Mormon Orientalism

Some time ago, Richard Bushman wrote an essay entitled “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” In it he argued that Mormons who have looked at the Mormon past have largely adopted the attitudes of those who colonized and ultimately dominated 19th century Mormondom. Hence, we tend to view things like “theo-democracy” and plural marriage as embarrassments and see nuclear, vaguely Victorian looking families as good, mirroring the attitudes of the federal officials who crushed Mormon peculiarity in the 19th century.

The hip and lit crit amongst us will recognize the influence of Edward Said in Bushman’s argument. In his book Orientalism, Said argued that Western “experts” on the Middle East constructed a vision of Arabs and Muslims as deceitful, lustful, childish, backward, etc., which Middle Eastern intellectuals then adopted as their own. As Bushman frankly acknowledges, he is applying Said’s ideas to Mormonism. Bushman the Historian focused his analysis on Mormon understandings of their own past, but I think that there is much to be said for his analysis when you apply it to more contemporary Mormon self-understanding.

Mormon intellectuals often pride themselves on achieving a certain critical distance from their faith. They are able to look (or at least hope and occasionally claim to be able to look) at their religion objectively and from the outside. They can look at Mormonism as a social, political, or economic phenomena and apply methods of analysis from those fields. They can appreciate accounts of the Church that emphasize its particular social and political position. They understand that Church leaders are not flawless and can be viewed the same way as other powerful men who control large organizations.

I wonder, however, the extent to which “critical distance” is simply a manifestation of intellectual colonialization. When we talk on about the corporate culture of the Church or look at Mormon chapels as analogous to McDonalds franchises, to what extent are we – like Said’s Arab intellectuals – simply adopting an image of ourselves created by “foreign experts.” Now just to be clear, I am not advocating a new Mormon xenophobia, nor am I against critical thinking about the Church or the Gospel. However, I wonder to what extent we take “critical thought” to be simply discussion that sounds as though it appeared pages of the New York Times. In other words, to what extent is there a difference between an “informed” vision of our religion and a vision of ourselves propagated by Gentile intellectual elites when they happen to glance at Mormonism for ten or fifteen minutes?

51 comments for “Mormon Orientalism

  1. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 12:16 pm


    Great post. Your thoughts are the same as those I have had on this subject for a long time, but you put it far more eloquently than I could have.

    Unfortunately, I think most of the LDS folks to whom this applies, especially those who have published a great deal, may be offended at what you say, rather than accept the observation as an invitation to introspection. I don’t mean to paint a broad brush, but I’ve read a great deal of interviews and other commentary involving the “critical Mormon” crowd, and my observation is that they seem all too ready to “judge” the Church, but strangely unable to do the same to themselves. I think Eugene England was an example of an exception to this, as I remember reading an essay of his a long time ago where he was harshly critical of his own failings, which I found refreshing. (Although, maybe such an example of psychological self-criticism on his part, and my appreciating it, are both examples of social colonization by “psycho-babble”?) Compare this with Michael Quinn’s flat assertion, on more than one occasion, “All written documents are solely products of the time in which they are written,” by which he justified his theory that the BoM was an entirely 19th century document, and could not possibly be viewed as anything else, not because it “wasn’t actually written by Nephites”, but rather because even if it had been, it would be impossible, in his theoretical view, for anyone to translate any document from any age and not get a document that is thoroughly a new document reflecting the culture of the time of translation, and in no way being a genuine product of the age in which it was originally written!

    Sorry for the run-on sentence (but strange academic theories lend themselves to run-on sentences), but my point is that when one listens to “the critical crowd”, the natural reaction on the part of most members I know (and myself), is to start thinking of the “Great and Spacious Building” of Lehi’s/Nephi’s vision, but watch out if you say that out loud! In that vision, you have the world openly mock those partaking of the tree of life, and members leaving the tree, entering the building, and joining in the mocking. I know I’m not the only member to make this connection, but at the same time I, like you Nate, don’t want to see a Mormon xenophobia or an attitude that never views any aspect of Mormon culture, etc. with the slightest degree of searching.

    So, how do we, as members, keep a balanced view between viewing Church programs and procedures and history intelligently, founded on the principle that the Church really is true, but avoid entangling ourselves in the world’s intellectual tentacles? I don’t have any easy answers, but I think we can start by asking ourselves to be at *least* as critical of whatever man-made philosophies and theories we like as we are of the Church and its doctrines, leaders, and programs. That’s the rub of the problem, I think. For some odd reason, too many of us want to believe our science teacher or our philosphy professor or the latest intellectual theory (read: fad) far more readily than we want to believe the Brethren, and then turn around and criticize the general membership of the Church for their “gullibility”.

    I think all of us, as members of the Church, would do well to recognize that ALL of us, no matter how smart we are, or educated, or experienced, are really “natural men and women”, struggling to realize the Atonement’s blessings in our lives, and desperately in need of those blessings. All of us tend to be “gullible” about something, and all of us tend to fall for deception in one way or the other (even it’s just the deception that we really can please our children by making them wait for the basketball game to be over before we read their favorite story book to them, etc.). Even with the gift of the Holy Ghost, Satan often still finds ways to deceive us, lead us astray, and interfere with our happiness. So if we acknowledge this, why can’t we just say, for safety’s sake if we can’t think of a better reason, that in a contest between an attractive academic theory that contradicts the Church’s doctrine, etc. on the one hand and the spiritual experiences we have when we give our child a priesthood blessing or sit calmly meditating in the temple on the other, that we will choose the latter? Maybe this is gullibility—or maybe it’s a desire to be “colonized” by Zion, rather than Babylon.

