Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought turns 50 this year. So do I, and the similarities don’t end there. Both of us were both polite and orthodox in our youth and reasonably well behaved in our adolescence, but we both started to push up against institutional boundaries in our early adulthood. We tried hard to walk the line between scholarly inquiry and faithful discourse, but it was a tough line to walk, and sometimes we ended up too much on one side or the other. A lot of our friends left the Church, but we both knew we never could. Mormonism was too much a part of our core identity for us to ever give it up.
Now, at 50, we have both gotten a lot better at being faithful Latter-day Saints on our own terms. We have figured out how to embrace and even celebrate the contradictions of being academic and Mormon at the same time. We both relish the kind of faith that has gone through the crises and the difficult questions and emerged fundamentally changed, but still fundamentally Mormon.
In celebration of our mutual jubilee, I would like to share a few memories that I have of our five decades together. Let’s start at the beginning.
1966: We Are Born
Both Dialogue and I arrived in my parents’ apartment in 1966. We lived in Provo, in the Truman Apartments at 200 N 400 E. My parents had been married about a year and a half. Mom was completing her degree at BYU. She was not allowed to student teach, because she was pregnant (they did that back then), so she majored in English without the teaching credential. Dad was working full time as a staff librarian in the BYU Library while going to graduate school in political science. My parents were among the first subscriber to Dialogue.
I don’t remember any of this, of course. But I do remember having the first few issues of Dialogue on our shelves years later, when I was old enough to notice. They were in the “Mormon Section” of our bookshelf, next to Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine and Sterling W. Sill’s Leadership volumes and his Majesty of Books. I don’t remember ever reading these old issues of Dialogue. But I remember my father pointing to them with pride. To him, they were evidence of the fact that we were a certain type of Mormons—the type that doesn’t shy away from the hard questions, but also the kind that doesn’t shy away from the hard work. We always showed up, but we never quite fit in. But in a good way, since, when you get right down to it, nobody really fits in with anybody else until we all pitch in and build Zion where we are. Or so my type of Mormon has always believed.
1984: Disorder and Early Faith Crisis
I started my own college career at BYU in 1984. It was a hard year for me. I had grown up in Oklahoma, and I had never before known more than three or four Latter-day Saints my own age. I had always experienced Mormonism from the perspective of a tiny minority subculture. And honestly I liked it that way. It made me feel important (or at least interesting), and, whenever Churches in town showed The Godmakers or taught other anti-Mormon lessons, and people at school tried to “save” me, I got the considerable pleasure of feeling both persecuted and superior. I liked being different, and I liked the way that we all stuck together,
And then all of a sudden I was part of an overbearing majority. I had never experienced Mormon boundary policing before, and I found that some of the beliefs that seemed normal at home, where they were part of our family’s regular conversation, were considered out of bounds by my new peer group. All of a sudden I wasn’t just an eccentric; I was a heretic. The Mondale-Ferraro sticker I put on my door ended up in a urinal, and I got several anonymous notes in my mailbox anytime I suggested that maybe Noah didn’t manage to get all 30 million species on his boat. Mormons, I was beginning to figure out, can be really weird.
I read two things that year that mattered in my spiritual quest. They are the only things I remember reading during the whole year. I don’t remember how I found out about these essays, but I still have the copies that I bought in 1984. The first thing was Eugene England’s essay, “The Mormon Cross” in Dialogues with Myself –which expressed the pain that the priesthood ban caused him and compared it to the pain that Abraham felt when he was asked to sacrifice his son. This was a big issue to me, just six years after the ban was reversed, and England’s treatment of it showed me a way of dealing with difficult spiritual questions that has been a part of me ever sense.
The second thing was Richard Poll’s classic essay, “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” which I found in a Sunstone magazine and which gave me a vocabulary (“Iron Rod” and “Liahona” Latter-day Saints) that helped describe my own position in the Mormon community.
I did not realize it at the time, but I have since discovered that both of these essays were originally published in Dialogue.
1995: I Become an Author
I left Provo in 1992 and headed to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I started a Ph.D. program in English. The last thing on my mind when I left BYU was Mormon literature. In the first place, I didn’t think it existed, and even if it did, I was not interested in it. At the time, I owned exactly one book that could have met the definition: Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, which, I had been told, was important. I had not read The Backside; I had simply purchased it. What I had read (because it was on the book rack in the BYU Reading Center where I had worked for three years) was Peterson’s first collection of stories, The Canyons of Grace. Two of the stories—”The Confessions of St. Augustine” and “The Road to Damascus”—nagged at me for years with their implications for how Mormons could write literature. “The Road to Damascus,” of course, was first published in Dialogue.
At UCSB, I went through another crisis—not a crisis of faith this time, but a crisis of intellect. I had decided that I was going to be a Mormon, but I didn’t know if I was capable of being an academic. More specifically, I didn’t feel that, as a Latter-day Saint, I could ever say anything to the world of academia unless I used my own culture as a starting point for saying it. This was during the heyday of the study of literature as a cultural identity. I felt that “Mormon” was the only identity I had to offer on this altar. But this was kind of weird, since contemporary American religions weren’t exactly popular with the identity folks.
