Saturday, August 17, 2013

A "Mormon Studies" Discussion

Blair Hodges from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship added a link on Facebook to his post on "A Mormon Studies Blogliography" on the Maxwell Institute's blog. I felt that the post was pretty good overall, but felt it was also problematic in how it portrayed John Gee's discussion of the matter. I certainly do not speak for John Gee; nonetheless, I took the liberty to comment on what I felt was a misconstrued portrayal of Gee's salient points, and offered my own inarticulate interpretation of what John Gee said and what I believe he meant.
 
I should clarify that I believe my blog's namesake, LDS Studies, to be largely in the same vein as Mormon Studies, in that it comprehends all things 'Mormon.' The distinguishing difference, however, includes the approach as well as the scope of the subject. Mormon Studies is being approached in terms of academic studies, whereas my blog represents a written portion of my personal studies on Mormonism. My scope is limited to whatever I feel is relevant to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the 'only true and living church' with which the Lord is well pleased. Mormon Studies has a scope that seems to be in the process of being defined and seems to be continually evolving. I personally believe that an academic approach from any scientific field that adds knowledge and value to understanding the subject, which is any and all things 'Mormon,' is entirely relevant and appropriate, but this also includes a religiously engaged approach. Some might feel otherwise. I believe this disparity exists because they differentiate between science and religion as though they were opposites, or at least incompatible. I see the two as being somewhat synonymous. Both involve the same processes, just with different tools to measure the results. However, an academic study of religion that excludes attempting to understand the religion consistent with how its adherents understand it, is irresponsible in my opinion.

I have copied the correspondence and include it in its entirety below. I believe this discussion has value in illustrating different perspectives on the subject. I regret that some of my comments were reactionary and were not always tactful or overly considerate. It was not my intent to offend, nor do I know if offense was taken. However, I thought it would be inappropriate to remove my own weaknesses and shortcomings to doctor up the discussion. For convenience, however, my comments are in black font, and Blair's comments are in blue font. I let Blair have the last word, but I would clarify that I still believe that Blair does not adequately understand Brother Gee's position, or my own.
 
 
Tim: [Quoting Blair in the Maxwell Institute blog post] "John Gee goes beyond the other three by suggesting that only Mormons themselves and those completely sympathetic or appreciative of the contemporary LDS Church should attempt to engage in Mormon studies."
 
I think you are misrepresenting what John Gee actually says. He essentially says that non-Mormons cannot fully engage or understand Mormon Studies without being engaged in some way (other than as purely onlookers). His point is that onlookers will never understand Mormonism the same way a Mormon understands Mormonism, and if you are going to engage academically in a study of Mormonism, then the single most important element is completely missing. How can one hope to understand the subject without attempting to understand how the adherents of that subject understand it? Again, I think you have misrepresented Brother Gee, which in my opinion, is rather unfortunate, since this is a critical aspect of Mormon Studies.
 
Blair: Tim, how does your description of Gee's argument differ from mine?
 
Tim: Your description seems to imply, or at least I infer, that John Gee believes in a very exclusionary basis for Mormon Studies: only certain people can and should contribute. I interpret John Gee's article as much broader in scope, indicating that if somebody, anybody, wants to engage in Mormon Studies, they need to dig deeper and get to the heart of Mormonism to make any real sense of it, rather than as a detached, essentially uninformed observer. That is the primary difference as I see it.
 
Now, it isn't that good observations couldn't be made, but that the detachment is a chasm that will inevitably separate the observer from the participant. The participants will only be able to identify a limited affinity with the observer because the observer doesn't relate to and understand what makes Mormonism tick. And if the contributor to Mormon Studies cannot identify with and properly relate to the subject of his/her study, how valuable can that study really be?
 
In my comments on Gee's post I used an analogy about Mormonism being represented by the ocean. How much value can an oceanographer bring to the table if they never even understand what its like to get in the water? A lot of interesting and valuable information could be provided by the observer, but they are missing an element that is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the subject.
 
Blair: I'm still not really seeing a difference here. It seems to me that you're saying (with Gee) that only Mormons themselves and those completely sympathetic or appreciative of the contemporary LDS Church (i.e., those who successfully come to "identify" with Mormons to your or Gee's satisfaction) should attempt to engage in Mormon studies.
 
Gee is indirectly addressing the perennial problem of "insider/outsider" which fields like religious studies and anthropology have been wrestling with for decades. But Gee doesn't tune in to any of these ongoing discussions. How would you apply this methodological rubric to someone who is studying nineteenth century pioneer foodways, or turn of the century polygamous splinter groups?
 