  2. June 1, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    NOt to threadjack but…
    Quinn said that about the Book of Mormon? I was under the impression that he considered himself an “LDS apologist” (strange as that may sound.)
    Do you have a source?

  3. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Ben S.,

    Yes, I know it seems strange, but Michael Quinn does publicly see himself as an “LDS apologist”, despite all that he has written. The most recent example was an article I read just a few months ago, and (you’re going to kill me) I can’t remember where I saw it! The article in question gave a direct quote from Quinn, which I wrote from memory in my thread, and actually discussed some of the issues nate has raised here, though indirectly. The article reviewed the odd fact that not only to many Mormon “intellectuals” place their pet theories above the Church, but that often those theories are actually out-of-date and/or discredited in the world at large! In other words, these folks are critisizing the Church based on *yesterday’s* intellectual theories, not even the current stuff. Quinn’s theory is an old view of textual criticism that does not hold near as much sway in the academy as it did 20-30 years ago, but it the idol Quinn bows to nevertheless. I don’t mean that as harsh as it sounds, but the article included quotes from Quinn in which he made clear that this theory of his has “always” informed his endeavors, and that realization of its “truthfulness” “told” him early on that The BoM “had” to be viewed strictly as a 19th century document. If that’s LDS “apologetics”, I’d hate to see the anti stuff! (I promise I’ll try to do a search tonight on the net to find that article, which I had read on the Web.)

  4. Aaron Brown
    June 1, 2004 at 12:55 pm


    I’m not familiar with Quinn’s comments on the BOM, as described by you, but assuming you’re representing him fairly accurately, “his” position doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial. That is, isn’t he just commenting on the limits of being able to translate between cultures, and the inevitable modern assumptions, “cultural” or otherwise, that a translator would bring to a text? You can agree or disagree that that observation applies to Joseph Smith and the BOM, depending on how you precisely understand what Joseph was doing, but the point doesn’t strike me as incoherent or particularly “way out.” Also, I don’t see how this example could serve as a counterpoint to what you said about Eugene England.

    Anway … I’m highjacking the thread too, so everyone please ignore me…

    Aaron B

  5. June 1, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    Ugh. Edward Said’s influence knows no bounds. Maybe pretty soon we’ll be listening to Music and the Spoken Word from “the Crossroads of the Occident(alists).”

  6. Aaron Brown
    June 1, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    My prior post is an example of what happens when you have your comment half-drafted, you go to the bathroom, you come back and finish your comment, and then you post it without bothering to notice who’s commented in the interim.


    Aaron B

  7. June 1, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Nate, nice thoughts. Might there be a link to Bushman’s oft-cited but rarely seen essay somewhere?

    If you’re criticizing “critical distance” from one’s faith, you are really criticizing the Enlightenment, not intellectual colonization. How would a pseudo-intellectual (and vis-a-vis the gospel, there is nothing but pseudo-intellectualism) insulate themselves from the “intellectual colonization” charge as you frame it? Only by abandoning critical distance–a cure that is worse than the ailment.

    So there has to be a way to scale back your general point. I don’t think you can point at everyone who establishes critical distance between themselves and their Mormon faith and simply intone, “What Said said.” I’ll reply with, “What Voltaire said.”

  8. June 1, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Sorry if my goofy comment interrupted the thread. Feel free to delete that comment if you so desire (and this one as well). I’m not an Edward Said fan at all (if you couldn’t already tell).

  9. June 1, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    Dave: First, it is possible to criticize the Englightenment without retreating into anti-intellectualism. Indeed, it seems to me that the last two hundred years of Western philosophy has been little more than one criticism of the Englightenment after another. Hence, “…but you would have to jettison Voltaire” is hardly a slam-dunk reductio ad absurdum.

    Second, I am not criticizing the idea of critical distance per se, and I went out of my way to say so. Rather, I am pointing out that often critical distance amounts to adopting the rather shallow interpretations of smart non-Mormon intellectuals and journalists who know comparatively little about Mormonsism. There is a sense in which any attempt to study Mormonsism with another discipline involves the priveleging of the tools of that discipline. This I don’t mind, so long as those doing so are suitably self-aware about what they are doing. This, however, strikes me as somewhat different than simply adopting the views of anti-Mormons of yesteryear or the chattering class consensus of the present.

    I don’t have a link to the Bushman essay, but here is the citation information:

    “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters 2000, ed. Lavina Fielding Anderson, 14–23. Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 2000.

  10. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 2:14 pm

    Aaron B,

    I, too, at first thought Quinn was simply stating the obvious problems one has when translating foreign and/or ancient documents for a modern audience with a different language, culture, etc. However, as the article I mentioned pointed out (sorry I don’t have the link yet, I’m searching for it tonight), he was takes this a step further and says that, for all intents and purposes, translation, in the sense of trying to capture the thoughts and intentions of the original author, is *impossible*, and that in fact anyone trying to do so is really only writing a totally different document altogether. I think this is absurd, and in fact it is now rejected by most scholars in this field, but in fact this theory was extremely popular decades ago, when Quinn first learned it (and evidently was captured by it) in his early days in the academy.

