Homework from Richard Bushman

September 13, 2007 | 36 comments
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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?

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36 Responses to Homework from Richard Bushman

  1. Lamanite on September 13, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Jesus’ constant encouragement for me to finally make that large down payment on meekness and humility from my infinite account of pride. I might have stole that from Maxwell? :-)

  2. Andrew on September 13, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    One of the most exciting aspects of Mormonism to me was its attempt to create a theocratic egalitarian community.

    I’ll have to give more thought to the new language and frame of reference part, but I’d definitely try to avoid using the phrase: “a playsure and a traysure beyond maysure”.

  3. LifeOnaPlate on September 13, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Good old Bushman.

    Indeed, Givens, Bushman, etc. have done well to bring some new words into Momonese. Will it be a matter of time before some of their phraseology is incorporated into the dialect, or are we already entrenched to the point that new phrases won’t become common?

  4. Christopher on September 13, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Perhaps echoing Andrew in No. 2, I find Joseph Smith’s paradoxical mixture of democracy (“a religion for and by the people, … but not of the people” to quote Bushman) and a theocratic-based, centralized kingdom fascinating. While Mormonism is not unique in the attempt to fuse democratic religion and a highly-centralized religious government (early American Methodism comes to mind, for instance), Joseph Smith’s approach seems revolutionary to me.

  5. Sarah on September 13, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    I’d think the idea of authority and how men receive it from God is pretty unique to the Restoration — especially the idea of authority/revelation being withdrawn from an entire population. All the other traditions I can think of have some kind of continuity-on-earth system; Catholics don’t need to believe that every single Pope, for example, had been chosen by God.

  6. Matt W. on September 13, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I guess I am excited by what Givens has already discussed: God exists and can and will talk to me. Prayer can be Dialogic revelation. Christ really is here with me in every moment of my life (he is “eminent’), availabe and capable to render assistance. My life does have meaning and purpose, and there is more to me than than mere flesh, blood, reporduction and survival. Also, Love is meaningful and relationships are valuable. I have always existed and will always exist, and so will everyone else. These are the things that truly excite me about my faith.

  7. John David Payne on September 13, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Work for the dead. If you are a Christian, and you believe that the Savior meant what he said in John 3:5, then I don’t see how you can belong to any other denomination. I just don’t understand how they sleep at night. How could God condemn all those billions to hell for lack of baptism when almost all of them never so much as heard the word, much less had a chance to accept or reject the ordinance.

    I think there are only three alternatives for Christians without an understanding of work for the dead:

    1) Believe in predestination. God sent those spirits to be born in places where they could not hear the Gospel because they are bad spirits and he does not want them in his kingdom.

    I find this highly unsatisfying, because many pagan people seem like nice folks who would accept Christ if they knew about him.

    2) Believe in purgatory. God has a special place for good people who lack baptism. It’s not heaven, but they’re not damned.

    This I can’t buy because there’s no scriptural support for the idea, and it’s still unjust. If they would have been saved in the kingdom of God but for baptism, and they would have accepted baptism if they had the opportunity, then shouldn’t a just God offer them the opportunity?

    3) Believe that baptism is not necessary for salvation. God saves all people he judges to be good, regardless of whether they have been “born of water and of the spirit.”

    But this makes a liar of our Lord.

    I just don’t understand how other Christians deal with this. If I didn’t know about work for the dead, I would have to move to China or India and dedicate my life to missionary work. There is no other moral choice, if this life is the only chance people get to accept Christ and be baptized. In such a world, every minute you were not preaching the gospel would mean that people were dying in their sins, forever cut off from God. Every minute spent sleeping would mean damning others through inaction. And what kind of God would set up this system? It’s a terrible, horrifying, monstrous way to run a universe.

    I can’t understand why other Christians don’t immediately embrace Joseph Smith and the restoration the instant they hear about work for the dead. It’s the only possible way to accept Christianity. Hooray for temples and for baptisms for the dead. I thank God always for this wondrous mercy. Hallelujah!

  8. lamonte on September 13, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Nate – Thanks for sharing Terryl Givens’ presentation. I plan on re-reading it and sharing as often as possible.

    I’m not sure it is purely a Mormon belief or that Joseph Smith was the first to present it but for me, what makes my religion distinct from other Christian religions or any other religion for that matter, especially with the ever present discussion of grace vs. works, is the understanding that the greatest thing we can do is love one another. And perhaps even more important is the fact that loving one another will bring us more joy than anything else.

    Whether that love is manifest in serving our communities, loving our families – especially our spouses – or just being a good friend, the Savior’s commandment to love one another is the greatest source of happiness I know. And it is only recently in my life of more than 50 years that I have come to understand that.

  9. Jonovitch on September 13, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    An easy place to start (at least as far as breaking bad habits is concerned): when referring to Church organizational units, avoid the uncommon and awkward “ward” and use instead the much more understood “congregation.” For example, “In my congregation we have only a handful of active Boy Scouts.”

