Sacred Space at BYU, June 3, 2009: Conference and metaconference

By June 4, 2009


There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for this conference, and every inch of it deserved. Not a cubic zirconium among the presentations, and more than one absolute diamond (Laurie Maffly-Kipp on preparation; Richard Cohen on the Hebrew temple). This was an impressive and a diverse kaleidoscope, and the most interesting thing was the way, one after another, each speaker demonstrated the point Jeanne Halgren Kilde made – that talking about sacred space, at its essence, is talking about the way we experience religion. Space matters because people do things in it.

And the crowd was restlessly aware of this. The symposium was open to the public, and students in shorts and flipflops rubbed shoulders with retirees in suits. Their questions circled not historiography or theory, but rather revealed a constant hunger for explanation of their own experiences. More than one speaker was brought up short by an insistent audience member who wanted not just to get an answer, but to share some sudden insight into their own visit to an LDS temple or a mosque that whatever talk had inspired. And then, around quarter after eight in the evening, at the plenary panel discussion, Richard Bushman started talking about dusting the chairs in the Manhattan temple, and the whole day snapped into focus.

Hearing Bushman talk about anything is a pleasure; he has a deliberate and almost soothing style of delivery, and a talent for definition, but he is also gifted with a particular knack of personalizing scholarship. It is this as much as anything else, I think, that makes him to Mormonism what James McPherson is to the Civil War; a crossover artist whom scholars respect but who also understands the power these things hold in the public imagination, and who conducts himself with the consequent grace that such awareness demands.

Bushman spoke of his own experiences in the Manhattan temple, cleaning and worshiping. He mused about that space’s power to shape the people inside it, and then asked the panel to weigh the relative merits of diffusion. Should we seek to encapsulate the sacred? Or should we pursue the sanctification of the world?


This is not the sort of question scholars generally expect. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp noted, worlds like “better” and “good” are not categories scholars usually think in. We’re phenomenologists; we observe and describe but do not apply. Scholars speak in the language of historiography and evidence; we argue about what theories apply best to our subjects, not to us. (Maffly-Kipp is also, the running joke became, a low-church Protestant. What could she know about temples and ritual? Much geeky hilarity.)

Soon after Bushman asked his question, Richard Cohen, with a ragged hitch in his voice and tears in his eyes, told us about his recent visit to Vilnus, and the Nazi destruction of the Jewish communities there. He quite nearly spat the words. And he apologized for his emotion.

But there was a power in this. One after another, audience members stood and testified. One told Hamid Mavani that his previous description of the faithful praying at a mosque – shoulder pressed to shoulder, foot to foot – had taught her that sacred space should be a place for the construction of community. Another, inspired by Cohen, rose and said that though she was a convert to Mormonism, the rebuilding of the Nauvoo temple (destroyed by mobs in 1848) had bound her to the ancestors of her tradition, the women who sacrificed their china (as, she noted, Michael Fishbane had recounted the Israelites sacrificing their property to build the tabernacle) were those whom the temple was truly built for.

Cohen, and Mavani as well, seemed most energized by this sort of back and forth; Mavani, for istance, eloquently compared Mormonism to Islam, enthusiastically describing the similarities between the garment and ihram clothing to curious Mormons, constantly returning to ideas of cooperation, similarity, and mutual goodwill.


The 2005 Library of Congress symposium on Joseph Smith was the target of some perhaps justified criticism for schizophrenia. As an attendee, I recall the occasionally palpable tension between LDS presenters like Roger Keller – who sought generally to praise rather than analyze Joseph and his works – and non-LDS academics like Douglas Davies, who presented a more critical analysis of Mormon culture and history.

This conference reminded me of that one in some ways; most particularly, the odd dialectic between the academic and the devotional. But here, unlike in Washington, the two seemed to gain some harmony; the amateur and the professional, as Kilde’s formulation gestures toward, learning from each other.

This happens in any conference devoted to studying some arcane specialty. The Western History Association, I am told, features a surfeit of ranchers in large hats; military history conferences attract passionate amateurs who can number the buttons on the coats of uniforms. And Mormon conferences will probably always attract lay Mormons.

And of course, this is how it should be; otherwise academia would wither and die for lack of relevance and an acute case of self-consumption. But I wonder what the divergences between the anxieties of the Library of Congress symposium and the passionate give and take of BYU (and perhaps even the intervening years between) indicate about the particular dynamics that exist between academic and practiced Mormonism.

Was what happened at BYU academic? On the one hand, yes, resoundingly so. These papers were a taste of the possibilities open when we seek to involve Mormonism in larger theoretical and structural discussions. On the other hand, one member of the audience asked a professor at the University of Chicago if the Jews were hiding the materials to rebuild the second temple under a rock somewhere.

Was it devotional? On the one hand, there were as many tears as in an average testimony meeting. On the other, we were told that the Kirtland temple was so arranged as to preserve power hierarchies.

