When popular culture is relentlessly permissive and debauched, the only true rebellion is to exhibit self-denial and fearsome wholesomeness. In spite of these undeniable contemporary circumstances, most kids today still choose to “rebel” by being utterly conformist in mindset and behavior; they show their supposed “individuality” and freedom from society’s constraints, that is, by doing exactly what the culture instructs them to do. Inter alia, they wear tight-fitting clothes, get pierced in various unseemly bodily regions, and consent to have their lower backs plastered with tacky tattoos; they drink, take drugs, and engage in numerous, random sexual encounters called “hook-ups.”
Perhaps such behavior was provocative at one time, in the pricklier clime of a more conservative Zeitgeist. Today, however, it is truly yawn-worthy, more of the same ol’ same ol’. To use the parlance of the times, it is simply “lame,” and not in the least bold, to engage in such ubiquitous activities. There is nothing exciting about these presumed “transgressions” anymore. The only truly transgress-ive act is one that rejects the notion of such pathetic faux-defiance with steely contempt, which opts instead for that which the sheep-like majority now commonly shuns as “reactionary.” Put succinctly, licentiousness is now utterly boring and bourgeois, while chastity is the sexy new taboo.
Given this fact, why have we yet to see a lustily defiant alternative culture of chastity emerge? Much as this trend begs to be born, it still remains largely unseen in today’s sea of tiresomely depraved bawdiness. There is, of course, the “contemporary Christian” scene, but it is an all-too-brittle and toothless cultural phenomenon, marked more by absence than anything else; it is, more often than not, a supremely sanitized aesthetic affair; relentlessly and determinedly bland, cleansed of bad words and racy content, the fare favored by this crowd is usually harmless, shorn of all rough edges. But the choice to reject the idols of the age, and to embrace what is traditionally known as “virtue” ought not be construed as a mere retreat into the safety and security of the goody-good-hood. The decision to pursue virtue and eschew vice is, in fact, the exact opposite of this depiction. One does not truly court danger until one opts to scorn the principalities and powers of the times, along with the debased hedonism these authorities relentlessly champion as the essence of “cool.”
We live, after all, in a time when it is often more debilitating to one’s reputation to be labeled a “virgin” than a “slut,” where to exhibit undue “intolerance” for sexual immorality is a far worse crime than indulging in such behavior, where a “prig” is denounced to an infinitely greater extent than a confirmed rake. Surely, then, deciding to be chaste takes courage and gumption, as well as self-discipline. When a young person refrains from premarital sex, an activity his body aches to take part in, he in effect doubles his calamity; not only does his society throw the alluring prospect in his face constantly, but he also invites the ridicule of his peers, who think him a “freak” and a “loser.” If he responds that he thinks it best to remain chaste until marriage, he is in return held in contempt as “prudish” and “judgmental.”
Being willing to countenance all of these epithets automatically thrown his way—to hang a defy one’s own hormones, as well as one’s peers and rulers simultaneously, takes a special kind of nonconforming spirit. The extent of gleeful defiance necessary for such an endeavor could almost be called “punk” in a way. And indeed, there is one subspecies of the burgeoning punk scene called “straight edge,” which makes clean living—no booze, no drugs, no sex—a kind of mandatory creed. But it’s one thing to subscribe to a fad, and quite another to positively embrace a way of life.
Both the contemporary Christians and the punked-out straight-edgers, then, fail to hit the mark. The former have an overarching transcendental mindset, which is greatly needed, but their approach to engaging the culture is altogether too wimpy, smiley, and hippy-dippyish; they are easily dismissed as lightweights. The straight-edge adherents, for their part, bring a needed sharp and pointed aesthetic to defend their creed of choice, but they generally lack a metaphysical orientation for all of their behavioral prescriptions.
What is needed is a movement which combines the spiritual rootedness of the contemporary Christian milieu with the hard-nosed approach of the straight-edge scene. But just where can we find such practitioners of idealistic Realpolitik? In my second installment of this treatise, I will explore an intriguing possibility, one that has taken shape in the last few years and whose momentum still appears to be gathering.
At present, the so-called “melting pot” of America has a less than salubrious effect upon the moral well-being of succeeding generations of new citizens. For in the human stew of this pot, the scum has most assuredly risen to the top. The stately and conservative Old World traditions, meanwhile, are consistently evaporated into nothingness under the boil of supposed “progress.”
