Both of my parents (now divorced) have been deeply involved in Mormon studies for my entire life. Thus, I grew up in a Mormon studies family. My father is a senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art and was hired by the Church Historical Department a few months before I was born. My mother was one of the early editors of Sunstone Magazine and worked as an editor and then board member of Signature Books while I was growing up. The result is that I think of most of the big names in Mormon studies – Richard Bushman, Michael Quinn, Ron Walker, etc. – as people that my parents know. My earliest memories of Mormon publications are of looking through old issues of Sunstone. It made for an interesting childhood.
I have been wondering if there is anything of interest in this experience beyond my own autobiographical navel gazing. Probably not, but here are some thoughts. Growing up, I had parallel awarenesses of Mormonism. On one hand, I went to Sunday school in a fairly typical suburban Utah ward and then attended seminary at a high school in Salt Lake City. On the other hand, I was always aware of the goings on at Sunstone symposiums, Signature Books, and the Church Historical Department. This is probably not all that a-typical, on the other hand many members who find themselves intellectually disillusioned with the Church frequently relate what I think of as “discovery narratives.” In these stories they breathlessly recount how they first came to realize that all was not as they had been told in Sunday School or Seminary and explain how they came to fearlessly confront the difficulties and complexities of their religion. I never really had this experience and have always had a hard time sympathizing. (Although the lack of sympathy is probably mainly attributable to the fact that I am generally an unsympathetic jerk. Hence the law degree.) Sunday School and Mormon Studies (if I may use those two images as place holders for differing approaches to my religion) have been so intertwined in my thinking about the Mormonism that the task of disentangling them so as to put them in stark conflict hasn’t held much appeal for me. I take this as evidence that early exposure of Mormon “difficulties” can have an inoculating effect.
If I haven’t been able to valorize Mormon intellectuals as fearless truth tellers, I have also had a hard time demonizing them. My mother is a fine and gentle Mormon apostate. As near as I can tell, she long ago lost the faith of her childhood, but the marks of Mormonism are still heavy upon her. Any bitterness she may have once harbored about the Church long ago disappeared, and now she is merely interested. Much of post-Mormon intellectualdom seems to be engaged in a perpetual apologetic for their apostasy. I can understand why they do it, but I find it a bit boring. However, I think that there are a lot of ex-Mormons who fall into my mother’s category. They are informed (if I can use such a loaded word on this blog…), often interesting, and ultimately harmless.
A lot of so called “cultural Mormons” talk about how they are genetic Latter-day Saints, perpetually captured by the force of a heritage whose religious premises they reject. I suppose that in a similar way I have Mormon studies in my blood. I have repeatedly tried to escape from it, but I find that I keep getting pulled back in, even though the professional returns to Mormon scholarship are meager to non-existent and I really ought to be reading law review articles rather than Orson Pratt. I can’t seem to help myself. Which is, of course, why I am here…