    I think Nate’s point is well taken, that being able to “view Mormonism from a distance” can be helpful, but it can just as easily be dangerous and deceptive. How then, can one find the middle ground, here? I think my testimony has been enhanced by *encountering* much of the “New Mormon History”, but since I reject much of this so-called history, one can say that I have gained new perspectives as I have become more familiar with more powerful anti-Mormon or anti-doctrinal or whatever arguments, and have (in my mind) vanquished these. Not everyone has the same reaction, with some being *sedeuced* by them into conflict with the Gospel. Would such people have been better off if they had been “xenophobic”? Well, maybe, but then again, such xenophobia leads to bigotry, which can also lead you to loss of the Spirit, even hell. (“Hi! We’re new Mormon settlers here in Missouri, and soon all of this land will be ours through God’s power. Repent or be destroyed!”) Okay, that’s a strong analogy, but still, Nate’s point seems to be, “Where is the middle ground? Where is the Gospel center?” I think it’s there, but I think I have a better understanding now about “clinging to the iron rod”, “mists of darkness” and the “great and spacious building” of Lehi’s/Nephi’s vision, having encountered the very dangers Nate points to.

  11. greenfrog
    June 1, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    Though it may be a bit farther afield than one might ordinarily cast to respond to Nate’s question, it occurs to me that there is a practice from Buddhist tradition that may be of use in managing the dichotomy of critical distance and faithful participation.

    Vipassana meditation is the practice of observing one’s own thoughts as they arise, develop and subside. In essence, it can fairly be described as creating a critical distance from one’s own thoughts. In this tradition, the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred as a result of his development of the ability to maintain that kind of awareness even while fully engaged in life. This kind of meditation enables one to act in a manner conscious of one’s own thinking and actions. At first, it can be difficult to maintain, and it does lead to a kind of disorientation and distraction that is not dissimilar to my experience when I first allowed myself to examine my religion from a “critical distance.”

    In vipassana meditation, allowing the “critical distance” to occur is not the last step in the process, but rather the first.

    I would suggest, similarly, that the critical distance Nate has identified with respect to the Church ought, as well, to be only the first step, rather than the last.

    What we do with that distance comprises, IMO, the difference between conscious faith and alienation.

  12. June 1, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Nate, you did note you were not “against critical thinking about the Church or the Gospel” and I didn’t mean to portray your position as such. However, I don’t know how one can do critical thinking without establishing some critical distance, and practically speaking one then becomes open to having been “intellectually colonized” by critically distant but underinformed Gentile scholars. It seems like a cleverly repackaged FRB move: attack the speaker (as intellectually colonized), not the speaker’s arguments.

    To seize on a positive thought that emerges from your comments, I’d agree that scholars in Mormon Studies should take special care to not be unwittingly colonized by the tools or views of their disciplines or prior critical accounts of LDS issues, and should give due consideration to the unique features of Mormon history and society. Some are better at this than others . . .

  13. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 3:18 pm


    Thanks for the insight. It seems that some members have been able to do this. B.H. Roberts seems to have been able to “look outside the box” somewhat, without losing the eye of faith, when he wrote a rather well-known “critique” in which he summarized what were then some of the “big arguments” the Church needed to tackle against the BoM. Hugh Nibley seems to be able to do this. I’m not saying I always agree with his conclusions, but I appreciate it when someone can examine the Gospel from different aspects, see the arguments these may bring against the Gospel, and find the solutions that maintain the faith.

  14. June 1, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    Nate, you did note you were not “against critical thinking about the Church or the Gospel” and I didn’t mean to portray your position as such. However, I don’t know how one can do critical thinking without establishing some critical distance, and practically speaking one then becomes open to having been “intellectually colonized” by critically distant but underinformed Gentile scholars. It seems like a cleverly repackaged FRB move: attack the speaker (as intellectually colonized), not the speaker’s arguments.

    To seize on a positive thought that emerges from your comments, I’d agree that scholars in Mormon Studies should take special care to not be unwittingly colonized by the tools or views of their disciplines or prior critical accounts of LDS issues, and should give due consideration to the impact of the rather unique features of Mormon history and society. Some are better at this than others . . .

  15. June 1, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    “It seems like a cleverly repackaged FRB move: attack the speaker (as intellectually colonized), not the speaker’s arguments.”

    Dave: This is not fair. I did not level an ad hominem argument against anyone, nor am I making this point as a way of dismissing this or that criticism. Rather, I am trying to think about a particular intellectual danger that those (we?) who aspire to critical distance face.

  16. June 1, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Dave, I think Nate’s ultimate point is that “critical distance” ends up adopting uncritically the assumptions of that position. To suggest that this position of critical distance is where we must stand to be rational and intellectual is really just to secretly adopt those philosophical premises (which are often hidden). If intellectual distance entails rejecting the possibility (or probability) or an interventionist God, then clearly the are problems.

    What bothers me is that this position isn’t really brought to light. I don’t have people trying to be objective or coming from a different perspective. I do question the assumption that this position is the position from which we must view.

