Imagine this setting: you are a Mormon attending a talk titled “Sacred Spaces, Holy Work: Perspectives on Mormon Temple Worship,” given at Harvard Divinity School by Juvenile Instructor’s own Tona Hangen, who is a professor of history and also a practicing Mormon. The talk is about temple worship, a topic on which Mormons famously do not love to offer details. The event is advertised both at Harvard and in my Sacrament program on Sunday. It is a public event and the room is full of people from diverse backgrounds. Scanning the room, I noticed people from the Divinity School who knew very little about Mormonism, Mormon professors and students from Harvard, three stake presidents (one whose wife brought treats), and people from my ward.
My point is not so much to belatedly highlight Tona’s awesome talk of a few months ago. Indeed, these situations happen all the time. Instead I want to bring attention to the complicated interplay of expectations of what one should say and how one’s audience expects you to say it. The experience of attending Tona’s talk, as well as subsequent experiences, has led me to think about the ways in which our audience (including believing Mormons and people with extensive or little knowledge of Mormonism) and our pedagogical spaces (such as classrooms, academic lectures, and sacrament talks) structure the ways in which we talk about our subject.
As an academically trained lifelong Mormon, I have learned several ways to engage with Mormonism. However, so far my experiences in discussing Mormonism have mostly been in homogenous groups and spaces. In Canada, where I grew up, there was little opportunity for mixed audiences because there were neither many Mormons nor people academically interested in Mormonism. Therefore, when I presented on Mormonism, I grew accustomed to being able to control who my audiences would be and how I would engage with them. Additionally, I could also manage how I presented my own subjectivity to the audience. Tona’s talk interested me because of the hybridity of the audience and subsequent messiness of expectations. Her audience understood Mormon temples in a variety of different ways: some non-Mormons had never heard of Mormon temples, others had participated in the sacred rituals in temples (and had different ideas of what should be secretive about those experiences), and the stake presidents in the room had the power to grant and bar access to temples.
So, as a speaker, writer, or teacher, how do you stay accountable to your hybrid audiences? How do you manage discourses of criticism and sympathy toward Mormonism? How do you frame your discussions in recognizable terms for mixed audiences? How do you manage different pedagogical spaces, such as BYU religion classes, in which learning expectations are both academic and devotional? How does your complicated relationship with the Mormon faith – whether you are a believing Mormon, Ex-Mormon, non-Mormon, or anything in between – enter into your academic discourse?
Please share your thoughts below in the comments.