Confession of a Primary Pianist

When my friend Craig Harline suggested a few months ago that I do some guest blogging on Times and Seasons, I was initially enthusiastic; but on second thought my enthusiasm waned. It became clear to me that I probably wouldn’t have much to contribute to this conversation. And the main reason I wouldn’t have much to contribute is that I’m largely ignorant in matters of Mormon thinking. So I would be like the naive newcomer to a conversation who says things that other people have already thoroughly hashed over.

And why should I be ignorant about this part of Mormonism? After all, I was “raised in the Church,” went on a mission, and graduated from BYU. Since then I’ve rarely missed a Sacrament Meeting, have made substantial monetary contributions, and have usually watched at least one session of general conference. But in recent years I’ve missed out on the no doubt scintillating discussions in Gospel Doctrine or priesthood meeting, in part because for about nine of the last ten years my ward calling (in two different wards) has been Primary pianist. (That may tell you something.) And I long ago left off reading LDS-type publications, whether general and official, meaning The Ensign, or more academic, such as Sunstone and Dialogue– which I assume are still in business? Or (sorry!) Times and Seasons.

Nor can I sincerely say that this lapse is among the many things in my life that I regret having done, or not done. How to explain this? I think what happened to me is this: I’ve spent much of my life in universities, and so I’ve naturally been acquainted with a fair number of LDS academics. I admire many of these people, both as scholars and as human beings. Some of them I consider good friends. We’ve had lots of valuable discussions. But with all this experience, I don’t think I’ve encountered a model attractive to me of– how should I put it?– specifically Mormon intellectual or academic activity.

I stress the “to me.” People engage intellectually with Mormonism in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Let me mention four that I’ve observed. There’s the internally-directed person who is just interested in Mormon issues for their own sake– Mormon history or Mormon theology– and who doesn’t really try to bring his or her studies into conversation with the wider, non-Mormon world. That’s fine, I think. Given a free decade, I can imagine that I might devote myself to Mormon history. But as it happens, that hasn’t been my calling, or career. Scarce time and resources, you know.

Then there’s the Mormon apologist whose mission is to vindicate Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon or whatever against external criticism or incredulity. This is fine too, I suppose. Apologetics is a longstanding and honorable profession. Although I confess that what I’ve seen of Mormon apologetics doesn’t inspire in me much admiration. Often it seems to me to exude a kind of narrowness and defensiveness and lack of complete candor. I’m speaking from a small sample, though, and I may be off-base.

Closely related to the apologist but not quite the same is the person who wants to use distinctively Mormon perspectives and insights to propose useful views or solutions that aren’t available without these distinctive perspectives and insights. Truman Madsen, from whom I took a class as an undergraduate, was an example of this kind of thinker. This sort of enterprise is in a sense more positive and less defensive than ordinary apologetics– because it tries to make a positive contribution, useful to people outside Mormonism– but it is like apologetics in that it attempts an indirect or comparative vindication of Mormonism. “Aha!” the idea seems to be. “Here’s a problem (the ‘problem of evil,’ or God’s foreknowledge, or whatever) that you all can’t solve, and we can! We must have a Truth that you don’t have.”

In principle, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this sort of activity. For myself, though, I have to say that I’m usually not favorably impressed with these efforts or demonstrations. I also think that in the world as it currently stands, the most crucial divides are not among Christian sects, or between Christians and non-Christians, but rather between people who believe there is some sort of order or purpose or design in the cosmos and those who adhere to more secular and naturalistic worldviews. So it hasn’t seemed sensible or prudent to devote myself to the old-fashioned inter-religion competitions. I’m sure that my Mormon upbringing and activities, and the beliefs I’ve derived in part from Mormonism, have influenced my own thinking and writing immensely. But I’m not sure it’s the distinctively Mormon aspect that has been important, as opposed to what Mormons share with Christians generally, and devout Jews, and . . . .

Finally, some of the LDS academics I’ve met seem devoted to making Mormonism more acceptable (to themselves anyway) and more respectable (to their own peers and associates anyway) by working to bring the Church and its culture more into line with the ideas and values that prevail in, among other places, the modern academy. A lot might be said about this; I’ll only say that for me, this is easily the least attractive and admirable of the various Mormon intellectual projects. A generation after the ship taken by mainline Protestantism knocked holes in its own bottom and began slowly to sink, should we pride ourselves on our enlightened or progressive vision by rushing to get on board that sinking ship? It seems just a bit . . .well, pathetic.