    I think this was the criticism Juliann was making of Brent in an earlier thread. (Forget which one — I think it was the elite one) The problem I have with Juliann, is that she appears to have bought into the liberal “theological” perspective that all theology is equally valid and can be written from any position. I think there is a middle ground that doesn’t adhere to the extremes of “any position is fine” or “the mainstream secular position is where one must interpret from.” To me that answer is to recognize that questions may have an actual answer that is true, yet recognize that the answer always involves perspective. Ideally one ought to provide as many perspectives within ones argument as possible.

    Unfortunately that is hard in the 10 – 12 pages most papers have to argue. But even within larger volumes it typically does have a univocal perpsective without much recognition of pluralism.

  17. Dave
    June 1, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Uh, there was no hominem to ad in the prior discussion, it has all been quite general and I wasn’t suggesting you were employing that approach, Nate. In fact, despite all the fine examples available to illustrate the technique, you seem singularly dedicated to discussing all issues on the merits. All I was hinting at in a clumsy roundabout way was that the intellectual colonization label, used improperly, might go in that direction.

    I didn’t mean to post my earlier comment twice–I’m not trying to boost my comment count, really. Anyone who feels aggreived may post their replies twice.

  18. June 1, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    To throw my two cents in on the Quinn point:

    I’ve no idea what article Gary is talking about, but I have read Quinn’s _Early Mormonism and the Magic World View_, where he does provide soem discussion of textual theory. Frankly, it strikes me that Quinn is a bit inconsistent on this point. Sometimes, he seems to be making the claim that a translation must be viewed as wholely and completely a product of its times, and therefore regardless of one’s view of the historicity of Book of Mormon events, the Book of Mormon text must be viewed completely within the framework of the 19th century. At other times, he simply seems to be making the point that the text of the Book of Mormon is irredeemably mediated by its 19th century translation and therefore can never wholely escape that context, even though one needn’t understand every aspect of the BofM text in 19th century terms. The first claim seems a bit extreme and indefensible, but it allows Quinn to make rather strong claims about the 19th century occult meaning of certain textual references without necessarily abandoning some version of orthodox Mormon claims about BofM historicity. The second claim allows him to adopt a more defensible textual theory when when his proposed 19th century occult meanings are less powerful.

    To be honest with you, I suspect that Quinn doesn’t really have a coherent textual theory (at least not in EM&MWV), other than a desire to sidestep the issue of “Book of Mormon, fact or fiction?” Rather, it seems to me that the textual theory migrates back and forth depending on how plausible the reference to the occult is that Quinn has found. IOW, he doesn’t want to let some textual theory to stand in the way of telling a fun story about some source that he has found. The virtue of this approach is that it keeps Quinn from having to make concrete decisions about the importance of particular archival “finds” that he has made. Hence his books are mass of discussion and footnotes about a vast array of sources and provide a great point of departure for discussion without necessarily providing any satisfying interpretation or theoretical resolution. The problem with his approach is that at the end of the day, it is difficult to figure out precisely what interpretation he is offering. Hence his books are mass of discussion and footnotes about a vast array of sources and provided a great point of departure for discussion without necessarily providing any satisfying interpretation or theoretical resolution.

  19. June 1, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    Unfortunately I think EM&MWV is incoherent in many aspects. It is unfortunate as in many ways he has a lot of very interesting points. But there are all these methadological and conceptual foundations that are vague and inconsistent yet which are important to the text. Of course Quinn is hardly alone in that. Nibley’s rather famous for that as well.

    I think that when Quinn is on strongest ground it is when he isn’t arguing about what the BoM is but how readers would have taken it. That avoids issues regarding the nature of the text and instead focuses in on responses by readers. The problem when he deals with authorship is that there are typically numerous possible influences. Quinn plays up hermetic and “superstitious” ones and tends to downplay strong parallels in the Bible or Protestant/Catholic traditions.

  20. June 1, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Clark: I think that the analogy between Quinn and Nibley is quite apt.

  21. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 4:54 pm


    You’ve head the nail on the head with regard to Quinn, and in fact the article I mentioned earlier made some of the same points, not only on his shortcomings but on other writers like him.


    I agree the analogy between Nibley and Quinn is apt. The difference is that Nibley’s stuff only makes believers uncomfortable if they aren’t living the Gospel fully; Quinn’s just makes believers uncomfortable, period. :>

  22. June 1, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Gary: I suspect that some of what makes believers uncomfortable about Quinn is the sometimes extreme conclusions that his theoretical schitziophrenia allow hims to draw. On the other hand, some of what makes people uncomfortable about Quinn is simply a willingness to discuss sensitive or uncomfortable topics, e.g. religious violence by 19th-century Mormons. I think he can be faulted for the former but not the later.

  23. Gary Cooper
    June 1, 2004 at 5:26 pm


    You’re right. Quinn is a person of considerable talent, who did set about addressing some important topics, but somehow got lost along the way. I hope that some day he returns to the Church. I didn’t mean to say I reject *everything* the man has written, and I should have been more careful how I wrote that last thread. I do find myself in considerable disagreement with much of his work, or rather with the conclusions he draws from his research (the research itself seems very good). What I’ve read of his on 19th century religious violence by Mormons in particular I’ve disgreed with, such as his take his take on the events that surrounded the death of David W. Patten. I won’t go into more detail here, as we’ve already started to detour from the main thrust of your post, so I’ll just say that Michael Quinn is a prime example of your concern—that in our desire to view Mormonism “out of the box”, we can often become hostage to whatever field of inquiry we are using to view from “out of the box”. The worst thing about this, I think, is when members of the Church without the academic experience to question these scholar’s conclusions, start to swallow those conclusions completley, leading to vicious cycle of continued apostasy (I’m thinking of ex-members like Chris Tolworthy, who’s basically thrown away all the positive good he did at, and now even questions basic elements of the Law of Chastity at his current website, quoting “experts” galore.)

