I am almost done with the recently published memoir by Armand Mauss, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (U of U Press, 2012; publisher’s page). Like Leonard Arrington’s earlier memoir, Adventures of a Church Historian, the book is something of a insider’s guided tour of fifty years of Mormon Studies, including the two important books on Mormonism authored by Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive (1994) and All Abraham’s Children (2003). Anyone who reads T&S or the other blog will certainly enjoy the tour.
I’m not really sure how to review a memoir, which is kind of like an upgraded version of someone’s diary. It’s a little unseemly to engage in serious critique. If the writer is an interesting person who did interesting things and wrote interesting books, it will be a fun and enlightening read, as this one is. There’s not much more to say except to recommend you go buy it and read it. I think a more productive way to proceed is to take an issue or two discussed in the book and extend that conversation in a post and comments. My issue for this post is Chapter 7, My Journey with Dialogue, referring of course to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
As he recounts in the chapter, Mauss was a charter subscriber when the journal was first published in 1966. He contributed several fine articles over the years and eventually served first on its editorial board, then, in 1998, on its Board of Directors and, in 2000, as the Chairman. So when he walks the reader through almost 50 years of the ups and downs of Dialogue history, he knows what he is talking about. Here are some interesting observations and questions that arise from his discussion.
1. Dialogue is the middle ground. Dialogue is not the enemy, it is the middle ground in a broad spectrum of discussion and scholarship on Mormonism. I suspect media discussion of Mormonism during the 2012 campaign gave some Mormons a new appreciation for how wide that spectrum of opinion on Mormonism really is. Occupying and defending the middle ground in Mormonism is no easy task, which I’m sure some readers recognize. As Mauss notes:
It must be remembered that until very recent times, virtually all literature on Mormons, whether scholarly or popular in nature, was primarily polemical and either apologetic or hostile. In such a bifurcated intellectual environment, it was relatively easy for Mormons and their leaders to recognize the difference between “good intellectuals,” many of whom were already in the church leadership, and “bad intellectuals,” who could be dismissed as enemies. … In 1965 … emerged Dialogue and the Mormon History Association (and later its journal) and thereafter the plethora of independent intellectual activity that has created a new predicament for the leaders. (p. 138)
And what is this predicament? I think it is that present-day leaders and members now sometimes have a hard time telling who their friends are (the people who from time to time candidly tell you want you need to hear) as opposed to who are merely critics (who often tell various half-truths) and opportunists (who tell you what you want to hear). Candid opinions and tough truths never play well within managerial hierarchies. I hope the emergence of university-affiliated Mormon Studies programs will strengthen this middle ground of discussion and scholarship pioneered and continued by Dialogue. In the end, the Church will be better for it.
2. Accurate, balanced, responsible. A related point is how to conduct that middle-ground discussion and scholarship in a productive, constructive manner given how controversial and emotional some of the historical, doctrinal, and social issues kicked around in Mormon Studies are. Mauss expresses a concern for
Dialogue as a scholarly journal that is independent of the church, scholarly rather than polemical, and neither critic nor apologist — or, in the words of the mission statement at the front of each issue, a journal that “encourages a variety of viewpoints” based on “accurate scholarship and responsible judgment.” (p. 141)
That challenge is compounded for bloggers, who can dash off a post or comment in minutes, then hit “publish.” There’s something to be said for a delay between drafting and publishing and for editorial review.
3. Bloggers and the younger generation (that’s you). Is blogging an alternative forum for this productive discussion or just a distraction from more serious work that still needs to be done? Does blogging promote the accuracy, balance, and responsibility necessary for middle-ground discussions to maintain credibility? Tough questions. Mauss thinks that Dialogue editors
must find a way to persuade their younger peers to spend less time in the blogosphere and more time in reading and writing in-depth, peer-reviewed literature on the Mormon scene. Blogging has its place, and it is a quick and easy way to get one’s opinions and observations broadcast to a certain constituency. One drawback, though, is the tendency I have noticed for many who frequent the blogosphere to ask questions, or express opinions, in seeming ignorance of the rich literature found in journals and books that would bear importantly upon the very topics they wish to discuss.
Scholars have a talent for gentle criticism. Turning up the volume a bit so we bloggers actually get the point, he’s saying: Quit yakking on Facebook and blogs all day, subscribe to Dialogue so you can do some reading in the archives (aka “research”), then write a real article! Like I said, friends are those who tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
Let’s end on a positive note. Mauss concludes that in some ways, “the possibilities for Dialogue have never been greater” (p. 142). I think that holds for other middle-ground forums that aspire to informed and productive discussion of LDS issues as well, but Dialogue has been something of an anchor for the whole endeavor. Its continued success will benefit all of us.