So I’ve encountered Mormon academics who are very good people, and also who are very good scholars, but I haven’t come upon a model of distinctively Mormon intellectual activity that has engaged my sense of what my own calling and abilities are. And my conclusion– a very tentative one– has been that Mormonism contributes to the world today less by its distinctive ideas or theology (although some of its valuable ideas that were once routine may be becoming more distinctive all the time) than by its embodiment of a way of life. I may be wrong about this (I usually am), but it’s why I happily participate in Primary but haven’t devoted a great deal of time and energy to studying LDS publications and literature.

18 comments for “Confession of a Primary Pianist

  1. Adam Greenwood
    July 29, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    The honorable motivations you assign to us are a credit to your charity. More accurate categories might include elements of pride, status-seeking, obscurantism, or simply avoiding paid work.

    Could you elaborate on this comment? “(although some of its valuable ideas that were once routine may be becoming more distinctive all the time)”

  2. July 29, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    It seems pianists are in shorter supply now than in times past. If you play well, it doesn’t matter how many other talents you have, you’ll often fill a piano slot. Calling a truly talented pianist to Primary does make the kids sound a lot better when they sing in Sacrament Meeting, so it does make a difference for the kids.

  3. James Olsen
    July 29, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Alright, we’ve got the 1. Internally-directed (or perhaps genuinely interested?) Mormon scholar who says nothing to the world (or perhaps even other Mormons?); 2. The apologist scholar (who might or might not lack candor and rigor); 3. The indirectly apologist Truman Madsen type (who comes off as an evangelical wolf in sheeps clothing); and 4. The mainlining agenda scholar (who illegitimately seeks to steer the rudder of Mormonism or public perception of Mormonism toward more contemporarily palatable positions).

    Is it the case that this is all you currently see? Or all you can imagine a Mormon scholar doing? Are you waiting for better role models? Simply not that interested in Mormonism on an academic level (much more interested in our celestial music!)? Or is it that Mormonism is so narrowly defined in terms of orthopraxy (or perhaps only flourishes in the narrow environment of practice) that you find the overall project of Mormon studies bankrupt (“for you”)?

    And for what it’s worth, while I no doubt ought to repent for coveting your particular academic expertise, I’m much more guilty of coveting your ability to play the piano. Currently, I’d take music over legal understanding any day – in my life and in the church.

  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    July 29, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    If your categories are supposed to be collectively comprehensive, then I guess you place Truman Madsen, Hugh Nibley, and the folks who are currently involved in the Maxwell Institute at BYU together in that third niche. If you haven’t read the FARMS Review, or BYU Studies, or other publications of that kind, I guess you just don’t know that much about the people your taxonomy places in that category. It strikes me that your essay makes you come across as having something in common with those folks who are ready to criticize the Book of Mormon even though they have never read it. I can’t assert a compehensive knowledge of scholarly writing on Mormonism and its interface with the rest of the intellectual world (e.g. in science), but my view is that there are a lot of intelligent and worthwhile things being said there, which in fact do have a lot to say to the world about its problems and concerns.

  5. Jonathan Green
    July 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Steven, I think this is nicely expressed, and I sympathize. A lot of the Mormon intellectual projects seem like wonderful things for someone else, but not something I really want to engage with much beyond scanning the headlines. Playing the piano or serving in any other capacity in Primary definitely adds more to the sum total of goodness in the universe.

    Still, there’s that moment when one recognizes that one is a scholar…and, hold on a minute, one’s also a Mormon–and that adds up to being a Mormon scholar, even if you really didn’t set out to become one. So now what?

  6. Steven Smith
    July 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Lots of good questions here– more than I can respond to at the moment. But just three quick points:

    First, I didn’t mean to imply that the list of 4 possibilities I gave is comprehensive or exhaustive. These are just some approaches or projects that I’ve run into. And I hope I made it clear that my less than laudatory reaction to some of them just reflects my own judgment and limited experience. It’s entirely possible that there are LDS scholars performing these functions in admirable ways. I may not be aware of some of them, or sufficiently appreciative.

