Sunstone at 40

The June 2014 issue of Sunstone hit my mailbox earlier this week. As I glanced at it, I saw it was an anniversary issue, celebrating 40 years of existence since its origins in 1974 (when I was a high school sophomore). The whole issue is a cornucopia of navel-gazing, but I rather enjoy some navel-gazing and after 40 years I think they’re certainly entitled. I just this moment finished reading the issue, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re not a subscriber, this would be an excellent issue with which to initiate a subscription.

Overview of the Contributions

  • The issue begins with the memories and reflections of Scott Kenney about the origins of the enterprise, including the idea, early contributors, the quarterlies, the magazines, rescue, transitions, and estrangement and reconciliation.
  • Next comes an essay by Allen Roberts, in three parts: (i) joining up, board service, and early writings; (ii) the magazine, cartoon books, and the symposium; and (iii) his sun sets but Sunstone continues.
  • Peggy Fletcher Stack cannot contribute anything on her personal religious views due to her employment by the Salt Lake Tribune, and so this lacuna was filled by an old column she had published in the magazine in 1985 and a new piece here, “Reflections on Peggy,” by John Sillito.
  • Susan Staker reflects on her four years of editing (and this section also talks about the Sunstone Review, a newsprint tabloid companion to the magazine that ran for three years and which I well remember).
  • Connie Disney talks about her on the job experience with learning to do page set-up back in the pre-desktop publishing era (I found the description of old-school paste-up very interesting).
  • Dennis Clark reflected on his stint as poetry editor from 1980 to 2000.
  • Elbert Peck (starting here to get into the era of Sunstone I remember) contributed an article titled “Thinking Is a Social Act.” I was especially interested in his account of their efforts to reach out to Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, and how they seemed to backfire. I could empathize with the severe case of burnout with the enterprise that led him finally to leave (admittedly somewhat later than he should have).
  • Dan Wotherspoon then writes about his time at Sunstone (for me personally this correlates most closely with my own experiences with the organization; I still think of Dan when I think of Sunstone).
  • Toby Pingree reflects on his journey to becoming the chair of the Sunstone board, which reminds us that organizations like these need serious business and financial chops, not just edition and scholarship prowess.
  • John Hatch (a BCC alumnus) recounts his experiences organizing the symposium for a three-year period.
  • Then there is an article about Carol Quist, who in many ways WAS Sunstone for many, many years.
  • Mary Ellen Robertson takes us behind the scenes at the symposium (with a nice postscript on how she and Michael Stevens ended up finding each other through Sunstone).
  • This is followed by Stephen Carter with his reflections on growing with Sunstone.
  • Hugo Olaiz contributes a short piece on his experience as news editor, followed by short pieces on Lisa Torcasso Downing and Jett Atwood (I love her!).
  • And finally, Bob Rees comments on the name Sunstone, which he suggested lo these many years ago.

My Own Experience with Sunstone

I first encountered Sunstone and Dialogue simultaneously in 1980 in the BYU Bookstore. This only happened because they had a very prominent display featuring both publications, which seems impossible to believe now, but I swear it’s true! I had (and continue to have) an interest in the Book of Abraham, and the Sunstone issue with an orange cover featuring Ed Ashment’s article on the reconstruction of the Facsimiles caught my eye, and I actually bought it (and given how poor I was, that was a significant sacrifice at the time). I still have that issue as the beginning of what eventually would become my personal collection. I would later be able to read back issues in the Institute library at the University of Illinois–again, something that seems impossible to imagine today.

I would begin subscribing to both publications once I got my first real job in 1985, and have continued ever since.

As I recall, my initial experiences with the Symposium were at the Regional one we used to hold in Chicago a long time ago. I thoroughly enjoyed these affairs, and remember rubbing elbows with such luminaries as Neil LaBute and Wayne Booth. One presentation that sticks out in my mind from those early days was by a medical doctor (I want to say his name was Hatch) on the phenomenon of intersex, which was a completely new topic to me and one that he hit out of the park with a very strong presentation. I also remember Elbert holding Town Hall type meetings on the future of Sunstone. I managed to make it to all the Chicago symposiums except the last one, which I missed due to my first kidney stone.

The Chicago symposiums were important to me, because they gave me a sense for what the symposiums were like, and I knew that I enjoyed them, and so somewhere along the line I graduated to the big leagues and started going to the main gatherings in Utah. I’ve been to more sessions than I recall and have learned a lot, but for me the real draw is the people themselves and the socializing that goes on.

