An Ecumenical Approach to Mormon Studies

At Sunstone yesterday Lynette from ZD told me how impressed she is by my ecumenical approach to Mormon studies. I had never heard it put that way before, but I thought it was a great coinage (to be expected from an expert in Christian theology). The English word ecumenical derives from Greek oikomenikos “of or relating to the inhabited world,” and in contemporary discourse is often used of attempts to seek unity among different Christian churches.

When she made the comment, I knew immediately to what she was referring. I’m basically all over the map. I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who has published both in the Ensign and in a Signature publication. I publish in FARMs publications and BYU Studies and am active in FAIR; I also publish in Dialogue and have published in Sunstone and try to attend the Sunstone conference every year. And of course I blog here.

On the plane coming home I pondered for a bit why I feel comfortable among such disparate faith communities. I suppose it has to do with the following: On the one hand, as I’ve gotten older I have gotten more liberal socially. So, just to name some big ticket items, I favor gay marriage, I think the priesthood ban was a horrible mistake, and I think not giving women the priesthood is simply based on culture, not immutable doctrine, and I wish we would just go ahead and include them in the priesthood. But on the other hand, I remain a believer, even if my belief is more nuanced and complicated than the average orthodox member’s belief.

This probably in some sense is an inheritance from Hugh Nibley. I became a Nibleyophile on my mission, and he had the same sort of dichotomy: he was a liberal on social issues, but a firm believer in the Gospel. Although I’m not exactly like him, I’ve sort of followed the same pattern.

Also, I’ve spent a lot of time doing educative apologetics, so I don’t fear anyone’s pet theories or unbelief. There are a lot of things that could drive me from the Church, but doctrinal or historical or scriptural isses aren’t my particular problem. So I don’t feel defensive in the company of folks who are troubled by such issues, and I don’t feel the need to somehow protect myself from any possible influence they may have on me.

Finally, while I get my intelligence (such as it is) from my father, I get my deep sense of empathy from my mother. I usually can look at the world and the church from other people’s point of view, understand what they are feeling and where they are coming from, and appreciate (if not necessarily agree with) their perspective.

On Thursday and Friday I attended the FAIR conference. Those are my people.

And on Saturday I attended Sunstone. Those are my people, too.

My people are those who are intelligent and thoughtful and care deeply about Mormonism. That they agree with my point of view isn’t the point.

And the denizens of the Bloggernacle are definitely my people as well. I love and appreciate you all.


  1. Historically, I don’t have a problem with women laying on of hands, Mary Fielding Smith and the ox come readily to mind, also I know that in the early modern church it was not uncommon for women to lay on hands to bless or heal. It must have been acceptable to the Lord because it’s recorded that those blessings where honored as frequently as those from the priesthood holders. If that’s priesthood power, then I don’t have a problem with women holding it.

    In a church where men can’t teach a primary class unless there is a spouse on hand, or unrelated people of different genders can’t share a car, at least on “church business”, it becomes a little more problematic.

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    You do seem fairly unique, Kevin, in the breadth of your Mormon Studies associations. This thought has occurred to me before. While I have neither the same intellectual history, nor precisely the same views, nor anywhere the same knowledge or Mormon Studies resume that you do, I completely relate to your comfort with Mormons across the ideological spectrum. (O.K., there are some ultra-orthodox LDS that I can’t stand, who you probably could, but they are a small minority). What is striking to me are the perceived stakes that many seem to think there are in associating with others in the Mormon community that don’t share their particular orthodoxies. Think of those who would attend LDS-FAIR but wouldn’t dream of setting foot at Sunstone, or vs. versa. Or those who will purchase FARMS publications, but wouldn’t dare own something published by Signature (or vs. versa), even if they concede that it might have meritorious content. (I’ve met more than a couple folks who fit this description openly and proudly).

    I find the whole phenomenon incredibly weird and juvenile.


  3. Kevin, I love the idea of being your people, mostly because I admire you so much. I’ve told you before how I am inspired by your publication ecumenicism. I don’t feel like I have the skills to publish in some of the various venues, but I’d like to and I hope I eventually will.

  4. And considering some of the purported less-than-accepting attitudes that were reported coming out of Sunstone this year, perhaps this “ecumenical” spirit is just what we need. Thank you, Kevin Barney.

