In case you missed it during the business that is the holiday season, the winter issue of Dialogue appeared on its website. As its lead article, our own Steve Taysom offers a fabulous look at one of the new and provocative theories in religious studies: Robert Orsi’s “abundant events.” This theory should be familiar with Mormons studies practitioners and Dialogue readers since Orsi, Richard Bushman, and Susanna Morrill did an interview about it in Dialogue‘s fall 2011 issue. Put simply, Orsi’s theory starts with the problem that plagues many scholars: what does one do with supernatural events that are claimed by the religious people one studies? Or as Steve summarizes, “how do scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?” (4-5) Orsi’s response is to construct a conceptual category that both avoids the reductionism of skeptical scholars while still providing a framework in which the importance of the claimed experience can still be analyzed. Taysom examines the theory and sees how it works when applied to the study of Mormonism’s gold plates.
To summarize Steve’s fantastic article, I’ll gist his main argument, critiques, and conclusion, and then highlight what I think are the two most important aspects of the work. After giving a helpful summary of both the academic summary of religion as well as Orsi’s theory of “abundant events,” Taysom engages the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach. The biggest benefit, according to Taysom, is that “Orsi is attempting to create categories that bring religious experience into the ‘real’ world rather than attempting to fence them off” (5). But Taysom’s biggest critique is that Orsi never really explains whether it is the event or the narrative of said event that carries so much weight within a faith tradition. He is not willing to agree with Orsi that “abundant events…seem to exist and act independent of mundane historical agents” (9). For Taysom, it is the later narratives of the event that influence how people act and react, not the original event itself. “I can conclude,” writes Taysom, “that Orsi’s theory of abundant events is useful to the study of religion in general, and Mormonism in particular, only to the extent that it recognizes, accepts, or explains, in an explicit and clear manner, the role of narrative in the process of making the events ‘real'” (10).
Steve then practices what he preaches by experimenting with Orsi’s theory through an analysis of Mormonism’s gold plates. Examining both the believing and skeptical accounts from those who first encountered Joseph Smith’s message, Steve smartly utilizes Orsi’s conceptual methods to explain how their responses reveal the mental and religious world(s) of America around 1830. For believers, the “abundant event” of the gold plates served to “stabalize rather than revolutionize the world,” and it closed other “live options” for religion even as it opened another (17-18). For critics, the gold plates event “threatened to drag civilization back to a dark age that the new American epoch was supposed to have eradicated forever” (18). One of my favorite portions of the paper was a small divergence Steve made to examine how Mormonism took place on the many “frontiers” of society, whether geographic, social, economical, or religious (13). In the end, Steve concludes, just as he did earlier in the article, that “the abundant event is located not in the experience of Smith with the plates, but in the story of the plates, or the hoax perpetrated on the witnesses if one follows [Dan] Vogel’s reading of the sources–something they apparently believed to be real” (11).
The first aspect of the article I’d like to highlight is Steve’s sophisticated use of theory to address thorny issues. Mormon history has often been devoid of theoretical approaches to the past, typically being content with trying to “tell it how it was,” which has led to a bifurcated historiography split between “believers” and “skeptics.” This is especially the case when dealing with Joseph Smith’s gold plates, which some treat as an objective facts and others as a fraudulent deception. Taysom brilliantly demonstrates that by using sophisticated theoretical approaches—whether “abundant events,” narrative analysis, or theoretical conceptions like “frontier”—one can avoid most of these issues and ask deeper questions. (Steve has previously done this with the First Vision.) Invoking new theoretical approaches also implies asking new questions, which typically leads to new answers. As he explained on the article’s first page:
The source material will be familiar, perhaps even banal, to students of Mormon history. Much of it is drawn from widely available collections of primary sources that have been known and used for many decades. This is intentional, and a very important element of the experiment. it is the only way that we can test how a new theoretical model might allow scholars to view common things in new and uncommon ways. (1)
The second point that made me so excited about this article is that Taysom not only uses theoretical tools from the religious studies discipline, but he engages with them. That is, he doesn’t take them for granted or silently modify them for his own purpose. Rather, he enters into dialogue with Orsi, and uses Mormonism as a way to present his own theoretical argument. This is significant, and an embodiment of the future of Mormon studies, because its conclusions are not only relevant for Mormon scholars, but are applicable to all practitioners of religious studies; Steve is using Mormon history to speak to broader theoretical models and make an argument that is important for the larger academy. If I were teaching a general course on religious studies or approaches to religion, even if we don’t touch Mormonism at all in the class, I would feel very comfortable assigning my students this article along with one of Orsi’s essays as a entrypoint into how we can study “religion.”
With this article, Steve Taysom further establishes himself as one of the most sophisticated practitioners of theory within Mormon studies. So if you like Mormonism, if you are interested in the narratives surrounding the gold plates, and, most relevant, if you are interested in the methodological issues surrounding religious studies, Taysom’s article is for you. Enjoy.