I haven’t presented a lot at Sunstone; I actually prefer not to have to obsess over a presentation and just focus more on the social experience. But I have presented some. A few examples are a panel on Inoculating the Saints in 2007, a later panel on apologetics, a review of Ed Kimball’s Lengthen Your Stride, commenting on a session devoted to Feminist Mormon Housewives, and I’m sure a few others I’m not remembering right now.

More recently I’ve done some blogging about my Sunstone experiences, such as this example from 2009 and this example from 2012.

I’ve published a lot with Dialogue, but I’ve only published one piece with Sunstone: My “Hugh Winder Nibley: In Memoriam” piece from May 2005.

What have your experiences with Sunstone been? Has the rise of the Bloggernacle diminished the impact of Sunstone, or does the organization still have a vibrant role to play? If you could sit down with the PTB of the organization, what counsel would you give them for the future direction of both the magazine and the Symposium? Your comments on all things Sunstone are invited below.

Comments

  1. European Saint says:

    Here’s the Fall 1976 issue for those like myself who are feeling nostalgic: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issues/004.pdf

  2. “What have your experiences with Sunstone been?”

    I am one of the theologically curious and theologically heterodox Mormons that would probably have taken part in Sunstone symposia and magazine, had I known about it early enough. In 1999, when I briefly lived in UT as a graduate student, I read every copy of Sunstone the local public library had on the shelf (easily a few dozen issues).

    That being said, I have very *few* warm feelings for Sunstone. I can’t imagine any organization can prosper when the *fruits* of what I’ve seen have been so bitter, even if their intentions were not. Let me explain…

    After reading the first dozen issues, I personally felt like the magazine should have been renamed “chip-on-my-shoulder quarterly” or “I-believed-Utah-folklore-and-now-I’m-bitter-at-the-church-for -it monthly.” Of course, not every article, or maybe not even a preponderance of articles. But an inescapable, repeating *tone*. I could not escape a certain simmering level of disdain, and thought I felt a certain amount of finger pointing (never in any other direction than “those stupid GAs/bishops who just don’t get it, man”). Didn’t stop me from reading all of them, or thinking about what I read.

    Fast forward to when I moved away from UT, and then served as my new ward’s EQ president, then with my Bishopric as ExecSec, and I visited most of the ward’s (known) inactive members regularly. In two years’ time, I was handed copies of Sunstone by these brothers and sisters three times, accompanied by the admonition: “this is why I’m not ever coming back, and if you read this too, you’ll see why. Maybe you can join me.” (I also got a copy of Dialogue once.) It seemed to these people that Sunstone would make good proselytizing material to encourage people to leave the Church. Needless to say, I read every copy of the magazine they gave me (and found some very interesting stuff therein), and it hasn’t changed my mind about the Church (but more importantly about the Gospel).

    Add to those sad experiences watching over the years as one of its members of the Board of Directors spiral away from being a believing church member, and taking as many people as he can with him, and I think my gut reaction pegged the tone of the organization and publication pretty well in 1999.

    Some fruits. See?

    I can’t wax nostalgic over an organization and publication that was so instrumental helping my ward-family members away from what I believe to be the Truth.

  3. I also have mixed feelings about Sunstone. I first came into contact with it as a college student in the late 1980s, when we read some articles from it in my Institute class. In fact, a Sunstone symposium was held on my college campus in Southern California in 1990 or 1991, I think. I wanted very much to go and was encouraged to do so by my Institute instructor, but alas I didn’t have the money for the registration and also had to work that weekend. I have read and subscribed off and on over the years since – at one point I was given almost the entire run of hard copies starting from the beginning and ending around 2004 or so, along with almost all of Dialogue and the Journal of the Mormon History Association until that same point. I did a lot of reading and, like N., frequently had the feeling that it was more of a place to complain or bring up uncomfortable truths and wallow in them than a place to engage thoughtfully with difficult issues. However, there were also fantastic articles that expanded both my knowledge and my testimony and helped me work through some difficult periods. I have mentioned before Robert Rees’ essay “Forgiving the Church and Loving the Saints,” which blew my mind wide open to a new way of thinking about the Church and its members, and indeed to a new way of looking at the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that his inspired words in that essay have affected every relationship I have had since then, both in and out of the Church, and informed the way I try to magnify every calling I have had and will have. I have shared that essay many, many times over the years. So there is always the rough with the smooth, I guess, and I have found out for myself that Sunstone has truth to offer, but sometimes (quite often, actually), it’s necessary to step back from some of its content. I do not currently subscribe, though I do occasionally check out the online version. If I find that something I am reading there is upsetting, I take a break to examine my reaction – the same as with anything that purports to say something about God. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I don’t. It’s ok.

