Following “Exploring Mormon Conceptions of the Apostasy,” a conference organized by Miranda Wilcox and held this last Thursday and Friday at BYU, I heard several people say that it was the best conference of any kind they had ever participated in. I don’t think that was merely a polite exaggeration.
There was only one paper read each hour, giving the presenters enough time both to build a substantial argument and to make it understandable for nonspecialists. After each presentation, there was time for questions that led to interesting extensions of the original topic or insightful connections to other papers. Hearing every paper read made it possible for papers to build on or respond to each other, allowing a real conversation to emerge.
The audience was easily two or three times as large as any group that I have presented to at any academic conference (averaging around 60 people by my occasional rough counts), and they the audience was both engaged with and generally well informed about the topic. That was also what made the experience so intimidating. The people in the auditorium cared, and you didn’t know what direction their questions were coming from. This audience is, I think, part of what gives the field of Mormon Studies the energy it has today. At the same time, the increasing professionalization of the field was on display; all of the presenters had doctorates or were in doctoral programs. I’m glad to see contributions from scholars with academic training in theology and Mormon history, but it’s also one reason that I won’t be making frequent forays into Mormon Studies. I can tell when I’m straying outside my area of expertise. I don’t mind blogging as an interested observer, but I was skating on thin ice for most of my presentation.
While the presenters took many different approaches, each paper was clearly connected to other presentations and to the conference’s topic. The presenters had put some serious thought into the question of what the narratives of historical apostasy mean to Mormonism, and a few of the presenters mentioned that they had spent more time and gone through more drafts than they typically do for academic conference papers. One sign of the quality of the conference is how it made clear certain questions that might still be addressed. For example: What was Hugh Nibley’s view of apostasy? How did early Catholic converts to Mormonism view the apostasy? How did Mormon views of apostasy change between the late Nauvoo period and the end of the nineteenth century? One of the best things about the conference was how the presentations and following dialogues managed to discuss Mormon topics with sophistication and without defensiveness in any direction: The participants were faithful Mormons and active and accomplished members of their own scholarly communities and they weren’t embarrassed about it. It was, in short, the kind of event that could only happen at BYU.
For some participants, ‘apostasy’ is a concept that does more harm than good for Mormonism today; for others – at least for me – the apostasy is an essential part of our belief system. But the presentations were so compelling that when I disagreed with some point, I had to ask myself if perhaps I was the one who most needed to rethink the issue. In one way or another, all the participants agreed that there were problems with the binary, black and white view of other times and other people that superficial apostasy narratives too often lead to.
I especially liked the presentations that sought more accurate comparisons with other belief systems. We might find points of real agreement or disagreement, but first we have to understand people and ideas in their own context before we can make that judgment, even with things that are often cited as evidence of apostasy. Spencer Young addressed the theology and practice of indulgences, Lincoln Blumell looked at the Nicene Creed, and I tried to do something similar with lesser known figures of the Reformation. One of my favorite papers was Matthew Grey’s, which contrasted the often superficial Mormon views of intertestamental Judaism with the complicated historical reality. After several papers in which James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts figured as the most influential voices of a Mormon view of the Middle Ages that became increasingly out of step with scholarship as the twentieth century progressed, Matthew Bowman asked the audience to reconsider Talmage and Roberts in the context of their own time and of the genre of confessional history that they were writing. If we can find room for a more nuanced understanding of other religious traditions, then we can also find room for our own.
Another theme of several papers, including those of several JI bloggers, asked the audience to rethink origins. While the Documentary Hypothesis has presented a challenge to traditional readings of scriptural authorship and harmony, Cory Crawford suggested that the unharmonized compilation of competing narratives found in the Old Testament, and the creative tension that results, might provide a model for discussing the apostasy. Taylor Petrey’s examination of early Christianity called into question the notion that original purity and unity is replaced by contaminated variety; what one finds instead is an original complexity followed by increasing anxiety over unity. He suggested hybridity and the performance of identity as approaches for further inquiry. Ariel Bybee Laughton took just such an approach to the question of Arianism as a heretical identity that was forced upon people of various, and not particularly Arian, beliefs in the late fourth century to achieve sociopolitical ends. After comparing the construction of ‘non-Christian’ in contemporary anti-Mormon discourse, she provocatively asked whether Mormons would be better off performing the orthodox or the heretical roles. Steve Fleming and Christopher Jones’s joint presentation looked at the changing nature of apostasy discourse among early Mormon converts, which was initially more particularly directed at Protestant churches than at Catholicism, with the exception of a frequent affinity towards Methodism.
The beginning and ending papers of each day provided five “bookends” that aimed for overarching synthesis, including Miranda Wilcox’s comparison of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and LDS apostasy narratives, and Eric Dursteler’s revisiting of his seminal article on the apostasy in LDS discourse. John Young asked the audience to take the long view of Mormon teaching, exemplified by the Mormon understanding of the atonement that is the heritage primarily of medieval Christianity; we can expand our understanding of our own faith by understanding other and earlier traditions. David Peck examined how Mormonism can easily fit in the framework of religious pluralism found in the Koran, and how Mormonism has had the potential for an equally charitable treatment of other faiths since the time of Joseph Smith; whether this potential is realized is yet to be seen. Terryl Givens’s concluding remarks centered on how the entire drama of the Restoration is contained within the Enoch account in Moses 6. I found Givens’s point particularly insightful that Mormonism was not just another restorationist movement in that it did not attempt to regain a simple original Christianity by stripping away accretions. Instead it offered a vast expansion in order to bring back what had come first. Once published, Terryl Givens’s remarks could easily become an instant classic.
In other words: This is how a conference is supposed to work.