In 1994, I wrote down my thoughts about trying to bridge the divide between my Mormon and my academic identities through the study of Mormon literature (I even read The Backslider and a few others). I wrote with all of the confidence of a hopelessly naïve graduate student, certain that the academy would have to take me seriously if only I used enough footnotes. I called my article, “How to Be a Mormo-American,” and I sent it off to Dialogue, since it was the only journal I had ever heard of that would publish such a thing. They didn’t let me keep the title, but they did publish the essay. And, in the Winter of 1995, the much-more-respectably titled essay “The Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time” became my first academic publication.
To my amazement, the essay won an award from the Association for Mormon Letters. A few months later, the editors of a special Dialogue issue asked me to contribute something, and my second academic publication came out in the Spring 1997 issue. These two publications were absolutely formative for me; they gave me confidence that I could reconcile my Mormon self with my scholarly self–and they also gave me the confidence to start submitting other kinds of stuff to other academic journals. Dialogue, which had once helped me stay Mormon, played a key role in making me a scholar. And it also made me a husband: when I sent a copy of my first article to someone I had dated at BYU, we ended up rekindling our relationship and getting married. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary. And it all started with Dialogue.
2004: Recalled to Life
As fascinating as I found my Mormon culture once I embraced it fully, I still had to make a living. And the critical study of Mormon literature has never been a good way to pay bills. After graduating from UCSB, I was hired to teach 18th century British Literature at a small state school in West Virginia, but I also taught World Literature to non-majors and many (many, many) sections of Freshman Composition. And I had to publish stuff. And it couldn’t be about Mormons, who didn’t even exist during the century that I was supposed to be an expert on, so I put all of my Mormon books in a couple of boxes and got busy writing the sorts of things that get one tenure. I focused most of my efforts on the three British writers who had been the subject of my dissertation: John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Richardson. Most of what I wrote found its way into academic journals, and I placed two books on related topics with university presses. Also, I wrote a composition textbook based on the readings in my world literature courses. I pretty much saw the academic study of Mormonism to be the thing in my life that didn’t work out. Ah well.
This all changed in 2004, when I got a phone call from Levi Peterson, whom I had never met, but whose writing had been instrumental in my own conversion to Mormon literature. Levi told me that he had just become the editor of Dialogue, and he needed a book review editor. Would I take the job?
Well, of course I would take the job. Levi Peterson was one of my heroes: the author of what I considered to be the greatest Mormon novel in the history of ever (now I would rank it tied for first with Steve Peck’s Scholar of Moab). Even though I was far too busy with my secular career, I could not say no to Levi Peterson. So for the next three years I was Dialogue’s book review editor, and, for two of those years, I served on its board of directors.
2012: All-in for Dialogue
I resigned from my first appointment to Dialogue’s board halfway through my term. I regretted doing this, but I felt that I had to after I accepted a position as a Provost at a small college in Kansas. I was moving across the country, starting a new job that took me completely outside of my comfort zone. Making time for three meetings a year—all of which required air travel and hotel arrangements—just seemed impossible. Once again, I had a career to worry about that did not include Mormon Studies.
But Dialogue gave me a second chance in 2012 when they asked me to come onto the board for a second term. I was happy to do it. And at the second board meeting I attended, I had one of those profound, angel-in-the-garden moments of revelation: the Mormon Studies community was the only academic or religious community that I truly felt a part of. It performed a key work of reconcilliation in my otherwise fractured life. I needed at a very deep level to be a part of that community and to contribute to it. Within a week of that revelation, I started to write things to publish in Dialogue.
Over the next few years, I submitted three very different essays to Kristine Haglund: a sermon on the divine nature of America’s founding that I originally delivered at a Unitarian Church, a long-contemplated essay on Vardis Fisher’s twelve-book Testament of Man saga, and a quirky little thought experiment comparing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to the Book of Job. I can’t imagine another journal in all of academia or Mormondom that would have accepted all three of these pieces, but Dialogue did, and the quirky Keats-Job thing became the basis of my first book for a Mormon audience. Dialogue made the difference.
So we are both now 50, and I don’t even want to imagine what my life would have been like without Dialogue. I can’t quite say that I would not have stayed in the Church without Dialogue, nor can I quite say that I would not have become an academic. But I could not have managed to do both at the same time without the intellectual and spiritual support of Dialogue and the remarkable community of saints that it created. Every time that my intellectual identity and my Mormon identity have come into conflict, Dialogue has been there to reassure me that I’m smart enough, I’m Mormon enough, and doggone it, there are people like me.
If you are interested in celebrating with Dialogue on September 30th, you can visit the web site to order tickets to the anniversary gala, or make plans to attend the 50th Anniversary Spirit of Dialogue Symposium at Utah Valley University, or participate in the online auction of art, books, and memorabilia celebrating 50 years of Dialogue.