  24. William Morris
    June 1, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    Nate writes:

    “There is a sense in which any attempt to study Mormonsism with another discipline involves the priveleging of the tools of that discipline. This I don’t mind, so long as those doing so are suitably self-aware about what they are doing.”

    I fully agree. And I have a question: are there venues in which such an approach is welcomed? i.e. you’ll be able to be published and find an audience.

  25. June 1, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    William: Probably not outside of overtly Mormon forums like BYU Studies or Dialogue. Most disciplines don’t like having their foundational assumptions questioned, frequently punish those who do so, and are probably doublely likely to do so if the criticism seems somehow religious. There are exceptions to this. Yale UP published a collection of essays a year or two ago on “Christian legal theory” (whatever that is) that provided religious criticisms of various approaches in the legal academy. On the other hand, I think that all of the authors already had tenure ;->….

  26. Kristine
    June 1, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    I hate it when I finally eke out ten minutes to read and there are already 25 comments! But to Nate’s original post–I blush to confess that I haven’t read RLB’s essay (yet!), but I have read plenty of Said.

    While Said’s work makes some important criticisms of “Western” scholarship on “the Orient”, there’s no place to go from his critique; he doesn’t offer any ground for a Western scholar who wants to study India to stand on. He doesn’t propose a coherent alternative to adopting the tools of the oppressor (to borrow from the loaded language of post-colonial lit. crit.).

    In the Mormon example, it’s fine and dandy and right as far as it goes to say that critiquing Mormonism with the tools of American academics reproduces the colonization of the Mormons. But then what? Do you disqualify all non-believers from doing Mormon studies? Or do you have to develop some entirely new form of scholarship? None of the “new” ways of doing lit. crit. in the last few decades have been particularly successful (or, arguably, particularly new.) And so you have the common observations that feminist studies aren’t really rigorous, African American Studies syllabi present a “distorted” view of history, etc., etc. (Readers of the National Review will be thoroughly familiar with these critiques.) Postcolonial studies often end up being nothing more than a lot of guilty white liberals eloquently beating their breasts and donning rhetorical hairshirts–all well and good; heaven knows there’s plenty of penance for colonial conquest to be done. But until there’s some coherent and rigorous colonial/Mormon scholarly methodology, I don’t see how the critique is useful except as an important preface to more careful work using established methodologies and discourses.

  27. June 1, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    I knew that if I worked hard enough, I could provoke Kristine into criticizing feminist literary theory and endorsing the National Review!

    For what it is worth, I think that there is some substance to your criticism. I don’t think what is needed is necessarily a new methodology, although I am always open to the possiblity that Mormonism may open up new ways of looking at things. Rather, I am concerned explicitly with the images of Mormonism that Mormons adopt. Many of the images provided by outsiders are perfectly valid, insightful, useful, etc. However, when those images are adopted as a badge of sophistication rather than adopting them “on the merits” as it were, there is something troubling going on. It is a danger that “we Mormon intellectuals” are prone to, I think, and it is one that it is worth being aware of.

  28. Adam Greenwood
    June 1, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Maybe I am as brilliant as I think or something, but when I read the Bushman essay i had the same thought as Nate: Aha! Jack Mormon critics are really the running dogs of the Imperialist west! Lackeys! Witless stoolies! (Note: I am not making fun of the idea by putting it in all this overblown rhetoric. This is how I really think.) I of course ignored the part about how traditionalists like me were partly the neap tide remnants of a previous colonization.

    So here’s my question: Is it really possible to have the sort of uncolonized critical distance we’re talking about here where the winds of the World blow and we stand unmoved and the folk superstitions of mass Mormonism burble and we are unwetted? More to the point, to what degree is it desirable? Like the perennial desire to get a stripped down Mormonism free from culture–the Pure Gospel–this desire seems the kind of focus on individualism and ideas instead of relationships and, er, relationships that doesn’t sit well with my gut understanding of Mormonism. I don’t think I’m expressing myself here, but maybe some one can intuit my meaning?

  29. Kristine
    June 1, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    Um, yeah, Nate, in case you hadn’t noticed, once you get to literary/aesthetic theory, I’m a complete reactionary. I’m just Harold Bloom with a thin Mormon feminist veneer :)

  30. June 1, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    “running dogs of the Imperialist west”

    There is a phrase that I am sure we don’t use enough in Mormon discussions. ;->

  31. William Morris
    June 1, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Just to show that Adam isn’t the only one who thinks in overblown terms:

    After reading Kristine’s joke, I pictured Harold Bloom in Mormon drag — the floral print dress, the lace collar, the bangs…

    I can see him teaching primary. “No, Joseph Smith isn’t just like Harry Potter. Harry Potter is the stuff of penny dreadfuls. Joseph Smith is the architect of the only truly ‘American’ religion.”