In any case, the edge that sharpened the exchanges between Keller and Davies at the Library of Congress was gone, perhaps because the hardening catalyst of truth claims both religious and academic was absent. Perhaps this indicates that the best way to characterize this conference is as an interfaith dialogue, rather than an academic discussion, and one made that way because of the audience as much as the participants. The goal was in the process: to have the discussion, to place a retired Mormon from Provo in position to have dialogue with a Muslim professor. And there is great worth here, if of different kind than can be footnoted.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Methodology, Academic Issues Scholarship at Church State of the Discipline


  1. Nice thoughts Matt. I wonder if the higher level of tension at the DC conference might have stemmed from the focus on an individual, Joseph Smith, rather than on an idea, such as sacred space. And the thing about the building materials under a rock–classic.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 4, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

  2. Well put, Matt. I thought the same thing as Steve re: person vs topic. I also think that it had a lot to do with the actual people involved: Steve Olsen would come the closest to Roger Keller, yet he still seems to have a better grasp of academic symposia. In fact, i don’t think we could have had a better lineup of participants; kudos to those involved and Jim for putting it together.

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  3. Thanks for putting into words what I think a lot of us in attendance sensed/thought/felt, Matt. I would imagine Steve is probably right, at least in part, about the reason for the lack of tension yesterday in contrast to the LoC conference. It also helps, I think, that there were no Roger Kellers who presented yesterday.

    Perhaps most encouraging to me (and this is related to your own thoughts) is that the conference seemed to both motivate scholars/students of Mormonism to think in new ways about how best to understand Mormon religious experience, temple worship, etc. and to inspire Mormons (both academic and non) in the way they understand and practice their own religion. My wife, for example, excitedly shared with me afterwards that her understanding of the temple and the endowment were greatly expanded by what the two Jewish scholars shared, and the temple now has taken on new meaning to her on a personal spiritual level. This seems to me an appropriate response to such a conference that aims to (and succeeds) in balancing academic and devotional approaches.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  4. Great post, Matt. After having seen such a wealth of perspectives on the subject of sacred space, I think about how important it is for Latter-day Saints to seek outside our tradition for minds and ideas that will challenge our traditional understandings and, as Chris said, inspire new ideas about how to further the study of Mormonism.

    Comment by Jared T — June 4, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  5. A lovely reflection, Matt; thanks for sharing it with us.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 4, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  6. Great post, but one question. Why do we dislike Roger Kellers so much.I think the difference in this conference and the one in DC was that one was a major press event for the church and public affairs, and even had an Apostle speak at it. This wasn’t that kind of shindig.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 4, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  7. Matt W., Nobody said that they didn’t like Roger Keller or other individuals like him.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  8. Thanks for this post, as well as your other notes on the symposium.

    This was a wonderful symposium. I just wanted to add that I think we need to give the audience a lot of credit (not that nobody’s not doing this). With the exception of perhaps one or two questions (such as the embarrassing Jesus question to Cohen), I thought that the audience did a remarkable job, as evident in their questions, of integrating the scholarship and their personal experience. Perhaps in a way that doesn’t happen all that often, this scholarship actually spoke to many people.

    Moreover, I think the audience genuinely challenged the panel. Issues were raised that subtly reminded the panel that there were bigger issues that weren’t being directly addressed. Of course, this is perfectly understandable, but I think sometimes academics (even fantastic ones at a conference like this) can easily touch with the average Joe and Jane. As much as I have seen any academic event do, this event brought the two worlds together. The academic laity and clergy both need more events like this.

    Comment by Dennis — June 4, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  9. can easily LOSE touch, I meant to say

    Comment by Dennis — June 4, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

  10. I so should have cancelled class and come down as I had planned (though my American Heritage lecture on Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses make any lecture hall a sacred space).

    I really like the idea of an academic conference merging with a devotional. It makes me want to blog in a similar manner.

    Thanks Matt for sharing these thoughts. Thanks JI for being so awesome.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 4, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  11. Thanks for this great review. I admit that I was not pleased with many of the paper summaries I read because it felt like I was reading a smart-people testimony meeting, and not an academic investigation. Perhaps it is just my experience, but the mixture the academic and devotional at Mormon conferences makes me really embarrassed. Not just at DC, but at Yale in 2003(?), the same dynamic was at work and almost without exception the Mormon scholars were an embarrassment.
    Even worse are the plebes. I get sick when someone raises their hand and asks a dumb question. I once saw some chump challenge JZ Smith as being too “worldly” in talking about sacred space.
    These moments tend to make me think that LDSs have a long way to go, but those cringe worthy questions are the ones that get remembered and reported to other academics.

    Comment by TT — June 5, 2009 @ 7:42 am

  12. I will say this about dumb comments and questions. I have never been to an academic conference yet (AAR, OAH, AHA, CSA, etc.,) in which members of the audience did not behave in an embarassing way. At the more erudite conferences this usually takes the form of an audience member who is irked that he (it’s almost always men for some reason) was not invited to participate so he tries to give a paper from his seat. In the process it always becomes clear why the person is in the audience on not on the panel.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 5, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  13. SC,

    That is not my experience at political science conferences. But they tend not to be open to the public and view in the public would be interested in attending.


