Once upon a time, the rare article or essay on Mormonism was noteworthy and bloggable. Now, in this extended Mormon Moment, there are so many it is hard to even keep track of them. But Adam Gopnik’s article “I, Nephi: Mormonism and its meanings” deserves special notice, not just because The New Yorker is widely read and respected but because it is a serious and informed discussion. Maybe the media is getting better when it comes to discussing Mormonism.
As to informed, Gopnik lists five current books that he draws on in the discussion, including Brooks’ Book of Mormon Girl, Bowman’s The Mormon People, and Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: a Biography. A writer who wants to be well informed now has plenty of good sources, with more on the way. And Gopnik, a fine writer, draws on these sources to provide serious commentary. Some of his interesting points include:
- Citing the Osmonds, Gopnik notes that if Mormons have been stereotyped, we “seem to have been rather flatteringly typed.” He notes, “The image seems to have turned yet again, and now the Mormons of the popular imagination are not so much honest as innocent.” Well, better innocent than naive.
- He understands that the Book of Mormon’s role as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claim almost overshadows the actual text. “Some holy texts, the Gospels, for instance, are evangelical instruments meant to convert people who read them; others are sacred objects meant to be venerated. The Book of Mormon is a book of the second sort. … That the Mormons had a book of their own counted for almost as much as what the Book of Mormon said.”
- Unknowingly channeling Grant Hardy (not cited; I assume he didn’t read Hardy’s commentary), he read enough of the Book of Mormon to recognize that it’s all first-person narrative. “The testimonial is the essential genre of the Great Awakening, and the Book of Mormon, for all its pastiche, is at heart a testimonial — starting with Nephi’s own account of how he got his people here. Even if you didn’t stay to find out what I, Nephi, did, the fact that I, Nephi, did it counted for a lot.”
- Citing J. Spencer Fluhman’s new book, Gopnik endorses the “Mormons as Other” argument. “Mormonism was the great scandal of American nineteenth-century religion, somewhat as Scientology is today, though Mormons understandably dislike the comparison. Mainstream Protestants couldn’t dismiss Mormonism, couldn’t embrace it, and couldn’t quite understand it, and yet it thrived. For American Protestantism, Mormonism was the other: you defined yourself against those nuts.”
Now a couple of points from me. First, note the role that Mormon Studies scholarship plays here. Informative books make for informed writers. This seems like a real payoff for the eclipse of apologetics and the emergence of a religious studies approach to Mormonism. Even twenty years ago, a writer like Gopnik would have had a much harder time finding the sort of balanced, informative, scholarly discussion that writers rely on when writing articles and essays for a general audience.
Second, there is no discussion at all of what happens in a Mormon church building on Sunday. When Michael Otterson made that complaint a couple of weeks ago in an essay over at On Faith it didn’t really register for me, but it makes more sense in light of Gopnik’s essay. Is “Mormonism and its meanings” really a separate topic from the lived experience Sunday after Sunday of the millions of church-going Mormons? [And I think that’s an argument that can be made.] Megachurches and Sunday Mass are going to figure in a discussion of what makes Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism tick; why is Mormonism different? Is the three-hour block actually irrelevant to the meaning of Mormonism? Or are our Sunday meetings just so boring that no journalist can wring any meaning or useful commentary from them?
The bottom line: it’s nice to be taken seriously, both by the many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) publishing books and articles and by writers addressing the general public who make the effort to write informed and serious commentary.