12 Questions for Miranda Wilcox and John Young, Editors of Standing Apart—Part II

Here are the six remaining questions in our series with Miranda Wilcox and John Young, continued from Part I.

7. How much of what you do in this book should we understand as theology, as opposed to, say, history?

Religious communities perform theological work when they tell historical narratives. Remembering and memorializing their divine origins is crucial for communities to maintain distinctive self-identities and to realize their divine mandate. We see examples of this process when Israel retells the story of their ancestors’ deliverance from captivity in Egypt or when Lehi’s descendants retell the story of their family’s deliverance from the destruction of Jerusalem. Telling origin narratives also offers communities ways of distinguishing themselves from other communities, and typically these stories develop a legacy of antagonistic relations between communities. Sometimes communities have opportunities to redirect these relationships. For example, the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells how the Jewish Christians struggled to revise their attitudes towards Gentiles, whom they had considered antagonists for generations, when they were commanded to preach the gospel of Christ to all nations.

Standing Apart examines how the concept of a Great Apostasy and narratives about it have shaped LDS historical assumptions, contributed to the construction of LDS social and theological identity, and impacted the ability of the LDS church to develop ecumenical relationships. We suggest that the exclusivism and antagonism in these narratives may have contributed to the survival of LDS identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but we wonder whether these attitudes are productive for the Church in the twenty-first century and align with the current mission of hastening the work of salvation.

8. Have you seen a tension between being an active Latter-day Saint and a professional scholar playing out in the composition of the book?

Miranda: Most of the contributors to the book project have been navigating tension since graduate school between being a Latter-day Saint who is loyal to Mormon traditions and being a scholar who interprets the past based on contemporary research methodology. We appreciate the complexity of the historical periods we study and teach, and the historical interpretations offered in church curriculum materials often feel reductive. This gap is not surprising given that LDS institutional narratives about world history before Joseph Smith are rooted in polemical histories that were popular among Protestant scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the Enlightenment-era binaries, the progressive ideologies, and the anti-Catholic attitudes in these histories have been repudiated by contemporary historians. Of course, twenty-first century historical methodology is not without biases, but it is more self-conscious about projecting sectarian exclusivism and successionism.

The contributors to Standing Apart have a great desire to share their appreciation for the complex religious, political, and social contexts of historical periods that Latter-day Saints typically dismiss as apostate. Yet we felt anxious as we began sharing our work, first at our conference, then during peer review of the book manuscript, and now with the general public. Exploring Mormon perceptions of the Great Apostasy is an endeavor that generates questions about the intertwined concept of the Restoration and the Church’s claims of truth and authority. We are all active members of our local LDS congregations, and we want to explore the implications of positing a radical historical apostasy and to consider how to balance the challenges and consequences of simultaneously acknowledging complexity, causality, and providence while interpreting history for theological purposes.

9. To what extent is this book a contribution to Mormon Studies, and to what extent is it a book about the history of Christianity?

This book raises important issues for discussion concerning Mormon historical consciousness both for specialists in American religion and for the general public. Recent political developments in the United States have profoundly increased public and academic interest in Mormonism. A growing number of colleges and universities are adding Mormon studies to their curriculums, and an increasing number of media reports are treating Mormon issues. Media sources frequently invite scholars who specialize in Mormon studies to participate in these public conversations, and the interactive nature of social media has given the public unprecedented voice in these conversations. As a result, the scholarly and public conversations about Mormonism are merging. Standing Apart would provide particularly useful context for the participants in the recurring conversation about the Christian identity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As for making a contribution to the history of Christianity, several of the articles in Standing Apart contextualize Mormonism within the broader history of Christianity and the history of religion even more generally. Mormon theology was not cut from whole cloth. Joseph Smith and others in the early church borrowed heavily from existing religious models (some of ancient and medieval origin), even as they introduced innovations alongside the familiar. The major formulators of the Great Apostasy narrative drew much of their material from the works of mainstream Protestantism, particularly the confessional histories popular in the late nineteenth century. Mormon leaders, missionaries, and members continue to teach doctrines and follow practices they perceive to be unique to the LDS church, when in fact such doctrines and practices originated and continue to have resonance outside of Mormonism. The book thus presents Mormonism as a case study for religion-making—an innovative yet still partially derivative Christian religion that emerged and developed in a context wherein Christianity was already ubiquitous—and thus should appeal to historians of Christianity as well as those interested in religious phenomenology and ecclesiology. Yet at the same time the authors, at times explicitly, address the interests, concerns, and perhaps even some of the insecurities of Mormon Studies.