    Second, Adam asks what are the valuable ideas that may be becoming more distinctive? That’s a big question, about which I may try to say a bit more later. But I think that one obvious example is the commitment to family and sexual fidelity, in a traditional sense. (I know, some think this is ironic given our 19th century experiments.) I was in California through the Proposition 8 ordeal, and unlike my closest church friends here (who are in most ways more dedicated and orthodox than I am), and probably unlike some participants on this blog, I supported the Church’s position. (I wrote an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune on the issue.) And at least in the environment I work in, it was pretty clear that this was a position that was viewed by many as distinctive, not to say neanderthal. Though I think the Church performs a valuable role on this and related issues, though, it’s less through the dissemination of distinctive ideas and more through embodying a way of life that many will recognize as good. Or so it seems to me.

    Finally, I can testify from personal experience that one doesn’t need to be a very good pianist at all to contribute positively in Primary. The kids, and the presidencies, tend to be very forgiving.

  7. Hunter
    July 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this, Steve. I hope any second-guessing your decision to participate doesn’t keep you from writing more posts. This was wonderful.

    My question: is the raison d’etre of your post simply a personal expression of your own likes/dislikes (as in, “I don’t care much for cheeseburgers. I like pizza better.”)? Or do you see your post more as an indictment of the (poor) state of Mormon intellectual/academic activity? You seem to hint that you might take Mormon intellectual/academic activity more seriously, if you found a model that worked for you.

  8. July 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    As someone whose career path is decidedly “scholarly” (though to what extent I fit that mold remains to be seen… I guess I technically have the credentials, I just wonder if I live up to them sometimes) — and someone who has also been an adult, male, longstanding primary pianist — there are a lot of things that I can relate to in what you have said, Steven. I’m still trying to figure out how I negotiate the space (or intersection) between “Mormon” and “scholar” and I’m not sure I’ve found anything that totally works for me just yet (though I often admire what others do).

    I was initially enthusiastic; but on second thought my enthusiasm waned. It became clear to me that I probably wouldn’t have much to contribute to this conversation

    I felt much the same way when I was first invited to participate in the bloggernacle. I’m still trying to figure out how to contribute.

  9. July 29, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I’m not answering for Steven, Hunter, but for me it’s a little of both. I’ve seen apologetic talks / firesides / articles (by prominent apologists) that I thought were dreadful and can’t believe that anyone could take seriously.

    On the other hand, there are other people out there (mostly from groups three and four, I suppose) whose work I respect and even often take a healthy interest in, but don’t feel strongly enough about to engage more actively.

  10. Jack
    July 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Primary pianist is the best calling in the church. I’ve been there for — not sure — six or seven years now — and I’d like to stay there for the rest of my life.

    As to the broader topic — I like hearing the basics along with the primary children. Have faith, pray, follow Jesus, get baptized — those are the things that help me be a better christian.

  11. jr
    July 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Steven,

    I’m wondering if you would elaborate a bit more about category 4. I’m not sure I really have a good picture of what these people do. (Maybe an example would help – the Truman Madsen reference cleared up #3 for me.)

  12. smb
    July 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Fascinating post, Steven. I would propose another group, who are becoming much more common in the last few years, and those are people who feel great affection for Mormonism, who love to study and think about how people organize the world. These people find scholarly study of Mormonism a way to understand more about the way people “operate” and seek after God while expressing and exploring their affection for Mormonism.

  13. July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am

    What a delightful post! It takes a Primary pianist to see what is crucially missing from Mormon intellectual life. Unfortunately, we set ourselves up for putting the intellectual energy in places whose (relative) importance is waning (and has been for quite a while) because so much of our sense of what work we need to do is based on narratives of struggle from the early decades of the Church, when our most powerful critics were religious, or at least appealed to religious premises (although there may be more plain old politics involved than we acknowledge).

    My Honors Thesis at BYU was a mixture of #s 1 and 2, and I continued in that vein during my first year of graduate school. When I presented (in the classroom, in their offices . . .) my devastatingly brilliant arguments (at least, that’s how they felt . . .) for distinctively Mormon conclusions to the Protestant and Catholic thinkers I was criticizing, their reaction caught me completely off-guard. Sometimes they resisted my arguments and conclusions, sometimes not, but always they treated me more as a friend than an opponent. Sure, there are plenty of folks out there who are less magnanimous, but these guys were stunningly gracious. It really took the wind out of my sails, and made me reconsider my goals. I was suddenly a lot less interested in tearing down (even some of the quirkier elements of) their faith. And while I was at one of the few other religious universities of academic stature remaining in the U.S., even there I started to see (over the next few years) that the main intellectual battles underway were not among different religious viewpoints. The main battle was between people who wanted religion to play a major role in the content of university life and people who didn’t. What made this battle more scary was that it wasn’t even being conducted openly, through anything like scholarly argument. People rarely even acknowledged (in public, anyway) that it was taking place, but this struggle was a more or less constant presence, implicitly shaping people’s behavior and goals throughout university life.

