. I agree, Stan, that native traditions need not give way to Western biases. The biggest issue standing in the way, as I see it, is that those in positions to allow for this flexibility generally carry with them those Western biases you refer to, often associating them with gospel truth.

    I’m afraid we won’t see much change in this regard until (for example) a Taiwanese general authority is called and can offer some contructive commentary on where the line needs to be drawn between the gospel and Western culture.

    Comment by Christopher — November 2, 2007 @ 5:46 pm

  2. Reading this post make the song Tradition (from Fiddler on the Roof) pop into my head…

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — November 2, 2007 @ 6:38 pm

  3. In a past stake the stake presidency was adamant that facial hair and the color of your shirt was a determination of faithfulness. I remember very distinctly in a stake priesthood conference the president saying, “Brethren, let’s honor our priesthood and make sure that we are clean shaven.” One of the counselors in the Presidency was in my ward. He had a mustache that he’d had all of his adult life. The next Sunday it was gone. On the other hand, in the next stake I was in (for about two years) there were a number of brothers with beards and never once in the two years I went to meeting did I ever hear one mention of facial hair or color of shirts. The difference in emphasis was interesting to me.

    I think the question is a very important one. What is a cultural norm and what is an eternal principle? Only recently have I begun to think about my beliefs as a Latter-day Saint and which parts are eternal truths and which are traditions of my fathers. When I hear culture referenced in places like General Conference, the emphasis seems to be not so much in what we have different among us, but what we have in common. I think that by seeking those commonalities in religious belief and culture, we can begin the give and take that can lead to a universal culture of faith.

    I also agree that increased general representation from these different cultures will only further the process.

    Comment by Jared — November 2, 2007 @ 6:44 pm

  4. I’ve had a similar experience, Jared. There was a brother who all his life had a goatee and then suddenly, the moment he was called to the high council, he’s clean shaven! I couldn’t believe it. I asked, “Why did you shave?” He said, “They asked me to.” I think the general membership doesn’t mind it too much, but the leadership (depending upon where you live) want a certain (cultural) look to their leaders and priesthood holders. You know, that corporate, conservative, business attire look? I have waist length hair, a full beard and wear no white shirt or tie to church each Sunday, but I’ve only been approached by two people, two bishops, who have asked me “why I am rebelling.” Everyone else is accepting of my appearance, or at least they don’t have enough nerve to talk to me about it! Mormonism and Americanism, at least nowadays, nearly go hand in hand, unfortunately. But times will change. They always do.

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — November 2, 2007 @ 7:00 pm

  5. Excellent post.

    Westerners (particularly religious ones, it would seem) tend to look upon Eastern religiosity with some mixture of fascination and skepticism. LDS Church members often politely recognize the cultural significance of Chinese folk religion, and may even point to its virtues (e.g., respect for ancestors), but ultimately view it as superstition or “false worship,” as the missionary put it.

    When dedicating China for the preaching of the gospel in 1921, David O. McKay said, “In this land there are millions . . . who are bound by fetters of superstition and false doctrine.” While praying that the missionaries would “have keen insight into the mental and spiritual state of the Chinese mind” (a prophecy which I am still waiting to be fulfilled), he pleaded that the “tradition-steeped people” of China would be led “out of the darkness of the past.” He even prayed that if the Republic of China (which had all but failed by 1921) could not stabilize, that the “civilized world” would intervene. Underlying this prayer (however heartfelt it may have been) was a view of Chinese religiosity as backward and uncivilized. I would wager that most modern LDS missionaries (who typically know nothing of Chinese religion, except that it has something to do with ancestor worship) approach it with similar perceptions. For the most part, that was true of the missionaries I served with in Hong Kong. Not that I was an exception.

    This approach prevents missionaries from understanding and appreciating Chinese tradition and religiosity on its own terms. What Westerners often fail to understand is that, generally, Eastern religions aren’t theistic in the same way that Christianity is. Even the Chinese words that churches use for “God” only approximate the concept as we know it. Therefore, interpreting “ancestor worship” as being analogous to our worship of Christ is a big misunderstanding. But this misunderstanding (among others) would explain why Chinese tradition is often seen by missionaries as being incompatible with Mormonism. And so missionaries seek to displace Chinese traditions with a very American version of Mormonism, rather than adapting the faith to the Chinese context.

    Consequently, anyone who visits a Chinese ward will quickly recognize imported elements of Rocky Mountain Mormonism. Conversion to the Church in the Asian realm often entails a degree of Americanization. Which is unfortunate.

    Comment by Steve M — November 2, 2007 @ 9:41 pm

  6. Stan, an interesting post, but there’s a danger of simply creating a mirror-image phenomenon: in the place of “traditional Taiwanese religion is primitive and should be renounced,” the alternative of “traditional Taiwanese are too primitive too renounce their folk practices for Mormonism, and should be humored” isn’t much better. That is, it can be just as condescending for a Westerner to decide that a religious practice is merely local custom that can’t possibly be incompatible with LDS belief, rather than a serious expression of religious tenets that conflict with our teachings. One really needs the perspective of Taiwanese members as a guide to what is merely local culture and what represents an insufficient acceptance of LDS principles. While it’s true that the local LDS perspective will itself be influenced by Western culture, it won’t do to dismiss it as assimilated and therefore inauthentic.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 3, 2007 @ 2:48 am

  7. Jonathan: Point well taken. I am an outsider and do not pretend to really understand the customs/beliefs/practices sufficiently; thus, the perspective of a Taiwanese member could probe the issue much better than I. Also, I did not mean to sound condescending at all, but, in light of your comments, I can see how I was. Which raises another question: Is it possible to consider missionary work without some sense of condescension toward the beliefs of those you are seeking to convert? Is there something implicitly condescending about seeking to convert someone to a new set of beliefs that may replace or radically alter their beliefs? Perhaps we could avoid condescension if we just sought to convert those for whom such beliefs are not working–are not “true” for them in a Jamesian, pragmatic sense? That’s hard to square, however, with the belief typically held of the LDC Church being true in an absolute sense–everyone is in need of conversion–which is what really gets missionaries fired up in zone meetings. Is condescension then inevitable?

    “While it?s true that the local LDS perspective will itself be influenced by Western culture, it won?t do to dismiss it as assimilated and therefore inauthentic.”
    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this: could you expound a bit?

    Comment by stanthayne — November 3, 2007 @ 7:36 am

  8. Steve M: Thanks for your post. Great insights.

    Comment by stanthayne — November 3, 2007 @ 7:38 am

  9. Sorry, my last sentence was anticipating an objection that no one had raised yet. One could argue that local LDS members are bad judges of what is mere cultural difference and what is a theological challenge, because adopting a Western religion prejudices them against local culture. But the native Mormon perspective also deserves to be respected as authentic. This still won’t resolve the question of culture and theology all by itself, though.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 3, 2007 @ 1:57 pm

  10. […] Going global but not imperial; or converting without deculturating […]

    Pingback by International Archetypes; or, Mormon Pioneers in Taiwan « Juvenile Instructor — November 4, 2007 @ 4:05 pm


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