  5. Earl, I don’t mean to threadjack Kevin’s great post. However, the story about Mary Fielding anointing her ox is actually something of an urban ledgend. While women participated in healing rituals well into the 20th century, and while there are several accounts of healing animals, that specific story isn’t true. It is based on truth, though: it was several men in Mary’s company that anointed her oxen.

  6. Nat Whilk says:

    @OP: “I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who has published both in the Ensign and in a Signature publication.

    Is it really few? Quinn, Anderson, Firmage, Larson, . . . others?

    I think the priesthood ban was a horrible mistake . . . Although I’m not exactly like [Hugh Nibley], I’ve sort of followed the same pattern.

    You’ve highlighted one of the ways you’re unlike Nibley, at least if I correctly understand his remarks in “The Best Possible Test”: “So now the whole issue boils down to asking whether it is really God and not man who has ordered this thing. . . . And so it gives me great pleasure to be in a position to answer the question with an unequivocal affirmative: it is indeed the Lord’s doing. How do I know it? By revelation.”

    @#1: “Historically, I don’t have a problem with women laying on of hands, Mary Fielding Smith and the ox come readily to mind

    You seem to be alluding to the story about Mary anointing the ox. This story is mistaken, isn’t it?

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Kevin, the simple spirit of being one with your people strikes me as more Mormon than FAIR, Sunstone, FARMS or any other group.

  8. I think you’re suffering from a lack of sleep, Kevin, or maybe jetlag — there’s just too much feelin’ the love going on here! ;)

    FWIW, I realized while reading this that while I disagree with you about gay marriage and ordaining women, I can read what you say without taking offense because you have proven yourself to be dependably orthodox when it counts (which means you don’t aggressively advocate your occasional unorthodox beliefs). I also know I could talk with you about why I distrust right-wing conservative quasi-church organizations without your taking offense and calling in the troops to help you crush me.

    In other words, I see you with the same open-hearted, open-minded generosity that you extend to others, because you can extend it to others while still maintaining a faith I recognize and share. I don’t know many, if any, others I can say that about.

  9. Kevin,
    From what I’ve seen, you are the very best kind of open-minded truth-seeker. You listen. You expound. You include. Those are habits that make for interesting posts and great conversation. Carry on, Brother Barney!

  10. “that specific story isn’t true”
    “You seem to be alluding to the story about Mary anointing the ox. This story is mistaken, isn’t it?”
    Crap! Mary didn’t anoint her ox? I saw it in a movie. I’ve read it a dozen times. I am so disillusioned.

  11. Hey Kevin,

    I very much appreciate your ecumenical spirit. You truly are a luminary of the Mormon Studies world. Thanks,


  12. I feel the love- and I share it, too. Gather in people from the four corners, and I will call them my own. Or, what Stapely said.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    Gosh, Kevin, it’s remarkable that you support gay marriage but as a TR-holding Latter-day Saint you are far ahead of your time. The marriage issue will be resolved by our grandchildren, or theirs. Why don’t you and Ardis focus more on trying to stop the excommunication of (non-celibate) gays? Giving us a little space just to be in the Church without fear or lying….that would be life-changing for so many. It’s happening in some stakes already, but it’s just a start.

  14. I’m probably going to just repeat what most other commenters have said to the point it will just embarrass you Kevin, but here goes.

    You have many impressive gifts. I admire you for the work you have done acquiring the tools which allow you to be so prolific, and I admire your teaching ability, which really is amazing. But I think the most valuable gift is they way you can speak to anybody, from a professor to a GA to a brand new investigator to a bitter anti-Mo in a way that is respectful and which brings light and understanding.

  15. “My people are those who are intelligent and thoughtful and care deeply about Mormonism. That they agree with my point of view isn’t the point.”

    I love that phrasing – truly love it. I only would change one thing, frankly. I would remove the word “intelligent”. Thoughtful caring is enough for me. My people also include many who would not self-identify (or be identified by others) as intelligent.

    Kevin, when I grow up, I want to be like you – not necessarily based on political or religious views in all cases, but certainly in spirit.

  16. 13: Uh, Mike, I don’t know why you would think I would have the slightest inclination to undertake the project you gratuitously assign me, but I really don’t like having my name linked to something I consider so wrong on so many levels that I wouldn’t know where to begin, even if this were the place to discuss it.

