Making Worlds, Part 1: Intellectual Kinship and the Birth of a Blog

Before we go making new ones, we should take care of the one we've got!Recently I made some noise on Facebook about wanting to join a Mormon blog. When the hoped-for bidding war failed to ensue, some friends suggested I start a new “outside looking in” blog, offering a Gentile perspective on Mormon issues. Even setting aside the suggestion’s unfortunate voyeuristic connotations, I immediately knew it wasn’t for me. Mormons, you see, have never made me feel like anything but part of the family. Well, occasionally the weird in-law who makes everyone slightly uncomfortable at Thanksgiving dinner. But family just the same.

For several months in high school, I pried myself out of bed before the crack of dawn every morning to attend early morning seminary with my “it’s-complicated”, the bishop’s daughter. My seminary teacher, who knew I was a Protestant, invited me one day to give a devotional. I don’t ordinarily get nervous about public speaking, but my palms sweated and my voice quavered as I recited a short lesson about service from the NIV. Yes, I know: the NIV. I also quoted too many verses, so the Mormon kids had to rifle their onionskin pages at a furious pace to keep up. When I finished, Sister Clegg just beamed at me in her grandmotherly fashion and said, “Thank you, Chris. That was lovely.” I smiled weakly, and my heart felt warm.

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I never finished seminary (though they gave me a certificate anyway), so I did what any seminary drop-out would do: enrolled years later in a Mormon Studies program for my PhD. A review of my finances, though, soon revealed that I couldn’t afford to attend Claremont Graduate University even with my half-tuition fellowship and the maximum federal loan amount.  There was always the military, I supposed—at least until a little Googling revealed that a history degree isn’t much use on the ASVAB. Then, out of the blue, the Howard Hunter Foundation covered the rest of my tuition. “You do realize I’m not a Mormon, right?” I asked Richard Bushman when he phoned to tell me about the funding. He chuckled in his low, rumbling, Bushmaney way. “We like it when Gentiles study us,” he said with a smile in his voice. “We already know we’re important, but it feels good to know someone else knows it, too.”

Judging by his spiritual gift for bridge-building, Dr. Bushman should have been an engineer. In his courses at CGU, he encouraged both Mormons and non-Mormons to speak from their own perspectives and in their own voices. But he also gently shepherded us toward a quest for a common language—for questions that could be meaningful to all of us without being divisive. Because we all liked and respected each other, speaking in our own voices was a celebration of difference rather than a polemical exercise.

The ultimate test of this approach came last year, when I and my ex-Mormon friend Mike Reed were accepted (in more ways than one) to Bushman and Givens’s BYU summer seminar. The seminar was held in the Maxwell Institute, a longstanding bastion of strident apologetics. Mike—who by the way is quite proud of his new BYU photo ID with earrings and a goatee—had only applied as a joke. I still remember his incredulous tone when he told me the news. Our presence, unquestionably, stretched a few people. One participant asked us outright what two non-believers were even doing there. But the brilliant thing? When we explained it, this person got it. And over the course of the six weeks, Mike and I got a few things, too. I left, in the end, with a deepened respect for Mormons, a wonderful new group of friends, and some of the best memories of my life.

So—an outsider blog? After how I’ve been welcomed in? It would be ungrateful. The suggestion, though, got me thinking. Could I start an online community in the spirit of CGU? Could the open and friendly atmosphere of the seminar be replicated online? I decided to give it a try. With the help of Bridget Jack Jeffries, I typed up an invitation and a list of potential contributors for what we tentatively titled a Mormon Studies Roundtable. I trembled less as I sent the invitation than when I gave that devotional all those years ago, but the response was no less heartwarming. Nearly everyone we invited agreed to participate. Faithful Mormons were undaunted by the invitation’s all-Gentile authorship. “Intellectual kinship,” to borrow Bushman’s phrase, had triumphed over the stigma of labels. A blog was born.

Comments

Making Worlds, Part 1: Intellectual Kinship and the Birth of a Blog — 36 Comments

  1. Thanks for the background Chris. Hadn’t heard your story before, and it’s always interesting to see how people get interested in this little corner of religious studies.

    I’m excited to see where this new blog goes and will definitely be subscribing and following the progress.

    One request, if I may – an option to subscribe to comments on individual threads. Maybe I’m just being blind here, but I don’t see one.

    Best of luck.

  2. Congratulations on the new blog and pulling together what looks like a good and diverse group (both academically and religiously). I look forward to reading.

  3. As a convert, I often feel like the “outsider looking in” as well, so I’m grateful for your efforts to put this blog together. I’ll be following it with interest.

  4. Christopher, Jack, this sounds like a splendid project. Like Seth, I’ll be subscribing and quite eager to see what the two of you and the invited contributors have in store. Christopher, thank you especially for sharing your story.

  5. I’m very excited about this blog. All of the contributors here that I’m aware of are names whose work (and, generally, personalities) I tend to follow with great respect.

