Teaching Mormon Literature to Non-Mormon Students

As I type I am sitting in the Salt Lake Airport waiting for a flight that will take me first to Denver and then to Dayton, where my decade-old Honda is waiting to take me home. It’s Sunday, but there will be no church for me today. My total travel time is something like twelve hours, although with all the time changes its seems much longer on paper. At any rate, I probably won’t pull into my driveway until 1:30 in the morning,* three hours and ten minutes before I’ll need to get up to teach my 5:30 Early Morning Seminary class and my 9:00 literature class. Considering the amount of sleep I’ll be getting, I don’t expect the lesson for either class to be fantastic. I’m a morning person, but even I have my limits.**

I’ve been in Utah for the annual AML conference. It was my first experience with the conference, and I enjoyed presenting and meeting and talking with people who before had only been names on a computer screen to me. I also enjoyed being able to speak the language of Mormonism at a professional conference without having to act as a Urim and Thummim for my audience, which is what I usually end up doing at conferences when I present on Mormon literature. So, it was nice—even liberating—not having to explain everything.

But now I’m heading back to Ohio, a place where the language of Mormonism is not well understood—let alone spoken—by anyone outside the Church. There we don’t have Missionary Malls with giant missionary-shaped balloons gyrating over them. We don’t have Deseret Bookstores or Pioneer Day or billboards advertising LDSAgents.com. Heck, we don’t even have that many meetinghouses in the area to alert the average Joe or Jane to our presence. Mormonism and its culture just aren’t a big part of the Ohio landscape—even with the Kirtland Temple tucked away somewhere near Cleveland.

As a native Ohioan, I’m used to Mormonism lack of physical presence in my local landscape. (I mean, seriously, who really needs a giant inflato-missionary gyrating overhead?) At the same time, I wish Mormonism had a stronger cultural presence here and throughout the world since it would streamline so much of what I do as a Mormon scholar in an academy that’s predominately non-Mormon. Words are precious in ten-page conference papers, after all, and I’m always a little frustrated when I have to sacrifice depth of argument for clarity and backstory.

Of course, part of me really likes the challenge of writing about Mormon literature for a non-Mormon audience—even if it can be frustrating. Time and again, I’ve spoken with my professors about ways I can make my scholarship more accessible to non-Mormon readers, and their feedback has always been that I need to find ways to explain Mormon terms and allusions without falling into the digression trap. I’m no expert yet, but I’ve begun trying out a few things. I’m paying more attention, for example, to how non-Mormons talk about us, the words the use, the aspects of Mormonism they find most interesting. While I don’t think what non-Mormons find interesting about Mormonism should always guide our scholarship, I do think it can help us figure out how to make what interests us more interesting to them.

I’m also trying out Mormon literature on non-Mormon audiences. Those who follow my blog know that I’m currently teaching a literature class, “American Religious Landscapes,” which has six Mormon stories from Dispensation on the reading list. Starting Wednesday (4/25), we will be reading the first two Mormon stories, Levi Peterson’s “Brothers” and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves,” and I’m very interested—and a little anxious—to see how my predominately Catholic/Protestant/Atheist students will receive and discuss these stories.

Since most of my students don’t speak the language of Mormonism, and know little about the Church and its culture, I’m going to introduce them to the four Mormon cultural paradoxes that Terryl Givens outlines in his book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. For those of you who haven’t read the book, these are the paradoxes:

1. A belief in both radical free agency and a strong central leadership.

2. An understanding of faith as both a line-upon-line process and a firm knowledge.

3. An understanding of the sacred as something sublime and banal.

4. A belief in the Church as both the One True Church and a member of the mainstream Christian community.

I’m hoping these cultural paradoxes will help my students better understand the motives and actions of the characters in Mormon fiction. I think, for example, that the third paradox can help them with Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther,” which is a story that foregrounds from the very beginning how Mormons attach a kind of sacredness to the acts of preparing roasts and kneading bread—not so much because of the acts themselves, which are of secondary importance, but because of how they represent ways Mormons bind themselves together in a manner just as sacred as temple covenants. I also think something like the first paradox will help them better understand some of the conflict going on in Levi Peterson’s “Brothers” or Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly.”

Aside from using these paradoxes, my approach to teaching these stories will be essentially the same as the approach I’ve taken with the non-Mormon stories we’ve read, which are not all that different from most Mormon stories. At the beginning of the quarter, we went through Timothy Beal’s Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction, which gave us a basic history of religion in America, as well as some terminology and definitions. We have referred back to it frequently and it has already proven extremely useful. Consequently, I plan to present Mormons as an example of what Beal calls a New Religious Movement (or NRM) and discuss the fiction from that perspective.

I also intend to have the students explore how the Mormon stories negotiate the tension between hospitality and security, which is the tension Beal suggests is at the heart of most religious conflicts. I think this tension will particularly help out our discussions of Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves,” Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” and Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving.”

So far, my students have been both bright and talkative, which is a nice combination to have in the classroom. None of them, of course, speaks or understands the language of Mormonism as fluently as those who attend the AML Conference, but I’m confident that they’ll be able to create a language of their own that will allow them to discuss Mormon literature in a sophisticated way—a language, perhaps, that will also help me know how to present Mormon literature more effectively to non-Mormon audiences.

* Because of a delay, I didn’t actually get home until around two o’clock in the morning.

** I got through my 9:00 class fine, but the last ten minutes of my Seminary lesson were a little rough—that is, I think they were a little rough since I can barely remember them.

