(Cross-posted at By Common Consent. Also, the first three paragraphs should be read in the voice of Billy Mays, and taken in the spirit of the “Tribute to Doin’ It Wrong” video. The pdf of the inaugural Mormon Studies Review‘s Table of Contents can be downloaded here.)
Struggling to keep up with developments in the seemingly always-nascent (sub)field of Mormon studies? Do you ever walk through the book aisle and think, “holy fetch, when did that book come out?” Have you ever found yourself wondering, “what the heck is Mormon studies, anyway?” Or, does a sleepless night rarely go buy without you asking, “well, how does the study of Mormonism illuminate the translocative elements of religious studies?” Well, you are not alone!
We at the Mormon Studies Review are here to help. You see, we have scoured our parochial academic field to find individuals from many disciplines who also ask these same questions and, well, we give them a venue to offer substantive answers. Curious how the study of Mormon folklore has developed and how it may develop in the future? You’re in luck: we asked two of the primary scholars in the field that very question! Puzzled why historians of early Mormonism have quit using terms like “metaphysical” and “magic”? Today is your lucky day: one of the most innovative interpreters of Joseph Smith has surveyed the strengths and weaknesses of a half-dozen volumes engaging that issue! Do you have a suspicion that Armand Mauss’s memoirs demonstrate the very tensions that his sociological studies previously identified in post-war Mormonism? Well by golly, a leading expert in how Americans coped with the many changes to American religion in the second half of the twentieth century is here to tell you that that is very much the case!
And all this can be yours for four simple payments an annual subscription to the Review! (Also note: digital and reduced price subscriptions are currently under consideration, so keep your ear to the ground on that front.
This is all a playful way to announce the first volume of Mormon Studies Review, of which I have the distinct pleasure to serve as an associate editor. You can read about the particular contents of this issue at the Maxwell Institute blog, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer more informal reflections both on what the Review is and also what it hopes to be. So, I’ll summarize three of my favorite pieces in the issue and explain why I think they, and the issue they compose, are important.
It is a very difficult task to choose which contributions to highlight, because so many deserve close consideration. But just to give a taste of the wide-ranging topics displayed in the volume, I will offer brief overviews of Thomas Tweed’s disciplinary essay on the “translocative” elements of religious studies, Benjamin Hertzberg’s review essay on (the paucity of) Mormon ethical studies, and Kathryn Lofton’s book review of Paul Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography. This is not to say that these are the best pieces in the volume, though they are exceptionally good, but that they represent both the scope and standard of what we hope to accomplish with the Review.
Thomas Tweed, one of the most esteemed scholars in religious studies, opens his provocative essay with a look at Mark Twain’s classic account of his visit to Salt Lake City. But rather than dismissing Twain’s narrative as a caricatured, flawed, and humorous look at 19th century Mormons, Tweed uses it as a springboard to talk about “Mormon displacement and emplacement,” and proposes “that consideration of these two themes, and others, shows that the Latter-day Saints offer an exceptionally generative case study for translocative history, historical accounts that trace cultural flows across geographical boundaries, and comparative analysis”—which Tweed terms “the justly maligned but still useful strategy of interpreting one tradition in terms of another.” Indeed, what Tweed does is ably demonstrate that the “t” word so maligned in Mormon studies in previous decades (“theory”) actually offers important insights into both the practice of religious scholarship as well as the religious characters we study. He points out several points of analysis that should be further engaged in a comparative framework—prophetic legacy, theological innovation, and globalization—as well as several themes that could and should be invoked, like “crossing.” Tweed, a leader in the field, both explicitly and implicitly announces that it is time for Mormonism to move closer to the center of the academic study of religion. This is a disciplinary essay at its best: theoretically sound, historiographically grounded, and thematically provocative.
Benjamin Hertzberg, a young and rising scholar in political science, reviews the edited collection War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Kofford 2012) to ask a seemingly simple question: is there such a thing as a Mormon peace ethics? His answer is nuanced and smart: while many scholars, including those in the War and Peace volume, have engaged in historical traditions of pacifism, just war, and peace ethics, the lack of academic rigor and theoretical sophistication has stunted definitive conclusions. The field, just like the volume, has laid the descriptive foundation, but lacks analytical progression. This is for at least a couple reasons: first, Mormonism has a different sense of authoritative culture from which an ethical formulation can grow; and second, Mormons have lacked engagement with broader theories of ethics, and much of our work remains within a parochial vacuum. “Good ethical thinking happens only when people carefully examine the categories, definitions, and assumptions they bring to the process of addressing [this] vexing question,” Hertzberg tells us, and until Mormons are willing to engage in this broader literature and discussion our answers will continue to be limited. Hertzberg praises War and Peace in Our Time as a significant start, but by no means the end, of this process, and while doing so shows how review essays can be both descriptive and prescriptive for the field in general.
Kathryn Lofton is, frankly, a rock star, and teaches religious studies at Yale University. Her review is of Paul Gutjahr’s recent The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton, 2012), and beyond giving a concise and careful overview of the book’s arguments and merits also points to important issues in the topic itself. She points to how the book can be used in the classroom, explains how the book is a product of its historiographical time—she notes that it “is a model text for the current hermeneutic epoch” that emphasizes “the world made by and through a text, its communities, and its critics”—and, importantly, highlights underlying assumptions that require more consideration: how, exactly, did the Book of Mormon achieve such strong cultural resonance? All of the great recent examinations of Mormon’s book, Lofton tells us, from Gutjahr to Givens to Hardy, remain “too close to the book to make a truly powerful case for it,” primarily because they begin with the presumption that the Book of Mormon is scripture. This, then, points not only to the foundation Gutjahr’s book is building, but also to the future scaffolding still to be constructed.
These three summaries of excellent contributions point to what the Review hopes to accomplish: responsible overviews of recent scholarly works and trends, explanations of their importance to broader academic fields, and prognostications of where the field(s) can go from here. Thus, we hope readers—a group we hope to include scholars of religion writ large—will come to the Review to not only chart where Mormon studies is, but also where it is going.
Put simply, we want the Review to be the barometer for the developing field of Mormon studies and a definitive location to assess the quality of work in various disciplines. Not only a central hub for the growing body of academic work that deal with Mormonism, the Review aims to be the bridge between, on the one hand, scholars of American religion throughout the humanities and social sciences and, on the other, the increasing quality of work being done within the elastic borders of Mormon studies. That is, beyond being an important voice in the academic community that studies Mormonism, we desire to reach those graduate students and seasoned academics that want to dip their toes into the invigorating waters of the study of Mormonism.
So please, come on in; the water’s just fine.