Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mormon Studies at the 2014 AAR

The 2014 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion convenes in San Diego. What are the Mormon Studies topics that will be covered in this meeting?

Kristen Tobey of the University of Pittsburgh will discuss "Not Non-Mormons": Belonging without Believing in the LDS Church:
This paper will treat three groups that simultaneously affiliate and disaffiliate from the LDS church: New Order Mormon, StayLDS, and the Society for Humanistic Mormonism. These groups offer resources for individuals who identify culturally but (to varying degrees) not doctrinally with Mormonism; they complicate the binary model of religious affiliation versus non-affiliation, offerings options for hybrid religious identities that include elements of both. This paper will explore the dynamics of these hybrid religious identities, and the variety of discourses and practices that go into their construction and communication. Each group proclaims a slightly different position with respect to matters of belief and unbelief, but I will argue that participants, many of whom sample more than one of these groups, find them useful for the concrete practices they advise and teach as participants construct, inhabit, and communicate new, hybrid religious identities, which are more nuanced than static conceptions of the religiously unaffiliated allow.
Courtney Wilder of Midland University will discuss The Mormon Mommy Blogger: Analyzing the Writing of Contemporary LDS Women:
This paper examines the presentation of gendered activity, including mothering and depictions of women’s bodies in both image and narrative, in a wide array of Mormon mommy blogs, and argues that this genre of writing is religiously and socially significant. The blogs range from the lucrative and widely-known to the small and more private; all are written by Mormon or formerly Mormon women with children, who are depicting themselves publicly as religious women engaging in their roles as wives and mothers. The women’s depiction of and commentary about their own lives is analogous to the public and private writing of earlier eras, and it is more religiously and socially diverse than the stereotypes about Mormon mommy bloggers suggest. These bloggers offers valuable insight into the religious lives of contemporary Mormon women.
J. Spencer Fluhman of Brigham Young University will lead a panel of Ann Taves of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven C. Harper of the LDS Church History Library in a discussion of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts:
In a fresh approach to the founding story of Mormonism, two scholars (one LDS and one not) who are currently writing on early Mormonism will present the results of their collaborative analysis of each of the known sources of Joseph Smith’s first vision, including newly discovered sources, using a method that teases apart events (what ostensibly happened) and explanations (the subject’s understanding of why it happened). When aligned chronologically by event and explanation, the method provides a more rigorous basis for examining the historical development of the narrative over time, including changes in structure and content, in the context of social interactions and the role of experience narratives in the emergence of new social movements. Using this highly debated event as a case study, the presenters will demonstrate the way in which a clear distinction between the subject’s explanation of events and scholarly meta-explanations allows scholars to work toward agreement on the former and more carefully account for their differences with respect to the latter. Two respondents will then address both the case study and the broader implications of the method for the field of religious studies.
Respondents will be Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia and Gustavo Benavides of Villanova University.

Daniel Wyche of the University of Chicago will discuss Ender as Parrhesiastes: Truth-telling as Spiritual Exercise in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead:
In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, we see the development of the fictional practice of ritualized mourning called “speaking for the dead,” created by the titular protagonist in the final chapter of Ender’s Game. This practice bears a certain resemblance to those ancient practices of parrhesia analyzed by Foucault in his late work. The crucial distinction being that we have a practice not of what Foucault calls “speaking the truth of oneself,” but rather of speaking the truth of the Other. This paper approaches “speaking for the dead” through the lens of Foucault’s analyses of parrhesiastic practice—and vice versa. Special attention will be paid to the relationship of the speaker to the other in both the fictional and historical cases, in order to draw out a richer analysis of the place of the necessary concepts of inter-subjectivity, empathy and difference in “practices of truth-telling” in general.

Meredith Ross of Florida State University will discuss House of Card: Ender’s Game and Speculative Fiction as Vehicle for Religio-Political Values:
Speculative fiction, through its explicit engagement with possible futures of the present world, represents a unique opportunity for writers and readers to connect present-day cultural concerns to possible futures. Speculative fiction allows authors to set characters in worlds created by misguided values present in the world of the reader, providing a platform to “break” and remake that world through critique. By examining not just the world that an author has created, but the trajectory of its creation, we can gain insight into the author’s understanding of how religion and politics interact and impact history. Using works from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game canon as a case study, this paper illustrates the capacity of speculative fiction as a vehicle for cultural values, and argues for speculative fiction's usefulness to historians of American religion.
Speculative fiction is useful to historians. Who knew?