    Interesting response. I think that these settings can be valuable, but I had not thought about how those outside scholars might view the experience. Hmmm.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 5, 2009 @ 10:22 am

  14. Very enjoyable and insightful post, Matt. I think I read somewhere that there might be an attempt to record the conference. Does anyone know if that actually happened?

    Comment by kris — June 5, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  15. Kris: I didn’t see any recording going on, but I do think Jim is speculating on a book deal.

    Comment by Ben — June 5, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  16. Kris,
    They recorded the entire thing.

    Comment by mmiles — June 5, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  17. The Church recorded all of the presentations but not the final panel discussion. No one really knows, though, what will happen with the recordings. I wouldn’t expect them to be on the Internet. My guess is that they will be periodically aired on BYUTV, but who knows when this will happen.

    Comment by Dennis — June 5, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  18. Thanks, folks.

    TT – I missed two papers, but the presentations I saw varied somewhat on this point. Jeanne Kilde, for instance, presented material from her book When Church Became Theatre; Maffly-Kipp’s paper could easily be turned into an article. This was straight up scholarship; I’d hardly characterize it as testimony meeting. On the other hand, Mavani seemed quite aware that he was talking to a less academic audience, and Fishbane’s paper seemed designed to be introductory.

    The nonLDS presenters also reacted in somewhat different ways to the questioners – some seemed prepared for it, some did not; Cohen and Mavani embraced it, others, like Fishbane, seemed somewhat less comfortable. I imagine it was an odd experience for some of them; I wonder to what extent they were prepped.

    The Mormon work here was a somewhat different story; many Mormon academics seem somewhat starry eyed when they take on their own tradition, and seem to see conferences sponsored by BYU as an invitation. The work here was not an exception to that. This is of course merely the debate over Rough Stone Rolling all over again – how should a believer present work on their own tradition? This is a problem, I imagine, many groups face. There are, however, certain rhetorical strategies that could be avoided – the use of the phrase “the restoration of the Gospel,” for instance.

    Comment by matt b. — June 5, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  19. My n00b observations match Taysom’s (12). At every conference I’ve been to so far (which isn’t very many), there has been a moment in the commenting when I have thought: “If they can get a PhD and tenure then maybe, surely, there is hope for me.”

    But… I think TT has a point: memories and impressions are not fair, and I imagine that many academics would walk away thinking: “that felt like Mormon church.”

    But… part of me doesn’t care. If we’re comparing conferences with scholarly rigor and devotional connections against conferences with only scholarly rigor, which is the lesser (assuming the rigor is the same)? Then again, I hope JMH, Dialogue, MHA, JWHJ, etc. “count” when I go up for tenure. It’s a vexatious question.

    Comment by Edje — June 5, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  20. thanks matt! Of course, I was mainly talking about the LDS presenters, though there are some obvious exceptions, including the ones you mentioned above. I think we probably have the same ear for this. I think that there is not only a tone deafness for many LdS scholars when they talk about Mormonism, but a lack of critical skills (hence the testimony feel), and sometimes complete obliviousness about the scholarship on their topic since they are speaking out of their area of specialty. Anyway, this is just me whining about pretty much every confernece on Mormonism I’ve been to or heard about over the last decade. I just wish we could have one that was embarrasing-incident free.

    Comment by TT — June 5, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  21. Matt B and TT, you guys are not alone in your observations. As an academic who studies Mormonism (among other things more broadly) as a Mormon, I have had to make clear in my work that my stance is neither apolgetic nor devotional. My published work and conference papers helped to convince the department that hired me that I could approach the subject with the critical rigor they expected. On that topic, I may post at some point about how I finally rejected phenomenology as self-serving quasi-apologetics during graduate school.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 5, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  22. On that topic, I may post at some point about how I finally rejected phenomenology as self-serving quasi-apologetics during graduate school.

    please do.

    Comment by Ben — June 5, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  23. […] For anyone who hasn’t yet seen the notes from BYU’s recent Sacred Space Symposium, you can check them out here. […]

    Pingback by BYU Sacred Space Symposium | Heavenly Ascents — June 5, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  24. As a non-Mormon (though one with a significant amount of Mormon DNA), I have found the Mormon conferences I have attended refreshing. A lot of the other conferences that I have attended tend to get a little too wrapped up in theoretical debates for me. Gramsci, anyone? Having non-academics there (or at least academics from different fields) adds a new dynamic to the conference. In my experience it forces the academics there who are presenting in their field to think about the accessibility of their presentations and make sure that the theory that they are using does actual analytic work and isn?t just there to increase the perceived academic value of their work.

    They perform a function similar to the one that my husband does for me. Whenever he reads my work, he always makes fun of me for using words like ?race-making? and ?whiteness.? I continue to use those words in my work, but it reminds me that academia isn?t the only thing out there and I need to keep non-academics in mind as I am writing.

