My Sunstone Experience

Sunstone is over for another year. I finally have access to a computer, so I thought I’d jot some notes on my experience there this year.

Wednesday night I blew off the opening lecture to stay in with my son’s friends and play Settlers of Catan. I had never played before. Damn, that is one complicated game! It was fun, but I was a newbie and so winning just wasn’t in the cards for me.

Thursday, Tania Rands Lyon did a terrific session on “What if Toyota Ran the Church?” She compared and contrasted Toyota management philosophy with what we do in the Church. I really enjoyed this session. I believe she’s expanding this material for some sort of publication.

My next session was Trevor Luke on prophetic performance (touching on issues of magic). I went to this one mainly because he was a classics professor from Florida who had gone to BYU and then the University of Pennsylvania. With that background I figured he had to have been influenced by John Hall, who also went to Pennsylvania and specialized in Roman history, and I talked to him after and confirmed my hunch was right. Towards the end he made an offhand reference to Dan Vogel being an atheist, and Tom Kimball challenged him on it. David Knowlton, the commenter, suggested that Trevor wasn’t using the word to refer to a specific religious preference, but to a naturalistic stance in writing. I once asked Dan whether he was an atheist, and to be honest I can’t remember for sure what he said, but I think he considered himself some stripe of agnostic, not an atheist (which surprised me at the time).

Next was the ZDer panel on possibilities in Mormon feminism. (I’m absolutely in love with the ZDs, including cool brother Ziff whom I met for the first time. They are the quirkiest, funniest and funnest family I’ve ever encountered.) Seraphine, Kiskilili and Lynette each gave heavy, theologically oriented presentations, and then Ziff did a powerpoint with lots of graphs analyzing GA statements about their wives from GC. Most of the questions were directed to Ziff. I told him this reminded me of an old Sunstone comic. The first panel shows a session at the Sunstone Symposium, where a tweed jacket wearing-man is giving a presentation on a unified field theory of all knowledge. There are like three people in attendance. The next panel shows a different session on The Incomes of the General Authorities, with lots of graphs, and the room is packed to the rafters.

Speaking of the ZDs, after their session they invited me to go to lunch with them. Kaimi was going to have a picnic at Pioneer Park. They wanted to go to a grocery store first to pick up some food. While we are wandering around the store one of them tells me a story of last year at Sunstone when they took a friend out to lunch but they got lost and never did find the place they were supposed to go, so their friend had to go without lunch. Well, it was deja vu all over again. They spent so much time roaming around the grocery store, by the time we got out our hour and a half lunch break was almost over, so I took back a new friend to the symposium while they blew off the next session to meet up with Kaimi. So my new friend Courtney and I wolfed down our lunches just moments before the next session started. This became a running joke between me and Lynette the rest of the conference, as I swore I would never go to lunch with her again!

But I’m glad I rushed back, as my friend Blair Hodges gave an absolutely terrific presentation on C.S. Lewis and the Mormons. This was one of my favorite sessions.

The next session was given by my uncle, Jack Worlton, on study aids for Bible lovers, with me as respondent. He did a great job (it was his first powerpoint ever), and I just had a few comments in response and then we sort of tag-teamed the questions. I thought the session turned out very well.

Next was the FMH mommy blogging session (see Kaimi’s notes for details).

The plenary session was excellent. Highlights: Jana Riess gave a terrific talk on why she isn’t too bothered by women not having the priesthood. Darius Gray talked about what it was like to be a black Saint pre-1978. Particularly touching was material from David O. McKay’s journal, which he only learned of recently, that shows that when he married a white woman the policy decision to allow the marriage, which the 1P did, was a subject of substantial discussion. Imagine your upcoming marriage making it to the agenda of a 1P discussion! D. Michael Quinn made some very reasonable suggestions for ways the Church could improve its policies WRT gays without contravening any fundamental doctrine.

Friday morning I missed the first two sessions for a Dialogue board meeting. Afterwards I went to the Why We Stay session, followed by Mormon-related clips from The Daily Show and the Colbert Show during lunch. Next was a session on Mormon books, by Tom Kimball with comments by Margaret Young and a book conservator. This was a very interactive session and a lot of fun, with people shouting out their favorites. This was followed by the LDS Purity Myth and then the bridging stereotypes through blogging sessions (on each of which, see Kaimi’s notes). That evening’s plenary was Pillars of My Faith, featuring Bill Bradshaw and Lisa Hansen.