  32. JWL
    June 1, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”

    Jos. Smith, Jr.

    If we accept this vision of Mormonism, then there is no critical distance, you cannot get outside of it. Obviously, you can stand outside some aspects of Mormonism, such as the personalities of past and present Mormon persons, or the policies and practices of the institutional church. But these are not the fulness of Mormonism. Looking at them honestly can be socially uncomfortable, as Elder Perry has recently learned, but to a believer such critiques do not distance him/her from true Mormonism.

    What Richard was describing occurrs when secular approaches are used dogmatically. To try to stand away from Mormonism and look back on it from a secular perspective is to accept that that secular place is more complete than Mormonism. However, if we define Mormonism as embracing all truth, then we really can not stand outside Mormonism and look back on it. Different theoretical approaches exist to get at the truth. As long as we are humble about admitting that we are always only tentatively approaching the truth when using secular methods, then any valid learning we achieve thereby is of a piece with true Mormonism.

    Of course, this ideal stance is difficult to acheive in the nitty-gritty of a secular academic world that does not share this view of Mormonism. However, Nibley and Bushman are two who have pioneered individual approaches to acheiving this.

    For me, the compelling challenge is not the analysis of narrow aspects of Mormonism from the perspective of established secular academic dogma. I ask instead, when are we going to start critiquing secular dogma intellectually from a Mormon perspective? Only then will we cease being colonial subjects of modern secularists.

  33. Ben S.
    June 1, 2004 at 7:55 pm

    But that raises the question- What is “a Mormon perspective” ? I personally don’t think a mormon perspective exists that is independant of and uninfluenced by other disciplines. It seems to me that there are, rather, mormon perspectives, as the varied viewpoints on this blog demonstrate.

  34. Kingsley
    June 1, 2004 at 8:02 pm

    William Morris: Now that is a truly ghastly image. Bloom doing a Farley Family Reunion-type act with heavy purple eyeshadow & a curly wig, shaking a gently chiding finger over the little ‘uns … Although, it might not be too far a stretch when you consider the dragqueeny fantasies of his literary namesake. I managed to get in a telephone question during his latest C-Span interview, & he told me he’d love to visit BYU campus sometime–combine that with his recent foray into acting & his disdain of feminist-centric lit. crit., & you’ve got quite a potential show.

  35. June 1, 2004 at 8:10 pm

    While I don’t think there is a Mormon perspective, I think there are elements to most Mormon perspectives that are discounted out of hand by many critics. I think that the notion of an interventionist God is a big one.

    The other element in the “critical distance” often tends to be careful about the elements one is focusing in on but rather uncritical in other elements. For instance the Mountain Meadows Massacre book done by that woman journalist last year shows this. She has some terribly naive and incorrect views of what Mormons believe. In a way that is probably closer to how western scholars viewed the middle east. They tried to cast middle eastern views into the paradigms they were familiar with rather than truly engaging with the minds they were commenting on. We explain behavior in terms of how *our* group would have done such acts, not how the group in question actually did. Rather than engage and learn the thinking behind the actions, the critical distance, prevents this. It almost ends up being a naive behavioralism where one hides from metaphysical or epistemological premises, pretending they aren’t there. As I said, all too often that simply means that you inject your own without noticing they are actually there.

  36. JWL
    June 1, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    Ben S. — You are correct, sir. As many Mormon perspectives as possible. For example, I don’t think anyone would confuse Nibley and Bushman, yet both provide paths rich in possibilities.

  37. Kristine
    June 1, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    Um, Clark, “that woman journalist?”

    I know it’s kind of a hassle to check the name, but since there are, in 2004, quite a few women working as journalists, you might want to avoid the appearance of chauvinism by identifying her a little differently. Please.

  38. June 1, 2004 at 10:22 pm

    The “woman” was to narrow down the search. There were several books on the MMM. Without recalling the name I thought by qualifying it as the journalist who was a woman would narrow it down. I’m not sure how that is chauvinist. While there certainly are in 2004 many woman journalists, there are very few who wrote on the MMM. There were several journalists writing on it though.

  39. June 2, 2004 at 12:49 am

    I find myself slightly befuddled by Nate’s question, or rather, with my response to it. My first reaction is a milder version of Adam’s: no “running dogs of the Imperialist West,” but sympathy and righteous indignation nonetheless. But then I started thinking about my own intellectual career. I find virtually nothing of interest in LDS thinkers after Joseph Smith (which is not so much a criticism of them, as a reflection of my interests). In contrast, for me the scriptures are a fountain of ideas. But I have to confess that the way I think about LDS issues is equally influenced by—colonized by—largely Heidegger and Gadamer, and, to a lesser extent, thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, Ricoeur, Levinas, and so on. (And, by the way, because I have been colonized by Gadamer, I think that the critical distance problem is a bogeyman for which a good dose of _Truth and Method_ is a cure.)

    So, (1) I am a victim of my own culture and education and should be ashamed of myself, (2) everyone is such a victim and so there is nothing to be ashamed of, or (3) things are more complicated than the question makes them seem. Out of a sense of pride (perhaps false), I opt for number 3.