10. What lessons can you draw from your experience with this book, to help the new-ish field of Mormon Studies improve more broadly?

John: The publication of this book by a prestigious academic press shows that there is an audience for studies of Mormonism, even if such studies employ innovative methodologies that do not fit traditional disciplinary boundaries (as this book certainly does). I think other recent works demonstrate the same thing—Grant Hardy’s publications come readily to mind, as does Stephen Webb’s recent book. I think Terryl Givens has probably done more than anyone to pave the way for these other publications. Scholars interested in engaging Mormonism should thus take heart; there is a space for their voices to be heard.

11. Apostasy is a strong word. How does this book affect the prospects for friendship and cooperation between Mormons and other Christians?

Miranda: “Apostasy” is an ancient, flexible, and fluid term that should ideally be studied within its multiple linguistic, documentary, and cultural contexts. The Greek noun, “apostasia,” and its cognates are composed of two elements: the adverb “away, apart” and the verb “to stand.” These words initially denoted types of spatial separations. Over time, the semantic range expanded to connote relational separations, especially a separation of allegiance. These allegiances could be political, military, domestic, but, most commonly after the advent of Christianity, religious. The title Standing Apart invokes the etymology of the word apostasy and refers to Mormonism’s simultaneous rejection of and exclusion from traditional Christianity.

Contemporary Latter-day Saints typically use the term apostasy in two primary senses—as a judgment about a person or a historical period. A Latter-day Saint who deliberately and publicly opposes the Church or teaches false doctrine may be disciplined for personal apostasy by his or her local ecclesiastical leaders. In a historical context, the term is used by Latter-day Saints to characterize periods of time in terms of widespread wickedness and/or the lack of priesthood keys and ordinances. Often the term apostasy evokes the so-called Great Apostasy, the period of universal apostasy spanning from the end of the apostolic church to 1830 (for example, see the Mormon.org entry on Restoration).

As a community, we have told the Great Apostasy narrative with considerable consistency for over a hundred years; it has become entrenched in our social and theological identity. We learn this narrative as children, we teach it to converts, we preach it in church meetings. The narrative’s longevity, coherency, and consistency have imbued it with great authority that is seldom questioned among Latter-day Saints. However, consider the Great Apostasy narrative from the perspective of Catholics. It is one thing for Latter-day Saints to agree to disagree about doctrinal questions, but another thing for Latter-day Saints to dismiss the entire history of their church and its traditions as “gross darkness” prophesied in Isaiah 60:2. If Latter-day Saints instead focused on continuity and shared beliefs with Catholics, how much more rich might our relationships be with our faithful friends?

12. Where would you like to see the conversation about apostasy and restoration go next, among Mormons? What sorts of questions remain, and what debates might you anticipate?

Miranda: In April 2014, President Uchtdorf reminded Latter-day Saints that “Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now.” I wonder if there might be ways of telling about the ongoing process of Restoration as it extends across time, place, and culture rather than cataloging loss and assigning blame. Joseph Smith offers a precedent for contemporary Mormonism to imagine fundamental continuity with the past, not radical discontinuity. He embraced, rather than stood apart from, the past as a as means of renewing and expanding possibilities for human and divine interaction.

My personal wish is to reimagine the Latter-day Saint narrative of Restoration in ways that would reduce the agenda of religious partisanship without threatening the Church’s truth-claims. Such a narrative might imagine an ongoing story of restoration in which The Church of Latter-day Saints emerges not as a radical rupture in Christian history, but as a divine redirection of existing Christian identities toward the fullness of Christ.