After the plenary, there was a snacker for bloggers. My intention was to just show up for a half-hour and then leave to get some sleep. But it was so much fun I stayed until 12:30 a.m. (I had to drive to Bountiful and needed to still be awake for the experience.) This featured beautiful FMHers following Lisa in various forms of what looked like goddess dancing, including my favorite, called Feeding the Chickens (personal to Lisa: you weren’t kidding about having moves! Very impressive.) After awhile I gravitated to the ZDs at the other end of the room, joined by Kristine and the Jensens. (It was so loud in there I was having a tough time hearing, but the conversation was worth the straining of my ears and voice.)

This morning I started with Kristine’s choir sing-along session, which I always enjoy. In the same room was a nice session on on-line lesson resources (see Kaimi’s T&S post). I really enjoyed the session on Mormon publishing, and I learned a lot about the subject (see Kaimi’s notes). After lunch I attended an interesting session on LDS “gnostic” readings of Adam and Eve by Boyd Petersen.

Next was a session on heretics that was really out of the ordinary. It involved 3-2-1 communication. So Randy Charles Paul played the role of a traditionalist father, and Dan Wotherspoon played the role of his questioning son. So as an audience we began by watching this dialogue from a third-person perspective. Then he invited people to come up and play the Dan role–this was the second person perspective. And finally he invited people to come up and play the Randy role–this was the first person perspective, and if you do it right you begin to understand, if not agree, with his perspective. So we have all these people coming up to the microphone like it’s improv night. It was hilarious!

The final session was very interesting to me; it was chaired by Ann Wilde and was about efforts to provide counselling and health services to polygamists.

When the conference was over, I took my good friend Sue out to Desert Edge at Trolley Square for dinner. My son recommended it, and it was a great pick; we really enjoyed it.

Well, that is pretty much it. Tomorrow I fly home to Illinois. I enjoyed the sessions, but even more I thoroughly enjoyed hanging with friends old and new. I had a great time. Now back to reality.


  1. You blew off the opening lecture to play Settlers of Catan!?!?…

    Glad you enjoyed Sunstone.

  2. Latter-day Guy says:

    My family calls it “Settlers of Contention” –– there’s no such thing as a friendly game! :)

  3. There are very few things I wouldn’t skip for a good round of Settlers.

  4. It was good to see you round here, Kevin. I’m getting packed and ready to take off. It was a very nice conference — kudos to Mary Ellen for putting together a great lineup.

  5. (And, yes — the best part was seeing everyone, reconnecting with old friends, and making new ones.)

  6. Didn’t you give a response to a session? How did it go?

  7. Trevor Luke says:

    Thanks for the mention, Kevin. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I am sorry we did not get a chance to talk more. I enjoy your work and I hope to have the opportunity to interact with you more in the future.

    Ordinarily I would not bother correcting a minor point, but given the unexpectedly impassioned reaction from Kimball and others at my session, I feel it is important that I do so. I never called Dan Vogel an atheist in my paper. I would appreciate it if you could clarify that in your post, if possible. I referred to “atheist criticisms” and cited Vogel’s pious fraud theory as one example. We could debate the degree to which the concept of “pious fraud” is a distinctly atheist criticism (its use is admittedly not limited to atheist contexts), but to call the term pious fraud an atheist criticism is different from calling Dan Vogel an atheist.

    I have followed Dan Vogel’s writing for some time, not only in print, but also online. I hold him to be a fair and insightful person. While he may be passionate about his work and ideas, my guess is that, had he been there, he would have affirmed his own beliefs without irritation or rancor in order to avoid any possible, if unintended, implication that could be drawn from the phrase “atheist criticisms.” That his friends and colleagues rushed to his defense is a testament to the quality of person he is.

    Having said that, I will replace the adjective “atheist” with “naturalist” in future revisions of the piece, since it works better anyway.