    How are things more complicated? Well, for that you’ll also have to consult Gadamer, or Ricoeur if you prefer. But the short answer is that to think is necessarily to be influenced, but it is not only to be influenced. Kierkegaard’s marvelous little novel, _Repetition_, is apropos in this regard: if I _genuinely_ repeat what has been done before, then I do something founded on what happened before but that does not have the same marks of identification that the previous event had. If I repeat what another has done, contrary to our usual expectation I don’t move my body in the ways that she did or think the things she thought. After all, the person who did it the first time wasn’t repeating something, so if I am to do what she did, then I also cannot merely repeat something. Those who merely repeat what someone else did (thought, believed, etc.) absolutely do NOT do what that earlier person did. They do something else.

    Though the problem of repetition (in our case, the problem of influence) looks like a typical philosophical conundrum with no solution, the interesting thing about Kierkegaardian repetition is that it happens all the time, though it isn’t necessarily easy for us to see that it does. For one thing, when we try to think about it, we most often turn it into the other kind of repetition, that which only appears to be repetition. Perhaps the other, apparent repetition is what Said/Bushman/Oman are talking about when they talk about being colonized. But genuine repetition isn’t colonization.

  40. June 2, 2004 at 12:56 am

    Just one more note: of course being colonized isn’t only the kind of self-hatred that Said describes. It is also a creative response to the traditions, laws, etc. of the colonizers. India has made many things English its own without hating itself by doing so. Presumably the same is possible for Mormons. So even colonization can be a genuine repetition.

  41. Juliann
    June 2, 2004 at 3:24 am

    Clark said: I think this was the criticism Juliann was making of Brent in an earlier thread. (Forget which one — I think it was the elite one) The problem I have with Juliann, is that she appears to have bought into the liberal “theological” perspective that all theology is equally valid and can be written from any position. I think there is a middle ground that doesn’t adhere to the extremes of “any position is fine” or “the mainstream secular position is where one must interpret from.” To me that answer is to recognize that questions may have an actual answer that is true, yet recognize that the answer always involves perspective. Ideally one ought to provide as many perspectives within ones argument as possible.

    Wow. That is a horrendous misrepresentation of my worldview. You seem to be advocating a situation where scholars would prioritize religions based on a standard of a TRUTH that they have predetermined. Further, I am having a heck of a time creating a cohesive conversation from many of the comments here because of the random definitions. The minute “intellectual” is thrown up, many immediately see it as a euphemism for those who criticize Mormonism and those who critize are almost always using Enlightenment thinking.

    Also, I don’t see anyone making the distinction between *theology*, history and philosophy. These are distinct areas to the point of being different and discrete departments.

    The problem, as I see it, in making an issue of distance is that distance is required in any liberal leaning school of religion (which is where LDS are going to be most comfortable). That does not mean that one puts their own beliefs on hold. It simply means that one is expected to enter the dialogue based on established rules of engagement so that everyone can have a meaningful conversation. You cannot have a discussion with anyone outside of your believing community if you don’t learn the language. Religion is a belief, of course, but it also has to be a study. That is not to say that theology should *not* be discussed…just that a historian is going to talk like a historian….just like a lawyer is going to talk like a lawyer when s/he leaves the client and enters the legal arena. Claremont is purposely starting out its Mormon Studies program with a historical approach to avoid the emotionally charged problems of theology, by the way.

    I like this introduction from Ehrman and find it representative of the liberal approach to the study and discussion of religion. I do fault partisan critics who claim to be liberals or intellectuals while using their work to proselyte for or against something based on personal assumptions of how things “should” be.

    “I should be clear at the outset, though, that as the author of this book, I will neither tell you how to resolve this issue nor urge you to adopt any particular set of theological convictions. My approach will instead be strictly historical, trying to understand the writings of the early Christians from the standpoint of the professional historian who uses whatever evidence happens to survive in order to reconstruct what happened in the past.”
    “That is to say, I am not going to convince you either to believe or to disbelieve the Gospel of John; I will describe how it probably came into existence and discuss what its message was. I am not going to persuade you that Jesus really was or was not the Son of God; I will try to establish what he said and did based on the historical data that are available. I am not going to discuss whether the Bible is or is not the inspired word of God; I will show how we got this collection of books and indicate what they say and reflect on how scholars have interpreted them.”

    Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 14.

  42. Kristine
    June 2, 2004 at 10:25 am

    Clark, her name is Sally Denton. If it had been Will Bagley’s book you were trying to describe, would you have said “the man journalist?” I’m sure you had no chauvinist intention, but there’s a long tradition of saying things like “a female doctor,” “a woman lawyer” assuming that “doctor” or “lawyer” is a category which is male, and that the “woman lawyer” is therefore an exceptional case within the category. I’m assuming that you did not mean to do this, but you fell into that old, sexist form of speech–that’s why I said “the *appearance* of chauvinism.” You’re smart enough to be careful about such things–that’s all I meant.

  43. June 2, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    Is Bagley a journalist as well? I thought he was primarily a historian. Had I mentioned Krakauer and forgot his name, I’d probably have used the term “man journalist.” So I’m equal opportunity.