  4. MDearest says:

    Sometimes I think one of the biggest issues the church has is dealing with our problems by shooting the messenger.

    I’ve never been a devout subscriber, but I have a stack of magazines that I can’t bring myself to toss. I used to subscribe more regularly when I had rugrats taking up all my time and space, and was dealing with daily cognitive dissonance regarding the blessings of being a mother. I remember renewing my subscription once, with an old school check, and as an enclosure, I scribbled a drawing of myself sitting up in bed reading Sunstone next to a sleeping lump of dh, with a can of pepsi on the nightstand. The next issue that came had that drawing published in the white space. I was tickled.

    (I’ve never been to a symposium, I suppose they weren’t popular enough in AZ. As it happens I’ll be in SLC with some free time, so I just signed up for my very first. See y’all there! I’ll be the woman wearing pants.)

  5. Sunstone has always been an electronic experience. I have only ever seen a print version in SLC bookshops. There are certain sessions from the symposia that I have listened to more than once and will listen to again. Plus, I remember organising a discussion group in previous ward which used many Sunstone articles as a basis for our conversations. Kudos to those who have kept it going for 40 years.

  6. rameumptom says:

    Mary Ellen and Michael are awesome and personable people. I haven’t had much connection with Sunstone over the years, but did enjoy presenting at the first Kirtland Sunstone Symposium a couple years ago. Mary Ellen was happy to have a more “conservative” presentation, and hoped (and still hopes) that more conservatives will lend their voice to Sunstone. It is often very liberal only because conservatives do not contribute anything to it!

    Unlike the symposium elsewhere, there’s nothing quite like having a Sunday morning service inside the Kirtland Temple, singing “The Spirit of God” to the original music, and hearing testimonies from liberals and conservatives, LDS and Community of Christ, etc. Definitely an experience I will long treasure.

    I congratulate Sunstone on its 40 years, and hope that it continues to be a positive force in the LDS community for years to come. – Gerald Smith

  7. John Mansfield says:

    My direct experience with Sunstone was during my college years in Utah, which ended in 1991. The magazine had an intramural Salt Lake City focus that I felt distant from. It seemed to be by and for people for whom terms like “the Avenues” and “Sugarhouse” evoked some sort of feeling and who had relatives and neighbors working in the Church Office Building.

    Sunstone had a wilder image in my mind than the oriented-to-current-and-former-grad-students Dialogue, but my father-in-law, who had subscribed to each publication from the beginning, continued taking Sunstone but cancelled Dialogue in 1990. The Dialogue editor said more regarding the temple endowment than he thought one who was endowed should, and Sunstone didn’t give him a problem with that.

  8. Kristine says:

    N., my hunch is that for every person who has left because of Sunstone or Dialogue, there’s at least one like me who has stayed because of them. Unfortunately, it’s not really a testable proposition–it’s a pity that we have to make judgments about all of the fruits from our experiences in such a tiny part of the orchard.

    John, your recounting of your father’s experience is interesting, because my understanding was that the problems with the discussion of the temple happened at a Sunstone symposium. Particularly since the editors of Dialogue in 1990 did not write editorials, it’s odd that he would have been alarmed by something one of them said.

  9. I first encountered Sunstone in the BYU Bookstore as a freshman in 1987. Actually, that’s not true; the summer before my family and I had visited New York City and had attended church at the Manhattan ward, where the Sunday School teacher had made some provocative statements and, when I’d asked him as a soon-to-be-college-student about them, he pulled a couple of copies of Sunstone out of his briefcase and showed them to me. So I suppose when I saw those magazines (along with Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon History) along the rack in the bookstore, I was primed to be fascinated.

    I don’t think I remember any of the particular articles I read out of them, but I remember that one of them bugged me enough that I made appointments with and talked with a couple of Honors and Church History instructors about them. The fact that their own reactions to the articles, whatever they were actually about, were mixed probably taught me as much about the wide, unspoken varieties of thought in Mormonism as anything else I was exposed to during my freshman year.

