Okay, everyone, maybe it’s just the Molly Mormon perfectionist streak in me, but it looks like my answer to last week’s query—“Where is the Great Mormon Novel?”—missed the mark a bit, and I need to give it another go. For here is a follow-up query sent along by Nick, our diligent but lonely young Mormon scholar in St. Louis. Grab some gorp to munch on, folks, because it’s a long one, but it is worth reading.
Dear Ask Mormon Girl:
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. But to tell the truth I was really less interested in the fate of the Great Mormon Novel than in hearing you talk more about the status of Mormon scholars in the humanities. I know there are a number of influential LDS humanities scholars out there, but I still feel compelled to ask myself where humanist scholarship stands in relation to Mormon culture. As a graduate student in literature I am the perpetual outsider (my wife is also marginalized by default because she is not a “medical school widow”) in wards filled with aspiring physicians, lawyers, and businessmen (and sometimes women). Each fall when introductions are made in priesthood, special emphasis is given to my marginal status as I am referred to as “our token humanities student” or “the English guy.” When a member of the EQ presidency realized that I wasn’t a medical student on my first Sunday here, his response to me was: “Oh. Well we do have a social work student that just moved in. Perhaps the two of you can be friends.” Periodically I am told (with kind intentions, I’m sure) that “I could never do what you do” by one of my fellow church members, but the subtext is always that “I would never want to and can’t understand why you do.” What makes literary scholarship such a strange pursuit?
This may be nothing more than my limited personal experience, having only been a member of the church since I was 18 and having only lived in Michigan, Missouri, and northern California since that time. Yet I doubt it. A few months ago our current mission president came to speak at our ward and made a point to explain why medical students and physicians eventually make excellent general authorities and church leaders. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched most of the heads in the congregation nod in agreement. What is it about our culture that glorifies these professions as more appropriate that the fabled “life of the mind?” Why must the “bookish” Mormons be isolated and few? Do we have no roles within church leadership? Is our resistance to hierarchy and willingness to deal in contradictions and ambiguities too unstable to be useful/productive?
I love what you said about our role in breaking stereotypes, but at what point should I be concerned that maybe Mormon culture isn’t a living human culture? That maybe we are just as conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious as I fear? Perhaps it is part of the genetic makeup of literary scholars to be overly anxious about our place in the academy, our communities, our churches, and the world in general. Still, I find myself genuinely confused when I attend my church meetings and leave feeling like I don’t belong there. Help?
Nick in the STL
Okay, Nick, you know how last week I wrote that as a literature professor I certainly “do know the loneliness of which you speak, though I do try not to worry too much about it”? You can’t see it in this font, but the “try” in that sentence actually has sweatbeads running down its forehead.
In fact, the “try” in that sentence has a lot of sweatbeads running down its forehead and is crouching in a really difficult Bikram yoga pose they call “toe stand” where you balance your entire weight while crouching on the ball of one foot. Toe stand requires a very meditative combination of balance, exertion, and letting go. On a good day in yoga class, I can do it for a few seconds. Being a bookish Ph.D. humanities type in the Mormon Church sometimes feels like trying to maintain toe stand for hours on end.
I don’t know that Mormonism is less hospitable to intellectual types than American culture in general, but it’s true that there are some specifically Mormon aspects to the loneliness you’re experiencing. Mormonism is a very young tradition, an exceedingly practical faith, with an entirely lay clergy. Aside from other evangelical movements born out of the Second Great Awakening, we may be the only religion of our global scale that does not prescribe dedicated formal study of religious history, thought, practice, or text as a prerequisite for church leadership. And because we view ourselves as a restoration of primitive Christian practices, we generally do not engage with the millennia of debate and scholarship through which other Christian traditions have defined themselves. All of this contributes to the practical rather than intellectual orientation of our faith.
Compounding this is the fact that the theological program of the Church in the twentieth and twenty-first century has been governed by correlation, a very sensible and practical effort to render from a very unsystematic and sometimes highly speculative century’s worth of theology a coherent system of doctrines that can be taught effectively to new members of the Church around the globe. (For a great overview of the correlation project and its tolls on speculative theology, listen here.)
Moreover, if you trace back through Mormon history, you will find cycles of intellectual expansiveness and retrenchment reaching back into the nineteenth century. (For one example, look up the “Godbeites.”) About twenty years ago we entered another turn of that cycle that culminated in 1993 with the firing of progressive humanities scholars from BYU, the excommunication of a number of feminists and intellectuals, and a speech by a major Church leader declaring “so-called scholars or intellectuals” one of three major dangers to the Church. It was a difficult time for Mormon feminists and many Mormon scholars in the humanities, and it has had lasting legacies within Mormon culture and within institutional scholarship.
Now, this isn’t the whole story, but it all factors into what you are experiencing as a Mormon scholar in the humanities. And boy, do I know it ain’t pretty. I often hear Mormon people I love routinely associate reliance on “the arm of flesh” with scholarship and intellectual activity—and they don’t mean physics professors . . . they mean New-York- Times-reading-complexity-craving-literature-philosophy-and-history-reading- liberals-like-me-and-you. I rarely hear Mormon people I love associate reliance on “the arm of flesh” with money or economic or social class.
What should we make of all this? Should this, as you suggest, give us cause to wonder if there’s something wrong with Mormon culture? I can’t answer that for you, but I can share with you a couple of ways I try to keep my balance and stay in the proverbial toe stand when I’m feeling isolated among people I love. First, during trying times (like the 1990s), it has been a consolation to me to imagine all of the members of the Mormon movement around the globe and across time, then to focus in on the small band of people like you and me, and then to realize that our worries and lonesomeness, while real and authentic to us, are a small part of a big story. Second, it helps me to remember that Mormon tradition is young, young, young. Oh so very young. With many chapters left to be written—maybe even by people like us. “Hope is the memory of the future,” wrote the Catholic artist Sister Corita Kent. I remember the future.
Okay, really, now, enough from me. Readers, what are your hopes for the future of Mormonism? And should bookish, scholarly types like Nick and me have reason for hope as well?
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