Below are notes from today’s live-streamed presentations at Utah Valley University’s Mormonism and the Internet conference. I will bold particular comments that stand out as I listen. Readers are welcome to make additional observations in the comments. Any reader attending in person?
8:45 AM Session: Mormon Studies and the Internet
James Faulconer: “Professing on the Internet: What’s a Guy to Do?” – Faulconer confesses to not blogging much lately at T&S, but he now posts a weekly column on Mormon topics at the Patheos site. He reflects that what he is posting at Patheos would likely not have been published anywhere prior to the Internet. One challenge: writing for a broad and undefined online audience. He hopes his Patheos column exemplifies one effective way to talk about Mormonism online.
Ardis E. Parshall: “Blazing a New Trail: Doing History in the Age of the Internet” – Parents, if you don’t talk to your kids about Mormon history, who will? Parshall’s answer: everyone will, it’s all there online, including stuff from the “tinfoil hat” crowd. And there’s the Bloggernacle, a battleground for the ongoing discussion of LDS history. Online discussion forces the participant to forge their own personal religious identity. She reflects with some emotion on the Keepa community: frequent commenters, would-be commenters, frequent lurkers, and one-time visitors who follow a Google link. She decries the “ugliness of Internet trolling.”
Patrick Mason: “Mormon Blogs, Mormon Studies, and the Mormon Mind” – Allusion: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The Bloggernacle is not The Revolution, but Mormon-themed Mormon-authored blogs have multiplied and amplified (my terms) the Mormon Studies discussion. Mason got 113 responses to his online survey soliciting input from grad student bloggers and readers. Results: a “fractured community” with broad and diverse interests (a potential danger: balkinization and polarization). Lots of discussion: BCC had 2 million visitors last year (I think he means page views). Respondents said blogs meet unfulfilled needs and are a lifeline or safety valve where intellectual and academic ideas get kicked around (this apparently doesn’t happen at church). So the institutional LDS Church isn’t meeting this need for this particular segment. Surprisingly, most grad students who are participants are not directly engaged in Mormon Studies research or writing. Grad students who are in Mormon Studies get mixed signals from advisors and mentors about online participation. Effect of blogs on Mormon Studies: largely positive, a secondary venue to try out and discuss ideas. Dissenters object to pseudo-scholarship by amateur participants and the patriarchal tone and approach of many LDS blogs. Women seem to be underrepresented. Blogs can distract grad students from serious LDS scholarship and give too much weight to young scholars and topics of the moment. What does this all mean for “the Mormon mind?” For some, compartmentalization (blog discussion and one’s grad studies occupying separate mental boxes). Mason shares one of my favorite quotes from Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Mason argues for a more integrated modern Mormon mind.
10:00 AM Session: Joanna Brooks, “The Challenge of Mormon Studies for the Digital Age”
What a fascinating last few years this has been! Online media have power, reach, and immediacy, but can help us Mormons communicate the complexity of our faith. Challenges to the message that Mormons are fairly normal people: the Church is young; isolation in the 19th century; distinctive doctrinal teachings; a legacy of 19th-century stereotypes. Charge of modern Mormon duplicity: behind the public image of friendly clean-cut family types there are dark secrets and a sinister agenda. Brooks cites Daymon Smith’s ideas on Mormon discursive practices: trustworthy (official LDS) versus untrustworthy (other) sources; insider versus outsider narratives; guarded public speech to avoid open discussion of private LDS knowledge. Do Mormons have a divided sense of self? Do LDS scholars write to different (insider and outsider) audiences?
Traditional theocratic control of LDS history and sources contrasted with the open source world of modern digital media. Memes. Examples of how digitial media and media memes have shifted the discussion and elicited institutional responses: (1) the instant wide media discussion of Elder Packer’s remarks on homosexuality in his 2010 General Conference talk, and the amended, edited print version released days later; (2) controversy regarding proxy baptism of Jewish Holocaust victims, which in 2012 spiralled into broad and critical media discussion; (3) the Bott Affair, resulting in two unprecedented public statements posted at the LDS Newsroom distancing the Church from Prof. Bott’s controversial public remarks on race.
She closed with a long discussion of the 1973 Lester Bush article on LDS priesthood doctrine and policy (see here). He was counseled by several GAs and BYU officials to not publish it. Brooks praises Bush’s “critical scholarship” approach to dealing with the priesthood ban as the right approach to controversial LDS topics. She noted it has taken 40 years for his article and research to be properly appreciated.