Also, what do you make of the fact that Gee rhetorically provides Jan Shipps and Arthur King as models of the right and wrong way to study Mormonism?
 
Tim: I'm not implying, nor do I think Gee implies, that one engaged in Mormon Studies must be Mormon, or must fully sympathize with Mormons or Mormonism. I'm saying that by trying to engage in Mormon Studies while remaining entirely detached from the subject is a deficient approach. It's like the oceanographer who refuses to enter the water. I'm not talking about living in the water, I'm just talking about obtaining a perspective shared by the participants of the subject under study. Like Gee suggested, attend sacrament meetings, read the Book of Mormon, or otherwise come to understand how Mormons understand their religion. The same goes for studying RLDS (CoC) or any other living extension of the original church.
 
As one commentator on his post suggested, however, this presupposes a certain degree of 'presentism' as well as a defined and limited audience in the approach. I agree that this implied presentism imposes some scope limitation. But negating this approach is also imposing scope limitation; by doing so, it is defining Mormon Studies as everything except for the living subject. If one is strictly set on studying historical Mormonism aren't they scoping 'Mormon Studies' as well? Approaching the subject by ignoring this aspect is exclusionary and narrowly viewed in its own right.
 
Since the subject can be studied in its living form, or at least (less debatable) the largest outgrowths of its originations can be studied in its living form, how could one responsibly study it and remain completely detached from what makes it viable?
 
Tim: It is kind of like what Robin Williams told Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting:
So, if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo. You know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling....I ask you about war, you'd probably us...throw Shakespeare at me, right? "Once more into the breach, dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, and watched him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable...
My take on this, and I think Gee's take on this, is that Mormon Studies shouldn't be an abstract vacuous subject. If Mormon Studies is defined in terms of literary, cultural, historical everything, etc., it ignores the viability of the subject, which is what gives rise to everything else.
 
Blair: Thanks for the response, Tim. You said: "Mormon Studies shouldn't be an abstract vacuous subject."
 
I don't know of anyone interested in Mormon studies who would disagree with this, and frankly, it seems presumptuous if not arrogant to vaguely indict a wide body of developing scholarship this way.
 
"...by trying to engage in Mormon Studies while remaining entirely detached from the subject is a deficient approach"
 
I don't know of any academics working on Mormon studies topics who believe their work can be "detached." Objectivity is generally considered to be a myth, however laudable or detestable, something out of reach. Some of my favorite religious studies theorists, like Robert Orsi for example, have produced excellent explorations on the relationship of the studier to the studied. I suggest you read some of the other links from my post, especially the one by "TT," which speaks directly to your concerns.
 
The biggest problem I see with Gee's piece is the implicit assumption that Mormon studies only deals with the contemporary Salt Lake-based LDS Church, or perhaps that people should deal only with that Church. You mention the Community of Christ as though it's not part of Mormon studies, but it is. Your concern with Mormon studies stops at the threshold of your own personal understanding of what counts as "Mormon." That doesn't work for Mormon studies. Gee assumes that Mormonism is a monolithic thing, a Platonic ideal which is somehow directly embodied by the contemporary LDS Church in some uniform fashion. He also assumes the same about Mormon studies, evidently, that it is some sort of unified thing or that it should be such a unified thing, when it isn't and won't ever be. And that diversity is a sign of fertility, not sterility.
 
When you say "onlookers will never understand Mormonism the same way a Mormon understands Mormonism," you're getting at the perennial religious studies problem of "insider/outsider" without actually engaging in the massive amount of arguing and theorizing that this problem has engendered in the academic field. (Your framing things in terms of insider/outsider is also suggested by your inside-speak labeling of "Brother" Gee, incidentally.) Further, non-Mormons aren't the only "onlookers" of Mormonism. We Mormons are also, in a sense, onlookers, with our own limited perspectives. I'm a Mormon and I recognize that I can't fully grasp what it is to be a different sort of Mormon than the one I am. But Mormon studies is one avenue which helps in that regard.
 
