Mormon Studies: Catching the New Wave

Additionally, similar to any organic landscape, any living and thriving field of study is comprised of a variety of interconnected elements that relate to one another in complex and mutually supportive ways. Teasing out these interdependencies is always immensely challenging, but in my judgment, at least, the following elements need to be present for any field of study to be considered fully established: publications in the form of books, journals, and articles; independent researchorganizations, groups, or societies; events such as conferences, lectures, and presentations; courses of study; dedicated Bachelor, Master's, and Ph.D. degree programs; and junior and senior full-time teaching positions. At present, only a few degree programs that include coursework on Mormonism allow for an emphasis in Mormon studies, and only the most well-recognized senior scholars would be serious candidates for the very few teaching positions that exist. However, all of the major elements are in place to greater or lesser degrees, and just as the last ten years has seen a relatively dramatic increase in each one, there is every reason to be optimistic that the field will be fully established within the next ten years.

At a conference in Claremont a couple of months ago exploring the question of Mormon studies, Jan Schipps remarked that Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling was the crowning achievement of the New Mormon History. I don't know anyone that would disagree with that assessment, and one of the remarkable things about that book is that it simultaneously represents both an ending and a beginning. On the one hand, it marks the limits of the possibilities for new Mormon historians, and thus constitutes a kind of closure of that form of inquiry. On the other, it opens up a space for the kind of research that can and should be done in the future.

This is not to say that articles and books with a narrow focus on specific individuals, groups, or places in relative isolation from their historical situation won't ever be done again. Rather, it's to say that that kind of de-contextualized research will be less and less common going forward, and studies will become more adept at situating their topics within some larger horizon, and will thus paint more subtle, nuanced, complex portraits. In addition, comparative analyses of Mormon beliefs, practices, and culture people and other traditions will become more and more common. Sophisticated contextualization and critical comparison will thus become norms within the scholarly inquiry about Mormonism going forward.

But what will the general landscape of Mormon studies look like over the next couple of decades? Generally speaking, I think what Brian Birch refers to as "methodological anarchy" is about as helpful a way of describing it as I'm aware of. Methodological anarchy is shorthand for the idea that a massive diversity in the kinds of scholarly inquiries should be both permitted and encouraged. I think the anarchy has already begun in a very limited way, but alongside a few new flowers that are just now coming into bloom, many more will emerge that can contribute to the project of understanding the rich tapestry of Mormonism. Indeed, in order to accomplish this, a multiplicity of methodological approaches is absolutely necessary -- e.g., ritual studies, feminism, psychology, philosophy of religion, scriptural-textual analysis, anthropology, theology, ethics, political philosophy, etc. As such, transdisciplinary work will also have an important role to play, especially as individual methodologies realize the limits of their possibilities.

In his "Undercurrents and Riptides" Bushman puts it like this, "Of course, we don't know exactly where all this will lead. This really is the first generation. It is quite likely that this will produce a new burst of scholarly literature that could be called ‘New Wave Mormon Studies' . . .  I personally think we are in for a thrilling efflorescence of work in new fields, using new methods, and throwing new light on the meaning of Mormonism." On any reasonable accounting, the small ripple that began over a half a century ago has seen a tremendous amount of growth over the past decade. There will undoubtedly be unexpected and challenging currents to confront as the momentum continues, but based on the present state of affairs there is every reason to believe that this wave is far from reaching its crest.

Richard T. Livingston is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University's School of Religion studying Philosophy of Religion and Theology. Most broadly construed, his academic interests are located in the complex interstices between religion and philosophy, theology and metaphysics, and, peripherally, their points of contact with science.

8/9/2010 4:00:00 AM
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