Christopher Ashley of Union Theological Seminary will discuss The Hand of God: Secularism and Mormonism in Battlestar Galactica (2003 and 1978):
Prestige serialized television drama can depict religious characters, but its presumptive secularism usually frames their faith. One exception is the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Glen Larson’s incorporation of elements from Mormon Scripture and practice into the mythology of the 1978 original is fairly well-known and generally understood as a matter of the creator’s expression of his own faith. The 2003 series is not usually read as a personal religious statement by its creators. Its story, however, develops not only in-universe theologies and atheologies, but at least one in-universe god—considerably more religion than did Larson’s original. Moreover, that material, centered on the tropes of angelic revelation and theocratic violence, displays considerable resonance with American perceptions of Mormonism. I speculate that in the predominantly secular form of prestige television drama, religious themes will tend to emerge as revelation and genre disruption, often from NRM or other “outsider” sources.
I remember Battlestar Galactica as cheesy. I have never thought of it as "prestige television drama."

The University of Utah's Margaret Toscano will respond to Wyche, Ross, and Ashley.

Stanley Thayne of the University of North Carolina will discuss The Blood of Father Lehi: Indigeneity and the Book of Mormon:
The Book of Mormon, published in New York in 1830, purports to narrate the history and origins of Indigenous Americans. It identifies the ancestors of Indigenous American peoples as “Lamanites,” a group whom God cursed with a “skin of blackness” because of their unbelief. But it also prophesies that they will become a mighty people in the last days. This paper explores intersections between American Indian tribal-national identities and this racialized religious identity. My driving research questions include: How do American Indian individuals who convert to or affiliate with Mormonism read and interpret this text and these passages? How do they negotiate this ambiguous identity? How does it gel or conflict with Indigenous narratives? To answer these questions this paper, drawn from my dissertation, will develop contextualized ethnographic portraits focused on the textual interpretations of individuals from American Indian Mormon communities.
Will this paper discuss the understandings of Latter-day Saints who reside in Mexico, Central America or South America? Or has the author assumed a Nineteenth Century background for the Book of Mormon and assumed that the Lamanites must be the American Indians in the areas where Joseph Smith lived?

Aaron Ghiloni of Trinity College Queensland will discuss Towards a Comparative Missiology:
Given the historical influence of mission on the development of religious studies coupled with the pervasiveness religious diversity in the West, one might expect to find a plethora of comparative scholarship on missionizing tendencies. However, such research is rare. Skreslet’s 2012 textbook on the methodology of mission studies notes that “relatively few missiologists have applied themselves to the problem of comparative missiology…”(1). Furthermore, “comparative investigations of mission have not been particularly numerous and, when they appear, tend not to make reference to each other. The result…is a scattered, uncoordinated discourse related to comparative missiology, begun from multiple starting points” (2).
To fill this research gap, the author has initiated a research project on the mission concepts of atheism, the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Mormonism. Drawing on forthcoming systematic research into the particular concepts of each of these seven traditions, the author will speak to his research program in “comparative missiology.” Moving beyond Müller’s either/or concept of Missionary and Non-Missionary religions, the research has located four themes common to mission movements: duty and leadership, movement across borders, communication of a progressive but universalistic logic, and the adaption of truth to create communal identity.

