Friends in Strange Places

August 10, 2007 | 20 comments
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It is surely one of the more unexpected voices to go to bat for Joseph Smith: Harold Bloom in his 1992 book The American Religion, which gave serious (if unconventional) consideration to Joseph Smith’s role as a religious figure and which famously described him as a “religious genius.” As sort of a post-script, in the March 2007 issue of Sunstone there was a two-page essay by Bloom entitled “Perspectivism and Joseph Smith.” I can’t say I follow every remark in the essay, but I do appreciate his continued interest in Joseph Smith. Here are a few points Bloom makes in the essay.

The more I brood on Joseph Smith, I become uncertain whether Mormon or “Gentile” perspectives can encompass him. Something is always missing, as he himself prophesied. We don’t know him. I’d like to think we know him better after Rough Stone Rolling, but I’m not sure that’s what Bloom is getting at. In any case, Bloom certainly thinks there is a lot more to the task of getting to know Joseph than most commentators allow.

As an outsider, I wonder if the Mormons are not in danger of becoming just another American mainline Protestant denomination. Somehow I think Bloom may be truly unique in this concern. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, but if he’s right we’ll all be surprised, won’t we?

Perhaps this essay should be retitled: “The disenchantment of Joseph Smith.” All enchantment–erotic, spritual, literary–depends upon partial or incomplete knowledge. I believe Joseph when he says we don’t know him; to me, it is the most important statement of his life. You can’t routinize Smith: the Mountain of Names, when it was shown to me, transcended any reaction I could summon. Interesting response. Myself, I call it the Server Under the Mountain, and I usually think of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God when it crosses my mind. Perhaps it was the link to temple work that made such an impression on Bloom.

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20 Responses to Friends in Strange Places

  1. Adam Greenwood on August 10, 2007 at 6:37 am

    As an outsider, I wonder if the Mormons are not in danger of becoming just another American mainline Protestant denomination.

    The danger is there. I think God will keep it from fully happening, but the danger is certainly there in my opinion.

  2. Sarah on August 10, 2007 at 7:17 am

    1. I had no idea what you were talking about till I tried a few different Google searches and finally found a quote (from Bloom) in which he actually explains his “Mountain of Names.” I always thought of that place as “the very best place ever to serve a mission, because it’s cool and dark and you mostly get to sit there and probably read, or at least that’s what it looks like to me.”

    2. I would be just as surprised to see us become a generic Protestant denomination as I would be to see the Society of Friends, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Unitarian Universalists become such. And I can’t see a system in which all four of us manage to become “mainline Protestant,” because the definition of such a label would have to become so broad as to include Eastern Orthodox and Zoroastrians before all the rest of us could fit in. For what it’s worth, I think if any of those four religions is considered “mainline Protestant” in the future, it’ll be the UUs, and it’ll be because several of the largest existing traditional Protestant churches are already heading straight towards “our creed is that we have no creed” land. Though even that seems incredibly unlikely — the UUs united with one another (and changed doctrinal direction) because they were worried about dwindling numbers and increasing debt, but they have no interest now (as an organization) in being on anything other than the vanguard of progressive/humanist thought.

    3. It seems to me that Bloom is enchanted by the mystery. If Joseph Smith were a guy he could go and spend thirty hours with, filming and documenting and asking impertinent questions of, I think he’d be a lot less interested afterwards. Or a Mormon, depending. In any case, I think I know the identity at least one of his selections in the classic “if you could have a dinner party with any X number of people from history, who would you invite” scenario.

    Note that I have not had the chance to read the full article yet. I’m about to drive off to Utah for the first time, really, and I’m completely goofing off downstairs instead of doing last minute packing, and I think I’m about to get yelled at by a younger sibling.

  3. Matt W. on August 10, 2007 at 10:40 am

    I’ve never really understood the LDS intellectual community’s facination with Bloom. Perhaps I am not in the right crowds.

  4. Deep Sea on August 10, 2007 at 10:55 am

    “I’ve never really understood the LDS intellectual community’s facination with Bloom. Perhaps I am not in the right crowds.”

    The most famous living literary critic in the English-speaking world writes at length–in a serious, sustained, appreciative way, no less–on historical and contemporary Mormonism and you find it not worthy of our attention?

  5. Matt W. on August 10, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Deep, that’s not what I said. I said I don’t understand our fascination with Bloom. Is he really the most famous living lit crit? Beats me. (This would be my not hanging the right crowds part.) Sometimes I feel like anyone who says something nice about Mormonism gets thrown up on the Mormon predestal. (see Stark.)

  6. Kyle R on August 10, 2007 at 11:28 am

    #5 I’m a non-LDS person with an interest in Joseph Smith as an sort of visionary artist and the distinction between his original project and modern Mormonism (with the engaging exception of its developmentally thoughtful as opposed to autistically apologetic strand) has always been blindingly obvious.

  7. Brad Kramer on August 10, 2007 at 11:33 am

    “The danger is there. I think God will keep it from fully happening, but the danger is certainly there in my opinion.”

    I agree that the danger exists, but I think that when and if it does happen, the international Church will be ready to pick up the mantle cast aside by its Gentile Mother Church.

  8. Thomas Parkin on August 10, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I like Harold Bloom, mostly for his polemics around identity politics in studies of literature, etc. He’s kind of a blow hard, though. This is one of the most humble things I’ve ever seen written by him.

