[This is the first guest post from Saskia Tielens.]
Last spring, I taught a course called The Book of Mormon and American Culture at the TU Dortmund University in Dortmund, Germany. It was an elective class and meant for undergraduate students.
The first thing my students asked me last spring was whether I was Mormon.
Actually, that’s not true. The first thing they asked me was something incomprehensible in German. Since I prefer my German the American way (slowly and loudly), I stared at them for a moment before letting them know that however much I appreciated being addressed as Frau Tielens (it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?), Ms. Tielens would do for now.
So I guess the second thing they asked me was whether I was Mormon. No, I said, I’m not. (The unspoken question is then always why I spend my time thinking about Mormonism, then, if I’m not one of ‘them’.) I gave the same answer I always do, that I am fascinated by the interplay of religion and culture, and Mormonism is a particularly interesting example. Plus, Mormons are really, really nice, an added bonus if you want to spend time among them for research purposes.
It turned out most of my students had a Catholic background, though not all were practicing believers. (Western Germany is still heavily Catholic.) The majors ran the gamut from comparative literature to social work. The class was also mainly female, not a surprise in the humanities!
I had designed the course around several themes. We started off with Mormon history before tackling such issues as popular culture, politics, gender and race. I made sure they were familiar with the basic tenets of Mormonism before we got into Mormon culture, and I encouraged them to ask anything they wanted, sometimes resorting to Mormonism for Dummies to come up with the answer. (That book should not be underrated.)
It turns out the Plan of Salvation was surprisingly hard to grasp for them. I think this is indicative of a larger issue we had, namely that at the beginning, most of them were encultured enough in their own religious views that it was difficult for them to view Mormon culture and religion through anything else than a biased lens. For example, after one of the early classes, I got a response card from one of the students categorizing the Book of Mormon as blasphemous. She is an orthodox Catholic (with a theology major, no less) and the idea of an open canon was foreign enough to cross into blasphemous territory. This is an attitude I encountered several times from most of them throughout the course, and it was one of my goals in the beginning to help them think outside their own box and perhaps cross over to someone else’s.
It wasn’t entirely successful, I think. One class isn’t going to broaden your horizons that much. But towards the end, when I had invited the local missionaries to come talk to the class, you could tell the students were willing and able to meet the sisters and elders on their own terms, crossing over into some mystical scholarly middle ground. Even so, there were some…interesting moments. The one that stands out to me the most was when one of the elders very earnestly told the class that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 because LDS missionaries had been admitted into East Germany to proselytize. This caused some raised eyebrows among those of the class who were actually from East Germany and live with that history every day, but it turned out to be a prime example of the grounding in alternative history that Mormon culture sometimes exhibits. And it made for some pretty interesting response cards, too.
Teaching Mormonism as a non-Mormon in Germany has its own unique challenges. How much of what seemed peculiar to the students is indicative of Mormonism, and how much is simply American and thus foreign to these kids? This came out really well in the class discussion we had after viewing a couple of Mitt Romney’s campaign videos, and although I had not been looking forward to that class, it turned out to be one of the most engaging hours I spent with them.
Teaching Mormonism as a non-Mormon also means walking a fine line between holy envy and criticism. There is a lot in Mormon culture I admire, and I wanted to convey that admiration to the class, partly also to combat the stereotypes that abound. But as a scholar, I need to be critical of what I see and read and experience, and help students become critical thinkers too. In that sense, teaching this class helped me work out exactly where that line lies in my work. But in the end, the world of Mormonism and Mormon studies is wonderful and peculiar and intriguing, and I hope I managed to give them a glimpse of that.