  8. Trevor Luke says:

    P.s. Let no one question the power of Settlers of Catan to divert you from any engagement.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan, I thought the session on Bible study aids to which I respnded went great.

    Trevor, your comment now corrects the record; thanks for coming by and doing so. I mentioned the incident only because I was as surprised and taken aback by the passionate disagreement with the word atheist as you were, and I vaguely seem to recall that I once fell into a similar trap, which is why I personally asked Dan (with whom I am friendly) at MHA Casper about his personal religious views. In any event, I doubt there will be an objection if you replace that word with “naturalist,” which you intend to do.

  10. I know that Settlers of Catan is true.

  11. Sounds extraordinarily fun and successful.

  12. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you for the comprehensive update. Makes me want to go next year! To meet all the described bloggers would be wild.

  13. I would be very interested in the deal Ziff did on the way GA’s speak about their wives. I recall President Monson, “some cheese and crackers would be nice, Francis.”

  14. annegb, will you go with me next year?

  15. Most of the questions were directed to Ziff. I told him this reminded me of an old Sunstone comic. The first panel shows a session at the Sunstone Symposium, where a tweed jacket wearing-man is giving a presentation on a unified field theory of all knowledge. There are like three people in attendance. The next panel shows a different session on The Incomes of the General Authorities, with lots of graphs, and the room is packed to the rafters.

    Sunstone cartoon

    Or page 3 in the June 1990 issue of Sunstone

  16. Next time Kevin, you need to learn to feed the chickens too!

    It was lovely to see you! It sounds like you went to most of the sessions that I wanted to see but missed due to various crazy circumstances, I’m totally jealous!

  17. Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. And you should know that we really did arrive at the picnic eventually. ;)

    I enjoyed Sunstone. I liked the session on Mormon publishing (not even a topic I thought I would be all that interested in), which included some thought-provoking discussion on some of the challenges facing Mormon publishers as well as publishers in general. I thought the 3-2-1 communication thing was very entertaining, and I also appreciated what they were trying to do in terms of pushing people to think about different perspectives. The session by the Danzigs was worth it just for the music. I was intrigued to learn more about the background of the Community of Christ revelation on women’s ordination. And the hymn-singing with Kristine was fabulous.

    And of course the best part was spending time with lots of lively and interesting people, including quite a number of bloggers.

    Thinking of some of the discussion on other threads here, I’ve been to a number of Mormon conferences this year, and they’ve all been good. And I like Sunstone for what it is; I think especially in the last few years there are so many purely academic Mormon conferences that it would be unfortunate if Sunstone tried to turn itself into another one of them. It’s a mixed bag, and it usually seems to include some wacky things, but I also think it fills a unique niche. It always leaves me feeling positive about Mormonism, and the wide variety of people connected to it in some way.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for finding that cartoon for us, Justin!

  19. Dan Richards says:

    I’ll give you a bible study guide for a sheep and a grain.

  20. Kevin, thanks for posting this, particularly your kind words about our nutty ZD family. I really enjoyed meeting you. The whole experience was great, but I agree with you that the best part is meeting people. It was so much fun to meet so many bloggers who I’ve read and discussed with online and get to put faces to names and find everyone to be, if possible, even more fun in person than online.

  21. annegb (#13), I’ll see what I can do. Unfortunately, the categories I used weren’t that informative, and the results weren’t very exciting.

  22. Thanks for the great write-up, Kevin. Made me feel even worse for not being able to make it!

  23. Dan Vogel says:

    I wanted to be at your session, but I was at the Church History Library that day. I’m uncomfortable labeling myself, but when pressed I sometimes resort to the terms agnostic or non-theist to describe my position. Atheist seems too strong a term for someone like me who regards the issue of theism less interesting than the issue of supernaturalism and naturalism. In the introduction to my biography of Joseph Smith, I said that I did not deny the possibility of the supernatural; I only question the evidence that is sometimes given to support belief in it. For example, the Book of Mormon provides testable evidence in support of a supernatural world view. In my view, however, the evidence supporting the Book of Mormon is weak. I carry this same skepticism to investigating all claims of the paranormal: psychics, clairvoyants, faith healers, etc. So, I think the term naturalism better describes my position.