If many immigrants to the United States are drawn to the economic opportunities and political freedoms promised by this nation whose very existence rests on the premise of “liberty,” they soon find their children under the spell of a very different kind of “American dream”—one with an unsavory hip-hop soundtrack and a pornographic storyline. In this debased cultural environment, boys learn to be groping, grubby, hedonistic “pimps” and “playas,” and girls learn to be angry, agendized *feministas* and brazen whores, if not both. In just a generation or so, the values of restraint and modesty disappear under the blast of the New World’s relentless insistence upon an end to “repression.”
Thus “Americanization” is almost synonymous with “moral erosion.” In most cases, the trajectory of the second and third generation immigrant family is one of increasingly relaxed sexual morals, with greater and greater tolerance of immodest dressing, premarital sex, cohabitation, and other formerly forbidden habits and activities.
Does chastity stand a chance, when such wholesaling bulldozing of traditional notions of restraint is so ubiquitous? Strangely enough, it does, at least among one particular, and rapidly growing, demographic: Mormons.
Among the Latter Day Saints, the capital of whose empire is located in Salt Lake City, Utah and whose presence is strongly felt across much of the American West, an authentically alternative youth culture has taken shape, one whose moral teachings are vigorous, uncompromising, and unchanging. Great emphasis is laid on self-discipline and sacrifice, especially among young men who choose to go across the world on two-year missions for the sake of the Church. What is more, marriage very often occurs among college-aged men and women; the bonds of matrimony are strengthened by the pillars of faith (Mormons hold marriage to be an eternal covenant), and the practical effects of such a custom are also beneficial—as in days of yore, being wed early helps to cut down on incidences of unchastity among youth who might be tempted to fornicate if they remained single, while societal pressure from a conservative culture helps to discourage those who wait to marry from indulging in such still-verboten acts.
Many outsiders to the Mormon world are inclined to view such young believers as a monolithic cadre of brainwashed cult-like followers with weak wills and closed minds. There are a couple of retorts that it is entirely appropriate to make in response to such assertions. First of all, are the irreligious or religiously-indifferent youth of the majority culture who follow the whims of the Zeitgeist without question “brainwashed”? Why declare the chaste “brainwashed” while the unchaste are somehow viewed as sublimely “free”? Perhaps everyone is indoctrinated to one degree or another; what matters is the fitness and overall correctness of the doctrine which shapes us.
But the other way to refute such charges of brainwashed conformism among young Mormons is to point to the diversity of creative expression that has emerged from Mormon artists in recent years.
Consider the cinematic comedy sensation Napoleon Dynamite (2004), written and directed by LDS filmmaker Jared Hess. This wonderfully quirky film is populated by oddballs whose sensibilities and fashion sense seem frozen in time from some indeterminate era of the recent past, yet paradoxically enough the movie also radiates a smart, conspicuously contemporary vibe. While indeed squeaky-clean (no sex, no violence, no cussing), Napoleon Dynamite never feels antiseptic, after the manner of many a contemporary Christian movie that has made a feeble stab at crossover success in recent years.
Or examine the musical oeuvre of Killers frontman and songwriter Brendon Flowers, an observant Mormon. The subjects of his songs often tread on “edgy” territory (“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” is a first-person account from the point of view of a murderer, while “Andy, You’re a Star” appears to revolve around the speaker’s gay crush on a classmate), yet the final note is one of attempted renunciation of sin and aching hope for redemption, presented with a moral seriousness that one seldom finds among contemporary pop musicians. The same may be said of all-LDS Utah new wave band Neon Trees, whose lyrics in their new debut album “Habits” reflect a repentance for past transgressions as well as the ever-present temptation to commit new ones, all within the context of an acknowledged ethical framework, with a full awareness of consequences. Again, this sensibility forms a marked contrast to the barely-sentient, debauched, bump-and-grind presentation we most often find in top-40 radio songs today, while also avoiding the opposite extreme of dippy, ridiculously cheery, airbrushed, bland, morally simplistic fare that mars much of the “Christian” music subgenre.
Lest the reader misunderstand: I am not Mormon, and I’m certainly not advocating a mass conversion to the LDS creed as crucial to any kind of moral resurgence among youth. But I certainly think that the example of Mormondom as a vigorous culture with a transcendent vision which advocates a sexual morality greatly at odds with the free-for-all of mainstream culture represents a model worthy of being followed, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.
Indeed, if a hearty culture of chastity and temperance is to re-emergence, it will likely have to take the form of what Catholic author Peter Kreeft has provocatively called an “ecumenical jihad,” uniting moral conservatives of all faith traditions, including atheists and agnostics, against the blight of permissiveness which reigns in America and the West generally today. What is required to put this dream into action is both deep-seated conviction and full-throated defiance, both ardent faith and blatant chutzpah. Both qualities are badly needed to challenge the prevailing pernicious cultural trends and initiate a true moral renaissance .