    After my mission, during the rather fraught years 1990-1994 at BYU, I got up to Sunstone symposium whenever I could, and even participated once or twice. I was involved in an earlier incarnation of Student Review at the time, and many of us on the paper definitely viewed Sunstone as something to aspire to. Elbert Peck, who was editor in those years, had a soft spot for SR, probably because he’d been part of an earlier effort to maintain an independent, critical student voice at BYU, the Seventh East Press. He took us SR folks out to dinner, introduced us to various other voices, opened doors for us to develop a behind-the-scenes perspective on a lot of weirdness of those years. Elbert even approached me, when he was looking to leave Sunstone, to see if I was interested in getting involve formally in the magazine (my wife had done her internship their for her journalism major), and I knew quite well the two guys that stepped in as managing editors following Elbert (Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel). But then we left Utah and were off to graduate school, and so except for occasional symposium presentations and a close friendship with Mary Ellen Robertson, I haven’t been closely entwined with Sunstone for 20 years. I don’t even have a current subscription, I’m embarrassed to say.

    As for all of the above comments, I can only say this: Sunstone magazine has published, and Sunstone Symposium has hosted, a lot of stuff over the years which was of dubious quality, if not being outright angry or peevish or self-centered or unwise. If Mormon studies was a robust, long-standing field, and if Mormon culture was wide and diverse and less concerned about obedience and more concerned about exploration, Sunstone’s failings might well be reason not to support it. But though we have long had Dialogue and JMH, and now we have Salt Press and the Maxwell Institute and the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology and, last but never least, the whole damn Bloggernacle….the simple fact remains, there is still as yet no other publication or venue of discussion which has supported as many odd and idiosyncratic and, sometimes, profoundly valuable voices as has Sunstone. May it long continue, I say.

  10. Kristine says:

    N.–the world would be a better place if we were all so quick to be more charitable. Thanks.

  11. I have only read some Sunstone magazines. I published one conservative piece in the magazine in 2008. I was the one of two counter pieces to Robert Rees – Glenn Beck article. My small contribution was a pebble in the ocean of Brother Rees work, but it was fun to see my idea printed along side his. I read somewhere that Chieko Okasaki used to attend the Symposium – don’t know if it is fact or not – but if so, her presence shines a different light on the subversive idea center of Sunstone. For me I tend to lean on Dialogue more. It’s a taste preference I suppose.

  12. It is often very liberal only because conservatives do not contribute anything to it!

    I’ve tried. I really did try, for several years because I fell for this idea way back when. But people don’t go to Sunstone gatherings to hear conservative subjects or conservative takes on out-there topics. There isn’t an audience there for that, no matter how you dress up your zippiest, edgiest-but-still-conservative material with sensational titles/teasers. I was pleased with the reception for my “Pillars of My Faith” talk a couple of years ago, but there’s no point in going back and talking to myself in an empty room during a regular session.

  13. rameumptom says:

    Ardis, I agree it is a tough place to be for a conservative. There were moments when I felt uncomfortable, and some of the discussions really made my wife uncomfortable. But there were several programs that were not conservative or liberal, such as the discussion on the Hill Cumorah Pageant (which I finally saw just a couple weeks ago) that were excellent. My discussion on Ascension in the BoM made some of the liberals uncomfortable, and one mentioned parallelomania – that glib term that so easily runs off the tongue of some. I still received a very warm reception by several in attendance, and that is what counts for me.
    However, I do think that while it is a battle zone today, it can only become something for all LDS to enjoy if we provide the format. A few years of conservatives teaching in empty rooms may someday open the door for more conservative members to have a reason to attend.

  14. I was a hungry graduate looking for a job. I got called in for an interview at Sunstone Magazine for some form of editing. My girlfriend at the time (1996) thought it a bad idea to get a job at an anti-Mormon publication. I called and canceled the interview. Now I’m a software sales representative tied to the grimy yoke of corporate America. Despite that wretched vocation I’ve managed to write a few stories. I wonder what that old girlfriend might think of me now and the work I’ve had published at the Magazine? Eww. Scary Sunstone.

  15. European Saint says:

    Loved your comment, Ardis. I’m pretty sure the Sunstone “flavor” was different back in the mid-’70’s (when none other than the ultra-liberal Ralph Hancock was President there).

