Mason, ed., “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century” (reviewed by Julie J. Nichols)


Title: Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century
Editor: Patrick Q. Mason
Publisher: The University of Utah Press
Genre: Essay collection
Year of Publication: 2016
Number of Pages: 295
Binding: paper
ISBN13: 978-1-60781-475-7

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

Mormon Studies, according to Wikipedia, is “the interdisciplinary academic study of the beliefs, practices, history and culture of those known by the term *Mormon.*” It includes apologetics and international Mormon studies, and programs of Mormon Studies are housed in seven public universities in the United States with various Chairs and initiatives, not including BYU, LDS Institutes, or other religious institutions where classes can be taken specifically on LDS themes.

The methodology, theory, and concerns of history, sociology, anthropology, statistics, economics, cultural studies, and literature (at least autobiography and memoir) inform Mormon Studies, and the globalization of the Church provides material for myriad as yet untapped research questions. Mormons who wonder how they stack up against members of other religions on many counts, or why the church does what it does, or how it has changed, and whether that change is predictable and socially constructed; and non-Mormons whose fields touch upon any of these mentioned—all will find much to appeal to them here.

The book grew out of a conference held in March 2013 at Claremont Graduate University called “Beyond the Mormon Moment: Directions for Mormon Studies in the New Century.” The purpose of the conference was to honor Armand Mauss, whose name I heard often as I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and who has appeared often at Sunstone Symposia and other events I’ve attended since moving to Utah, to my secret delight: here’s someone from home! The final essay in the book explains much that I had only surmised till I read it. A relatively informal and personal piece by Claudia Bushman, it may be the easiest read in the collection, a “coda” entitled “A Man of His Time and Place: An Appreciation of Armand Mauss and the California Mormons” (267-272). Bushman narrates Mauss’s life in relation to hers:

“Armand and I are not Utahans. We have never been Utahans. We are California Mormons. In our time [the decades surrounding the 1950s and 60s], California Mormons were more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated them from Salt Lake City. They paid less homage to old church families. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world…” (268)

Attributing Mauss’s distance from and curiosity about Church leadership to his position outside of Utah though child of Utah Mormons, she traces the trajectory of his academic career as an astute observer of, and analyzer of, changes in the Church’s priorities and practices from the point of view of a scholar of both sociology and religious studies. His work is referred to repeatedly throughout the volume with respect and deference. But it wasn’t till I read this final essay that I understood why.

And my understanding wasn’t just about this collection. Bushman puts into words a truth I’ve known since I left the Bay Area decades ago: I’m a California Mormon too, “cooler in style, bearing less effusive testimonies…do not stand to sing ‘oh Ye Mountains High’ and try to avoid singing it at all…loyal and reliable…the real Mormon pioneers” (268).

Bushman is delightfully tongue-in-cheek as she writes this, but I loved reading it—I and my ilk have been accurately identified at last! This book of essays, gathered to honor Armand Mauss, honors all of us Mormons who don’t see ourselves through a lens of one-and-only-true-and-living. Studying our religion through academic lenses helps us see what we are, in fact; this book “[charts] out a few key areas and modes of inquiry that will shape Mormon studies as it continues to mature” (7).

After Mason’s excellent historical and evaluative introduction to the field, the book is divided into five sections, each with two or three essays. The first is called “Reassessing Twentieth-Century Mormonism,” with an essay on “The Progressivist Roots of Correlation” by Matthew Bowman and a discussion of Mormon ethnicity by the well-known non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps. Both place trends in Mormon history within larger American contexts, work that many Utah Mormons would benefit from studying in order to extract themselves from the mistaken notion that the evolution of Church policies and practices has come straight from the mouth of God, unattached to secular movements and political needs.

Part II, “American Church or World Religion?”, contains what I consider two of the most fascinating of the essays. A meticulously argued overview of the Church’s first efforts in Japan (where my son went on his mission in 1998-2000 and later lived for several years) locates early “failures” there in the context of sociopolitical trends in that country, placing responsibility on leaders’ inability or refusal to see how isolationism and anti-Christian feeling should have helped determine successful proselytizing methods.

But the other two essays in the section are perhaps even more pointed. Walter E.A. van Beek reviews official attitudes toward “cultural diversity” within the Church, and Wilfried Decoo presents an extensive list of questions scholars (and leaders!) could and should be asking about how the church’s American origins affect members’ conversion, commitment and assimilation abroad. Though neither overtly criticizes current practices, both certainly do suggest a number of new ways to look at problems and issues that are often sidestepped or simply swept away with such comments as “The Church does not do culture.” Both van Beek (Netherlands) and Decoo (Belgium) make it clear that it’s impossible to “not do culture.” Culture affects every aspect of religious acceptance. The ignorance or refusal of leaders to address the complex interplay between culture and gospel, between social attitudes and potential for spiritual growth, needs careful remediation. Research—here and abroad—can help.

Part III, “The Burden of Race,” again places Mormon attitudes toward race—and nineteenth-century American attitudes toward Mormons as aliens—in historical context, analyzing the documents of Jane James’s life (Quincy D. Newell) and political cartoons about Mormons (W. Paul Reeve) to trace the complicated progress of the Church’s “racialization.”

Part IV provides “Theoretical Models in the Study of Mormonism.” Sentences like this one characterize the three essays in this section:

“To repeat our earlier observation, content analysis methods are most beneficial for the generalizing goals of social science when they can be applied to sets of organizationally connected records or documents that constitute meaningful units of material produced during specified periods of time.” (215)

This essay by brothers and coauthors Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd on the benefits of “Statistical Content Analysis of Historical Documents” for studies of religions in general via Mormon Studies is perhaps the most jargon-ridden of the contributions to *Directions.* It’s still interesting, though; if you have any investment at all in scholarly methods, logistics and applications, this and its accompanying essays (by Michael McBride and Richard Lyman Bushman) demonstrate how theories of economics, history, sociology, and even literary production can shed light on such issues as authority and the “fantastic” aspects of the Joseph Smith story.

Finally, Part V examines the role of personal voice in the telling of Mormon stories. The essays by Levi Peterson and Jana Reiss apply literary analysis to Wayne Booth’s autobiography and Craig Harline’s more recent memoir to very good effect.

But I found that the essays which upended received answers about culture and history were the most rewarding to me. This is not light summer reading. It’s deeply scholarly, raising questions I wish the General Authorities would take to heart. Perhaps they do; perhaps there are departments at the COB engaged in cultural and historical work I know nothing about. In the meantime, my own job at one of the seven universities where a thriving Mormon Studies program offers conferences every year and encourages students to acknowledge the potential for research and rich new answers, reassures me that what this book sets out is true: Mormon Studies is viable, workable, delicious to the taste and very desirable.

One Thought on “Mason, ed., “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century” (reviewed by Julie J. Nichols)

  1. Jonathan Langford on July 7, 2016 at 11:05 am said:

    If it is true that God speaks to humans “in their weakness, after the manner of their language,” and that part of that language is the cultural lens through which we view the world, it stands to reason (in my view) that there are aspects of the gospel we can come to know through the insights of those with a different cultural and intellectual background than our own. That applies to California and Utah Mormons both, as well as those of more exotic (to Americans) cultural backgrounds.

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