Contra Gee, I don't believe that a scholar working on 19th century Mormon polygamous practices or pioneer foodways must be completely conversant with contemporary LDS practices. Maybe that would matter if the scholar was also analyzing how such things relate to the contemporary LDS Church. But that isn't a necessary aspect of Mormon studies. Gee suggests attending a Mormon ward for an extended period (why not a Branch?), and he says reading the "Preach My Gospel" manual is crucial. The problem I see is that such familiarity isn't necessary for any number of legitimate academic inquiries, even those performed by practicing Mormons. (I'm also not certain that anyone can become fully conversant--not even practicing Mormons--with the variety of Church experiences and perspectives of Mormonism throughout the world to the degree that Gee would require even for beginners.) Yes, there are some Mormon studies related projects which would require the kind of attention Gee calls for. Religious studies more broadly has ongoing discussions about emic and etic perspectives, thin and thick descriptions, sensitivity to the beliefs of the faiths being studied, etc., all of which Gee fails to grapple with or even acknowledge. I suspect he isn't familiar with them. It isn't his field. He knows no more about religious studies or Mormon studies than I do about Egyptology. Ironically, Gee actually overlooks some excellent examples of Mormon studies which attempt the sort of careful familiarization with the contemporary LDS Church which Gee would demand of *all* scholars. For instance, Tom Mould's "Still, the Small Voice." This book is a masterpiece in being attuned to Mormon beliefs pertaining to personal revelation. Mould spent a year embedded in an LDS ward, and spent time interviewing members and missionaries. You'd hardly be able to tell he isn't a Mormon, and yet he's able to bring fresh perspective to the Mormon experience which could surprise even lifelong Mormons. This suggests to me that Gee is not actually familiar with what is currently happening in Mormon studies. Explanationlessly listing a bunch of AAR conference proceedings also doesn't inspire confidence. Gee does a disservice to a number of brilliant and charitable yet scrutinizing scholars in his disconnected assessment of Mormon studies. In short, I disagree with many of Gee's prescriptions, and I certainly disagree with his understanding of the ways Mormon studies are actually being done.
 
Returning to your ocean analogy, (borrowing from a friend): We should ask, who understands the ocean best: a surfer who's never left Hawaii, a fisherman who's never left New England, an oceanographer in Antarctica who physically can't get into the water since it's too cold (and dry suits don't count), or an explorer from the colonial era? The insider/outsider distinction you're working with isn't true to the actual state of Mormonism itself, an observation which Mormon studies can help flesh out. You need to think through why you and Gee privilege certain kinds of knowledge over others.
 
Tim: Blair - thanks for the thoughtful reply. A few thoughts in response to your comments:
 
"...frankly, it seems presumptuous if not arrogant to vaguely indict a wide body of developing scholarship this way."
 
I think you are misunderstanding my point. I'm not suggesting that scholars are necessarily approaching Mormon Studies in this regard. I'm suggesting that your dismissal or downplaying of John Gee's primary argument in relation to Mormon Studies seems to assume this stance. Does Mormon Studies entail all things 'Mormon'? If so, then John Gee's argument is perfectly at home, and perfectly relevant. You may disagree with the degree of relevance, but to completely dismiss it, that is presumptuous.
 
"The biggest problem I see with Gee's piece is the implicit assumption that Mormon studies only deals with the contemporary Salt Lake-based LDS Church, or perhaps that people should deal only with that Church. You mention the Community of Christ as though it's not part of Mormon studies, but it is."
 
I can't speak for Brother Gee, but I understand your point. Disregarding his argument altogether though because it may be too limited, is an oversight on your part. Perhaps he overemphasizes his point, but you are similarly underemphasizing his point, if not dismissing it altogether. Since the vast majority of publications on all things 'Mormon' have a primary relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the growing body of literature on Mormon subjects has a stronger relevancy to the LDS Church than any other outgrowth, individually or collectively, it would seem that there is merit to Brother Gee's position. Am I generalizing here? Sure. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to count more publications on any 'Mormon' sect than on the LDS church.
 
As far as my position on RLDS or CoC, I didn't intend for it to be understood that I believe them to be outside of Mormon Studies. If that is how it came across, then I employed a poor choice of wording. Whether or not they consider themselves "Mormon" is an interesting question in itself, however.
 
"Your concern with Mormon studies stops at the threshold of your own personal understanding of what counts as "Mormon.""
 
I think that is a valid concern. Is your concern any different? I suspect, however, that you think my threshold is much narrower than it actually is. I would also speculate that your concern with Mormon Studies stops when it comes to experiencing Mormonism (in all or any of its brands), meaning, an academic approach that is exclusionary of actually participating in and understanding the religiosity involved for academic purposes. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding your position.
 
As far as the rest of your comments on John Gee's position - I cannot speak for Brother Gee, but I don't see his argument quite how you see it. My guess is that plenty of others feel similarly.
 
"He [John Gee] knows no more about religious studies or Mormon studies than I do about Egyptology."
 
