Eating Jell-O in the Ivory Tower: Scholarly Adherents and Adhering Scholars

Russell Mormon 5 Comments

So as one who utterly lacked a life, I did what most good, quality no-lifers do…go to graduate school. Traumatic. The structures that I had known all my life crumbled beneath my feet. Assumptions, core values, and folk beliefs were attacked at every turn by friend and foe alike. Before too long, I just didn’t know what to believe anymore…the earth was shaking underneath my feet…

About here, folks often expect one to say that s/he lost their testimony because of their realization that “a whole world was out there,” that the historical claims of the Church were not as airtight as they once thought. My experience was precisely the opposite; professors told me on more than one occasion in more than one venue that academia was “delusional,” “all an act.” Granted, these things were said with a half-jesting smirk. Academia was intended to be an escape from the “real world,” another professor told me. And indeed, unless one either 1) engages in overt presentism or 2) researches something that took place in the last fifty years. Let’s face it…no matter how good of a writer you are, you can’t make ninth-century French rural history immediately relevant to the vast majority of the world’s population unless they are seeking an escape from their lived realities.

In 1990, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote his wildly entertaining (though obnoxiously esoteric) book, Homo Academicus–a sociological study of academics as a social class. He calls his study a “comic scenario, that of Don Juan deceived or the miser robbed.” Lest I sound unkind in my reference, I point to the reality that scholars have made similar characterizations of their subjects for centuries…making labels, classing peoples. Yet I suggest that the analyzers of man might also profitably become the analyzed.

This piece will primarily examine the relationship between Mormon academics and the general populace of the Church. How should the academic react in kind to the generally conservative masses of the Church? Must they be dismissed from the discussion due to ignorance of the subject material? Should the members defer to the academic establishment, recognizing academia’s expertise in whatever issue is at question? What happens when this academic establishment becomes a “power structure” unto itself.

I tend to see this dynamic play out in a few ways. First, lay members seem to have become “the Other.” Common phrases in the Church are associated with intellectual laziness or even dishonesty (“‘Milk before meat,” is often cited as code for: “Lying for the Lord.”). And thus the stock stereotypes are rolled out: denim jumpers, high-pitched primary voices, and wealthy businessmen. Any actions taken against fellow academics concerning the Church are assumed to be an act of oppression–taken at face value by fellow academics. As long as the structures of power cease to be in the hands of the hierarchy or even those Jell-O lovers from the other side of the family tree. Is Mormon scholarship just tribal politics?

Perhaps I have just had a different experience or live in a different time from the Mormon dissenters, but I have seldom received any flack for expressing heterodox opinions; one time, my bishop even talked to me about the possibility of discussing some of the research I had done with his daughter, in hopes of keeping her in the church..

More significantly, I have wondered if Mormon academics, instead of just questioning the Church’s hierarchical authority, have indeed supplanted it with their own power structure that can be just as stringent. What happens when the deconstructers (or the dissenters) are questioned? The response is swift: retrenchment, “steps backward,” apologia, irrational” (could someone provide me a concise definition of rationality again?). For example, if someone were to suggest that perhaps, somehow, some way beyond our ability to perceive, the priesthood ban could have been had some relationship with Providence, how would that idea be received within the intellectual establishment? Are they not often dismissed as a wild-eyed apologist who would find any ridiculous loophole s/he could . I get the impression that those who react in this way probably have larger doubts about God’s relationship with man and how that relationship is expressed. If someone were to dare suggest that motherhood actually could be the highest form of worship in the Church, is this point of view welcomed as a legitimate position in the marketplace of ideas or are they merely cast aside as a mentally atrophied “conservative,” at best a slave to the ideological state apparati (hat tip to Althusser) and at worst a knuckle-dragging neanderthal who really does like his Jell-O mold with carrots. If you defend the hierarchy, you must be merely a cog in the machine, a hack. Notice that Avraham Gileadi–the only one of the famed September Six to return to full fellowship–was not mentioned in The Mormons by name in the documentary. Apparently, prodigal sons don’t make for good press copy.