    I personally think the drift in rhetoric towards ‘mainline Protestant’ rhetoric is on a pendulum which will soon have swung about as far as it can go. I base this at least on some of the discussion I’ve seen on the bloggernalce recently. We have assumed that ‘mainline’ protestants are natural allies and friends because we share some family values talk, and come down, in a very broad sense, on the same side in ‘the culture wars.’ But I’m reminded anew of the chasm that exists between our conception of God and the universe and theirs. I hope that the Romney run and the evangelical responce to it will prove a tipping point and allow us to collectively finally release some of the tension that has built up over the absurd ‘are we Christian?’ question. I see some eveidence in GC of new emphasis on our particular teachings about the nature of God – and none too late on that.

    ~

  9. Seth R. on August 10, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    “As an outsider, I wonder if the Mormons are not in danger of becoming just another American mainline Protestant denomination. Somehow I think Bloom may be truly unique in this concern.”

    I’ve been thinking this for years now. I frequently find myself exasperated with what I see as a knee-jerk kiss-up impulse in American Mormons. We just seem so desperate to be a part of the American “in-crowd” which essentially means, white wealthy Republican Protestants.

    Phooey says I.

  10. Bald Samson on August 10, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Er, Mormons aren’t white wealthy Republican (evangelical) protestants?

  11. Adam Greenwood on August 10, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    We just seem so desperate to be a part of the American “in-crowd” which essentially means, white wealthy Republican Protestants

    They aren’t the in-crowd, Seth R. We Mormons are always a couple of decades behind.

  12. Jacob on August 10, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Just finished reading Bloom’s article. Couple of passing thoughts. First, didn’t Bloom have a book come out a while ago saying that there is no such thing as a Judean-Christian heritage, and that the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament are incompatible, or, at least, complety different beings? That would explain some of his ideas about how we’re not Christian. At the same time, I do have to admit that I have always had a slight problem with us emphasizing that we are Christian. Yes, we believe in Christ, but at the same time, Joseph was told that “all [the Christian] creeds were an abomination in [the Lord's] sight.” So while we crave acceptance by the rest of the world, we also claim that the rest of the world is wrong. Just a thought. I do want to say that there are plenty of links between Pres. Hinkley and Joseph Smith, contrary to Mr. Bloom.

  13. Ray on August 10, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    In my own experiences in Church, I am convinced many members understand many of the basic areas where our theology differs from the rest of the Christian world, but I also am convinced relatively few members (especially those BIC) understand just how deep those differences are. In particular, I believe relatively few understand, with much depth, what JSH 1:19 really says and why it was said.

    Also, I do NOT want our church to become just another Protestant denomination, but I DO want us to insist – passionately and vocally – that we are Christians. I like Bushman’s distinction – that we certainly aren’t traditional, orthodox Christians, but we most certainly are non-traditional, unorthodox Christians.

  14. Cort McMurray on August 10, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Joel Osteen is probably the poster boy for contemporary evangelicalism. His mega church is a former basketball arena, artfully redecorated. His services, which are attended by tens of thousands each weekend, are a mixture of upbeat music (with a “I know I’m special, ’cause God don’t make no junk” sensibility), peppy sermonizing (heavy on self-empowerment, light on personal accountability) and the lightest sprinkling of Scripture.

    Set aside doctrine. Set aside the FARMS folk and the Sunstone contingent, who at least feel passion about our theology. Consider the millions in the middle, who are not, despite President Packer’s fondest hopes, not self-taught scriptorians, who claim no ties to Mormon heritage or feel no connection to Mormon culture, but who feel a real connection to the Church. Pop culture, easy traditions brought from other faiths, a sort of limp and sappy, general good feeling about Jesus: these are creeping into our faith. For many Mormons, the only thing that differentiates them from their Protestant friends is the Word of Wisdom, and that’s really sad.

    We are developing a sort of amnesia, mainly because we don’t know what we believe. I swear this is a true story. I was in an Elders Quorum class, in Houston, and a brother said, “Well, it’s like the Savior taught in Matthew: ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’” The sad thing is, no one bothered to correct him.

    Bloom is right. We have to be careful.

  15. Jacob on August 10, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Cort, ’tis true that there are many who aren’t “self-taught scriptorians”, but I think that they are more than counterbalanced by the active folk who are passionate about the church. I can’t think of many members who don’t know that we believe that God was once a man like us, and are tremendously passionate about that aspect of our theology. While we do need to be careful to keep from becoming too Protestant-like, I think you are vastly overstating your case.

    And the poor guy in EQ simply messed up the quote. You could love your enemies by keeping them close! (smiley) But it might not be wise to correct a guy in front of all of his peers, either. There are all sorts of stuff that I say that should get me into trouble, but gratefully most members treat me charitably and ignore it.

  16. Seth R. on August 10, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    “But it might not be wise to correct a guy in front of all of his peers, either.”

    This happens all the time in Elders Quorum. We correct each other constantly. If people in my quorum think I’m full of crap, they usually tell me – and that’s even when I was teaching the lesson!

  17. Matt Evans on August 10, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    I read Bloom’s fear that Mormons may become “just another American mainline Protestant denomination” in light of his comments in The American Religion to the effect had the Mormons maintained their 19th-century liberal tradition (my paraphrase), he would be tempted to join them, but the mainstreaming has turned him off.

  18. Bill MacKinnon on August 11, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Interesting that Helen Whitney chose to use Harold Bloom as one of her most cogent non-LDS “voices” in last April’s “The Mormons.”

  19. Dave on August 12, 2007 at 1:30 am

    Bill, thanks, I’d forgotten that Bloom made an appearance in “The Mormons.” I wish she had managed to fit in a couple more of his comments, but then he’s not really a “sound bite” interviewee, I’d imagine.

  20. Adam Greenwood on August 13, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Bloom is irritated that his prophecy that Mormonism would swallow the American West hasn’t come to pass and he blames the Mormons.

    Which, incidentally, shows how much enamored of Joseph Smith Bloom really is. Its a very Joseph-Smith kind of prophecy.