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17 Responses to Teaching Mormon Literature to Non-Mormon Students

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Heck, your listing the third paradox here helped me understand “Clothing Esther” better. :)

  2. Lee Allred says:

    Great post, Scott, but you have me wondering about one small portion of it. Your fourth paradox from Givens’ book (one true Church vs. in the mainstream).

    I can see why you would want to include it as part of your cirriculum given your class as described, but I don’t remember that being emphasized at all during my readings of the book. I find a mention of it on page 58, but that’s about it. It doesn’t seem to be as central to Givens’ book as the other three you list are.

    Or am I missing something? (Entirely probable!)

    • Scott Hales says:

      You could be right, Lee. Since I was working from notes, I need to go back and look at the book again myself. If I remember correctly, though, you’re right that it wasn’t as emphasized as the other paradoxes.

      Also, I should state that what I have above is a significantly simplified version of Givens’ paradoxes. I think the fourth one involves not only what I have listed above, but also the notion that Mormons like to think of themselves as both a peculiar people and an assimilated part of the mainstream society. Maybe when I present the paradoxes to my students tomorrow, I will say it that way rather than how I have it above. Either way, though, seems to suggest the same paradoxical Mormon view of the self in relation to the other.

      • Wm says:

        I think your restatement is good, Scott. I’m highly intrigued by this project and look forward to further reports.

        And I would say that my Mormon-related creative work so far has primarily focused on #3 (the Speculations series is specifically playing with the sublime and the banal) and on #4, especially if we frame it as the peculiar vs. assimilated paradox.

        • Wm says:

          Actually, replace specifically with intentionally.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Does that third paradox include the Mormon tendency to see continuities between the temporal/physical and the spiritual, e.g., our insistence upon the corporeality of God? On first reading this post (and not having read Givens’s book), I thought that dimension was missing, but am now wondering if it finds a place here.

        • Scott Hales says:

          Yes, it finds a pretty solid place there.

      • Lee Allred says:

        It’s a critical paradox to explore in your class, just was wondering about the Givens’ book connection . :)

  3. Scott. It occurred to me at the AML conference that Romney’s campaign and the resulting glut of stories about Mormonism may open the field more for Mormon literature and scholarship. Catholic and Jewish literature can find their way through mainstream culture pretty well because they’ve been around for so long and have had so much exposure. We certainly don’t have the years, but maybe the next seven months will get us some extra yardage on exposure.

    • Wm says:

      I’m a bit skeptical, but that’s probably because I went in to his last run hoping that the exposure would lead to a bit more nuance and complexity to the narrative and image and was highly disappointed — although I am appreciative of the fact that it’s doing some of that work inside the Church.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I can say that Romney makes it easier to justify teaching Mormon literature in the secular classroom. For the time being, he makes the work I do culturally relevant on a national level. The question I have is whether or not this will continue after he disappears from the spotlight. Like Wm, I’m a little skeptical about how the current exposure will translate into continuing interest. I’m going to take advantage of the exposure while it lasts, though, and try to figure out a way to keep my work interesting to people beyond November–or whenever it is that Romney will leave the spotlight.

  4. Julie Nichols says:

    I wonder about “the sacred as something sublime and banal.” Does Givens use the word “banal”? Do we really see the sacred as something “banal” (“devoid of freshness or originality, hackneyed, trite”)? Isn’t the word we’re really looking at here “mundane” (“of or pertaining to this world”)? Yes, I see that in thesaurus.com “banal” can be a synonym of “mundane,” but the etymologies of these words are quite different. “Mundane” is from the same root as “monde,” world–and the Mormon view that living on earth, being earthly, is part of our route to godhood does indeed seem to be a remarkable, and distinguishing, feature of our belief system. But that doesn’t make it banal.

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  5. Ángel says:

    Scott, I know what I means taking a 12 hours trip back home. I’m also a morning person even though I don’t usually go to church. For me, it was also great to be in the AML Conference. I approached it the other way around though. I tried to pay attention to how Mormon scholars approach Mormon writing, the words so use and the things you’re interested in. All the presentations in your panel were a great source to me. I wasn’t aware of your blog, though I’m pretty sure it won’t be the first time I visit it when I go again. Anyway, I’ll keep track of it from here on, and I hope we keep in touch because it seems that we have many things to share. So far, think about this: Givens’s paradoxes where in my original piece for the presentation that I gave at the AML Conference, but I skip it when I saw that I only could talk for 15 minutes. Four years ago when I was teaching literature at college here in the Basque Country I did use one Mormon short-story, you may guess by whom, in a class about minority literatures in the American West, and it worked pretty well when placed together with other ethnic or quasi-ethnic groups. It is always an interesting point to discuss about stereotypes and pre-conceived ideas because it is something that you can relate to your own worldview, even though there was more to think about on that short story. Again, great post and we’ll keep in touch.
    (By the way, I made it safely home, though Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris was a messy maze ready to wolf me down. I hope you got home safely as well. I’m still jetlagged and it seems I will be forever!)

    • Scott Hales says:

      It’s too bad your presentation–and the others on your panel–had to be cut short. I would have liked to have heard how you incorporated the four paradoxes. (I also would have liked the Q&A portion to have gone on a bit longer than five minutes–but schedules are schedules.)

      Now that I’ve taught the first of three classes on Mormon stories, I’m interested to see how my students will bring the information I presented in the first class into our remaining discussions. Interestingly, the consensus seems to have been that they preferred “Wolves” over “Brothers,” possibly because “Wolves” required less familiarity with LDS culture to understand it. Now that they have a better Mormon vocabulary, though, I’m expecting more engaged responses to the aspects of the stories that showcase the paradoxes. We’ll see what they pick up.

      (I also suggested they think of Mormons as a quasi-ethnic group, although I didn’t use that term.)

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