    Comment by Amanda H. — June 5, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

  25. Amanda H.,

    I agree with you. As a graduate student (though not in history), I am a little surprised at some of the academic snobbery expressed in the comments of this page. You guys need to lighten up a bit. The world does not revolve around what academics think about Mormons.

    Comment by Dennis — June 5, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

  26. Dennis, please don’t exaggerate what anyone here has said. Commenting that we need to “lighten up a bit” isn’t going to endear you to any of the snobby academics you’re trying to critique.

    Comment by Christopher — June 5, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  27. The world does not revolve around what academics think about Mormons.

    Yes it does.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 5, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  28. We snobs are superior enough that we can handle the disdain.

    On a serious note: I present to non-academic audiences all the time. They are my students.

    If you do not like the things that academics talk about at academic conference, you should not go to them. I go to them to engage other scholars. I spend the rest of my time lecturing to undergrads, hometeaching, and raising a family.

    Now this conference may not have been an academic conference, but there seems to be a longing on the part of some LDS scholars (many of whom commented above) to be able to discuss these ideas in a serious and theoretical way (trust me, I am hoping that it is not Gramsci…just Marx). This may not be for everyone. Neither is the examined life. I am okay with that.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 5, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  29. I wouldn’t argue for disengaging from theory completely, but I would argue that there needs to be a balance. I found this year’s MHA to be a nice example of that. Although there were a few squirm-inducing comments (on both the academic and non-academic side), I thought the panels I attended managed to approach topics in a way that was interesting both to professional historians and to lay people.

    Part of my perspective comes from still being in graduate school in a department that prides itself on its theoretically rigorous approach to grad school and history (I will probably feel differently when I am a faculty member). My university has a reading group organized and ran by graduate students that is devoted solely to Gramsci, and I am surprised that there’s not one devoted to Adorno. Most of the conferences I attend that aren’t in my subfield are those that hosted by our department and as a result, they tend to be infused with the same hyper-theoretical perspective.

    As much as there has been a desire on this blog to create a space for scholars who engage in Mormon studies to also engage in theoretical issues, there has also been a desire to discover a way to write history that is appealing both to scholars and to believing Mormons. I think historians are at their best when they try to engage both worlds, and I am not sure lamentations about the gaffes that non-academics make at conferences is the best way to meet those aims.

    Comment by Amanda H. — June 5, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  30. I am not a historian. Nor is TT (at least I do not categorize him as such…feel free to correct me). So I cannot speak to the issues and challenges of your discipline (though I do read all things Eric Foner).

    Of course academics should address both audience. However, I think there is a time and a place for each. There needs to be an academic sphere. Once you leave graduate school you will realize how cool it is to have a Gramsci reading group (okay, I do not know why anyone reads that stuff, but that is one example).

    I specialize in an area of political philosophy. There are less than a half dozen people in my state that know anything about it. So, I need to attend conferences to advance my work and meet my intellectual needs.

    Now, I am now entering into Mormon Studies. It is bad enough that in order to do so I have to try to communicate with historians, lawyers, and religious studies people. If I want the mass chaos of the demos, I blog…and I do. If I am going to advance my Mormon Studies interests (amd career) then I need the type of space that TT seems to desire.

    MHA might be a good example. But (and I apologize if this offends) Mormon history seems to be much like Civil Way history–it is overcrowded by those how lack the academic instinct. Now I do not need for everyone in a field to be trained in a specific way, but academic disciplines bring a rigor (or at least should) which should set a certain standard.

    In general, I think that there is an important role for the public intellectual. But the greatest public intellectuals are those that have first be refined in the trenches of theoretical debate and discourse…or something like that.

    I do think that this tension is an interesting one and I have had mixed feelings about it. As I said before, I wish that I had been at the conference this week. Yet, I understand the concerns as well.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 5, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

  31. Next time MHA has its regular debate on interesting young scholars in the organization, remind me to tell them not to bother. The only model young academics know is the academic conference. They won’t appreciate the professional conference until they become practicing historians. If they ever do.

    (Is there an emoticon that mimics the patient fondness of an old lioness watching her cubs practicing their roars and making mock assaults on her swishing tail? Insert that here.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 6, 2009 @ 12:39 am

  32. Amanda and Dennis, I think nobody would disagree that history for both academics and a popular audience is a wonderful ideal, but it remains that it’s damnably hard to produce it, and particularly in religious history. And that because, frankly, layfolk and academics interested in religion generally have different goals. Academic work in religion frequently is dissatisfying to nonacademics, because it’s by its very nature somewhat artificial: religion is about practice, and living, and doing; academics is about observation and description. For some attendees, this conference was a form of worship; for others, it was about analysis. I don’t consider it mockery to point that out. That collision is why the LoC conference suffered. This conference juggled the two better than most such (and, for instance, most issues of the JMH) do, which inspired the slightly wondering tone in this post. And even still, the seesaw was uneasy.