Wow. Now that is just presumptuous. You mean to tell me that your Master's degree from Georgetown is somehow comparable to a doctorate in Egyptology from Yale? Or, that a religious studies degree with a thesis on Mormon attitudes on intellectual disabilities somehow elevates your knowledge about Mormon Studies beyond John Gee's grasp? Now that is pure arrogance. I hope you realize how absurd this sounds. If I recall, he has actually published more peer reviewed articles with your employer than you have. Of course you could argue that the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies didn't historically publish on 'Mormon Studies' but that would be your own narrow exclusionary definition.
 
"Returning to your ocean analogy, (borrowing from a friend): We should ask, who understands the ocean best: a surfer who's never left Hawaii, a fisherman who's never left New England, an oceanographer in Antarctica who physically can't get into the water since it's too cold (and dry suits don't count), or an explorer from the colonial era?"
 
The point is that they all get in the water. The water might be different here or there, but it is the same substance. If you don't like this analogy, then maybe a different one will add clarity. It seems to me that your argument against John Gee is comparable to a paleontologist who thinks that visiting Jurassic Park wouldn't help further his scientific studies. Who needs the living thing when I have the bones right here?
 
"You need to think through why you and Gee privilege certain kinds of knowledge over others."
 
I know perfectly well why I privilege certain kinds of knowledge over others. I would assume you would as well, but it seems like you have some personal introspection of your own to consider.
 
Lastly, in all of this - I don't mean to come across as condescending. I think you are a bright guy with a bright future. I may disagree with how you view certain things though and I think a small dose of humility could help you out quite a bit. In terms of "insider/outsider" - you seem to be encouraging the polarization of who can and cannot contribute to Mormon Studies and determining who does and does not understand Mormon Studies. I think you need to broaden your scope. The Maxwell Institute will not be the final arbiter in defining 'Mormon Studies.'

Blair: Tim, I don't believe I'm misunderstanding Gee's point. His main problem is that he fails to grapple with the actual goings on in Mormon studies, which is the same problem you seem to replicate in your responses. It may sound presumptuous, but Gee is not familiar enough with Mormon studies to offer a solid description of the field. His post is useful to be included the list because he expresses anxieties which others (like you) share, and offers suggestions which can apply to some, but not all, instances of Mormon studies. So when you say I need to "broaden my scope" I become confused. The scope I'm describing is much wider than Gee's.

As for the Maxwell Institute, it has and will include a variety of voices. I'm posting here as me, not as the Maxwell Institute. Gee and I both work there, and we have differing views on these things. Mormon studies is larger than the Institute could hope to contain, larger than what Gee could hope to contain. (I believe that's one reason he is so pessimistic about it, while others are so optimistic. Self-appointed orthodoxy police will remain, but their voices will be heard less and less.)

You say: "your concern with Mormon Studies stops when it comes to experiencing Mormonism (in all or any of its brands), meaning, an academic approach that is exclusionary of actually participating in and understanding the religiosity involved for academic purposes. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding your position."

Yes, you are misunderstanding my position. As I've explained, I recognize there are possible projects within Mormon studies that require the researcher to become deeply familiar with contemporary Mormon belief and practices. I pointed you to a post in the bibliography that speaks further to this issue (TT's on Orsi v. Prothero), and offered an example of just such a study, which if you haven't read, you ought to. It was my favorite book of 2011. I did a podcast interview with the author which you might like, linked below.

In short: I acknowledge the crux of Gee's and your argument, and account for it within the scope of my argument, while recognizing that it's not the only method, and that there are projects which would certainly not require it (which you also acknowledge). It seems to me you're much closer to my position on this than Gee's. I'm comfortable with the short description of Gee's argument I gave in the post, and the post itself offers a number of different views for anyone's consideration, including Gee's.

Greg Smith: It seems to me that if you want to know whether Gee's views are being fairly represented, one could just ask him. Walk down the hall, or whatever. (I'm a bit surprised, actually, that the NAMIRS blog would post about a senior scholar who works there without asking him whether they'd gotten him right.)

If he thinks the MI blog hasn't fairly stated his position, then that would suggest there's more work to be done. I suspect he would say that the blog has not.

Blair: Parenthetically, I've tried to discuss these things directly with John Gee on several occasions--his office is right across the hall from mine--but he declined.

Blair: From here on out, I'll be confining comments to additional suggested blog posts on Mormon studies. 

1 comment:

  1. Great posting. I find this rift to be rather interesting. I don't see these two sides coming to any accord, anytime soon.

    I do find it fascinating that Gee's office is right across the hall, and Hodges seemingly has either no ability or no personal influence to get Bro. Gee to elucidate his views.

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