David Golding of Claremont Graduate University will discuss From Dusting Feet to Saving Souls: Mormon Missions in Thought and Practice:
Mormon mission preceded Mormonism itself. Months before Joseph Smith made headway on the Book of Mormon translation and over a year before he organized the Church, he composed a revelation commissioning supporters to “embark in the service of God.” This paper examines the theological imperative of mission within Mormonism.
Mormon mission history reveals an ambitious and highly systematized mission enterprise often passed over in the larger Christian literature. At the heart of this mission resides an enthusiasm for historical and scriptural literalism, a uniquely Mormon riposte to the classic questions of Western religion. Its missionaries once audaciously imagined from their agrarian cabins that their missionary force would one day reach the whole world and they fashioned a complex organizational hierarchy worthy of such an aspiration. Perhaps the greatest irony of their missiology is how, in all their religious creativity and openness to rustic theology, they actually succeeded in setting themselves up for impossible ambitions. A cursory glance at the mission history of their Euro-American neighbors would certainly uncover some of these same tendencies. In zealously striving to evangelize the world “in a generation,” neighboring Protestant missionaries couldn’t help but be deprovincialized by the encounter. It remains to be seen how the recent surge in Mormon mission activity will similarly come back to shape the future Mormon worldview, but if the trends of the larger Christian context are any indication, Mormons have probably passed a point of no return. They once celebrated the isolation of their mountain home in the American West only to see it give way to their expanding vision of colonizing in the name of Zion; today’s exuberance for a more global mission effort portends another reflexive turn, this time toward humanitarian service and greater interreligious awareness.
Elisa Pulido of Claremont Graduate University will discuss Integrating Utopia: A Mormon Attempt at Nahua Assimilation in the Mexican Borderlands (1887):
This paper argues that despite the existence of sacred narratives detailing the success of an ancient, racially integrated utopia in the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century were culturally blind to any application of their own sacred texts might have had in their bi-racial Mexican colonies in Juárez. White Mormons privileged establishing a haven for polygamists over improving race relations. Indigenous (Nahua) converts, who had relocated to the colony, grew discouraged by the rigors of settlement building in an alien geography among an alien culture, and trekked 1,000 miles back to Central Mexico.
Booker Alston of the University of Cape Town will discuss Gobo Fango: Latter-day Saint, South African Slave, or African American Hero?
Perspective and legend are two fundamental complications of writing biographies. This paper examines the legend of Gobo Fango from three different perspectives in an effort to highlight how these obstacles must be analysed by those producing definitive Mormon biographies. Jonathan Z. Smith’s theories of construction are combined with David Chidester’s practices of tracking the circulation of knowledge in order to methodologically justify the central argument that there is there is not one, but many Gobos in existence today and that only a study which investigates all of these Gobos can be considered a definitive biography of Gobo Fango.
Marie-Therese Maeder of the University of Zurich will discuss Unity in Diversity: Self-representation Strategies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Commercial Series "I Am a Mormon":
Drawn from the field of audiovisual media and religion, this paper interrogates strategies of self-representation in the series of commercials entitled "I am a Mormon". This series consist of 132 episodes between about two and four minutes in length produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2010 down to the present day. The approach is threefold, asking (1) What discourse does the series generate about Mormons and Mormonism, and how? (2) For what communication space(s), constructed and shared by all participants, from makers to audience, is the series intended? (3) What values are linked to the statements made in and by the commercials? In analyzing audio-visual self-representation strategies of the Mormon Church, the paper considers how both social actors – their conversations, appearance, and behavior, for example – and stylistic forms communicate attitudes and values. The conclusion of the paper seeks to elaborate the Mormon worldview generated in this audio-visual discourse in light of the evident tension between unity and diversity.
Michael Hamilton of Principia College will discuss School Lunches, Fundamentalist Mormons, and Community Ecology:
This paper compares the contexts around the preparation and consumption of student lunches in two schools whose pupils are drawn from plural marriage communities. Community A and Community B make implicit statements about their ecological and political values and practices through the varied ways in which they provide nourishment to students during the school day.
Community A does not serve lunch at school, sending students home to eat. While portrayed as a cost-savings, the school administrator also explained the practice as consistent with community values. I explore the historical arguments that may have contributed to the policy.
Community B operates a large cafeteria with a menu including no added sugar and many organic ingredients. I argue that the cafeteria’s operations are, in part, a response to negative public perceptions of the sect, designed to reposition it as an accepted and positive presence in the larger community.
Ann Duncan of Goucher College will discuss Childbirth as Religious Performance: Quaker and Mormon Women and Paradigms of Faith and Motherhood:
Childbirth, one of the most corporeal of human experiences, has the potential to test a woman’s strength of body and character and to testify to the miraculous power of the body. Yet, motherhood is always socially constructed. In an era when advice about pregnancy and childbirth abound, religion can serve to mediate or even complicate this social maze by giving childbirth theological importance and by empowering and directing women to discern the of proper path through the maze. Engaging with past and contemporary scholarship on the complicated relationship between motherhood and feminism as well as personal interviews, this paper examines two Christian denominations on the margins of the mainstream -- the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) – and the ways in which childbirth within these traditions represents a performance of theology, motherhood and womanhood.
 So does motherhood have a biological basis or is it always only a social construct?

Matthew Bowman of Georgetown University will discuss A Vast Infiltration: Mormons, the FBI, Religion, and Politics in Late Twentieth Century America:
The close connection between Mormons and the Federal Bureau of Investigation became a pop culture trope in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. This paper will argue that this connection was most celebrated by an oddly dissonant collection of Americans. The first were Mormons themselves, who believed that the very real presence of FBI recruiters at Brigham Young University indicated that American culture had finally accepted them. The second group, however, were artists, conspiracy theorists, and evangelicals suspicious of Mormons who used the presence of Mormons in the FBI to validate broader narratives of government conspiracy, smooth, faceless bureaucracy, and lack of accountability that became popular in post-Vietnam America. The conflict between these two narratives has relevance for the cultural between left and right as the culture wars heated up, but also illustrates the ways in which Americans talked about legitimate and illegitimate religion in the late twentieth century.

 This slate of papers is illustrative of Mormon Studies.