    However this may be, I’m still curious about your objections to the term “pious fraud.” I think it’s the most charitable term non-believers can use.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Dan, thanks for popping by and clarifying the issue of how best to characterize your belief (vel non). I know I discussed this with you once before and apologize that I just couldn’t remember the nuances of your response. Much better to get it from the horse’s mouth.

    (I personally am not bothered by the expression “pious fraud,” which many scholars have applied, for instance, to the Book of Deuteronomy. Obviously I don’t believe that, but for a nonbeliever it strikes me as a charitable point of view.)

  25. Dan Vogel says:

    It was good seeing you at the archives, though briefly. True, I didn’t invent the term pious fraud. As you may recall, I have explained that the term was not entirely satisfactory to me, and that I was using it to describe some of JS’s actions, such as making fake plates, and not as an assessment of his sincerity or how he may have viewed himself.

  26. Trevor Luke says:


    First of all, many thanks for everything you have contributed to Mormon Studies. Thanks really aren’t sufficient, but they are all I can offer right now.

    I appreciate you setting the record straight about your “belief orientation,” although it was never my intention to raise the issue. Frankly, I did not even consider it much of an issue until several people strongly objected to my use of the term “atheist” to modify the word “criticism” in connection with your use of the pious fraud concept. Had I used the term to modify your name, I could easily understand the objection, especially since it is clear you do not describe yourself as an atheist.

    In any case, I do not so much object to the term pious fraud as I am looking for better terms and a clearer understanding of the performance aspect of Joseph Smith’s activities. I don’t find it particularly offensive, although I readily see why others do. I also don’t agree that it is about as charitable as a non-believer can be. Then again, I am not that troubled by the problem of being charitable about something that I don’t regard negatively.

  27. Justmeherenow says:

    If the question is, Did the piety of Joseph Smith lead him to essentially recreated the tradition of ancient prophets of God? — how does this question relate to the question, Did the piety of ancient Hebrew prophets lead them to receive communications to mankind from Jehovah? (or even to the question, Does the Great Spirit [or however various indigenous First Nations-ers of the Americas might term the Absolute] listen to the entreaties of an expert “medicine man”? Objectively speaking, are some actions of a medicine man ‘fraudulent’?

  28. Justme,

    I could pose a number of further questions to address your questions, as your inquiries are loaded with various assumptions and positions about belief. Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to answer. I am approaching the topic from a scholarly perspective, albeit one that tries to avoid problematic judgments about the historical actors. To me, the question of fraud appears loaded. To say that a religious performer engages in fraudulent acts might be tantamount to saying that one knows that the performer knows that nothing backs up his/her performance. Often that is difficult to determine.

    In my talk I used the example of an experiment involving dowsers, who, confronted with scientific data that demonstrated their success rate was no better than chance, were flummoxed and immediately engaged in ad hoc apologetics to defend themselves. Were they caught in deceit? Or were they genuine believers who felt to defend the efficacy of their art? I think it is difficult to say. I won’t say it is impossible to say, but I don’t find it useful to begin with the position that there is deceit going on (and, to be perfectly clear, here I am not commenting on Vogel’s methodology).

  29. Maybe one just can’t yell “pious fraud” in a crowded Mormon setting?

  30. Trevor,
    Ironically, while believers may frown at the term fraud, some hard-core ex-Mormons have criticized me for using the term pious. Larry Foster uses the term sincere charlatan. Regardless, what I’m trying to define is JS’s willingness to use deception. That is deliberate and conscious deception, as in the making of fake plates. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that in other areas such as receiving revelations that JS could have been the victim of self deception, or even a “true” prophet. I do not attempt to answer that question. Your mention of dowsers is an example of delusion or self deception. Some of them may be conscious deceivers, while others remain sincere despite negative evidence. Distinguishing between the two possibilities, as you mentioned, would be difficult. However, JS is in a different category when he produced plates—they were either real or fake. Because I believe the Book of Mormon is not based on real history and that the Nephites never existed, I conclude JS used fake plates. This would have been an act of conscious deception. Why did he do it? This is where I begin.

  31. Dan,
    I am not surprised in the least that some have objected to the “pious” part of the concept. It is the polemical nature of the development of the discussion that I choose to avoid because I find it limiting. Whether a person believes in LDS claims or not is not of interest to me.

