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Methodology, Academic Issues

Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources

By June 27, 2018


Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft, eds. Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Most historiographical essays on recent shifts in Mormon Studies point to new subjects of study or new theoretical frameworks that build on, depart from, and challenge earlier generations of scholarship. In Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources, editors Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft have compiled a set of original essays that encourage scholars to return to the archival and documentary roots of the earlier historiography. But instead of simply mining those records for content, the editors invite students and scholars of Mormonism to “interrogat[e] documents as products of history rather than just as sources of historical information.” Historians, they insist, should take a nod from “archivists, descriptive bibliographers, and documentary editors” and ask “routine methodological questions of textual interpretation, production, transmission, and reception” (2). Their call here builds on both their own training and the Joseph Smith Papers Project that employs each.[1] The goal of the volume isn’t simply to tell historians what to do, but rather to demonstrate what more sustained attention to the production, transmission, reception, and custodianship of the documentary record can illuminate about early Mormonism.

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Roundtable: Liturgy and Practice in Stapley’s *Power of Godliness*

By March 23, 2018


In reflections earlier in the week, J Johnson and J Stuart offered thoughts on how Jonathan Stapley’s excellent new book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, models the kind of attentiveness to “lived theology” that some scholars have called for, and which has been characterized as part of the analytical school of “lived religion.” This is not the theology of the elites, but rather, as Robert Orsi put it, the “theology of the streets”: vernacular meaning-making and “cultural bricolage” performed by ordinary people [1]. It is colored by the vicissitudes of ordinary life and, while informed by the pronouncements of religious authority figures, it is not bounded by them. This is experiential theology, and it matches with the premium valued place by the “lived religion” approach upon experience. Johnson and Stuart are quite right; Stapley has, in his deployment of “cosmology,” certainly succeeded in his aspiration to “[open] new possibilities for understanding the lived experiences of women and men in the Mormon past and Mormon present” (pg. 2).  In this reflection, however, I offer a few thoughts not (or at least not directly) on “cosmology” or theology, but on the other major category of Stapley?s book, “liturgy,” and on how The Power of Godliness relates to the study of religious practice in Mormon history and in American religious history more generally.

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Roundtable: Stuart on *The Power of Godliness*

By March 20, 2018


Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness is a landmark for Mormon Studies. There are precious few academic, peer-reviewed publications that succinctly and accessibly explain the development of Mormonism’s definitions of priesthood and liturgical practices. While there are certain rough edges that could be smoothed out, it’s altogether remarkable that Stapley produced this book. It’s even more astounding that he wrote the book while working in the private sector, without summers for research or other designated “work” times that many academic need to produce scholarship.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of Stapley’s work that I think are worth emulating in future work in Mormon Studies. First, I consider how Stapley’s work does theology in an academically viable way. Second, I reflect on Stapley’s use of religious studies methodologies throughout his manuscript.

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Book Review: Terryl Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford, 2017)

By March 12, 2018


With Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, published with Oxford last year, Terryl Givens has brought us the second installment in his magisterial and systematic treatment of Mormon theology. It follows on the heels of Wrestling the Angel, issued from the same press in 2014. That book explored what Givens designated as the global themes of Mormon thought–history, theology, and “restoration”–as well as core elements of its Christian theology, its cosmology, its theology proper (that is, its conceptions of the divine), and its theological anthropology. This second volume (which, like the previous one, weighs in at over four hundred pages) has a different and narrower scope: it is devoted almost entirely, as Givens acknowledges, to ecclesiology–to Mormon teachings about the church, its activities, and the theological structures which undergird them. Suffice it to say, as an opening, that Feeding the Flock offers the ambitious, expansive, visionary style that we’ve come to expect from Givens. It is a well-wrought, elegantly executed work. As he did in Wrestling the Angel, Givens once again sets an entirely new standard for the study of Mormonism’s theological foundations. And he sets the bar high.

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Tuesdays With Orsi: Epilogue

By March 14, 2017


Welcome to the last installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series, in which we collectively read Robert Orsi’s HISTORY AND PRESENCE (Harvard, 2016)! This post examines the epilogue and offers thoughts on the book as a whole. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and chapter 7.