  17. Thanks for this Kevin. You’re a great example!

  18. While I know we do not share all the same views (and this site would be rather dull if it did), I know that I share your desire for thoughtful, careful Mormon scholarship. That alone makes the discussion, and blogging in general, worth having. It allows us quasi-scholars to participate. Thank you for setting the tone.

  19. Kevin,

    I meant to grab you after Sunstone (I sat in front of you at the La Vida Online session) and tell you how much I enjoy reading your stuff (I didn’t because I had to hurry out… that, and I wasn’t sure how to tell you this without sounding like a weirdo). I can’t always keep up with all the writing and comments on this thing, but I sure appreciate your well-studied, faith-promoting and, yes, ecumenical insights on church matters. So, er, thanks!

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    Sorry, Ardis, I should have directed that exclusively at Kevin. My bad.

  21. StillConfused says:

    It is interesting how we can be different yet have a sense of community. I don’t support gay marriage or women in the priesthood or the sexual practices of the early leaders, but I am much more laid back on other things: what movies someone watches, repentence directly with the Savior, where the “line” is in dating. But I greatly enjoy reading the posts here and appreciating the diversity that exists among the group.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    #6 Nat, I didn’t specifically think about who might be in the select club of people who have published in both the Ensign and Signature (opposite ends of the spectrum), but I knew there were others, and the names you give are definitely included within the “few” in that universe. And yes, I disagree with Nibley on that point, although to be fair he was writing pre-revelation and I am opining long post-revelation, having had the advantage of reading Bush, Mauss et al.

    #8 Ardis, you are definitely one of my peeps.

    #13 MikeInWeHo, what you raise is actually one of the reasons I support gay marriage (even though I forgot to include it when I wrote my classic “Why I Support Gay Marriage” post here at BCC). That is, if such a thing as gay marriage existed it seems to me that that could be a tool to keep gay people in the Church. It would be a way to allow sexual expression with a partner within a covenant relationship, even if it would take a generation or two for the Church to get comfortable with such a scenario.

    #15 Ray, yes, your phrasing is right.

    #19 AF, nice to e-meet you. I continue to be stunned by all the people that read the Mormon blogs and are familiar with the different personalities in the Nacle.p

  23. I, too, appreciate this blog and the bloggers and Kevin in particular. One of the things I find so refreshing is that you welcome newcomers all the time. I have only been lurking and then posting for about a year now, and I have found BCC and its bloggers to be most welcoming to a newbie like me.

    Finding members of the Church like Kevin has saved my testimony.

  24. Kevin, can I just add to the love-in by noting that I’ve always especially appreciated your evident lack of a sense of danger in associating with “other” kinds of people in the Mormon community? That’s an admirable trait, well worthy of emulation.

  25. 1) i do think it important to understand our “niche” and cite our influences, so i agree with the general attempt here…

    2) that said, i think this may the most prideful post i’ve ever read. i’m not necessarily asserting that kevin is a prideful person (maybe he is, maybe he isn’t)- just the styling of this post.

    i think an important question to ask is how do you do 1) without 2)?

  26. Kevin,
    Were you to express your views in gay marriage and ordination of women in a sacrament meeting talk, for instance, I’m pretty sure that you would shortly find yourself trying to explain the difference between complex and nuanced belief and outright disbelief to your Bishop.
    When it comes to beliefs on sexual morality, The church and the gay-rights lobby are on opposite sides of a widening chasm. Before long, it will become impossible to straddle the gap, and members will be forced to choose which side they are on.

  27. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    Kewvin, in a recent conversation with a somewhat-close friend (perhaps more of a friend-of-a-friend) of mine, the subject of Joseph Smith’s King Follet examination of Genesis 1:1 came up and I immediately referred her to your Dialogue paper on the subject; also your Documentary Hypothesis paper. Personally, I have also found much of your work to be so expanding and liberating to my own worldview – thanks so much.

    You (along with so many other members of the online Mormon community, both in and out of the Bloggernacle) are emblematic of collecting all of the good together; I can’t do any more than echo Melissa. You all rule, and the reason to me is your complete devotion to God, reason, and respect. Good people. In the past we had individuals who exemplified scholastic Mormonism – Roberts, Sperry, Nibley, Arrington; all within the tradition. Nowadays the entire arena, and the entire Mormon-to-non-Mormon spectrum, is so filled with quality individuals that it seems to be have become so much more democratized.