    What does interest me is the notion that there are certain people who are very effective at making hidden worlds come alive for others and in so doing create new communities or reinvigorate existing ones. What the dowsers do only represents one small facet of the question. What the treasure seer does in weaving the backstory behind a treasure is something else. What we learn from this material will be determined in part by the way we frame the questions. I find the notion that people like Joseph Smith perform a new/hidden world for others opens a much more open-ended discussion than the particular question of what motivated Joseph Smith to deceive others by creating fake plates. I don’t doubt that we learn interesting things from the latter kind of investigation, but the former aims at broader issues concerning religious community, myth-making, and charismatic leadership.

    In short, I don’t think I am taking issue with what you have done as a way of invalidating your position. I am using it as a point of reference as I seek to redefine the nature of the inquiry to achieve different insights and results. It is a tribute to your effectiveness as a scholar and writer that people like me who are interested in these issues will be unable to discuss them without reference to what you have already accomplished and will continue to add to the conversation.

  32. Trevor,
    I agree that the dynamic between JS and his followers is an interesting topic for exploration. Indeed, JS would be far less interesting if he were unsuccessful in gathering followers. As charisma is very much in the eye of the beholder, I would hope your efforts to understand this dynamic focuses as much on the follower as the leader.

  33. Trevor Luke says:

    It would not be complete without careful attention to the followers. When I am able to get my work put into publishable form, I hope you will be willing to offer a critique of it. Thanks for sharing some clarifications and further thoughts with me here, but I think you will probably agree that this is not an ideal forum for extended exchanges about complex issues. Best wishes!

  34. Trevor,
    If you are interested in my opinion, I’m willing to give it. Take care!

  35. Just lurking about a dead thread. Three weeks late I have this to offer.

    What is more fantastic, incredible, or stupendous? That Joseph translated an actual ancient record given to him by an angel through means of seer stones placed in a hat, or that he had the means, in documented poverty, to produce a pile of fake plates?

    Fake plates?

    I would buy that 11 men were coerced at gunpoint and threatened with inexplicably horrific consequences to maintain their lies until death removed them from their mortal imprisonment sooner than the offhand notion that JS created seemingly genuine looking plates of curious workmanship to fool a chosen few. What did he melt down?

    Were his annual visits to Cumorah actually a cover for his covert visits to an abandoned black smith shop in the hills behind his family farm? Thank goodness for all that left over, brass, bronze or otherwise goldish looking alloys. Thank goodness nobody knew that place existed, otherwise word would have spread regarding JS’s growing talent in smithery. How appropriate to have the last name Smith. Talk about a missed calling…

    Just my opinion of course.

    It is fool’s errand to seek proof of validity, or the removal of doubt, from a God determined to preserve man’s right to self direction. We don’t even have the promise that a prophet is absolutely directed by God in all he does. In fact there is documented evidence to the contrary.

    Man, including JS, BY, JT, WW, LZ, GBH, or TSM, etc. will not ever be told exactly what to do. This concept is contrary to the priniciple of Free Agency. The church, its theology, policies and procedures, and doctrines did not show up as a ready-reference, 6 volume desk set out of the sky. God didn’t even tell JS how the record of Mormon was to be translated.

    Flaws, guffaws, misquotes, assumptions, and claims of absoluteness are by-products of God’s hands-off management style with his Kingdom on Earth. People are by default ill-equiped to govern, preside over, or perfect anything. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” We can only hope.

    Every thing JS received by way of vision, celestial communication, or tangible chunk of semi-precious metal had to preserve its questionableness even to JS himself, who according to his own words, and those of his family, suffered with fear that even he had been deceived. “Are there wall around Jerusalem?”

    Faith is required in every step forward by every child of God, or punishment as well as glory would have to be fixed marks with static prerequisites as damning as they are saving in nature. Perhaps the greatest charity bestowed on man by our creator is the room to completely muck things up.

    Where is the greater offense to reason, faith, and God Himself, the personal and public mistakes of his messengers or the denial of the message because of his blemished representatives? My vote is on the latter. But I dare not suppose God be limited to my perspective.

    Thanks for your time.

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