Kristine Haglund is a stay-in-the-minivan mother of three kids, and the current editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She blames her interest in Mormon history on her father, who gave her a copy of _Mormon Sisters_ when she was 9 years old, and then asked her to give a sacrament meeting talk about Ellis Shipp and Patty Sessions. She blogs full-time, of course, at By Common Consent. Kristine presented these remarks at the Mormonism in the Public Mind conference at UVU on Friday, April 3, 2009.
I am more than a little bit surprised to find myself on a panel with “new media” and “pop culture” in the session title-I grew up mostly without a TV and am inflicting the same deprivation on my children; I’m old enough to have taken a typewriter with me when I went to college; and I grew up in a home where “contemporary” music meant anything post-Mahler, like maybe Copland. I now realize that I was the only Mia Maid listening to Standards Nights talks about devil-inspired modern music and thinking about the evils of Schoenberg.
However, I stumbled into the Mormon corner of the blogosphere just as there was beginning to be one, and am thus, willy-nilly, conversant with some of the novel challenges and opportunities that blogging and other new media present to “old” independent Mormon media, and to the Church itself. My title, borrowed from a TV show of which I have seen one or two episodes, points to what I believe to be the most extreme possible outcome of these challenges-the end of the development of Mormon independent publications printed on “dead trees.” The reasons that this is a live possibility are easy to enumerate:
Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, and other forms of online publishing are cheap or free; barriers to entry for either consumption or expression are quite low. In particular, the sharing of personal experience (personal essays loosely defined) which has been a defining characteristic of many Mormon publications, is easily replicated by blogging, with the advantage of not needing to go through the process of editing or any other kind of gatekeeping.
As one would expect, the removal of barriers to sharing personal experiences and opinions readily creates a sense of community. This is, perhaps, the most salient feature of blogging, at least among Mormon bloggers. Although it may not have been a deliberate intent of Dialogue, Sunstone, Exponent II and other older journals at their founding, it seems clear to me that one of the major functions they have served over the years is to provide community for those whose intellectual proclivities or political convictions or background experiences make it difficult for them to experience such community in their geographically assigned congregation. The most important content of these journals has always been extratextual-every article, every essay proclaims above all “you are not alone; other Mormons share your questions and may even have useful answers to some of them.” This crucial function of Dialogue, Sunstone, Irreantum, and Exponent II is far better served by blogs, Facebook groups, and even the insistent, relentless virtual communing of the Twitterers. The gathering of vaguely likeminded folk once represented by the quarterly arrival of a journal or an annual symposium has been replaced by ongoing convocations of highly specialized likemindedness, from positions all along the orthodoxy spectrum. Moreover, one can pick one’s level of affiliation or disaffection within fine gradations-from blogs composed almost entirely of lengthy quotations from GAs to ones created by “New Order Mormons”, the “Disaffected Mormon Underground” to exmormon.org. In short, I can have a Sunstone Symposium in my living room every night if I want to (but never in the bedroom-that’s how rumors get started!).
The informality of these communities is part of their appeal, as is their participatory nature-it turns out that people really like to hear themselves talk. A certain egalitarianism and democratic ethos prevails. Authority and credentials are unimportant; the degree to which one’s opinion is reasonably well-informed can be less important than whether one states it provocatively (or just with sufficient bombast).
This democratic ethos is also one of the significant challenges presented to the institutional church by these new media. While most Mormons are still highly conditioned to value and defer to official pronouncements and respect ecclesiastical authority, the medium itself invites, even requires, challenges to that authority-blogging provides Everywoman and Everyman a printing press and an infinite number of virtual church doors; typepad and blogspot verily cry out for the posting of theses, which will, in a world subject to the forces of entropy, inevitably tend towards heresy.
