Will It Play in Papua?

In another life I was a linguist, interested particularly in linguistic typology, the field of searching for true language universals—and thus some of the deepest building blocks of human language—through description and classification of existing languages into broad types and comparative features. Functionally, and a little flippantly, this means typologists write papers proposing models of how languages work, and then, almost invariably, other typologists familiar with the languages of Papua New Guinea write a response saying, “No they don’t,” with copious counterexamples. Think that all languages have a word for “blue”? Look at Dani. Think that there’s no language with doubly articulated stops? Look at Yeli Dnye. Think that the verb for ‘give’ always takes three arguments? Look at Saliba.  Think that all languages count on their fingers or therefore bias towards base-10 numeral systems? Look at Oksapmin.

(No, seriously, look at Oksapmin, because wow. Human languages are so much more diverse, so much weirder, than the average English speaker can dream of in their philosophy.)

This process of hypothesis testing works, in linguistics, because there are linguists who study the languages of Papua New Guinea (or the Amazon, or Australia), and who have a voice and a platform to speak up about what they know, providing the counterexamples that are so critical to finding the truth through academic dialogue. As frustrating as it may be for those making strong claims, the field desperately needs those speakers of Papuan languages and their perspectives to whittle away the cultural falsehoods and overly strong claims creeping into supposedly universal truths.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. In the Church we tell ourselves that our story is universal, that we have, in the plan of salvation and the ordinances we administer, the most accurate model of how the universe works and what God wants for His children. If this is to be true, our discussions of the gospel need linguistic experts on Papua New Guinea, as it were, to speak up and speak out to disprove short-sighted proposals and correct narrow cultural biases.

And yet, all around me in my Mormon life—at church, in the Bloggernacle, sometimes even in General Conference—I see claims of universal truth that don’t hold up to non-American perspectives:

  • God intends for a male-only priesthood because women are more righteous, as evidenced by their greater rates of conversion and church activity.

And yet: if the Church is converting more men than women in Africa, conversion and church activity rates can’t support universal statements of superiority for one sex over the other.

  • Archaic language like “thee” and “thou” is the only acceptable way to address God with the proper level of respect. (And the corollary: King James-era English, or imitations of it, are the most acceptable language of scripture.)

Setting aside the historical facts of “thee” and “thou” in English, if this is true why does the Church condone speakers of other languages using contemporary informal or even intimate pronouns to address God?

  • Sunday is the day God intended for us to rest.

So why do LDS units in places like the Middle East and parts of Asia hold church on Friday or Saturday? (As an aside, one of the comments on that article beautifully illustrates the universal claim, even in the face of contradictory evidence: “the Lord still commands is to make Sunday our day of rest. Unfortunately, people from Third World don’t always have the privilege of being able to keep that commandment as strictly as those of us in the U.S. can.”)

  • Scouting is God’s preferred program for raising good Mormon men.

So why doesn’t the Church use Scouting in many of the non-US countries where it’s available?

  • The Church, as a patriarchy, is universally negative for women’s status.

The Church is patriarchal, to be sure, but American Mormon feminists need to be careful about exaggerating the oppressive effects of that patriarchy, as many women around the world experience an improvement in status or treatment when they join the Church. (I’ll admit it was surprising to me, but I’ve heard a lovely story of Boyd K. Packer’s counsel being used to encourage male Saints abroad to listen to their wives rather than preaching to them.) Melissa Inouye’s writing about her former branch in Hong Kong or the experiences of her parents-in-law on a mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo should be required reading for anyone who cares about gender issues in the Church.

If we’re serious about the universality of the gospel, then, if we really want to worship a God who loves all His children and build a Zion society with borders enlarged unto the islands of the sea, we can’t settle for the familiar and the comfortable of our own cultures. This is true for everyone, but especially true for Americans, myself included, who are so often the default center of discussions and, therefore, can easily forget those outside the center.

If you care about Mormonism and want to take it seriously as a universal truth, you also need to care about non-American voices within Mormonism, and take non-American cultural norms and experiences seriously, not as defects waiting to be fixed into conformity with American views, not simply as less strict commandment-keeping, but as legitimate practices and perspectives with wisdom to learn from. These voices are speaking—within the Bloggernacle, I recommend in particular reading Gina Colvin, Wilfred DeCoo, and Spunky at The Exponent, and would love to hear about other authors to follow—but too often, we Americans aren’t listening, distracted by the noise of our own cultural stories, too deaf to ask: if this is truly from God, truly meant to be universal, will it play in Papua?


  1. Agreed. I didn’t know any of this information re languages – it’s fascinating.

    One of my favorite new online friends is Lani Wendt Young from Samoa. Also I loved a recent podcast Gina did on feminist theology where they talked about the global perspective on feminist issues. We need to be constantly challenging our own narratives.


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