  28. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    Um, I meant to start off by saying “Kevin”. I don’t know who “Kewvin” is. :-)

  29. Great post, Kevin.

    Like Ardis, I may not always agree with you, but I do love and appreciate your ecumenical spirit!

    Moreover, I am proud to be one of your peeps. :-)

  30. merrybits says:

    I’m joining the group hug because you are awesome, Kevin! Thank you for being a wonderful example of true Christ-like spirit. I believe there are leaders up in the Church hierarchy (can’t ever spell that word) that can learn this from you.

  31. NoCoolName_Tom, Perhaps you’ve invented a new Utah Baby Name– Kewvin!

  32. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I’m not sure whether to laugh at that or be horrified. Probably both.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    I thought Kewvin was Gaelic or something.

  34. That would be Kewvynn.

  35. If doctrinal, historical or scriptural issues couldn’t drive you from the church, what on earth could? (Don’t mean to break up the love fest but I am just curious!)

  36. Kevin-I recently read Mosiah 15 where Abinadi taught who Christ seed are. If I remember correctly, the first criteria he focused on was those who hear and follow the prophets. As you know, they are the ones who are responsible to set the Saviors’ agenda for His people.

    When I find myself at odds with what they teach I do some real soul searching. When I find myself having trouble supporting what is being taught I keep it to myself and ask the Lord to help me understand what He would have me know that I might be missing. I have found this approach allows me to learn things by the Spirit and preserves my access to the gift of the Holy Ghost.

  37. Kevin Barney says:

    Noray, my own crosses to bear in the Church are things like the tedium of meetings, the bane of bureaucracy, guilt trips, being overloaded with work, and things along those lines.

    When I was first made an EQP, the ward had just split, and I had like 7 active elders. I would go to PEC and receive multiple assignments, some from the stake, often requiring up to a dozen elders to complete. I found myself in the position of having to protect my few good elders from being abused by a system that presumed every ward had a surplus of elders to do the work. And I found that incredibly draining.

    It is those types of experiences that are my personal struggle.

  38. Hear, hear Kevin. Doctrine and history are a pretty distant kind of strain in my view. Finding time to fulfill callings is a more immediate concern.

  39. It speaks well for the strength of your faith that you haven’t let those burdens you mentioned drive you away, Kevin. I hadn’t considered those kinds of issues but I can see where they could be overwhelming at times.

  40. Kevin,

    Not only are you educated, articulate, and no respecter of persons, whom I admire greatly, I also like your name!

  41. Mary Fielding didn’t bless the ox??!!?!? See now THAT’S seriously a stumbling block…….

  42. I also thought she healed the ox. However, a quick search turned up this Friend article, which supports Stapley. (Presumably there are more authoritative sources out there.)

  43. The classic treatment is: Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On,” Dialogue 14 (Winter 1981): 99-100. The article has a nice appendix (if I remember right) that includes all the proximate accounts. The article is available digitally from the UU website.

  44. From an account I read Mary Fielding Smith did not lay her hands on the ox but she did retrieve the consecrated oil and ask her two brothers to do the actual blessing. It would be my guess that the ox was healed through her faith.

    I do know women who in the past gave blessing but no longer do so because they say that church leaders discourage the practice. Women may be more spiritually attuned to blessings and healing than men. It is a practice that makes sense to be reinstated. TIn my opinion the power of a blessing from a man and a women together would be awesome.

    I believe that women do have the priesthood but not exactly in the same manner that men have it.

  45. Uh, oh. Keep this up and we’ll have another Knut on our hands!

  46. John Hamer says:

    Speaking of love fests, I’m really glad I got to hang out with you and got to know you better last week, Kevin. I appreciate your ecumenical outlook and your work as a bridge-builder.

  47. I recently read Mosiah 15 where Abinadi taught who Christ seed are. If I remember correctly, the first criteria he focused on was those who hear and follow the prophets.

    Kind of like I often double check myself when I find myself agreeing with doctrines pushed by the various anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon.

    Some interesting things there.

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