?It is a dreadful thing to be in relationship with the gods really present,? Orsi says at the beginning of this book. (5) Certainly, a reading of its seven chapters is enough to convince us of that. They show that the gods can be capricious and deceptive as often as they are redemptive and healing. His believers cling to bags of sacred soil, icons, and relics. They experience the presence of the divine in their lives. And yet Orsi is hardly telling Sunday school stories. The presence of the gods fails people, hurts them, and tears them up, emotionally and physically. And yet those people keep coming, pressing their foreheads against the tombs of the saints, because the gods save them, too.

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Mormon Studies Publication Workshop at the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics (Deadline March 27)

By March 13, 2017


Last year, Kris W. and I hosted a “Mormonism in Religious Studies” workshop at the University of Utah. We discussed religious disappointment, Mormonism and Spiritualism, failed healings, immigration, Mormon women and masonry, and other topics at length.

The workshop helped to create a sense of community among young scholars from a variety of places and disciplines while providing helpful feedback for developing projects.  As a result, we have decided to host another workshop as a pre-conference workshop at the 2017 meetings of the Mormon History Association in St. Louis, MO. The workshop, “Surveying Trends in the Field: Mormon History and Mormon Studies in the Modern Academy,” will be held on Thursday, June 1 at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis from 9 AM-5 PM. There will be no cost for the workshop beyond punctual arrival and rigorous intellectual engagement.

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History and Presence, Chapter 7: The Abundance of Evil

By March 7, 2017


Welcome to the eighth installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series! We’re taking a look at the seventh chapter of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, and as Hannah introduced last week, today’s discussion will be on the meaning of abundant evil. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.

Where chapter six took on the idea of heaven, this chapter deals more with hell. What happens, Orsi asks, when the abundant event believers encounter is an evil one? He uses the stories of men and women who were sexually abused as children to tease out the question of presence and abundance in light of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

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History and Presence, Chapter 3: Holy Intimacies

By February 7, 2017


Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the third chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi?s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are found herehere, and here.

OrsiThe third chapter of Robert Orsi’s provocative and sophisticated book leaves behind the broad and sweeping trajectories of earlier chapters in order to focus on the mundane experiences of everyday life. Personal relics, individual relationship, holy encounters—this is where humans experience the gods. This is, of course, lived religion, a genre that Orsi has championed. But in this form it is focused on the personalized contexts in which “abundant events” are experienced. The chapter interweaves three different narratives–Chicago housewives in 1940s war-torn America who worried about their families overseas, a young Arizona girl who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father slightly later, and a social sciences grad student in the 1990s staring down her own leukemia–while meditating on the nature of gods’ presence in everyday life. Each of these three stories feature women facing insurmountable evil, yet finding refuge in a spiritual event, even if that moment of religious deliverance didn’t feature a headline-grabbing episode.

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History and Presence, Chapter 2: “Abundant History”

By January 31, 2017


Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the second chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. See the first installment here and the second installment here.

 

OrsiAs Ryan wrote last week, Orsi’s writing in the past dozen or so years has focused on the need to write about “presence” and “abundant events” in scholarship on religion. Following up on his first chapter arguing for an academic way of studying the presence of “the gods” as they appear and operate in the lives of individuals and religious groups, Orsi’s second chapter argues that scholars should take “abundant events” much more seriously. In doing so, Orsi seeks to help scholars overcome the methodological issues inherent to studying religion. As JI emeritus and scholar Steve Taysom puts it, “how [can] scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?”[i] Orsi contends that the abundance of events surrounding when the “transcendent breaks into time” means that scholars must account for the “presence” of supernatural occurrences and beings in the lives of those they study. This necessarily draws upon anthropological and historical methodologies.

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Tuesdays with Orsi! History and Presence: Introduction

By January 17, 2017


Come one, come all. Welcome to a new series that we’re hosting: Tuesdays with Orsi! The series will feature posts that highlight each chapter of Robert Orsi’s new and provocative History and Presence, and I have the honor of kicking it off.

history and presenceRobert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. He is a prominent scholar of American religion and one of the foremost theorists/methodological innovators of the field. His scholarship has provoked us here at JI to think about what a Robert Orsi might look like for Mormon Studies, how “abundant events” might be used for Mormonism, and a highlight of a chat with Richard Bushman about abundant events. It’s no surprise that his newest work prompts us, yet again, to engage, digest, and grapple with truly provocative narrative and theory. The implications of the book are monumental. But enough gilding the lily. Let’s get to the introduction.

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