MR: “Meanings of Mormon Devotion: Robert Orsi and the Possibilities of Studying Mormon Lived Religion”

September 13, 2010 | 7 comments
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beehiveA new issue of The Mormon Review is available, with Christopher C. Jones’s review of The Madonna of 115th Street by Robert Orsi. The article is available at:

Christopher C. Jones, “Meanings of Mormon Devotion: Robert Orsi and the Possibilities of Studying Mormon Lived Religion ,” The Mormon Review, vol.2 no. 2 [HTML] [PDF]

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7 Responses to MR: “Meanings of Mormon Devotion: Robert Orsi and the Possibilities of Studying Mormon Lived Religion”

  1. J. Stapley on September 13, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks Christopher, this is a thoughtful write-up with well needed insight.

  2. Christopher on September 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Thanks, J. And thanks to the Mormon Review and Times and Seasons for providing the venue.

  3. Robert C. on September 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Great article. I’m especially interested in the way that a descriptive study might make prescriptive approaches more focused and productive. For example, my own sense is that many of our youth activities and efforts, for example, are not particularly distinctive as Mormons, or as Christians. But we obviously have some distinctive (read: weird) beliefs. Thus, it should come as no surprise when youth leave the church because they feel culturally mainstream—leaving off the weird set of their upbringing seems logical. I think studies like what you are proposing might help us stem such tides.

    I confess, however, that I think the most important efforts will ultimately be prescriptive (and theologically prescriptive). If, in my example, our lived religion is not identifiably different from the lived religion of mainstream culture, then isn’t this a symptom that Mormonism is losing (or has lost) much of its significance? What, then, should that significance be? I don’t have a good answer to this question, but I think it’s the kind of question that will yield the most fruit amongst Mormon scholars….

    (FWIW, I noticed the link to this discussion the Mormon Review site is not working.)

  4. Aaron R. on September 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Robert, you could argue though that our lack of distinction is as much part of being immersed in, and subsequently emerging from, a series of other religious cultures which we have yet to unshackle from the restoration movement. I agree that there are definite trends in the direction you mention and situating the questions you raise in terms of the connections between theology and praxis is certainly important. Moreover, from a practical point of view I wonder how interested in this type of work the Church would be, esp. as it seems intensive and costly. Rather they appear to be more interested in producing neat quantitative studies of practice and belief.

  5. Robert C. on September 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Aaron, I think you’re right that the institutional church tends to be more interested in “neat quantitative studies of practice and belief.” But I think interest in “neat quantitative studies” is also symptomatic of social science more generally.

    What I think church leaders themselves would be interested in, from local youth leaders all the way up to General Authorities (perhaps taking off their institutional hats, to some degree…), are studies that show how distinctive theological ideas, beliefs and teachings have actually been enacted, by happy and active Mormons, say. I use the term “enacted” here, hesitating to simply use your term “praxis” since I worry praxis reinforces a kind of dualism between belief and practice that I think is at the root of many problems we face (again, esp. with our youth).

    In the end, I suppose this is my response to Jones’s article: inasmuch as studies of “lived religion” reinforce the tendency of social scientific studies to conceptually attempt a clean separation of belief and practice, I worry it won’t be very productive or interesting to lived religion itself (as opposed to being a “merely academic” interest…). However, if an appreciation for the interconnections between theology and lived religion are preserved (as I think/hope Jones intends) then I think this approach will actually lead to a deeper appreciation of the importance and potency of theology as it pertains to lived religion.

    My work with the youth leads me to believe that for too many of them, “lived religion” simply means abstaining from alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc., but they don’t really think about their religion as they live it, except for a few precious moments at church or seminar where they are challenged to think deeper. Thus, they leave the Church b/c it’s not intellectually stimulating, interesting and/or challenging. If, on the other hand, we challenge them to really think more about their religion, I believe they will live their religion more fully, in a robust sense of living that engages their entire lives—praxis and belief….

  6. Aaron R. on September 21, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Thanks Robert. I’ve enjoy the points you have raised. Though you may be right about social science generally I suspect that the Church is more firmly committed to that particular model of research than the academic community at large primarily because of bureaucratic constraints.

    Emphasis upon enacting religion is certainly a provocative notion and one that could certainly be usefully employed. I’d be interested in whether Christopher has read (and would be able to comment on) an article in dialogue on Haitian Mormons and the syncretism of LDS beliefs/practice and Voodoo in the context of ‘lived religion’. In raising this I want to suggest that there have been hints of these types of studies and I wonder whether the cultural superiority assumed by American leaders toward Voodoo is symptomatic of a general apathy (at best) or an antagonism (as worst) to these various enactments you mention. I am not convinced that it is possible to remove those ‘institutional hats’ esp. if the results deviate too far from expected norms.

    In addition there appears to be an expectation that our current set of practices should inevitably flow from correct understanding of our theology (hence the ‘unwritten order’). Moreover this is evident in our handbooks (CHI), for every section is prefaced by a rehersal of how the doctrine undergirds the practices about to be outlined.

    However, I should point out that I agree that such studies would be immensely valuable and would certainly provide a needed realignment in terms of how we approach ‘lived religion’.

  7. Christopher on September 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Robert and Aaron,

    I just discovered your excellent comments and questions this morning. I’m thrilled to see people chewing on these issues and contemplating the implications (and going beyond what I’ve even envisioned). Thanks, both, for your thoughtful insights. A couple of responses:

    inasmuch as studies of “lived religion” reinforce the tendency of social scientific studies to conceptually attempt a clean separation of belief and practice, I worry it won’t be very productive or interesting to lived religion itself (as opposed to being a “merely academic” interest…). However, if an appreciation for the interconnections between theology and lived religion are preserved (as I think/hope Jones intends) then I think this approach will actually lead to a deeper appreciation of the importance and potency of theology as it pertains to lived religion.

    I certainly intended to suggest the latter. I’m sorry that wasn’t more clear. I admit that much of my own interest in the topic is “merely academic,” but I do think there are more tangible and useful implications. I used “lived religion” in a sacrament meeting talk a few months ago, and your comments about how “religion” is taught to the youth, Robert, mirror many of my own.

    Aaron, I’m only vaguely familiar with the Dialogue article you mention (I’ve skimmed over it but haven’t yet read it in depth). I do think that conceptualizing Mormon lived religion, though, is crucial to understanding international Mormonism.

WELCOME

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