Impropmptu Q&A session with Joanna Brooks: (1) Discussion of “I Am a Mormon” campaign and LDS branding. (2) Comment and response on the lingering fears of LDS scholars publishing critical research on controversial LDS topics (she thinks good scholarship is the best defense). (3) What’s the next controversial issue? She thinks baptism for the dead will continue to circulate in the media, and that the dearth of official statements or commentary contributes to the persistence and circularity of public discussion of such issues. (4) Is the non-LDS audience really interested in LDS life stories? She thinks the media in general doesn’t want these stories, but praises the On Faith site discussions, which generously include Mormon speakers and topics. (5) Comment: Young LDS get inconsistent messages from parents, church, media on what LDS culture and identity are! She responds that the Bloggernacle works at finding common ground and rules for discussing these identity issues. (6) Lots of older pamphlets and talks available online but not at LDS.org, how do we assess their validity or accuracy? She responds this illustrates the difficulty raised by the correlated presentation we get from official channels versus conflicting information and accounts that are now broadly available from online sites and sources.
A Q&A panel discussion with all four speakers concluded the morning session.
1:00 PM Session: Journeys of Faith on the Internet
John Dehlin: “Why Mormons Leave, and How the Internet is Helping” – Dehlin referenced Elder Jensen’s comments acknowledging the effect of Internet information on LDS exit (aka leaving the Church) as a lead-in to his presentation of results from his own Mormon Stories survey of the reasons for LDS exits. Selected results: Reasons given by survey respondents don’t match the standard LDS menu of reasons for exit (they were offended, they sinned, etc.). Common issues by respondents include LDS history, loss of faith in leaders, gay marriage and homosexuality. Dehlin enumerates a variety of findings and responses, illustrated with quotes from individual respondents. Examples: Finding 10 – LDS bishops may be ill-equipped to deal with or assist Mormons who raise these troubling issues looking for answers or help. Finding 12 – Doubters/disbelievers who remain active have a lot more stress than those who just go away. Has the Internet helped Mormons who struggle with doubt? Yes, they know they’re not alone; the Internet accelerates the learning process for those who embrace their doubts and are moving out of the Church; the Internet helps some reconstitute their LDS beliefs and remain active or semi-active. In closing, Dehlin reflected on his own experience with doubt, his turn to the Internet for information, starting Mormon Stories, and interacting with a couple of thousand doubting, disaffected, or former Mormons.
Scott Gordon: “Fostering Faith and Countering Criticism: The Role of Apologetics in the Information Age” – Apologetics means defending the truth of Christian (or Mormon) doctrine, but the term carries a lot of baggage in casual discourse. The FAIR approach to apologetics and controversial issues: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. FAIR originated as a resource for Mormons on AOL message boards, for a time ran its own message board, and now runs its website, a wiki, and a blog. On the Church “hiding” information on, for example, polygamy, he responded by giving several Ensign references from the mid-90s and earlier. He proudly discussed FAIR’s sponsorship of the BlackLDS.org site.
Rosemary Avance: “Seeing the Light: Mormon Conversion and Deconversion Narratives in On- and Offline Worlds” – Avance is a PhD student who noted she is not LDS (she took the missionary discussions as an academic exercise). She studies communications and religious communities, with an interest in religious narratives and religious identity. On Mormon identity, she talked about former and “heterodox” Mormons who find a second home at various online sites. She compared offline interviews with 17 Mormons (providing orthodox beliefs and testimonies) with deconversion stories found at a couple of websites aimed at former and “heterodox” Mormons. Parallels: all three groups (orthodox, “heterodox,” and former Mormons) construct a testimony story: Praxis creates Mormon identity — the stories told construct what it means to be Mormon. Contrasts: the conversion script relates an experience and has ritualized performance in testimony meetings in which saying the Church is true reinforces for the speaker that the Church is true; the deconversion script styles itself a rationalistic acquisition of knowledge but still reflects a testimony-like evangelistic impulse, even when the referenced sites explicitly direct commenters to avoid giving testimonies. She talked about how those at the “heterodox” Mormon site — the middle ground — each seem to formulate their own personalized marginal-but-still-Mormon positions on standard LDS faith claim like Book of Mormon historicity. Parting conclusion: Disaffection does not erase the desire for religious community and communion.
A Q&A panel discussion with all three speakers concluded the afternoon session.