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.