Today is my last full day in Utah as part of my vacation; I fly home in the morning. My son is off to a wedding, so left to my own devices, I wandered around City Creek for awhile (my first time there), and then decided to tour the Beehive House. I’ve been through that tour many times, but it has been years since my last time through.
The tour guides were a pair of sister missionaries. They were both cute and multicultural, as temple square sisters tend to be. They showed me Brigham’s bedroom and his wife’s bedroom, among other rooms in the house. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought from the tour that BY was a monogamist.
As I chugged up the hill to my son’s apartment (where I”m writing this post), I reflected on that experience. I wondered whether the sisters knew much if anything about Brigham Young. Maybe they’re knowledgeable about the man and are just sticking to the script. Or maybe the script is pretty much all they know, perhaps all they care to know. I was curious about that.
And as I walked, I began to reflect on just how it is that I know about that subject, and these docents who were actually teaching it appeared not to. Part of the difference is one simply of age. These girls were younger than my own children, and I seem to recall that the tour in the old days used to acknowledge Brigham’s polygamy (just as the Carthage Jail tour a long time ago used to feature an example of a pepperbox pistol; being old has its privileges!) But I decided it’s probably more than just being (relatively) old. I have a reputation in my ward and stake for being extremely knowledgeable about the Church, and while I am very much aware of my own ignorance on so much that I would like to know, I do think it’s fair to say that I have more background knowledge than the average member. It’s probably fair to say that of most participants in the Bloggernacle. And as I continued to chug up the hill, I wondered, why is that? How come I know more about this religious tradition than the average member? These are some of the reasons that came to mind:
1. Enthusiasm for learning. I’m embarrassed to acknowledge this, but I think I picked up my enthusiasm for learning about the Church in the first instance on my mission from the Dead Sea Scroll tapes of Einar Erickson. He was really, really excited to learn stuff, and he modeled that really well in his lectures. He would go camping with his boys and they would sit around the campfire reading the Book of Enoch, that kind of stuff. And you know, it had never occurred to me that learning Church stuff could be fun, interesting, even exciting! I think to this day when I teach I reflect an enthusiasm for the subject that people appreciate and find engaging. If one is self-motivated to learn, one will learn.
2. Books, not Tapes. On my mission, it was the culture for missionaries to collect, trade and listen to tapes. Lots of GA talks; also the aforementioned DSS tapes, and that sort of thing. I listened to a few, but for reasons I don’t even understand myself I did something radical: I began buying and reading books, not listerning to tapes. And reading books is a very different experience. I began schlepping a huge, heavy trunk of books on transfers. (I don’t think we had a rule against reading back then on my mission, or if we did I either didn’t know about it or conveniently ignored it.)
3. Reading the Ensign (believe it or not!). On my mission, each apartment had large, dusty stacks of old Ensign magazines. Most hadn’t been touched in ages. I made it a practice to read through the old issues, and in the early days there was actually substantive material in that magazine, and one could learn a lot simply by doing that.
4. Finding the Right Teachers at BYU. Somehow I happened to fall into the classics department at the Y. And that was great; my professors tended to be pretty progressive sorts by BYU standards, but since they were teaching classics and not religion, no one particularly cared and they were left alone. My undergraduate education was fantastic.
5. Finding Like-Minded Friends. This past week I spent one of my vacation days with my old friend Mike Hicks. I will use him as one of many examples of a friend who modeled for me what being a gospel scholar was all about. When we moved to Urbana to start my law school education, he was the EQP, and he and his wife came over to our married student apartment, kitty-corner from theirs, to welcome us into the ward. It was immediately apparent that we had a lot in common and we quickly became fast friends. We spent one summer working together out in the fields on the University research farm, and what I wouldn’t give to have an mp3 of those conversations! The whole student ward was filled with people like that. Sunday evenings while the kids played on the playground behind our apartments the adults would all gather together and talk about this, that and the other thing, everything under the sun. It was idyllic.
6. Reading the Journals. I’ve made it a practice to read the Mormon journals, because it’s a subject that I find fascinating. And I followed the Nibley practice of going back and reading the journals from the beginning. I’ve read (or skimmed in some cases) pretty much the entire print runs of Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, JBoMS, FR and JMH.
7. Attending the Conferences. No one has to attend conferences to become a knowledgeable member of the Church. But it doesn’t hurt. I find that I quite enjoy the conferences, and attend as many as I can. I went to MHA in Calgary earlier this year; my vacation revolved around Sunstone and FAIR; I’ll probably make it to JWHA in the Fall. Although it’s not Mormon, I’ve always wanted to attend the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, but it is always in late November and that is a tough time for me to get away from work. But this year it’s in Chicago, so I might be able to attend at least some of it.
8. Reading the Blogs. Although it is less formal than books, journals and conferences, just regularly reading the blogs can be something of an education in the Church in its own right, and lets face it, most bloggers do at least some reading in other blogs.
What am I missing? What is it that moves you to learn about the Church to so great a degree? What practices do you follow toward that end? And should we really be teaching tourists that Brigham Young only had one wife!? Your thoughts appreciated.