    Juliann, I’m not for scholars coming from a standpoint of predetermined truth. Rather I’m coming from the standpoint that truth is the goal of scholarship and that there is the potential for evidence leading the honest investigator to the truth. That’s a position that, within many humanity departments, is sadly out of fashion. Whether that is the “englightenment” tradition or not, it is something I believe. (It’s odd to cast me as an enlightenment proponent considering that typically I’m writing about postmodernism though)

    While I clearly disagree mightily with Brent over conclusions, I do tend to agree with him that there are somewhat objective facts of the matter that we ought to be converging upon.

  44. June 2, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    As I mentioned in, I think, the first post I made to Times and Seasons, I am working on a paper on hopelessness. In doing so, I came across this piece by R. R. Reno: (Sorry about the fact that I don’t know how to make that reference clickable.) It is relevant to my paper, but it is more relevant to this discussion of critical distance.

  45. William Morris
    June 2, 2004 at 7:15 pm
  46. William Morris
    June 2, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    And thanks for the reference. This quote smacked me up side the head: “We must allow ourselves to be romanced and ravished by the promise of truth.”

  47. Juliann
    June 3, 2004 at 12:32 pm

    Clark, I certainly had no intent to cast you as anything. I was referring to professional critics of Mormonism and they do operate from what is generally associated with a fundamentalistic mindset. As we have seen by the Murphy video for Living Ministries, they are at least similar enough in their claim to know “truth” that they can comfortably partner with them. I think that to insist that there is some final destination of truth that we can talk our way to is unrealistic. I prefer the idea that truth will come through the Holy Ghost and it will come in small very personalized steps that are not amenable to the academy. I have always liked this definition of Christian theology:

    “Christian theology lays out how the world looks from a Christian perspective, with whatever persuasive force that account musters and whatever connections it may happen to make with other perspectives, but it does not systematically ground or defend or explicate that picture in terms of universal criteria of meaningfulness or truth”

    William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 19.

  48. June 3, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Juliann, certainly there are fundamentalist critics, although to be fair I find their works the least interesting of our critics. I just don’t really focus in on them as I really don’t have much respect for the fundamentalist mindset. I served in Louisiana on my mission, so I certainly encountered it a lot. But to my mind, I don’t really understand why people worry about them. Must be my science mindset bias coming out.

    To me the more interesting work are by those with a more positivist mindset. (Some might be Christian, but with a more sophisticated approach to anti-Mormonism than we find in the more literal fundamentalist) Of course even these critics often adopt the outsider’s view which paints Mormon theology “as if” we have inerrancy or infallibility of various sorts. And it is that sort of “distance” that I find interesting in the original comments here. It really is like old British “intellectual” Anglicans in the middleast “labeling” Islamic thought. It never ceases to amaze me either.

    I do worry however about defenders of Mormonism adopting a strong contextualism or even near relativism when defending the faith. I think that ends up being dangerous given our conceptions that there is an absolute truth.

  49. Juliann
    June 3, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    Clark, I wonder if we are really talking about different things. I am more concerned with explicating the faith as a means of defending it rather than making indefensible claims of truth to outsiders in a *written* format. For me to say that there is an absolute truth is almost meaningless because we really do not believe such a thing to be reachable without the mind of God. We see through a glass darkly. To me, the spiritual witness certainly stands side by side with all that but there is only so far one can go with testimony in academic environments. I assumed that was the forum under discussion because of the initial example of Bushman.

    Professionally, I am a speech and language specialist. I teach communication to those who cannot speak well or at all. My goal is to faciliate a communication exchange. Whether it is verbal, gesture or symbol is irrelevant. I tend to operate with this philosophy in my other endeavors, I am sure. If that means adapting to the philosophical underpinnings of a sincere respondent, I have no problem doing that. I think that with our post-modern leaning world we do need to be able to use language that can complete a meaningful communication exchange. I have never thought “relativism” to be a concern as long as I have my own experiences and my own repository of “truth”. But I hold truth to be my intimate and personal experiences with the divine that have been manifested in supernatural ways. I see the collection of knowledge that I have accumulated as being a result of those experiences but I see that pool of information as something that continually “morphs”. It is not the constant in my life…those experiences with divinity are. In my opinion, whether I choose to use that personal experience..or how I choose to use that…is something quite apart from my ability to explain my religion to an outsider.

  50. June 3, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    The issue to me is less our methods of communication than how we view those outsiders who misinterpret us and in a sense “impose” their views of what we are on us. That’s what I felt the original discussion was about. 19th century scholars in particular tended to take their perspective of the world as a given and interpret all other societies in terms of their values, ideas and so forth, rather than on their own terms.

    The danger of taking everything “on its own terms” however, is to descend into the relativism that often plagues anthropology or even many humanities departments. While absolute truth may be unknowable in toto, I do think we can know truth. I think that the ideal for scholarship ought to be that search for truth, whether we succeed or not.

  51. June 4, 2004 at 2:20 am

    I’m not sure if anyone is interested, since it involves that dry dusty philosophy stuff, but I just noticed that an extended quotation by Ricoeur I have up on my blog actually touches on this topic.

    Ricoeur The quote is down towards the bottom of the page in response to a question by Dave. The relevant passage is, “the critique of ideologies, which I was also echoing at this time, seemed to me to reinforce the moment of distanciation that I saw to be dialectically opposed to the moment of belonging to the world mentioned above.” Thus the relationship of hermeneutics and phenomenology is this problem of distance and belonging.

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