  16. One of the things that welcomed me back from my mission in 1975 were some early Sunstones, including one with Robert Elliot’s play, Fires of the Mind. I found it all quite heady and exciting to contemplate and explore. So I subscribed for several decades, and collected most of the issues. I participated in 10 or so panels, as presenter, respondent, or moderator, including Sunstones in California, Salt Lake City, and once in Chicago. I’ve attended several presentations that I quite enjoyed, as well as a number of bitter rants that I didn’t. I’ve read several essays that I still value highly and refer to in my own work (most notably, Mark Edward Koltko’s “Mormonism and Mysticism,” which changed my views on the topic, published in the same issue that contains Nibley’s “What is Zion? A Distant View.”). At other times have responded in print to essays that I thought deserved a published response, sometimes in Sunstone, more often elsewhere. Some of my own presentations went very well, and were well attended, other times, not so much. In one instance, I was, and remain, annoyed at the poor attendance and dismissive respondent. The same subject, the work of Margaret Barker, has been by far the most influential work I’ve ever done, and I remain puzzled at the dismissive disinterest in a Sunstone context. I’ve had the opportunity to be published in Sunstone with handful of letters and a couple of articles. On the other hand, I’ve had had essays rejected, including one that I consider one of my best. (It will appear elsewhere within a year or two.) While there are many articles over the years that that I particularly value, I’ve also opened an issue to find my own work targeted. For a year or two before that, my wife would occasionally ask, “Should we be supporting them?” And I would accentuate the positive. While that essay was annoying, I’ve actually been much more disturbed to find essays targeting the foundation of my faith. I can understand that as an occasional spice, but when they came as regularly as a drum-beat, it become unsettling. The last thing I had published in Sunstone was a defense of the foundation of my faith, as part of a direct response to the essay that targeted my work. I last attended a Salt Lake symposium and presented on “Paradigm Debate in Mormon Studies: A Guide for the Perplexed.” I used a Powerpoint slideshow, rather than a written paper. I had good attendance and a good respondent in Christian Anderson, and a few notables present. Though ultimately, after that, I realized that I felt out of place.

    My favorite memories are attending Eugene England’s Easter Sermon at a Sunstone West, and the wonderful Nibley roast in Salt Lake City. My least favorite memory, I think, was a chance hallway meeting with a friend from a California book group and having her ask, “What are you doing here?” As an answer, I held up a copy of my newly published copy of “Paradigms Crossed: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies.” Her face clouded even more and she said, “Before you say anything, the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fiction and nothing you say could ever change my mind. I never read anything from FARMS. It makes me mad.” I asked if my essay on NDE research and the Book of Mormon had made her mad (the essay began as a Sunstone West presentation), and she admitted that it hadn’t but she still went off in what struck me as an annoyed huff. I also remember that she had admitted to our book group that she had never actually read the Book of Mormon. Her behavior struck me as a manifestation of something quite apart from the spirit of enthusiasm and faithful inquiry that drew me to Sunstone in the first place. She became a Sunstone Board member.

    A friend on my Ward in Pittsburgh shares her issues with me, and I still read them all, but time, distance, and priorities have kept my participation down for the past decade.

    It seems that back in 1975, LDS Letters was a bit less Balkanized. Now, people have more opportunity to surround themselves with only the voices they want to hear. While that can be comfortable, it also can lead to narrow outlook. Boyd Peterson wrote an essay, published in Sunstone a few years back, that commented that the best predictor in marriages is the ratio of favorable comments to negative ones. Ideally, he reported, 5 to 1 makes for a marriage that works. One of the main features of Sunstone has always been diversity. That should stay. But I’d like to see more of appreciation of the faith. The Pillars of My Faith presentations have always been the best attended aspects of the Symposiums.

  17. I was first introduced to Sunstone/Dialogue by one of the daughters of Eugene England who happened to be in my ward in the late 1990s, early 2000s. I poo-pooed it at the time as I was too “conservative” for that sort of liberal tripe. However, many years later, when I found myself re-evaluating my own worldview and relationship with Mormonism, I decided to wander into the digital archives of both publications and begin reading some of the earlier articles. What I found was a connection to people who weren’t afraid to question and think outside of the narrowly-defined mainstream. A connection that I did not have with anyone else in my ward or family life. As Kristine mentioned above, my decision to remain fully-engaged with my faith tradition was due in no small part to Sunstone and Dialogue. I seemed to miss all of the super-negative parts that some discuss. Very rarely did I come across anything that either offended my faith or sensibilities. Far fewer offenses to my sensibilities than what I was experiencing in my own home ward, anyway. I’m glad both Sunstone and Dialogue are still around. I hope that they will continue to offer a moderate platform…and by that, I mean I hope that moderately-minded Mormons will continue to submit articles and present papers.

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