The Age of Cultural Power: Reflections on “Mormonism in Cultural Contexts: A Symposium in Honor of Richard Bushman”
What follows are my reflections on “Mormonism in Cultural Contexts,” a conference that took place on Saturday, June 18, 2011, in honor of Richard Bushman’s 80th birthday. The organizers—Steve Harper, Spencer Fluhman, Reid Neilson, and Jed Woodworth—deserve many congratulations for putting together such a great event.
Behind the podium in the Springville Museum’s impressive Grand Gallery hangs the impressionistic painting Sunrise, North Rim Grand Canyon (1928). Painted by Mabel Pearl Frazer (1887-1981), a Fillmore native, University of Utah professor, and distinguished artist, the work captures the majestic image of the southwestern landscape. Vivid color denotes that even in the rough, ever-expanding, and imposing land of the Arizona desert, vivacity still permeates the region. “The vitality of art is life,” Frazer once explained in an Improvement Era interview. “All great art must have roots deep in a native soil…Things expressed without deep convictions can never be greatly convincing, rarely are they more than bits of superficial pettiness.” Sunrise, North Rim Grand Canyon is perhaps the best representative of her philosophy. While rooted in a precise locality—its title emphasizes the specific time and location of the painting’s subject—it seeks to capture something deeper; it reaches for a broader meaning and more significant message. A critic for the New York Herald Tribune agreed, noting that the work captured “the mood and texture of the country itself.” This was a painting—and a painter—that refused to be bound to a specific, narrow context.* There couldn’t have been a better backdrop to a conference dedicated to Richard Bushman.
In his concluding remarks to what had been an enormously successful conference, Bushman noted how we often construct periods and eras that best illustrate the themes and developments of that particular time. The 1970s was Arrington’s “Camelot,” and the 1990s was a period of fear and retrenchment, for instance. When speaking of the current age, Bushman identified it as a “Golden Age,” a period of new-found hope and impressive progression most obviously found in the plethora of scholarly monographs produced by scholars who are not affiliated with the LDS institution but who received great access to LDS archives, the openness and support found in Massacre at Mountain Meadows, as well as the impressive and exhaustive Joseph Smith Papers Project. We indeed live in an age of historical openness and sophistication.
But what happens “After the Golden Age,” the topic of Bushman’s remarks? Ironically, he posited that we should take our cue from popular culture. Recent productions, like HBO’s Big Love and Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, have utilized Mormonism to explore and depict broader cultural themes. Whether engaging unique and dysfunctional family dynamics, the naivety of blind faith amid real-world problems, or even the tenuous balance of private faith and public political offices, Mormonism has proven to be a potent symbol of pertinent issues. This, Bushman argued, should similarly be the future of Mormon Studies.
In what he identifies as “The Age of Cultural Power,” Bushman called for a scholarly future that ceased to focus on Mormonism for Mormonism’s sake and began to recognize the “power” Mormonism possessed in addressing broader cultural issues. The narrowness of New Mormon History is to give way to larger frameworks and tensions, an approach that spoke to broader audiences and was pertinent to more fields. He pointed out several scholars who have already adopted this approach, like Kathleen Flake, Jared Farmer, and Terryl Givens, and hoped that the number of scholars who identified with this school would continue to multiply.
That it was Richard Bushman who issed this call for a more contextualized approach is appropriate. He has long been the leader of placing early Mormonism within its wider context, as the subtitle to Rough Stone Rolling—“A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder”—reminds us. Reading Bushman’s books are more than just an introduction to the designated topic, but also a sophisticated summary of related issues and trends. If the future of Mormon Studies revolves around cultural power, it is only because scholars like Bushman have forced us to develop a stonger cultural conscience.
And the conference that took place in honor of Bushman reflected this conscience. The conference’s theme, “Mormonism in Cultural Contexts,’ was illuminated in many different ways among many different papers. Terryl Givens demonstrated how Joseph Smith exemplified the Romantic paradox of supreme autonomy and legalistic thought. David Whittaker outlined the costs of Mormonism’s adoption of British culture. Steve Flemming shared how elements of the neoplatonic notion of the “Philosopher King” was present in the early Church. Rosalynde Welch offered a fruitful comparative study of Joseph Smith and John Milton. Stuart Parker contextualized Bushman’s own historical craft, arguing that his “hermeneutic of generosity” was rooted as much in Bushman’s personality as it was his schooling. Finally, Philip Barlow presented on how Joseph Smith’s religious vision was steeped in a desire to repair and mend a fractured reality—a perspective that necessitated an obsession with one’s surrounding culture. And these are just a few examples.
Indeed, it would be fitting if the identification of “Mormonism’s context,” as opposed to merely “Mormonism,” as the foundational focus of Mormon Studies were to become Bushman’s most lasting legacy. He helped to lay the goundwork for such an approach, and is now pointing the way to its fruition. The number of scholars who are following in his footsteps, as demonstrated by the papers at this conference, shows his massive impact. Like Mabel Pearl Frazer, Bushman’s scholarly disciples will continue to use seemingly limited portraits to depict broader and more pertinent themes.
But those who know Richard recognize that his scholarly brilliance will never be his most important impact nor his most powerful lasting legacy. Academic excellence is an important thing, but it is not the only thing. “Each book and article we write,” he expressed in his concluding remarks, “is an act of friendship. All scholarship is a yearning to take part in a broader community of friends.” Richard Bushman has long demonstrated the demeanor of a seasoned gentleman, the patience of a caring tutor, and the love of an endearing friend. He not only wrote the book The Refinement of America—he exemplifies it. His influence on his peers and young admirers exceeds his scholarly prowess and is grounded in his irresistable personality. The cordiality of associations found at the conference as numerous participants shared pleasantries, mingled, and fostered scholarly friendships is a continuation of his impact and legacy. And that, in itself, is a potent cultural power.