Julie M. Smith on “experimenting with new readings”

08.11.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

The first annual Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped things up in London (see here). In this post, participant Julie M. Smith reflects on her experiences at the seminar. She earned a graduate degree in biblical studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She lives near Austin, Texas, where she homeschools her children and is writing a commentary on the Gospel of Mark. Reflections on the seminar from other participants can be found here. —BHodges

Most of us feel that we never have the time that we wish we had to do what we want to do. I am acutely aware of time pressures as I try to balance my commitment to my research projects against family life and other obligations. This is why the Mormon Theology Summer Seminar (sponsored by the Laura F. Willes Center for the Study of the Book of Mormon, the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, the Mormon Theology Seminar, and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute) was such a remarkable event.

Gathering six seminar participants and four directors at the BYU London Centre for two weeks—that’s two weeks without distraction from other commitments, professional or otherwise—meant that we were able to dwell together within the text, around a conference table, for many uninterrupted hours. This immersion was an extraordinary experience and it led, I believe, to a richer result than would otherwise have been possible. I’ve participated in other seminars sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar and while each one was valuable and productive, the fragmented nature of online communication and the press of other commitments were significant limitations.

By contrast, the Summer Seminar allowed all participants to gather together and focus on 1 Nephi 1, spending about five hours on each two- to three-verse section. And our discussions continued—on the “tube,” over dinner, in the hotel lobby. Time set aside for independent research and writing made our contributions to the discussions more robust, as did an ethos of charitable collegiality. Guest speakers, representing a range of perspectives on Mormon Studies, leavened the whole. The fact that participants haled from a wide variety of personal backgrounds and disciplines—from mathematics to philosophy to literature—helped us avoid the dangers of an overly narrow approach to the text. My notes from the seminar overflow with textual and theological insights from the other participants and I appreciated the push-back that refined my own ideas. The time and determination to read the text closely—without assuming that we already knew what it was trying to say—permitted us to experiment with new readings, adopting some and abandoning others.

As we worked together, several main themes kept resurfacing. One was Nephi’s anxiety over his writing project; another was the historical background to Lehi’s life. A third was the “missing media” (the plates, Lehi’s record, what Nephi abridged, etc.) in the text. We considered and then re-considered these ideas—what they were, how they played out, and what impact they should or could have on the reader. And while writing and delivering a conference paper in one week’s time was a bit intense, that intensity was matched in the feedback from other participants—not to mention by the ability to test drive ideas with each other as we wrote.

While it is a touch painful for an introvert and misanthrope like myself to admit to what a sheer delight it was to work on a collaborative endeavor, there is no doubt that the cooperative nature of the project paid immense dividends.

—Julie M. Smith