    Comment by matt b. — June 6, 2009 @ 1:48 am

  33. Ardis, a plea for an elaboration of the distinction you’re making between “academic” and “professional” historians, and how it matters among Mormon historians? Why shouldn’t MHA try to be a hybrid?

    (and, just to be clear–this is a sincere question asked in ignorance, not a disagreement couched as rhetorical question)

    Comment by Kristine — June 6, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  34. Kristine, my comment was chiefly in response to Chris H.’s 28 and 30, where he exhibits more than a little disdain for those who are not academics but who attend conferences. He writes,

    Now, I am now entering into Mormon Studies. It is bad enough that in order to do so I have to try to communicate with historians, lawyers, and religious studies people. If I want the mass chaos of the demos, I blog?and I do. If I am going to advance my Mormon Studies interests (amd career) then I need the [academic world which TT wants: an absence of the “devotional at Mormon conferences [which] makes me really embarrassed … almost without exception the Mormon scholars were an embarrassment. Even worse are the plebes.”] [MHA] is overcrowded by those how [sic] lack the academic instinct.

    While I know many academic historians would cringe at letting that stand as the definition of the academic historian, it’s the one I’m using here because it has been so expressed on this thread, more than once and by more than one academic, and represents the exclusivity that forces a distinction between academic and professional.

    Representing the professional historian’s inclusivity, I quote from the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct of the American Historical Association:

    History is the never-ending process whereby people seek to understand the past and its many meanings. The institutional and intellectual forms of history’s dialogue with the past have changed enormously over time, but the dialogue itself has been part of the human experience for millennia. We all interpret and narrate the past, which is to say that we all participate in making history. It is among our most fundamental tools for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

    Professional historians benefit enormously from this shared human fascination for the past. Few fields are more accessible or engaging to members of the public. Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities and world views. This is why history can evoke such passion and controversy in the public realm. All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness. The openness of the discipline is among its most attractive features, perennially renewing it and making it relevant to new constituencies.

    If MHA were an academic organization along the lines advocated by TT and Chris H., everyone but academics would be excluded, or at least muzzled. But because MHA is a professional organization, everyone — including academics — with an interest in and a contribution to make to Mormon history is welcome.

    That’s the distinction.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 6, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  35. Sigh. That is not what I meant….for now I will just be glad that I am not a historian.

    In #30, I even said that specific training is not required. Academic is an attitude, a commitment to methodology (whatever that methodology might be), and a drive for knowledge. That does not require one to had a graduate degree (mine are from crappy schools anyways) or an academic job (I am just otherwise unemployable).


    Thanks for emphasizing my typos. TT is the smart one, I am just struggling to get by. I was thinking of you as an academic, not because of your job but because of your style and high-level of discourse. Given how horrible my knees feel this morning, it is sort of fun to think of myself as a young cub (#31). Unfortunately, I am just a graying old fool.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 6, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  36. Replace “had” with “have”

    Comment by Chris H. — June 6, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  37. Emphasizing typos is a petty, cheap trick used to artificially inflate one’s own status. Or at least ego. Temporarily. Sorry.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 6, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  38. Christopher (and others):

    Dennis, please don?t exaggerate what anyone here has said. Commenting that we need to ?lighten up a bit? isn?t going to endear you to any of the snobby academics you?re trying to critique.

    Yeah, you’re probably right that I was a little harsh. I apologize.

    Recognize, though, that I’m an outsider to this blog and so I might see things differently than those who are used to the regular lingo. Let me say that what I am seeing here can easily be seen , at least, as academic snobbery. I think this view is substantiated by things that Amanda and Ardis are saying–so I don’t think that it’s just me and that I have an ax to grind.

    Let me clarify that I go to many academic conferences, some of which are entirely theoretical. My “disdain” is not a disdain of academics or of theory or of conferences devoted to these things. It’s of an academic superior complex that is noticeable at many academic conferences (there are plenty of academics who are wonderfully humble people — I don’t want to stereotype).

    I am not in history (my studies are a blend of psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies), but I must say that I find it somewhat amusing that instead of chatting about the very interesting ideas presented at the Sacred Space symposium (there are dozens upon dozens of fascinating areas to explore), many of you are more interested in guffawing about the “plebes.” As for me, I’m more absorbed by the ideas and stay away from disciplinary water coolers, so I don’t get bothered much by these things. That’s why I said “lighten up.” Ignore all of this if you wish, but I’m confident that many (non-plebes) would share my views here.

    Comment by Dennis — June 6, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

  39. Dennis, I’m somewhat confused about whether your last paragraph is intended as a commentary on my post; if so, I fear we’ve had a miscommunication, because characterizing what I’m doing in it as ‘guffawing’ is a drastically oversimplified misreading. Rather, it’s musing a bit about the nature of academic conferences themselves: what was this one intended to accomplish? How should nonacademics and academics communicate? Most importantly, what’s the relationship between religious scholarship and religious experience?

