SC Taysom earned a BA degree in History from BYU and an MA and Ph.D. in the History of Religion with a specialty in American Religious History and Ritual Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington. He has published on Mormon and Shaker topics in Dialogue, the Western Historical Quarterly, and various other venues. He will participate this November in the inaugural panel of the Mormon Studies Consultation at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and two children.
Jonathan Z. Smith is, arguably, the most influential representative of the History of Religions school since Mircea Eliade. In an important essay from the early 1980s called “The Bare Facts of Ritual,”* Smith upends what had been the dominant scholarly interpretation of a class of rituals performed by a wide range of northern hunting cultures. Although the details varied, all of the rituals involved a mimesis of the actual hunt, in which an animal is killed according to strict, elaborate and specific criteria that would be nearly impossible to replicate during the hunt itself. Before Smith, scholars viewed such rituals as attempts at magically prefiguring the actual hunt in the hope that like would beget like and that the “real world” hunt would match the perfection of the ritual hunt. Smith offered a new interpretation based on two factors: first, the notion that the power of the ritual comes from its dissimilarity to what actually happened on the hunt, and second, the idea that although the hunters themselves were intelligent enough to realize that the ritual and the reality never met, they continued to perform the ritual anyway.
The ritual, according to Smith, represented “a perfect hunt with all the variables controlled….Such a ceremony performed before taking on an actual hunt demonstrates that the hunter knows full well what ought to transpire if he were in control; the fact that the ceremony is held is eloquent testimony that the hunter knows full well that it will not transpire, that he is not in control.” So what good are such rituals? Smith suggests that through their ability to present a world in which “contingency, variability, and accidentality have been factored out,” they “display a dimension of the hunt that can be thought about and remembered in the course of things,” and that they further “provide a focusing lens on the ordinary hunt which allows its full significance to be perceived.”
The first time I read Smith’s essay, I immediately thought about the rituals of the LDS Church—those with which I was most familiar as a participant. I have always been a little uncomfortable with the question about keeping all of my covenants that is posed during the temple recommend interviews. Considering the comprehensive nature of those covenants, I am convinced that no one keeps all of them perfectly. To what extent, I wondered, are rituals such as the temple endowment or even the sacrament instructive in their dissimilarity with real life? Our covenants are comprehensive in their requirements for righteousness and we enter into them with the knowledge that we will fall short, but we enter into them anyway. Those who disagree with Smith would argue that we partake of the sacrament each week believing that this time, unlike all of the previous times, we really will always remember Him and keep the commandments we have been given. Smith’s argument would suggest that we partake in full appreciation of the fact that we will not always remember nor will we keep all of the commandments, but we would if “contingency, variability, and accidentality have been factored out,” and for a brief moment at the time of the ritual, we do and they are. After that, all we can do is strive to make the ideal and the reality meet with the understanding that only in the sacred ritual space will such full congruence be achieved. Does Smith’s model of mimetic ritual and the power of perfect expectation and imperfect execution have anything to tell us as Latter-day Saints? Does Smith’s model fail to apply because of our belief in a redeemer who bridges the gap between the ideal and the performance?
*Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” in Smith, Imagining Religion From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982): 53-65.