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