    Also, you may have noticed the eight or nine posts on this blog wherein you can comment on the ideas of the conference. Feel free to engage there.

    Comment by matt b — June 6, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  40. Dennis, thanks for visiting the blog just to tell us all to “lighten up.” As Matt pointed out, there’s a post devoted to each and every session of the conference. If you’re truly interested in engaging the ideas presented at the conference, I find it curious that you don’t comment there and instead leave critical comments here. I’m glad we could amuse you, though.

    Obviously others share your views, but no one else has voiced them in such a pointed and rude manner. I suggest you either change the tone of your comments, or please go elsewhere to mock academics and leave snarky comments.

    Comment by Christopher — June 6, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

  41. I’ll just interject here that I think some of the ideas of academic snobbery are a bit exaggerated, but I take Dennis at his word when he apologizes for it his portion of it. We could also always do without condescension, wherever it might express itself and by whomever.

    On the other hand, I think we academics can certainly be harsh in our own right. Dennis made a good comment back at 8, and maybe we can take this conversation back in that direction.

    And I’d love to hear your thoughts, Dennis on the ideas the scholars expressed.

    Comment by Jared T — June 6, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  42. matt b,

    Sorry, I should have been more clear. I thought your post was great; I wasn’t complaining about it at all. My comments were directed towards the tone of some of the comments here. Moreover, I think that the questions you just mentioned about conferences are very important. But I don’t think they’re really being engaged. There seems to already be a sharp dichotomy that is assumed by some between “academic” and “devotional.”


    Well, I suppose my original exaggeration must have been contagious, which I guess I deserve. I didn’t visit the blog just to tell people to “lighten up.” I visited because of the Sacred Space posts and I actually really liked them. I’ve actually followed this blog a fair amount but I haven’t really commented because the blog seems to have its own tone and lingo that seems to cater to a certain in-group (this isn’t a criticism–I’m just saying). Clearly, we must all be better off if I just stay out of things.

    I realize there are other posts about the Sacred Space symposium, but there is little if any critical discussion in the comments of these posts. That’s part of the reason why I said what I said.

    Comment by Dennis — June 6, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  43. There seems to already be a sharp dichotomy that is assumed by some between ?academic? and ?devotional.?

    It’s not assumed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  44. Dennis, I apologize. Your comment #8 certainly did engage the original post. Your comment #25 did not. Your comment #38 was a mixture of the two, and the last paragraph seemed to simply be an elaboration of what you said in #25. So while you’ve done more than merely laugh at those you dismiss as academic snobs and tell us to “lighten up,” you are certainly guilty of that.

    the blog seems to have its own tone and lingo that seems to cater to a certain in-group (this isn?t a criticism?I?m just saying)

    I find this hard to believe in light of your comments #25 and #38. And you are, of course, welcome to participate here as much as you want. In fact, I would love if you stuck around and commented more often.

    Comment by Christopher — June 6, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  45. I composed this last night, but never finished the last few sentences and didn’t hit send, so here it is now, even if the conversation has moved past this.

    If MHA were an academic organization along the lines advocated by TT and Chris H., everyone but academics would be excluded, or at least muzzled.


    I think the “embarrassment” that TT refers to is not necessarily a call to limit participation in Mormon Studies conferences to academics, but instead to point out that one of the problems with these kinds of conferences (and it isn’t a problem unique to Mormonism) is that some presenters fail to recognize a difference between an “academic” and “devotional” approach to the material (not that either of these are unitary perspectives). This isn’t to say that they are incompatible, although it may require a great deal of skill to successfully combine them. I think of Givens as someone who does this quite often.

    Yet the problem, as far as I see it, isn’t so much that people fail miserably in trying to combine them; but rather that they fail to recognize any kind of distinction between the two. Although I wasn’t at the Yale conference, my sense of it was that many of the LDS presenters conflated these two approaches, often taking their devotional work as academic.

    As far as I see it, this isn’t a problem of professional vs. academic as much as it is a problem of professionalism. There are places for devotional work to be presented, and there are places for academic work to be presented. Professionalism requires some recognition of context. Academic work can in fact be devotional and vice versa, but it takes a degree of reflexivity that one is actually engaged in a rather difficult task in combining two different approaches in order to measure up to the minimum requirements of professionalism.

    Comment by smallaxe — June 7, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  46. So you’re saying, then, smallaxe, that approaches other than the academic shouldn’t be excluded and shouldn’t be muzzled — just that those who practice other approaches should abandon them in favor of your preferred approach or else take them elsewhere?

    You know, I’ve been embarrassed as often as anybody by stupid audience speeches masquerading as questions; whether those questions were laden with inappropriately arrogant academic jargon or reeked of sanctimonious calls to repentance, the problem is that questioners don’t match the tone of the presentation. Every MHA program lists sessions that you just know are going to be either hopelessly pedantic or tediously hagiographic — you learn to pick and choose.

