You remember Mormonads. They’re plastered on seminary walls across Utah; they’re waved about by earnest teachers in young adult Sunday school classes. Hordes of eager young Saints undoubtedly wait with bated breath to see which mildly clever pun or timeworn cliché will be enlisted to the moral edification of the youth of Zion in the New Era each month.

And that’s the thing. Mormonads are goofy and about as funny as Rob Schneider, if he were extraordinarily square. But they’re memorable. Classics like “Light Reading” and “Foul Language” and “Skin Deep” have attained the sort of firm foothold in our collective consciousness that the Epistle to the Romans can only dream about. For the Internet generation of Mormons, they’ve attained the same sort of ironic, nostalgic cool that has glommed onto such other not-so-brilliant products of our youth as Mr. Belvedere or Bon Jovi. And I make these analogies intentionally; Mormonads succeed in part because of their absorption of a pop culture sensibility.

Why is this? For one thing, a long standing debate among sociologists and other students of religion concerns whether or not the travails of modernity – rationality, ice cream socials, the IRS – have secularized religion: whether American consumers have forced religion to turn itself into a massive social service program or a therapy session or leisure of another kind. I believe Mormonads offer a memorable refutation of this theory; rather than quietly surrendering their core to the demands of consumer culture, the great minds behind Mormonads grabbed that culture and awkwardly forced it into the service of the most basic principles of a modern Mormon ethos.

Is this merely religion ‘repackaging’ itself to appeal to the youth, much like those hip and pierced rock and roll congregations in Seattle we keep hearing about? Perhaps; certainly, there is a distinctly punk sensibility to Mormonads – they way they riff on the mundane, tear apart and repackage the familiar in surprising and new ways reminds us of what Johnny Rotten’s version of God Save the Queen was all about. And indeed, much like punk built something new by preying on the old, Mormonads are using secular tropes to create a particular brand of Mormonism – one based on the principle of being in the world but not of it, centered upon ethics and behavior and ‘standards,’ formed and defined by opposition to those very elements of American culture that they rip off.

But this is hardly indicative of secularization; rather, Mormonads pursue the subversion of the world. They remake it in their own image, and infuse its symbols with their own (sometimes very different) meanings. They are defiantly stodgy, unhip, and wholesome. They gesture toward the transcendent; and they remain stubbornly rooted in the separatist, Christ-against-culture worldview that provoked the Saints to flee to Utah and start erecting those seminary walls in the first place. Indeed, in this sense, Mormonads remind us what Joseph Smith was actually all about.