I hope that both the Mormon Academicus and the local steel-worker can work towards seeing eye-to-eye on the things that matter most: Jesus Christ’s divine Sonship, Joseph’s prophetic mantle and singular theological contributions , and the Church’s basic divine authority. I hope that academics can see beyond the Utah-ness of the Church and can see the transnational gospel. Indeed, I wonder, can (and should) academics be willing to sit down and break bread, even eat Jell-O with their fellow adherent who has never heard of D. Michael Quinn and cares even less about the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Secular academics often say “no,” but are we not a fellowship of the Saints that should take an interest in the activities of each other? It is certainly true that many members care little for the scholarship on the Book of Mormon (just as many Americans care little for Gordon Wood’s scholarship on the Constitution); yet do academics, in their calls for more critical thinking, similarly care for the concerns and deeply-held values about protecting the organizational and ideological integrity of the Church? And in a way beyond the traditional postmodern (and extremely condescending) response of: “Well, these things are very important to people, so we must basically humor them.” I also understand the response: “Well, we believe differently because documents X, Y, and Z” indicate it thusly, and anyone who believes otherwise is simply ill-informed.” While that approach might do for an academic symposium, I am hesitant to adopt it in this soul-changing institution that those faithful among us have experienced this Church to be. Yet nowhere in the teachings of the Prophets or the Scriptures do I see a systematic decree for us to avoid the tough issues. If Jesus Christ was willing to sit down with the publican and sinner, would he not also be willing to sit down with both scholar and sheepherder? In that spirit, might we begin to see the gospel as a ideological coalition of folks who are “trying to be like Jesus” in the fullest way rather than a monolith of suits and denim jumpers?

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Comments 5

  1. Nice essay! It made me think of the idea of approaching faith AND doubt with humility and patience. There are many in the “ivory tower” who think they know it all, but I think truly being Christlike is learning to remain humble and love one’s neighbor despite how much power (read: knowledge) one has gained.

    I can’t say I’m getting a whole lot smarter in graduate school (wrong field for that?) but I have tried very hard to not look down on friends or family if they haven’t read Rough Stone Rolling. 😉

  2. I too see problems with the sort-of “Wasatch Front Intellectualism” that seems to dominate some scholarly approaches to various Church positions or points of history and appreciate your thoughts.

  3. More significantly, I have wondered if Mormon academics, instead of just questioning the Church’s hierarchical authority, have indeed supplanted it with their own power structure that can be just as stringent.

    I really got that impression back in the days when FARMS was just starting. I remember complaints about how dare certain people at FARMS think they had the right to talk, because they hadn’t “earned” the right — all about having moved up the right social circles and nothing to do with the quality of the research or the writing. It really struck me.

    As did the time a group of second rate academics was chastising Dallin Oaks about something or other. Gee, they thought he should listen to them in a religious matter because their academic credentials failed so miserably vis a vis his? Of course they didn’t see it that way, since they had earned their place socially … but it was a defining moment for me in looking at much of what was going on.

    For example, if someone were to suggest that perhaps, somehow, some way beyond our ability to perceive, the priesthood ban could have been had some relationship with Providence, how would that idea be received within the intellectual establishment? Are they not often dismissed as a wild-eyed apologist who would find any ridiculous loophole s/he could

    Ever since I heard a Black member explain that no, it was not a deprivation but a great privilege (his brother was calling after he had joined, turned out the brother had investigated the Church around ’73, Richard joined around ’75 and I was in the room talking to him when his brother called and they discussed the priesthood ban), I’ve wondered about that point.

    But more, I’ve come to think of the love of Christ as the true mystery of Godliness and in that regard I really liked:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/2008/09/14/guest-post-searching-for-revelation-in-all-the-wrong-places/

  4. I was reading an op-ed piece in the NYT today by columnist David Brooks called Why Experience Matters. There are some interesting parallels between his political observation and what we see in the church between so-called conservatives and academics. A few interesting points: “This argument also is over . . . what are the ultimate sources of wisdom. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against . . . the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said. But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For [populists] book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The . . . universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools. The elitists favor sophistication, but the common-sense folk favor simplicity. The elitists favor deliberation (or logic & thought?), but the populists favor instinct (or the Spirit?).”

    So, perhaps these “populist” conservatives (in politics, the Wal-Mart/NRA/”social” conservatives) are the ones who are really at odds with the academics. Elite conservatives are always going to be more open-minded toward heterodox views because they value the open marketplace of ideas. It is really just the populist conservatives who dislike academics. I don’t encounter that many of these guys at church, but as with politics, they do seem to think they own the place and corner the market on virtue. And, to be sure, many of them are living very worthy, obedient lives.

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