Panel of Jana Riess, Philip Barlow, Jan Shipps, with Kathleen Flake as moderator.
How much of Mormon past is necessary to understand its present in 21st Mormonism? Also on anti-Mormon literature focuses on LDS past, how will it be affected now?
Philip: That’s a typical Dr Flake question to ask. You made a good point in the Smoot hearings on how JF Smith faced in forgetting Joseph Smith’s last revelation (polygamy). We make meaning from the discipline of half-amnesiac and half historical teaching. We choose which strands to use, even if we have total recall. We construct identity through selecting what we choose to omit. My real answer is, I don’t know. But a usable history has to be selective, so it isn’t too much information.
Jan: In 1960 I was in Logan for 9 months. I never met a Mormon before and I started reading the history. As I talked with fellow students at Utah State, I became interested. No one mentioned plural marriage, as if it never happened. I reflected on that a lot and realized that the story of the people is as much about what they are forgetting as what they remember. You cannot tell a Christian story without speaking about the resurrection. You can’t get away without talking about Mormon beginnings, but it doesn’t have to be on the first page. There’s lots you can leave out and still tell the story.
Jana: I’m reading the new Brigham Young book. Seeing the history in the 1830s and 40s, we see huge changes in marital life, expectations, etc., there are huge changes, yet still some continuity. Two issues: what do we need as a people, and what do historians need. We cannot jettison it all. We do not need to toss polygamy away, for example.
Philip: I would hope a historian or anyone else seeking meaning of Mormonism, be interested in Mormon history. So I considered in this talk, I didn’t need to recite all the history, but I needed access in order to select as tools in a toolbox.
Jan: Most ex-Mormons keep rehearsing the early stories about things that are problematic, which can be interpreted in several ways, but they always place a negative interpretation on it. It is a bigger problem for 21st history not just for Mormons but everyone. We used to go to an expert or parent for information, and would get an answer with a connection to the past. Now they ask the Internet, and they might get an orthodox answer, but more likely an unorthodox answer.
Philip: I wrote a book on the Bible, and someone wrote if you want to know the KJV, read Phil Barlow’s book. Now with the blogosphere, a lot is ahistorical.
Jana: I love the Internet.
Kathleen: Why are historians asking “when did” or “when will” Mormons accommodate X? What do such questions illuminate?
Jan: I want to answer with another question. When you speak of accommodation, are they asking them to accommodate to the larger culture, or the larger culture to accept the Saints as they are? Can LDS accommodate to the larger culture without assimilating? Do they have to be like everyone else to be accepted? Do black people have to stop being who they are to be accepted?
Philip: It is a power question. A meaningful question in regards to religious survival. If a religion is too different, it will be hopelessly irrelevant or snuffed out. If it is assimilated, it will be irrelevant, as it won’t have any prophetic relevance. So many culturally liberal Christian churches struggle today, because they are becoming irrelevant.
Jan: We know that Methodism (which she is), accommodated so much that schisms broke off, refusing to assimilate (Nazarenes, Free Methodists). You could tell a Methodist in the 19th century, by the middle of the 20th, you couldn’t tell them from regular people.
Jana: Some Mormons think we can assimilate and still retain their culture: I’m a Mormon first. Armand Mauss shows we have some distinctive things. As we give up something, something takes its place. We give up polygamy, we push Word of Wisdom. Like Madonna, we keep reinventing ourselves.
Philip: When does accommodation become a sellout?
Kathleen: Friendly, helpful Mormon of today versus sinister Church of 19th century. Are we substituting individual good members with the sinister Church in the new ad campaign?
Jana: When I saw the NBC show, they went to see the Genesis Group, where they were clapping, etc. Even if it is a fiction, I’m thrilled we’re emphasizing it.
Jan: In the 60s, I thought Mormons were all alike, cookie cutter. Missionaries all look alike. Can the Church allow this amount of diversity in a Church that is as authoritarian as the LDS Church is? I don’t know the answer.
Philip: Relating to my talk this morning, the gathering to Zion, the Diaspora, and the now. There is a ritual cadence in General Conf, dress, etc. Many leave Utah to not be homogenized. When you said “sinister institution” we’ll see more people in the future who will say they are spiritual but not religious. The institution, by definition, is sinister and restricting to those who seek autonomy and diversity. OTOH, disciple and discipline come from the same root that suggests defending the institution to prevent drift and chaos in personal lives.
Kathleen: Regarding Philip’s analogy of Jews on the plane reflecting being in Utah, had elements of narcissism, coercion, and a people produced by place, and conflict, do you talk about that in SLC also?
Philip: I also thought of the Buddhists in Tibet, who are not as emotive. I did not mean to castigate the Jewish orthodox. It would be like visiting the Amish in Ohio. It was a focus on place and space. Utah are more diverse than even they know, and non-Mormons need to come to grip with that. We need to contest the culture and study/unpack it.
Kathleen: What is it that the LDS do not get about the cultural critique?
Jan: Jana mentioned the secrecy problem. In my commentary over the years, I keep saying that the secrecy problem is that Mormons see what goes on in the temple and it is private. The culture wants to know and think it is secret, when instead it is sacred and private. I tell journalists if they want to know, just find it on the Internet. There was a worry on Catholicism that the Church as an institution has control over its members’ lives. You either knuckle down on what the Church demands, or leave. So the institution and what it means in an independent America.
Jana: I’m going to disagree with the sacred/secret language. It is both sacred and secret. When we downplay it, we push the secrecy. We promise not to divulge things in the temple, and that is a secret.
Kathleen: many don’t get that distinction. Many Mormons think others should buy that.
Jana: Part of the barrier and Americans is Mormons think they are right and others are wrong. Discussions are to prove their rightness. We do not listen and learn from our neighbors. I would wish Mormons would walk around everyday and think they might be 100% wrong about religion. We should not assume we are somehow better than others.
Kathleen: Or what some Mormons think is sharing.
Philip: Mormons tend to take the scripture in D&C 1 “one true and living Church in whom I the Lord am well pleased” to compare it with other religions. Yet, we have scriptures that say others also receive inspiration of the Lord throughout the world (Alma 29:8). We do not have a monopoly on truth. It is possible to question this “one true church” concept. Mormons are chosen for a particular mission, but do not have a monopoly. Second, Mormons need the capacity to laugh at oneself. Our sense of persecution is painful and tender. Our witnessing, along with persecution complex, makes it hard to laugh. Gandhi’s wife invited some British, come teach us of your foolishness and we’ll share ours.
Jan: I never met a Catholic until high school, or a Jew until college. When I met Mormons I thought “oh they are just like Catholics.”
Q: What if you can convince the LDS they don’t have a monopoly of truth, do they then become mainline Protestant?
Jana: If I were in charge of the Church, we’d be bankrupt within 6 months and lose all its members. Sociology of religion requires certainty.
Philip: As with Joseph, we need to seek after the good, lovely and of good report.
Q: Is there an American aversion to create as Mormonism with its doctrine?
Kathleen: there is a history about it.
Q: What if Mormons had kept polygamy?
Jan: They would be at least as separate as the Amish, if not more. The culture would have forced them into a smaller and smaller space. Many were ready to hang up polygamy as soon as it ended.
Many would have moved to Mexico, and been a religion elsewhere. We’d all be speaking Spanish.
Q: What cultural things can we change?
Jana: I have a whole list of things.