    That same first year I found a vein of ethical thought where I shared a lot of common ground with its largely Catholic tradition, called virtue ethics . . . which sounds like it might be the sort of happy ending I should be looking for, in line with Steve’s observations here: I was excited to find an area of intellectual life where as a Mormon I can enrich and strengthen a discussion and a tradition of thought that is congenial to others (perhaps mainly, but not only religious) who believe there is “an order or purpose or design to the cosmos,” a discussion and a tradition that might help to correct the defects in secular-naturalistic culture. It wasn’t quite that simple! or at least it hasn’t been so far, but I haven’t given up yet!

  14. July 30, 2010 at 1:03 am

    So, Steve, I agree, and I actually think there are a decent number of people who are trying to take a different approach, with some success, including folks like Jim Faulconer and Richard Bushman (and I think Nate Oman has some stuff brewing, too), but I suspect you have a lot more to say about the kind of approaches you are interested in seeing, so I will stop here for now; I am interested to see how you will describe it/them!

  15. Nate Oman
    July 30, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Steve: You cut nicely to the heart of a difficult question. Here’s one possible suggestions: How about using Mormonism to think about the world as a way of generating new and interesting questions? I agree with you about narrow Mormonism-for-Mormonism’s sake as well as apologetics, although I have published articles in both genres and I think they both have value. I am more interested in seeing Mormonism in dialogue with larger conversations. My hope, however, is neither to see Moromonism sanitized nor to find the one-right-answer in the one-true-church that will bring the discussion to an end. (At last we know, and can move on!) Rather, my hope is that we might find ways in which Mormonism can enrich ongoing discussions by asking new questions. Given the penchant for aporia in your work on legal philosophy, I’d would think that this would appeal.

    For a concrete example, in my forthcoming Wash U. L. Rev. piece on Reynolds v. United States (up on SSRN), I try to use Mormon legal experience to ask some questions about the relationship between race, imperialism, and the dawn of free-exercise jurisprudence. I don’t know that I am especially successful in the piece, but I don’t think that it falls into any of the four approaches that you outline.

  16. Hans in California
    July 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I was a ward organist for 42 years until I had a stroke one year ago. I’m finally getting some feeling back in the fingers of my left hand and have been practicing on the organ this past week.

  17. July 31, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    As a non-scholar who enjoys bobbing along a handful of blogs within the bloggernacle, I feel that I agree with a lot of what Steve said. I agree that the list is far from exhaustive or even comprehensive, but I also see many examples of the four models suggested.

    For myself, my interest in Mormon intellectualism is almost entirely encapsulated by model one. I am internally directed by my desire to learn more and know more, and so I come to the bloggernacle for learning, but I am also directed by my desire to engage in intelligent conversation with many different people, so I come here hoping to engage with others. That being said, I admit that I’ve been absent from commenting at T&S for some time due to a lack of time.

    I’d like to see what other models are proposed, particularly by those of you who are Mormon scholars. I am sure that the models go beyond what Adam Greenwood suggested at the onset. I’m especially interested in what RTS can propose, since I find myself disagreeing with his assertion that the folks at the Maxwell Institute don’t belong in model three. My limited interactions with these folks’ work have been all about them doing exactly what Steven suggested they do.

  18. Brad Jenkins
    August 4, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Steve, very thoughtful and moderate comments, as usual. I myself have read a lot of FARMS and BYU Studies material over the years. I have to agree with Steve. A significant portion of the Mormon apologists annoy me. They sometimes give the feeling that Mormons have a monopoly on the truth. Or, at least, a much better understanding of truth than anyone else. This kind of thinking is absurd and narrow-minded. As for Steve’s piano playing: he plays just as he writes and thinks: thoughtfully and moderately. His son on the other hand plays the piano with a little more gusto (Steve’s son plays the piano in the priesthood meeting opening exercises).

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