Review: Stephen C. Taysom, “Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader”

Title: Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader
Author: Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Religious Studies
Year: 2011
Pages: 500
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-56085-212-4
Price: $28.95

Back when he was a doctoral student in religious studies, Stephen C. Taysom wished he had a collection of “fine scholarship” he could use to show professors and others “who expressed skepticism about the fitness of Mormonism as an object of serious academic study” what they were missing (vii). Now Taysom is a professor of religious studies at Cleveland State University. His reworked dissertation, Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries, was published in 2011 by Indiana University Press. Enough has changed within the academy (and within Taysom’s own circles) over the past few years to turn his professors’ skepticism into inquiry: “I have received requests from colleagues for a selection of readings that might be used profitably in courses dealing with Mormonism,” Taysom reports in Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader (xi). The reader is a collection of fifteen essays analyzing Mormonism through literary, ritual, film, gender, folklore, and other studies. Taysom argues that the collection’s very existence bears witness that “Mormonism is a rich field of inquiry into which theories and methods of a vast array of disciplines are being widely and skillfully integrated” (viii). Rather than describing a few of the papers Taysom selected and giving them a thumbs up or down, I’d like to use the book as a way to examine a few key issues being debated—or not—in discussions of Mormon studies today.

First, Taysom notes a pressing puzzle regarding the current state of Mormon studies—the fact that “there has been some debate about the term” (viii). What sort of practice does “Mormon studies” refer to, and who are the practitioners? With a few notable exceptions, the discussion is too young to have received much attention in print.1 More often the debate has occurred in academic conference sessions and blog posts.2 Attention has been given elsewhere to the increasing number of Mormon-themed courses and the establishment of Mormon chairs in colleges and universities, including those at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate University. In Taysom’s view, Mormon studies usually consists of work which “draws on the historical record and applies, tests, works through, and evaluates broader theoretical issues and ideas” (viii). History has indeed been the principal avenue by which scholars have studied and written about Mormonism thus far—a fact which Taysom not only acknowledges, but can’t fully escape in the papers he selected for inclusion. He divides the papers into five “thematic rubrics” (ix): biography, theory, memory, experience, media/literature. I don’t quite grasp the utility of this schema, in part because the division is somewhat uneven—two papers in the smallest category (biography), six in the largest (media/literature). Many of the papers seem to elide these categories. Furthermore, six of the fifteen essays deal with polygamy as a central theme. Scholars pursuing research on Mormonism have benefited from an embarrassment of riches for decades, which contributes to this history-focused approach.

This concentration on history calls attention to the fact that much remains to be done in regards to Mormon studies focusing on the twenty-first century, to say nothing of non-historical approaches. Only three of the fifteen chapters deal with Mormonism after the presidency of David O. McKay: Martha Bradley-Evans’s “Building Community: The Fundamentalist Mormon Concept of Space” (51-72), Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and Public Memory, 1852-2002” (177-213), and Reinhold R. Hill, “God’s Chosen People: Mormon Representations of the Jewish Other in Holocaust Literature” (375-389). Note that only one of the three focuses on Mormon traditions outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Taysom is careful to note that the book is not exhaustive: “Readers should think of this book as an introduction to the kind of fine scholarship that is flowering in the field rather than as anything approaching a comprehensive archive” (vii). The book accurately demonstrates that Mormon studies is a contestable term, and most Mormon studies output has focused on historical examination.

Second, the Mormon Studies Reader tells us something about the makeup of current practitioners of Mormon studies. Rather than drawing from a “Mormon studies elite,” Taysom notes that “a number of the contributors are not professional historians,” meaning they don’t hold Ph.D’s or professorships in history (ix). In addition to work by such duly credentialed participants, we find essays by “a medical doctor, a chemist . . . a professional editor, independent researchers” and a few graduate students (ix). Taysom sees such diversity as “one of the most attractive elements of the current state of Mormon studies.” What binds them together is their “commitment to thorough and thoughtful scholarship” (ix). Indeed, some of the finest work in the volume is by authors who make their professional homes outside the halls of the academy. An example is the excellent contribution by Jonathan A. Stapley, a chief technology officer for a natural sweetener company, and Kristine Wright, an independent researcher with an M.A. in history: “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847” (135-176). Further, not all contributions represent an “insider’s” perspective, though such voices are fewer. These include Lawrence Foster’s “Sex and Prophetic Power: A Comparison of John Humphrey Noyes, Founder of the Oneida Community, with Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon Prophet” (25-49) and Douglas J. Davies’s “Mormon Studies in a European Setting” (73-82). A picture emerges of a group of practitioners from diverse professional and religious backgrounds, though room for more variety exists.