  6. Fantastic post Chris and kudos to you and Bridget for starting this blog. I look forward to reading it.

  7. I didn’t realize Mike Reed’s application to the Bushman seminar was a joke. How funny! I guess the real joke was on Mike — who then had to follow through on his offer.

  8. Great post, Chris.

    To those who may be wondering about the joke…

    I applied to the Gold Plates Seminar, feeling certain they’d not accept me. By “they” I am not speaking in regards to Dr. Bushman or Givens (both of whom I have great respect for), but rather FARMS who was sponsoring the event.

    I was preparing a paper for Sunstone at the time, and I needed an excuse to end my presentation abruptly. I thought about announcing that I had found some provocative information related to the Gold plates, and end my presentation with a “stay tuned…” sort of thing. When I learned of the seminar, however, I thought it would be funny instead to receive a “mail delivery” just before giving the details of my announcement. I’d read the rejection letter, be too emotional to carry on, and sit down.

    But as luck would have it… I guess the joke was on me. I was accepted and had to rethink they way I would end my Sunstone presentation. I am so happy that I was accepted. I feel much the same as Chris expressed above. “I left [the seminar], in the end, with a deepened respect for Mormons, a wonderful new group of friends, and some of the best memories of my life.”

  9. Lovely first post! I’m getting more excited about this blog the more I see its quality and the intention behind it. This has given me an idea for a contribution.

  10. What a great intro to the blog, Chris.

    And what a fabulous list of contributors you’ve assembled! Already looking forward to the next post.

  11. I love your story, Chris! And will assist in advertise this new blog. I have a fondness for a good number of the contributors you’ve collected.

  12. I have wonderful memories of sitting next to the Bushmans a couple of times on Sundays when they would visit the Harlem Branch. They are both absolutely wonderful people.

  13. As one of the two non-believers at the seminar this year, I echo what you’ve said and can’t wait to see where this blog goes.

  14. We’ll have to sit down and swap seminar stories sometime, Saskia. I’m excited to see what you picked for your paper topic, too. I was really hoping someone would do the contemporary pop culture stuff. The gold plates seem to breed Mormon kitsch with rabbit-like fertility. I’ll definitely be in the audience for your presentation.

    Kullervo, as you can probably tell from my post, Richard Bushman is one of my favorite people in the world, and has had a major influence on me. I wish I knew Claudia better; I’ve heard nothing but good things!

  15. Margaret, you should see a box in the right-hand column where you can type your email address to subscribe by email. Alternatively, you can use the “Entries RSS” to subscribe by Google Reader or another RSS Reader. You’re right, though, that we need to add some more intuitive subscription options.

  16. We offer an e-mail subscription box in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, in addition to the usual “Add RSS” feeds under “Meta.” Good to see you here, Margaret. 🙂

  17. Thanks Chris, you’ve set the bar high for this blog, and I’m sure it could do just fine as a ‘Chris Smith’s reflections’ blog. 🙂 Such a great and inspiring story, I’m so glad you came to my session at MHA in Calgary, which gave us a chance to meet and talk. And you know… I know of a few guys with the name Chris Smith… the AP of my mission when I arrived in Jacksonville was Chris Smith (from Raymond Canada no less), and an all-American BYU tight-end who played in the early 1990s. Ha! I have lot more sports trivia that I can’t wait to share. 🙂

  18. This site looks very promising. I plan to check in often. Thanks much!

  19. I had often wondered what interest someone who is not a Latter-day Saint would have in studying the Latter-day Saint Movement. For me, it isn’t as exciting as studying Islam, for example, with its rich history and complex language and social structure. But the Latter-day Saint Movement has it’s intrigue, too, I suppose. It’s great to see you write about how the Latter-day Saints made you feel welcome; indeed you even appreciate the Maxwell Institute, with its recent negative press and bad reputation–in some circles–for abusive apologetics. Perhaps we Mormons aren’t as evil as critics sometimes make us out to be, or as angelic as the correlated curriculum would have many believe. We are what we are, and I think we are all living our faith in the best manner in which we see fit.

  20. I can think of many reasons, Wedge, why someone who is not a Mormon would want to study its history and culture. One is that it is still an under acknowledged part of the history of the American West. Another is that in a short time period, its main branch has institutionally reorganized itself several times over. This rapid (re)development is fascinating from many angles of study. It is also interesting in terms of its doctrinal syntheses, especially at its founding; its “patchwork,” home-grown quality makes it of interest to anyone investigating Americana.

    One thing that interests me especially, though I am not someone totally on the outside of Mormonism, is its history of handling dissent. You mentioned the recent Maxwell Institute fracas. I think there is something rather “traditional” about the abusiveness of certain layers of contemporary Mormon apologetics. What is interesting about this recent episode, is the role played by new media: the notoriety of this apologetic discourse has now reached well beyond “some circles.” It will be interesting to see what happens to this apologetic tendency now, especially as it runs headlong into the rise of a very differently situated, diverse and vigorous Mormon Studies.