The JrG is pleased to share this guest post from our friend Aardvark.  He proposes a cultural variant of the Benedict Option.

Sometimes I find myself envious of Lehi and his family, or of the early saints; they had somewhere to go. Things got weird, they saw that things got weird, so they packed their bags and left. Sure, I’m glossing over a whole host of important details that would make me less envious of those two parties, but suffice it to say, lately I feel the the desire to leave for the wilderness and gather very keenly.


Alas there are few empty places in the world left to run to, and short of an explicit call to gather from the prophet there are most likely not enough people willing to leave that could make any self-imposed exile sustainable in the long run. It seems that we are left with the Benedict Option as our first step. This idea has been covered on this blog recently and previously, as well as in other places so I’ll avoid rehashing what it is.


Ultimately, it seems that many people I speak with think this isn’t even available as a first step for us anymore. It seems that we are in the world a bit too much these days. For Mormons this appears to be the crux. We have many of the necessary structures in place already to execute a highly successful Benedictine withdrawal, but our desire for respectability keeps us trying to straddle the line. As modern culture continues its willful descent into a Hieronymus Bosch painting, we’ll get pulled down along with it.


As has been observed by others on this blog, we as Mormons have outsourced much of our cultural and social economies to the broader culture; shunning the world then simply will not work. On the one hand, we are too reliant on it for our entertainment. On the other, we cannot retreat or hide from the onslaught of a decadent culture forever, hiding behind rocks that progressively get smaller and smaller. What we need to do, is replace it. Yes, let us replace the decadent culture around us with a rich beautiful culture infused with the sense of divinity we lay claim to as Latter-day Saints. And when I say culture, I don’t mean we should pick off the lowest hanging fruit. I aim for us to retake the ultimate expression of a society’s culture: its theater, dance, music, architecture, sculpture, drawing, painting, and other fine arts.


I’m going to resist the urge to go into a discussion of aesthetics here, but it’s important for my argument to make one point. I think that people find something (a painting, ballad, building, dance, etc.) appeals to their aesthetic sense when it embodies qualities they perceive to be lacking in the world. This principle doesn’t require that we collectively buy into any singular aesthetic theory but instead raises beauty back to its place of primacy in the arts. I know a man who cried upon entering the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista at Mogno, another who wept in front of a Rothko painting, and yet another who can’t help but air conduct whenever the New World Symphony‘s 4th movement starts up. The point here is not the style, but the intent. If beauty follows a longing for something lacking…well what is lacking more in the modern world than the true, the good, and the beautiful? The fine arts have in large part turned their back entirely on these principles; it reminds me of a highly telling quote by Peter Eisenman. He said “Architects design houses. I live in a home.”



So what is to be done? If I were to reduce my idea to something outrageous I would say we need to produce the best artists, architects, dancers, musicians and et cetera who in turn produce the ‘Best’ art, music, buildings, dance and et cetera (by Best I mean good, true, and beautiful). In short, we need to stop outsourcing and start producing. Unfortunately this means that it is too late for us, as in those of us reading this blog. I don’t see any possibility or any evidence in favor of us being able to make an immediate impact. But don’t despair, Elijah came for a reason, partly to help us with reclaiming our cultural output.


I mention Elijah because we need to remember to resist our inclination to equate being the best with contemporary definitions of success (i.e. money, power, glory). This should be approached in a sustained, generational way; reaching backward in time to reclaim our modest cultural heritage and projecting that forward into future generations. This is not a call to turn the next generation into a generation of artisans and scholars. Rather what we need is to teach in our homes the next generation (and so on and on) to have a keen appreciation for the good, true and beautiful….by discussing and noticing those same qualities. The focus on shock and commentary in contemporary art forms derives as much from our own inability to recognize and appreciate beauty as it does from misguided training at the university level. We will never succeed in producing the best works of art if we can’t understand the language they speak. As Boyd K Packer said, “Those who convey a degraded heritage to the next generation will reap disappointment by and by.”


Maybe I’m misreading the youth, but I don’t think they see anything desirable in Mormon culture. On its surface, our culture comes down to what we refrain from rather than what we do. Ask them what it means to be Mormon and it will probably include not drinking alcohol, not wearing immodest clothing, refraining from premarital sex, not playing sports on Sundays, maybe even not drinking caffeine. This is why I see the arts as so important. What if being Mormon also meant being able to pen a verse or two in iambic pentameter, or being able to sketch a curious chipmunk before it runs off? We are frequently defined by our restraint because it is tangible and easily understood. Art can serve as an anchor both to our religion and our families also because it is tangible and easily understood. And because it arises directly from our personal experience, it doesn’t need to come from a world that seeks to drag us through the mud.


Art in all its forms is undoubtedly a form of self expression, but to whom are we expressing ourselves? Ultimately we want our cultural output to be in the service of creating a cultural heritage. Our motivation in creating great work is to create a repository of beauty for our posterity to enjoy. Write new hymns to touch those who will soon fill the pews in our chapels. Compose poems which lift the spirits of the future downtrodden. Erect buildings as lasting vessels worthy of the good life. If we change the intent behind our art production and teach proper appreciation of art, I suspect the number of dabblers and savants will increase within our midst. I even suspect we’ll receive the added bonus of retaining our best creatives. So while we may not be called to gather (yet), at the very least we need to preserve, retain, and develop our members. Perhaps then Orson F Whitney’s statement quoted by Packer in the above link will come true and we will yet have Milton’s and Shakespeare’s of our own.

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