Future of Mormonism
Mormon Publishing, the Internet, and the Democratization of Information
Another threatening technological development is the volume and ready accessibility of information. With the advent of Smartphones, iPads, Kindles, and others, the driving motivation for Correlation -- to make the church portable and streamlined enough to fit on the back of a camel (in Elder Packer's memorable formulation) -- no longer exists. Lesson manuals are augmented (or encumbered) by multiplicities of blogs with lesson plans, notes, clip art, musical compositions, and multiple translations of scriptures portable enough to fit in the palm of one's hand, no camel required.
Moreover, these technologies are being developed and adopted at uneven rates in different parts of the globe. The church's orderly regime of translation for growing church populations is unlikely to hold as technological leapfrogging gives access to a wide array of information before the arrival of official, correlated print materials. And, as the recent "Big Love" fracas painfully demonstrated, it is literally impossible for the church to keep anything sacred or secret.
This situation creates a new set of incentives for the church in educating its members about its history and contemporary political activities. With every student of Mormonism, every lifelong member who thought she knew church history, and every new convert able to drink from internet firehoses, it won't do to insist that the Sunday School manual garden hose is the only water source. Of course, it would also be counterproductive for the church to use the precious few hours of instructional time it has to engage in some program of inoculation. Instead, what is needed is to teach both insiders and outsiders a new vocabulary and new means of evaluating the authenticity and sincerity of sources of information about Mormonism.
The need for cultivating such a discourse was painfully obvious to me in some discussions of Helen Whitney's PBS documentary. My non-Mormon friends overwhelmingly found her portrayal sympathetic and fascinating; among my ward members, though, the film was generally perceived as hostile. Especially troubling to many was the lack of labeling of speakers; members seemed wholly discomfited by not being told who was pro- and who was anti-Mormon. One example that stands out was a discussion with several women who were horrified at the prominence afforded "that anti-Mormon professor from Vanderbilt." I assured them that Kathleen Flake is very much Mormon -- my brother is her bishop and recently called her to teach his own daughter's Primary class! Pressed to articulate the source of their impression that she was anti-Mormon, they identified the academic and detached tone of her remarks, the fact that she had used the third person to refer to Mormons, and that she had not "borne her testimony." Our binary hermeneutic, our sense that "the world" is always arrayed against us, simply will not give us a useful interpretive framework for engaging the ever-broadening discourse about Mormonism in the new media world.
It's not at all clear to me what will help us develop a framework for that engagement. However, I want to suggest that we might look to the experience of the independent Mormon publishing sector for a potential model. For most of the decades during which the institutional church was working to impose coherence from the top down through correlation, Sunstone, Dialogue, Signature Books, the Journal of Mormon History, Irreantum, and Exponent II were trying (with widely varying degrees of success) to create a coherent and recognizably Mormon culture from the bottom up. To be sure, editors and symposium organizers exercised a certain degree of control, and financial imperatives and varying levels of desire for approval (or at least non-interference) from institutional authority imposed limits and set boundaries. Nonetheless, these publications have partially resisted the streamlining, homogenizing impulse that characterized the latter half of the 20th century.
In this cultural moment, such top-down control, at least in the wagon-circling, message-massaging mode of the past, is simply impossible. With new scrutiny of Mormons, and in an age where everything official and authoritative is suspect, the credibility of publishing organs that have stayed engaged with professional methodologies and communities is an important tool for the church. Just as the original Woman's Exponent usefully advertised the intelligence and independence of Mormon women to a watching world looking for duped victims of a polygamous patriarchy, the independent publishing sector can demonstrate the sincerity of the church's claims that members think for themselves. In an age where Mitt Romney's perfect coiffure is adduced as evidence of the creepy and cult-like perfection imposed on members by a central borg, it may be helpful to occasionally trot out those of us whose bad hair days are well-documented.
Kristine Haglund is editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Her current research interests include Mormon aesthetic theory and practice, history of Mormon women's publications, including blogs; Mormon women's and children's history, and Mormon hymnody and children's songs. She lives in Massachusetts with her three children, and blogs at bycommonconsent.com.