A Mormon Studies Blogliography

08.16.2013 | Blair Hodges

What is Mormon studies? Who is doing it? Where and how is it being done? What is the relationship between Mormon studies and apologetics? Does Mormon studies exclude or necessarily bracket discussion about the fundamental truth claims of the religion? How is Mormon studies to be situated within the wider academy? I’ve been busy compiling a bibliography of publications that tackle these types of questions. There are fewer published articles that directly address such questions than I expected. Some of the most interesting discussions have occurred in the Bloggernacle—a loose and unaffiliated collection of Mormon-themed blogs. I have gathered representative online discussions into this bibliographic post to highlight the issues being discussed in relation to Mormon studies. Many of the posts reach wider than the category in which I place them. Inclusion in this collection does not signal my agreement. I tried to provide a wide variety of perspectives, but it should go without saying that this blogliography is incomplete. None of the posts engage the relationship of Mormon studies to feminism, international studies, minority studies, etc. There are plenty of blog posts which discuss Mormonism and these issues, but I couldn’t find any that specifically addressed them with regard to Mormon studies as an academic venture. Don’t stop with the posts themselves; the comment sections are sometimes more interesting than the original posts and they bring in a greater variety of voices. I hope this collection provides a sense of the issues and stakes involved in the academic study of Mormonism. Above all, I hope such conversations continue. Even if we haven’t pinned down what Mormon studies actually is, Mormonism will continue to be studied in the academy.

 

I. The relationship between Mormon studies and apologetics has been a source of anxiety. An exchange between William J. Hamblin and a pseudonymous blogger called “smallaxe” provides a good window into these anxieties. The issues they discuss transcend the skirmish that originally led to their exchange. Hamblin raises concern about whether or not Mormon studies must necessarily exclude faith-based perspectives or defensive apologetics (see the “bracketing” section below). He also concludes that the current number of university chairs and programs is insufficient for Mormon studies to be considered a legitimate academic pursuit. Smallaxe observes that Hamblin’s portrayal of the general field of religious studies is not representative of the variety of academic methods and approaches of the field. He concludes that Hamblin has “set the bar too high” for the existence of Mormon studies (which I’ll return to in the “institutional dynamics” section below).

Meanwhile, Brian Birch describes a certain “awkwardness” regarding Mormonism’s place in wider religious studies. Can the study of Mormonism avoid being overtly laudatory or excessively critical of the faith tradition? This question is especially salient in Utah. Above all, Birch hopes to facilitate safe spaces in which an  interdisciplinary dialogue about Mormonism can occur, suggesting that Hamblin’s characterization requires more nuance. 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. Contrast this with Birch’s “criterion for inclusion and exclusion,” which is determined by “the extent to which a [person’s] perspective contributed to a rich and stimulating academic discussion.” Gee and Birch thus indirectly address a perennial problem of religious studies–call it the “insider/outsider” problem.

II. The problem of “bracketing”—another perennial problem in religious studies—receives attention in several of the posts already listed. In addition, Ralph Hancock argues that Mormon studies risks becoming entirely “secular,” or being unwilling to engage with truth claims or questions such as, “How shall I live?” Hancock relates a historical narrative whereby apologetics is shunted in behalf of a new Mormon studies, overlooking the fact that both enterprises have not been, nor need they be, mutually exclusive. Setting that historical question aside (or bracketing it, if you will!), Hancock’s general observations about bracketing are useful to consider, as is a brief discussion at the Faith Promoting Rumor blog about the same problem. Joseph Spencer’s thoughts on bracketing in Mormon studies also deserve attention.

III. Ben Huff outlines specific institutional dynamics necessary for the existence of any academic field or area of study, which include “scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs.” Huff (admittedly glibly) concludes that Mormon studies is lacking in all of these areas, while overlooking actual conferences (some international), university chairs, courses, published books, journal articles, etc. A few days earlier, Jana Riess had responded to a positive New York Times article on the growth of Mormon studies, providing the sort of specific examples Huff overlooked, and a year earlier, Kent Larsen listed courses about Mormonism offered at various universities. A year before that, Stephen Taysom outlined important institutional developments that also help fill Huff’s gaps, although Taysom acknowledges that Mormon studies is still small potatoes. Blair Hodges reviewed Taysom’s Mormon Studies Reader, assessing the way its contents reflect the current state of Mormon studies. These posts are a great place to start if you’re wondering what Mormon studies already looks like in the academy.

But what about institutional demands within Mormonism, or between Mormonism and the wider academy? Patrick Mason touches on the relationship between Claremont’s Mormon studies chair and the LDS Church, and Richard Livingston questions whether Mormon studies is even possible at the church-affiliated Brigham Young University.

IV. Questions remain about the proper place of Mormon studies within existing academic programs. Should Mormon studies be part of a history department? Philosophy? Theology? Religious studies? Social science? etc. It is not likely that Mormon studies will become as broad as Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist studies, but will rather consist of a variety of minor programs, courses, and a few academic chairs. Loyd Ericson asks what the “Mormon” in “Mormon studies” refers to—the object being studied, the person doing the studying, or the methodology itself (i.e., is there a Mormon methodology). This paper was part of a 2010 conference at Claremont called “What is Mormon Studies.” Jacob Baker provides a useful synopsis of the conference proceedings. Alexandria Griffin and Michael Haycock suggest that the field might usefully be divided into apologetics, theology, and studies, situating these within methodologies used by various divisions already existing in the academy.

Practitioners of various disciplines (history, social science, religious studies, theology, etc.) haven’t been shy about claiming the place of pride in Mormon studies, usually to the chagrin of practitioners from other disciplines. Christopher Jones responds to suggestions that Mormon history has already received too much attention; Phillip Barlow explores how Mormonism might be investigated within the broader liberal arts curriculum; Patrick Mason reflects on a semester of teaching about Mormonism and gender; and Jacob Baker calls attention to the ways Mormon studies practitioners might present Mormonism to the world. Finally, Benjamin Park affirms the need for Mormon studies to avoid parochialism by illuminating the broader contexts in which Mormonism has developed. In this way, Mormonism can speak directly to issues already being explored in wider fields.

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As this non-comprehensive list suggests, blogs have provided fruitful ground for discussing the who/what/where/how questions of Mormon studies. Unfortunately, some of the best conversations couldn’t be included here because they took place on individual Facebook walls or in private Facebook groups and email lists. Still others took place at academic conferences, the proceedings of which have yet to be published, and perhaps never will be. I hope public discussions about Mormon studies continue in spite of such black holes. But if you find yourself in one of those off-the-radar conversations, consider bringing the best parts to the Bloggernacle where they might live longer and reach further.

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