How many times have you come across the phrase “Mormon Moment” in recent months? I confess that I cringe a bit whenever I hear the word “Mormon” on the radio, or see it in a news headline or an email subject line, probably because I’m never sure whether I will be proud, embarrassed, or offended by my fellow Latter-day Saints and the outsiders who write about them.
It is strange to see things I revere, or even hold sacred, openly discussed in the media, and too often the contexts—politics or religion or popular entertainment—are zero-sum enterprises. That is to say, Mormons and non-Mormons alike often use religion to score points: “Mormons believe such and such, therefore I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “Because some Mormon is like this or that, my team is a winner and yours is a loser.”
Each of us now has regular opportunities to become defenders of the faith. Mormonism is a somewhat complicated tradition, with a controversial history, subtle distinctions between official and unofficial discourse, and lots of specialized vocabulary (for instance, just how many people in your ward go by the title “president”? And of those, whose opinions count the most?). It is easy and a little invigorating even, to point out mistakes made by outsiders, or to feel aggrieved at being misunderstood. In fact, taking offense can be habit-forming; drama is so much more exciting than quiet dignity and mutual respect.
Yet given the prominence of rough-and-tumble politics, proselytizing, and entertainment, we may be missing another important shift in the relationship between our faith and the larger culture—the growing interest in Mormonism among academics. Scholarship, at its best, is not a zero-sum game. Ideally, there is a careful, patient evaluation of the full range of arguments and evidence, with the end goal of understanding rather than conversion or de conversion.
In my own case, I teach at a state university that has been very supportive of my work in Mormon Studies, even going so far as to feature my Understanding the Book of Mormon in the college alumni magazine. The attitude of my colleagues here at UNC-Asheville has been “Whatever you may think about its ultimate significance, the Book of Mormon is an important text in American religious history that deserves to be studied as carefully as any other cultural document.” And in turn, my personal commitment to Mormonism hasn’t diminished my interest in and respect for Buddhism, Confucianism, or Islam.
From conversations I’ve had with publishers and colleagues around the country, it seems to me that there is a real desire among academics to learn more about Mormonism. I don’t think that many of these professors want to join the Church, but our faith tradition does offer a fascinating example of a relatively new religion, whose rise is well-documented, with new scripture and new modes of worship and community-building that could be usefully compared with other religious movements.
Growth of Mormon Studies in Academia
Indeed, looking closely at Mormonism might help scholars better understand religion in general.The growth of Mormon Studies begins with Latter-day Saints whose academic training has prepared them to speak about their tradition in the language of scholarship. The next step happens when mainstream university presses publish books by such scholars. And we can feel like we have finally arrived when non-Mormons professors are intrigued enough to write their own books on Mormonism.
The first step is still something of a problem. I believe that our lay ministry is a great source of strength, yet the absence of a professional clergy or religious studies departments at Church schools means that there are few Mormons who are comfortable with the precise, technical language of theology or biblical interpretation, which is why so many Latter-day Saints scratched their heads when Elder Christofferson mentioned “hermeneutics” and “exegesis” in his last general conference address.Nevertheless, a few LDS scholars such as Leonard Arrington and Richard Bushman have been remarkably successful at explaining key elements of Mormonism to their university peers. And in response, outsiders like Jan Shipps and Douglas Davies have written perceptively about our history and theology
Academic studies of the Book of Mormon have been a little slower in coming. (As gifted as he was, Hugh Nibley wrote for Mormons rather than for professors, and as a result he had virtually no impact on outside scholarship.) In recent years, people like Terryl Givens and John Welch have been able to publish studies of the Book of Mormon in prestigious academic presses. This is a start, but we always knew that the field of Book of Mormon Studies would reach a milestone when non-LDS scholars became interested enough to publish on the Book of Mormon. Well, that day has arrived with the appearance of The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul Gutjahr, a non-Mormon professor of English, American Studies, and Religious Studies at Indiana University.
Professor Gutjahr is well-prepared for such an undertaking. He is the author of a terrific biography of Charles Hodge, a prominent Princeton theologian who was a contemporary of Joseph Smith, as well asan impressive history of the Bible in America that included a short discussion of the Book of Mormon. For his new book, which is part of the Princeton University Press series “The Lives of Great Religious Books,” he devotes 200 pages to the Book of Mormon—its origins, its message, and especially, the role it has played in the lives of Latter-day Saints since 1830.
Gutjahr has read widely in both Mormon and non-Mormon sources, and he has taken the trouble to get the basic facts right (something that is more difficult to do than you might imagine; those of us who have grown up with these stories can sometimes forget how complicated they are for outsiders.) As a scholar, Gutjahr tries to be fair to both believers and skeptics in their attempts to explain the origins of this remarkable text, but he clearly takes faith seriously and respectfully.
He begins by retelling the story of Joseph Smith’s encounter with the angel Moroni, followed in time by the translation and publication of the Nephite record. In the second chapter, he examines why some people found Joseph’s account persuasive while others regarded it as ridiculous, and he summarizes the explanations that each side put forward to support their opinions.
Chapter 3 takes the story to Joseph’s martyrdom and beyond, discussing the various individuals and groups who laid claim to the religious movement that began with the Book of Mormon. The most successful branch of Mormonism, of course, was comprised of the saints who followed Brigham Young to Utah, and their treatment of the Book of Mormon is the subject of chapter 4.
Gutjahr then rounds out his volume with four thematic chapters: “Missionary Work and the Book,” “Scholars and the Book,” “Illustrating the Book,” and “The Book on Screen and Stage.”Some of what Gutjahr presents will be familiar to Latter-day Saints, especially those who have read Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, yet there are also wonderful discoveries to be made here, including things that I was unaware of.