This summer I had the chance to participate in a workshop at BYU put together by Richard Bushman. Bushman wanted to gather together Mormon academics working outside of Utah to discuss the question of how we explain Mormonism. My own sense is that when we explain our beliefs — even to one another — we often fall into the trap of repeating verbal formulations rather than actually thinking through and describing what it is about the Restoration that really drives our commitment.
A number of months ago, for example, Terryl Givens gave a wonderful lecture at BYU about Joseph Smith — “Lightening out of Heaven”: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community — that is, I think, a good example for how we might go about explaining Mormonism. Incongruously enough, Givens began his discussion of Joseph Smith with the French Revolution, which he identified as a key moment in human history when the demands of religion were set against the demands of human freedom. He then proceeded to discuss how various teachings of Joseph Smith sought to respond to that tension.
Givens’ lecture did two things that I think are important. First, it placed Mormonism on an extremely large historical stage, putting Joseph Smith in conversation with some of the great intellectual figures of the West on big issues. Second, in describing Mormon doctrines Givens — for want of a better phrase — studiously avoided Mormonese. He looked at the doctrines afresh by either using new language or else by using the old Mormon language only in the context of other, non-Mormon language where the vocabulary was forced by outside dialogue into meaningfulness. In short, his talked about big issues in fresh, non-insular language.
Leaving the workshop, Bushman gave us all a homework assignment: Pick some aspect of Mormonism that you see as being either central to the Restoration or else as particularly exciting. Then write an essay on that aspect of the Restoration in a way that conveys the depth of its meaning and the reason for its excitement. I have been toiling away at my own response to this assignment, but I am curious as to how others respond.
What aspects of Mormonism are most exciting to you, and how would you explain them using new language or frames of reference?