    I don’t want my comments here to sound as though I’m anti-academic or that I don’t understand the arguments you-all are making. I’m not, and I do. I simply think that conferences are best when they have a big tent approach. If that open-mindedness and broad perspective is too much to tolerate, then you’re better off limiting yourself to conferences without break-out sessions, and with audience participation limited to written questions which speakers are not obligated to respond to.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 7, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  47. Ardis,
    I don’t know how you construed my comments to be about MHA, to which I’ve never been. I feel that I should repeat that I was not at this conference either. Rather, I was speaking about my experience at Mormon-studies-themed conferences over the last decade. I am speaking from some experience here, having brought a number of my colleagues to Mormon lectures and conferences. I am fortunate to have friends who were honest enough with me to tell me that the vibe they got from many of the Mormon presenters and audience questions was not impressive.

    the problem is that questioners don?t match the tone of the presentation

    Agreed. This is exactly what I was saying.

    I simply think that conferences are best when they have a big tent approach. If that open-mindedness and broad perspective is too much to tolerate, then you?re better off limiting yourself to conferences without break-out sessions, and with audience participation limited to written questions which speakers are not obligated to respond to.

    I think that this is where we may have some productive discussion. I don’t in principle oppose “big tent” conferences, but I think that there is something about our missionary zeal that means that we tend to have only these kind of open conferences. Yes, there is some upside, not least is the chance for non-academics to hear what professional scholars have to say about X topic.

    There are also some significant downsides. For instance, when we invite non-Mormon scholars to present, or our non-Mormon academic colleagues to attend such conferences, sometimes the result is like fast-and-testimony meeting when the slightly crazy people dominate the mike. Now, you and I know that this isn’t representative of our ward, but we still squirm because of what we fear our investigator friends might be thinking.
    Perhaps it is my own missionary zeal at work when I would like to shield guest scholars from these episodes that evidence Mormons’ lack of ability to engage critically or to behave properly at an academic (or “professional”- still not sure what the difference is) conference.
    I still go to sacrament meeting knowing there are going to be crazy testimonies because I value what is done there, and I even value that we have a venue for such voices, but I probably won’t invite my friends to attend again after being burned before.

    Perhaps we need to ask why we are having these kinds of conferences, as matt b suggested. Why invite non-Mormon scholars to speak on topics like sacred space, or Joseph Smith? I like to think that we have something to offer, and that they have something to offer too. If, however, we offer in return for their sincere scholarly efforts rejection, misunderstanding, and insulting questions, I can’t help but think they won’t want to give again, nor will their friends.

    Now, I am not sure what the solution is to train LDS audiences how to behave properly in an academic context (and perhaps this is a particular problem for the way that BYU thinks about religion), but one solution is to simply not invite them. Personally, I like closed conferences precisely because the discussion is more intimate, productive, and illuminating. Perhaps I am that young lion, or perhaps I am just a snob, or perhaps I just really want to be taught without interruption. Maybe one day I will grow up and not be embarrassed, and maybe my friends will too and want to engage with Mormon materials. Maybe.

    Comment by TT — June 7, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

  48. TT, I didn’t construe your remarks to be about MHA, but about Mormon conferences in general. You aren’t the only one I was responding to; Edje, Amanda, and Chris mentioned MHA before I did.

    I wonder — I’m not asserting, only asking — if the culture of different disciplines is as much a part of the problem as the clash of academic and devotional styles. I get the feeling from your remarks here and from FPR in general that it’s possible, even a point of pride, for scholars in your discipline to examine a scriptural problem with absolute detachment, completely divorced from its devotional meaning, as a purely intellectual exercise. If that’s even a fair approximation of the truth, it’s an approximation I’ve reached only after a lot of mystification over much of what appears at FPR.

    Maybe the plebian Mormon mindset is as alien to you as yours is to me: It doesn’t occur to us that there is any reason to study ancient languages and textual variants and debates over translation trivia except for the purpose of better understanding God in a devotional sense. To those of us with that mindset, scholarship means linking what you study with detached intellectualism to what we see as very personal worship. We plebes do want to hear from non-Mormon scholars on topics like sacred space not as an intellectual exercise, but to take from them whatever enhances our own devotions. Is that really a novel idea to you, or to your discomfitted friends?

    Historical studies have a very different culture. History generally only has much value when it connects to the present and illuminates some problem that living people care about. I also don’t know any historian or even buff who “really wants to be taught without interruption.” It’s the give and take, the rubbing of shoulders and sharing of sources and techniques and ideas, that produces good history.

    This will be my last comment here. When multiple people dispute my input and no one chimes in with any hint of understanding or agreement, I realize that I’m the voice of discord, not contributing to any resolution. I will be glad to read any further responses, though.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 7, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  49. Now, I am not sure what the solution is to train LDS audiences how to behave properly in an academic context (and perhaps this is a particular problem for the way that BYU thinks about religion), but one solution is to simply not invite them.