    Here’s to speaking in tongues our friends can understand!

    Jon

  10. Jonovitch on September 13, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Wow, in re-reading the original post and subsequent comments, I appear to have really missed the boat. Or perhaps I’m the only one sailing on a boat only I can see. Either way, I stand by my first post, and I’m a fan of Givens and Bushman, so there.

    Jon

  11. Ray on September 13, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    The one concept of Mormonism that I wish all members could discuss in a way that others would understand, even if they couldn’t accept it, is the nature of God as our actual father and Jesus as his physically resurrected Son – leading to all of the obvious implications for our eternal potential.

    I might have shared this here previously, but I wrote a paper in college for a divinity school class that explained the Mormon belief in a physical (tangible) resurrection – based completely on the Bible. My section leader gave me an “A” on the paper, saying, “I can’t fault your scriptural justification, even though I’m sure you are wrong.” Obviously, it didn’t register enough to create interest at the time, but at least he understood that a doctrine he previously thought was a crazy teaching in the BofM actually is based on an interpretation of the Bible – and I think it lessened his inclination to accept the non-Christian label he had assumed to be correct.

    I agree completely with the message of Mormon 7:9 – which I interpret to mean that an acceptance of the BofM leads to an acceptance of the Restoration, which leads to a desire to be baptized, which leads to receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which leads to an ability to read the Bible and understand what it really teaches, which leads to a more perfect understanding of the Gospel than is possible with only one witness. I believe that the Bible teaches most of the truly unique doctrines of Mormonism much more in-depth than does the BofM. Given that perspective, I would like to see discussions of Momonism’s unique doctrines that are based on the Bible. We should preach the need to read the BofM to build an actual testimony of the Restoration, but we should do a better job of explaining our doctrine by using the Bible. It can be done, and it is much more effective when talking with other Christians.

    My approach always is something like, “I know you can justify your beliefs from the Bible; let me show you how I can justify mine. Given these two different conclusions, I think it is important to seek for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in knowing which interpretation is correct. Do you want to talk more about the possibility of modern revelation and how I have come to understand the Bible more fully and deeply?”

  12. Christopher on September 13, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Nate,

    I’m curious as to what your response is?

  13. California Condor on September 13, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    Jonovitch,

    Actually, you’re spot on. Using “congregation” instead of “ward” is exactly the sort of thing we need to do when describing Mormonism. Bushman is a master at this. That’s why he cleans house when he speaks with the media.

  14. Ardis Parshall on September 13, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    What aspects of Mormonism are most exciting to you,

    The interconnectedness of everything:

    God isn’t a breed apart from man; He is different in degree, but not in kind. Mankind is a part of creation, at the top of the ladder but still *a part* and not *apart*. Theology isn’t enough — we need science and history and art and human nature, all as aspects of the gospel. Mortality is only a stage, a link between premortality and postmortality. Goodness and joy are not complete in themselves — “there must needs be an opposition.” Each of us have very real ties to each other and to every human who has lived or will live — lineages aren’t *line*ages, but are, rather, a three-dimensional snarl of tangled and expanding networks. We live in a state where nothing and no one is very far removed from everything and everyone else.

    and how would you explain them using new language or frames of reference?

    Darned if I know.

  15. California Condor on September 13, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    Life On a Plate (3),

    What words do you think Givens and Bushman have added to “Mormonese”?

  16. California Condor on September 13, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    I think we are defined by the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity.

  17. Joseph D. Walch on September 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    A response to this challenge is very daunting for me, partly because a great deal of what excites me about the restoration is ineffable. I refer to C.S. Lewis who couldn’t even find an English word to describe it and spoke of Sehnsucht or that great longing for the future that consumes the believer.

    The efficacy of the restored gospel in my life is in the yearning to know and experience all the things that don’t know about for sure, but that I have reasonable grounds to believe exists: e.g. what will it be like to be part of a family in heaven, what kind of body is a resurrected body, and what will it feel like, what kinds of works will I be capable of, etc.

    The truths are powerful and build hope, but—and I’m hope I’m not being anti-intellectual about this; I am most excited when I see a friend baptized, or a sibling going through the temple for the first time. I suppose I could say that what most excites me about the gospel isn’t necessarily thinking or writing about it; it is living it.

    Although I do confess it is good to write about the gospel as I write with the hope that others follow the gospel as a result of my efforts.

  18. Bob on September 13, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    #7,#12: Our “Fellow Mormons’, the CofC, does Baptism for the Dead, and I think they have now gotten everyone. As I understand, they keep up by once a year having one the their Apostles, baptized for anyone that dead that year unbaptized. This is after having one guy first was baptized for all the dead.