Another threatening technological development is the volume and ready accessibility of information. With the advent of nanotechnology, 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 Gospel Doctrine manual garden hose is all there is. 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 invite and 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. I had hours of the best religious and philosophical conversations I have ever had during the weeks after the broadcast of that film-it’s one of very few times in my life that I’ve had anything to say in the “Missionary Moments” segment of RS meetings. Among my ward members, though, the film was generally perceived as hostile. Especially troubling 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 (ever-so-humbly and tentatively, of course) suggest that we might look to the experience of 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, JMH, 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, to borrow the Maussian framework, partially resisted the retrenchment that characterized the latter half of the 20th century. Their experience of the last several decades may be useful as we find ourselves at a moment where new kinds of assimilation are called for. In this cultural moment, retrenchment, 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. And if these outlets are not always as orthodox as the church might hope, at least the flavors of their heresy are by now familiar.
Within the church, it’s possible that these old, dead tree publications will help carve out a middle way between the anarchy of the virtual world and the perfectly manicured gardens of the Main St. Plaza. Merely at the level of word count and attention span, these publications model the kind of sustained study and work that will become more and more necessary as the broad, shallow stream of tweeted, blogged, and flickered shadows of chatter about Mormonism create, in the minds of average members, (no longer just the really nerdy ones) questions that the minimalist products of correlation do not address. Some members of the church will inevitably seek unofficial sources of answers when they encounter information that appears to contradict the official narratives. The relative friendliness of these independent publications will, I think, come to be more appreciated by contrast to what comes up in the average google search on Mormon topics. One hopes, too, that the anti-intellectualism that has characterized some expressions of the last wave of retrenchment, and that we will again be looking for ways to encourage “Cultural Refinement” (as the old RS lessons had it).
Maybe this is the place to digress briefly to mention another, diametrically opposite challenge to these dead tree journals we’ve been discussing-that is, the increasing professionalization of Mormon Studies. An unprecedented new generational cohort of Mormon graduate students is studying Mormonism in religion and history departments in the academy, at just the same time as religious studies are “hot” in the academy, with Mormons providing an example that is exotic enough to be sexy and yet American enough to be accessible to non-Mormon scholars’ understanding. This is, of course, a wonderful development, but there is a real risk that these young scholars will prefer to speak to the audience within their academic discipline, rather than to earnest amateur students of Mormonism. Dialogue and the JMH and Element, in particular, will struggle to get submissions of the best scholarly work. It remains to be seen whether a new Mormon Studies journal, with the staffing and funding model of an academic journal and institutional affiliation will emerge, and what that will mean for Mormon journals competing for that work. Keeping thoughtful Mormons who may lack formal training or expertise in specialized academic study of religion informed about this new academic interest in Mormonism and in religion more generally is as important, and probably at least as difficult a task for Mormon journals as providing bridges between younger, new-media-savvy Mormons and the scholarly work of a previous generation that created communities to address similar questions.
Jan Shipps has observed that “as the business of reconstructing what happened in the Mormon past move[s] forward, the truism that Mormonism doesn’t have a theology so much as it has a history has been supplanted by one of the most important products of correlation, an ever more clearly defined theology in which the content of the tradition’s symbol system is being filled up, clarified, and systematized. …in time, the Book of Mormon will, as it was in the beginning, be more significant for the faith than the Joseph Smith story and that what goes on in the temple will be far more meaningful than anything they could learn from either correlated or uncorrelated versions of their tradition’s history.” She’s referring, of course, to the re-imagining of Mormonism that had to occur at the turn of the 20th century, with the cessation of practicing polygamy, the uneasy incorporation of Utah as a state, which Kathleen Flake (that anti-Mormon professor from Vanderbilt) brilliantly explicated in her examination of the seating of Senator Smoot.
This kind of re-imagining, which is fundamental-not just a matter of spin-will necessarily happen again, and again. The possibility of this kind of reinvention, rather than being an unfortunate effect of Mormonism’s collision with “the world” is, in fact, its essence. Rather than being anxious or alarmed about it, Mormons who blog and write can be glad, and can embrace the paradoxically conservative role that will fall to them-conservative in the sense that Sunstone, Dialogue, the Journal of Mormon History, Irreantum, Exponent, Segullah will be the cultural artifacts that preserve the traces of the vital process of the production of the imagined community that is Mormonism. Whether they become merely relics will depend on whether they can make themselves relevant as cultural mediators both within the institutional church and between the church and the wider world-whether they can improve the signal-to-noise ratio of new media and distil the babel of diverse voices into a coherent and recognizably Mormon conversation.