Monday, September 05, 2011

"Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader" (reviewed by Julie J. Nichols)

Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies ReaderStephen C. Taysom, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University and the editor of this impressive collection, declares in his introduction that this is the book he "would love to have had as a graduate student. That way, [he] could have simply thrust it wordlessly into the hands of those who expressed skepticism about the fitness of Mormonism as an object of serious academic study. Anyone who gives the essays in this book a thorough and fair reading will be left with no reservations on that score" (vii). Readers should not think of it as a "comprehensive archive," he says, but as "an introduction to the kind of fine scholarship that is flowering in the field."

Author: Ed. Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Essay anthology
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 446
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 1-56085-212-7
ISBN13: 978-1-56085-212-7
Price:  $28.95

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols  for the Association for Mormon Letters
The anthology is beautifully produced, thoroughly documented, and diverse and interesting in its subject matter.  The essays are grouped into five categories: biography, theory, experience, memory, and media/literature, and include such wide-ranging topics as the images of Mormons in early twentieth-century film (and the way the Church handled these images); Joseph Smith's use of William W. Phelps as a ghostwriter; Mormon studies in late twentieth-century Europe; and Wilford Woodruff's vision of the Founding Fathers.  I recommend it without hesitation: the essays, by well-known and not-so-well-known scholars throughout the Mormon Studies world, are all gems, thoroughly researched, convincingly written, and fascinating in their conclusions. Every one deserves to be in a "Reader in Mormon Studies."

A glance at the table of contents arouses curiosity and interest from the first essay ("The Private versus Public David O. McKay: Profile of a Complex Personality," by Newell G. Bringhurst, originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought) to the last (Claudia Bushman's "Edward W. Tullidge and The Women of Mormondom," published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 2000). Among my favorites, simply because they pertained to questions in which I have a long-standing personal interest, were Matthew Bowman's "A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten's Cain and the Conception of Evil in LDS Folklore," in the "experience" section, and "Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century," by Kathleen Flake, in the "memory" section. 

Bowman, a recent Ph.D. with a long list of publications to his name, chronicles the developments from 1835 to the 1990s in the stories told by Mormons of their encounters with embodied evil. As the title of the article suggests, the first of these stories was told by LDS apostle David W. Patten while he was serving a mission in Tennessee; the "embodiment" in question was, according to Patten, the very Cain, murderer of Abel. The personage was dark, hairy, and miserable, and Patten "rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence…" (113).

Bowman shows that Patten's original story undergoes a number of transformations until, in its late-twentieth-century form, it has become a Mormon Bigfoot story, retaining the dark and hairy aspects but losing the more human misery, as well as the rebuke and command to leave in the name of the Lord on the part of the person seeing the "embodiment." These developments, Bowman shows, are in keeping with the increased secularity and decreasing certainty of religious or even supernatural occurrences in many such folkloric stories over the same period of time in American culture (123-125).    

I found this essay fascinating not only because I'm a student (and professor) of narrative, or because it is so excellently documented and so logical and convincing in its structure and organization, but because the contextualization of these stories within the milieu of other similar American stories identified this particular Mormon narrative as an artifact of a certain kind—a kind that inevitably changes—rather than as scripture set in stone. The article does not apologize for the changes in the narrative, but shows how and why they happened. It's a voice of reason addressing a question that seems in some respects hardly reasonable. Thus it fulfills the scholar's calling: to confront all manner and degree of mysteries from a place that believes they can and should be explained, or at the very least, examined.

Similarly, Flake looks at changing self-images within the Church through the lens of Joseph F. Smith's 1905 dedication of the monument at Joseph Smith's birthplace, concurrent with the Smoot hearings in Washington, D.C. The dedication of the monument was a (perhaps unconscious, but perhaps conscious) move to shift the attention of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints away from the controversial, divisive matter of polygamy and toward the much less conflictual foundation of the church's origins. In this capacity it had the effect of unifying a church in the throes of confusion over the Manifesto(s). Before Joseph F. Smith made this move, the church was in danger of falling to pieces over the question of "the new and everlasting covenant," which was seen as the distinguishing feature of the Church but which, as we know, threatened to keep Utah out of the Union as well as to bring federal punishment upon all its adherents.

In 34 absorbing pages with 86 footnotes, Flake carefully and clearly outlines the history of the controversy; explains current academic theory about the function of monuments in self-description among communities; and documents the shift in Mormon self-concept from isolationists with a peculiar marriage custom to a far more "acceptable" narrative of a community with a miraculous origin (215-258). Again, this is not an apology for the deletion of polygamy from either Mormon orthodox practices or the Mormon canon. It's a reasoned, highly readable discussion of a set of occurrences in 1905 that kept the church together in the face of oppression over a most unusual aspect of its theology.

Together, these two essays convinced me that narratives change for a variety of reasons, some conscious, some cultural. The fact that Mormon narratives have changed over time is hardly cause to apostatize. Instead it should be fodder for intellectual analysis as we look at trends within communities in general, or specifically within the community behaviors that Mormonism is inextricably bound up with (such as American folklore, or American politics).

These are only two of the fifteen essays in Dimensions of Faith. The others are equally engaging. 

I have only one minor beef with this anthology. Taysom teaches mostly undergraduates, he says, students  he hopes will learn to grapple with the questions in the academic work they read. It seems clear he's thinking of this book as a reader for those undergraduates. And they'll be lucky to have it, especially if its primary purpose is to introduce students of religious studies in a general way to the variety of academic questions their field can raise. Students of any humanities/social science discipline need to deal with biography, theory, experience, memory, and in this day of mega-media awareness, media/literature. Still, as "an introduction to the kind of fine scholarship…flowering in the field," this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to name and focus on some of the recurring and persistent issues in Mormon studies. If I were a student of religious studies in general, or (as I am by profession) an educator looking to introduce my students to varieties of writing about issues in their field, or even if I were merely an average-joe Mormon wondering how scholars have approached some of the debates within our church, I might benefit from a set of categories that more emphatically indicates the particular arguments arising within the religion itself. For example, the two essays I've just summarized might usefully be placed together in a section called "Changes in the Mormon Narrative Over Time."   Many scholars, skeptics, and even potential converts grapple with what they see as shifting Mormon narratives as they study our faith. Such a section could provide any seeker with much meaty material--as might a section on "Polygamy" or "The Mormon Self-Image."

But perhaps that's arbitrary. The purpose of the anthology--as Taysom himself points out--is probably better seen as one offering general scholarly work in the field of religious studies than as a place to land on any one issue.

Let me present one last example. The 1998 article by Lawrence Foster, author of three books on religion and sexuality,  compares the sexual philosophy and practices of John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community, with those of Joseph Smith (25-49). He concludes that "[although] strong sexual impulses undoubtedly do contribute to the sexual hyperactivity displayed by many charismatic leaders, perhaps the most important analytical questions relate to how such practices strengthen or weaken the loyalty of followers to the prophet and his cause" (40). Citing Freud, anthropologist Kenelm Burridge, and dozens of other scholars on charisma and sexuality in religion, Foster shows that there are ways to think about the role of polygamy in Mormon history that needn't incite hysteria or defensiveness. Again, seeing the peculiarities of the religion in the context of the times and analyzing them in connection with similar trends allows Mormons as well as students of general religious studies to approach the issues in the field with equanimity, equilibrium, and excellence. I recommend with enthusiasm the anthology as a whole.

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