8 comments for “12 Questions for Miranda Wilcox and John Young, Editors of Standing Apart—Part II

  1. p
    August 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

    “My personal wish is to re-imagine the Latter-day Saint narrative of Restoration in ways that would reduce the agenda of religious partisanship without threatening the Church’s truth-claims.”

    Miranda, could you be a bit more specific here? Would you privilege one set of truth-claims – BoM as actual history, for instance – over another (ongoing revelation & heavenly direction past & present as guiding the church)?

  2. Miranda Wilcox
    August 17, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    p, I am not sure if I fully understand your second question. How does the truth claim that the BoM is actual history compete with the truth claim that prophets receive ongoing revelation? I am also not sure how the historicity of the BoM relates to the narrative of the Great Apostasy narrative found in the current editions of Gospel Doctrine or Preach My Gospel?

    I would like a narrative that makes true claims without relying on the rhetorical device of denouncing the truth claims of others–i.e. I’m right, only if you are wrong. Rather than being exclusive with our truth claims, I would prefer situating our truth claims with truth claims of other traditions in ways that illustrate how they influence, develop, or enlarge each other.

  3. James Olsen
    August 18, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Fascinating. Thank you for the hard work you did in putting the conference and this book together, and thank you for taking the time to share with us here.

    A major recent question has been whether and on what grounds Mormonism–as a derivative of Christianity–remains Christian or has become something unique. What do the essays in this book have to say concerning this question?

    This conference/book strikes me as far more candid in its criticism of key claims of Mormon history and theology than other material from the same venue. Can you give us any indication of the broader culture within religious scholarship taking place at BYU? Do you see a trend toward academic Mormon Studies, or at least a welcome or acceptance of its relevance?

  4. Craig H.
    August 18, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks for a great volume on a hugely important subject.

  5. Miranda Wilcox
    August 19, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Thank you James.

    The essays implicitly and explicitly offer multiple perspectives about Mormonism’s relations with traditional Christianity. Many essays examine parallelism and continuity through the history of Christianity and situate Mormonism as part of this history. I think we would agree that Mormonism would benefit from adopting a more inclusive rather than exclusive relationship with traditional Christianity.

    I would not characterize the book as being critical. We are passionate about the historical periods that we study and want to share alternate interpretations of these periods. I am probably not the best person to offer insight about the climate for producing religious scholarship at BYU. In general, I think the university would like to see faculty and affiliated institutes produce religious scholarship for an academic public in mainstream scholarly venues rather than for a Mormon audience. Recent changes at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute exemplify this trend.

  6. Miranda Wilcox
    August 19, 2014 at 12:23 am

    Thanks Craig.

  7. James Olsen
    August 19, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Thank you Miranda. And I suppose one can’t simply throw around the word ‘critical’ uncritically like that. I didn’t mean it with its colloquially negative (and thus contextually unfaithful) connotation. It’s hard for me to imagine, however, that the essays can be seen as uncritical. Just to take the first three, Crawford’s essay critiques reading the Hebrew Bible as a unified, harmonized narrative (which is likewise a criticism of NT harmonizing), Grey critiques the continued usage of dramatically outdated (and flagrantly anti-semitic) Protestant scholarship on NT era Judaism, and Petrey is criticizing the very common claim that there existed a significantly extended, institutionalized, “pure” post-Jesus church. Overall, the book seems critical of the entrenched cultural practice of uncritically handing down scholarship (and even theology) of past generations.

    I can certainly appreciate the need for sensitivity given the magnitude of what you’ve done together with the present climate, and in tone and approach the book seems largely positive – e.g., positively, here’s a better way of reading the Hebrew Bible, one that fits with both scholarship and important Mormon claims. This was undoubtedly due in parts to your efforts as editor, and seems a clear strength of the volume. But advancing positive claims is a rational – and hence critical – project. Just like advancing Mormonism.

    This is, I think, another fact that academia has long since recognized as given and that finds particular resonance in certain strands within Mormonism, but a fact on which culturally today we could use an update.

  8. BHodges
    August 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for this great exchange, Ben, Miranda, and John. They are guests on an upcoming episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, too, where they talk a little more in-depth about some of the great questions Ben raised.

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