  19. Bob on September 13, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    #18: That’s died the year, sorry ( does any one have a hat and stone to help me?)

  20. m&m on September 13, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    I suppose I could say that what most excites me about the gospel isn’t necessarily thinking or writing about it; it is living it.

    Since my comment crashed when Firefox unexpectedly shut down, I’ll just opt for saying this: AMEN.

  21. Kevin Barney on September 13, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    A great insight. The use of Mormonspeak with folks not part of the tribe is a failure in communication.

    In a related vein, I think there is a virtue to putting Mormonism in a broader context. To illustrate, I never understood the Atonement; it didn’t make sense to me at all, and I could never figure out why everyone else seemed to grasp it so easily. A friend suggested I read the atonement chapter in McMurrin’s Theological Foundations, and the scales fell from my eyes. He compared Mormon concepts of the Atonement to the historical development of the idea. I still don’t understand the Atonement, but at least now I grasp better why we use such divergent language to talk about it. Putting the Atonement in a broader, historical context made a big difference in my own understanding.

  22. Adam Greenwood on September 13, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I think I would collect some of the great incarnational writing and poetry that talks about all creation being glorified and lifted up to the divine level in the divine descent to our level. I would then say that the difference between Mormonisn and traditional Christianity is that we mean it.

  23. Clark on September 13, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    One day I will write a paper on pragmatism and Mormonism with the Pratt/Young dispute as one of the centerpieces. But not this year.

  24. J. Stapley on September 13, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Ritual studies has a lot to offer Mormonism. I like what Bushman did with Sacred Space.

  25. shannon on September 13, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    What excites me is the tremendous growth of the church outside the U.S. I have attended sacrament meetings in 4 different countries (and as many languages) and always marvel at the continuity of the church around the world. I think this aspect of the church truly sets us apart from other churches.

  26. Sarah on September 14, 2007 at 1:53 am

    Tiny point on the “congregation” thing: if you go to the Newsroom on LDS.org, that’s what they say — that, e.g., Ohio has 124 “congregations.” I translated that, on the Ohio Mormons Facebook news page, back to “wards and branches,” since the only people who’ve gone there are already members.

  27. Norbert on September 14, 2007 at 3:36 am

    Great idea.

    What aspects of Mormonism are most exciting to you,

    Emphasis on personal revalation as a means of building an experiential testimony and a personal relationship with diety.

    and how would you explain them using new language or frames of reference?

    I’d look at Marx’s statement on religion, ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ and why he says so: ‘It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.’ And I would say that Marx is basically right, if that religion does not involve an element of experiential interaction that in my experience the Holy Ghost makes possible. As a result my faith makes me more aware and socially awake, not less.

  28. Pratt Snow on September 14, 2007 at 6:19 am

    Nate,

    A question for you about your question (I am NOT being cheeky–my question is earnest). I should note up front that I am working on an essay in which I locate the archetypal Mormon hero in The Book of Mormon, Nephi, and how that hero reappears in the works of Neil Labute, Brian Evenson, and Levi Peterson (the hero performs blood atonement as part of his quest). The problem I run into is how to discuss the Mormon elements in ways that do not essentialize, or grant exceptionalism to, Mormon doctrine (and history). I have the most success when I put my study in the context of American Studies where American exceptionalism has been described as the the discipline\’s most pressing problem. It seems to me that the problem of Mormon exceptionalism is the biggest stumbling block for Mormon studies. The question, \”What aspects of Mormonism are most exciting to you?\” seems to me a pretext for academic missionary work. What am I most passionate about in my religion that I can in turn write about in an academic context that will ultimately reaffirm the truthfulness (or truthiness) of my belief system? Let me shut up by saying I love Bushman\’s work and I think he is a genius. I know he is aware of all these issues which is the pretext for my question. How does Bushman address essentialism and exceptionalism in his approach to Mormon Studies?

    Thank you in advance.

  29. Dan Ellsworth on September 14, 2007 at 9:06 am

    No mormonese? How else do I express how much I like finding ant sers to my Gospel questions at cont frints?

  30. Eric Nielson on September 14, 2007 at 11:40 am

    The Book of Mormon is quite an important thing for me. It is an important piece of evidence of the prophet Joseph Smith. It comes with evidence that Christianity is a more universal thing then some may think.

  31. Mark Watson on September 15, 2007 at 10:37 am

    Bushman is a intellectual \”jack-ass!!\” He should be excommunicated from the church.

  32. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 10:44 am

    Thanks, Mark. It’s always good to hear the exception that proves the rule.

  33. Jack on September 15, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Never heard of anyone getting exed for being a bad intellectual.

  34. Ardis Parshall on September 15, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Good thing, Jack, else most of the Bloggernacle would have to join the DAMU.

  35. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Calssic, Ardis. Absolutely classic.

  36. Ray on September 15, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Both calssic and classic, actually.

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