All fifteen of the essays were previously published elsewhere. The publications from which Taysom draws his selections likewise give a picture of the largely internal location of article publications on Mormon topics. Six articles apiece come from Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought and The Journal of Mormon History. The other three are from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Communal Societies, Religion and American Culture, and Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History. Interestingly, no articles appear from publications of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS). Though Taysom does not mention the lacuna, M. Gerald Bradford’s article, “The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 119-74, contains a pertinent suggestion: “Scholars who in the past have geared their writings about the tradition mainly toward an LDS audience and who want to contribute to the kind of scholarship relied upon by those working in broader religious studies programs will need to write for a wider academic audience if their work is to be published by recognized scholarly presses.” That isn’t to say the Maxwell Institute hasn’t produced any literature which would fulfill Bradford’s description, as his own paper proves. Another example of appropriately ecumenical scholarship from the Maxwell Institute is LDS scholar David Bokovoy’s rigorous exchange with Evangelical scholar Michael S. Heiser in the FARMS Review. This raises an interesting question about the propriety of including ancient scripture studies under the rubric of Mormon studies.3 According to Taysom, past scuffles between his publisher and the FARMS Review didn’t play a role, rather, NAMI publications didn’t come to mind when he was putting his project together.

Nevertheless, including Maxwell Institute publications would only tip the scales further toward Mormon-centric publications. Professor Patrick Q. Mason, who recently succeeded Richard L. Bushman as holder of the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has called for greater participation in wider circles. “I’m convinced,” he writes, that those interested in Mormon studies should focus on “reaching out [to be] published in the premier journals of various non-Mormon, and even non-religious, subfields.”4 That this is already occurring, but could occur more frequently, is evident from Taysom’s collection.

Third, the Mormon Studies Reader tells us something about the makeup of current consumers of Mormon studies. Taysom hopes his collection can reach two broad groups: those with a “casual interest in Mormon studies” and those “of an academic bent” (x). Members of the first group aren’t pursuing religion-related academic degrees or hanging out in the archives in their spare time. Many of them “will be tied to Mormonism in some personal way,” be they active, participating members in some branch of Mormonism, those who have “left the institutional Church,” and those who fit somewhere between these poles (x). Although none of the essays explores this important point, Taysom notes that any one of them has “the potential to change the way readers relate to Mormonism on personal and emotional levels” (x). Members of the second group are those who are already familiar with a good deal of Mormon historiography “but who are looking for a digest of some of the most recent scholarship in the field” (x-xi). Taysom’s editorial decisions were “informed by the notion that the book might be deployed in undergraduate classrooms” (xi), a description suggesting that Taysom would disagree with my use of “consumers” as his intended audience. Taysom is looking for something else. “To me,” he writes, “reading is not a passive activity. It is a contact sport” (xi):

I spend most of my time teaching undergraduates. Many of them have never read an academic book. My advice to them is not to merely read this book but to step into a boxing ring with it and engage the ideas they encounter here. Take up a pen and analyze the authors’ positions. Interrogate them. Express in the margins your agreement and perplexity and contempt and frustration or, on the other hand, your agreement and surprise and joy at what you learn. I would recommend seizing the arguments and ideas and wringing out their implications (xi).

The physical composition of the book bears this challenge out, printed on pleasingly heavy paper with generous margins all around. This excerpt also points to a key theme in the emerging concept of the purpose of Mormon studies: the placing within, or viewing of Mormonism against, a wider context. Not only will this help readers not be “unduly influenced by proselytizers,” but will also help them better “understand other people’s beliefs” (xi). This comparative and contextual approach is frequently championed by those most interested in the future of Mormon studies.5

Fourth and finally, Taysom’s book is a testament to the fact that the emerging field of Mormon studies is white, already to harvest, “wide enough to accommodate all who put forth the effort and expend the intellectual energy to contribute” (x). This seems to be the primary reason Taysom edited the collection, the success of which can be measured to the extent that “it leads readers to other books and articles in the expanding world of Mormon studies. Moreover, its success will be amplified if it provides writers and researchers with new ideas and approaches to energize their own work” (vii-viii). There is enough diversity and rigor in Taysom’s Mormon Studies Reader to demonstrate the vibrancy of Mormon studies today, while simultaneously showing us that things are only just beginning. The individual papers are worthy for Taysom’s task.6

 

Footnotes:

1. The most comprehensive exception is M. Gerald Bradford’s “The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 119-74.

2. The Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association’s second biennial conference in April 2010 took “What Is Mormon Studies?” as its theme.

3. Michael S. Heiser, “You’ve Seen One Elohim, You’ve Seen Them All? A Critique of Mormonism’s Use of Psalm 82,FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007), 221—66, and David Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods': A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007), 267-313.

4.Patrick Mason Answers Your Questions,” juvenileinstructor.org, March 24, 2011 (accessed October 13, 2011).

5. Among other examples, see Matthew Bowman, “Context and the New-New Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009), 208-13.

6. This review was originally published with minor differences in the Journal of Mormon History Vol. 38, No. 2, (Spring 2012), 260-264.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Blair. You pointed to the thing I like best about the collection: its contents are not just important for what they are saying, but how they are saying it; the represent the diverse and dynamic theoretical approaches to Mormon studies.

  2. Christopher says:

    Good stuff, Blair. Thanks.

  3. Thanks fellas!

  4. Clark Goble says:

    I didn’t know Jonathan worked with a sweetener company? Which sweetener Jonathan? Maybe I’ve used it.

  5. We are still in the pilot phase.

    Enjoyed the review when I read it in print. Enjoyed it again here.

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