    TT – I empathize with wanting to present a good face to non-Mormon scholars at conferences. But, my gut reaction is still that if scholars want to work with Mormon materials, eventually they will have to encounter… Mormons. Not inviting LDS audiences may postpone the encounter but it won’t prevent it and will likely exclude some very bright people from the discussion in the process.

    Comment by Amanda H. — June 7, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

  50. Crazy questions from non-degreed individuals are not at all unique to [Mormoon] religion and history conferences. For instance, at every physics conference there are around a dozen individuals with crazy ideas that they think they understand–certtain that the rest of physics academia is out of touch (despite the fact that said individuals have not gotten past Algebra).

    I will admit there are some differences. The general public is not invited per se; there is a fee to attend. The general audience is also not full of attendees who get together every Sunday and discuss physics. However, those people still ask silly questions and make nonsensical claims that physicists by and large ignore and roll eyes at later.

    You are indeed a snob, you deserve to be and we like you. However, it is the disdain that seeps into your writing towards others that is distasteful.

    Comment by lowly blogger — June 7, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  51. So you?re saying, then, smallaxe, that approaches other than the academic shouldn?t be excluded and shouldn?t be muzzled ? just that those who practice other approaches should abandon them in favor of your preferred approach or else take them elsewhere?

    Nope. I’m saying that there is such as thing as “bad/embarrassing questions” that are posed at conferences. (I imagine we agree on this.) One kind of bad question tends to come from LDSs at Mormon Studies conferences. (I’m thinking we’re still in agreement) A central reason that LDSs tend to ask bad questions at MS conferences is that they conflate an academic approach with a devotional approach–often assuming that their devotional tone is in fact academic. (Perhaps we disagree here.) This doesn’t always lead to a bad question, but more often than not it in fact does. If a devotional question is asked/comment made, it should be done with the realization that the dominant (yet not exclusive) tone is academic; and so should be made in relation to that.

    If you’d like to provide an example of something that we can agree is an embarrassing/bad comment or question, I’d be happy to try to rework to demonstrate what I mean.

    That said, there are all kinds of bad questions, not only those in relation to this specific issue. Being an academic doesn’t absolve one from asking them. Professionalism should be sought after in conferences from all parties involved. Indeed, all parties fall short, and here we are talking about only one of those parties.

    I shorter answer to your question is that I’m asking for a little more sensitivity to context.

    Comment by smallaxe — June 7, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

  52. Dear all,
    My intent is certainly not to exclude a variety of voices, nor is it to limit conferences only to certain people with “credentials” (I think I’ve bashed this kind of thinking plenty of times before), nor is it to be “disdainful” (I should probably apologize for the word “plebes” as unnecessarily inflammatory). Rather, I am simply expressing some dismay, dismay that has been voiced by both Mormon and non-Mormon attendees at Mormon conferences in the past, at the way that non-Mormon scholars are sometimes condescended to by members of the audience, and sometimes by the LDS presenters.

    Ardis, I think that you are trying to radicalize what I am saying. You seem to see as as occupying completely opposite sides of some monumental argument, but I think we probably agree on pretty much everything. At least I haven’t seen you say much that I disagree with. I think that smallaxe is saying more clearly what I mean to say, that there are in fact embarrassing moments that we can all agree are counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish. I admitted above that I don’t know how to solve for this problem, and suggested one option of holding closed conferences where scholars and specialists can discuss among themselves (e.g., a lot like what MHA does). There are, of course, other conference models, and perhaps there are other solutions to this problem that I haven’t found out yet. I’m all ears.

    Let me give one example that always sticks out to me. I was at a presentation that Richard Bushman gave at X University to X University American historians and graduate students about why American historians should take the Book of Mormon seriously. Basically, he was arguing that it is a serious mistake to completely ignore the most significant religious document in American religious history, and he was convincing a lot of people. It was probably the best presentation on the BoM I’ve ever heard. It was scholarly, yet it had the inspiring edge to it that few but Bushman can deliver, even though it was not meant for Mormons.

    Though the primary audience were the scholars of X University, there were many in attendance who were LDS from the area, who appropriately sat quietly knowing that the context of this conversation was by and for scholars. Doubtless as intelligent members, they had excellent contributions to make about the importance of the BoM, even in the context in which the discussion was taking place, I’m sure, since I know many of them. Near the back of this small, cramped seminar room, two young missionaries sat (I have no idea how they even heard about it). As soon as the question and answer period started, one elder boldly raised his hand. The moderator, another prominent LDS historian tried to avoid him, but he persisted and so she finally called on him. He bluntly told the room that they had gone about it all wrong, that the BoM was a ancient book, that he knew it because the spirit told him so, and also because of chiasmus. The room was awkwardly silent. I wanted to puke I was so uncomfortable, not because this missionary had a testimony, but because of the way he bore it, the context in which he bore it, and that he was bearing it in rebuttal to Richard Bushman, whom he had clearly not understood because Bushman’s argument was an extended critique of why we should move past the historicity question as a scholarly dead end.

    I am sure that missionary wrote home to his family how he had proudly borne testimony to the “intellectuals” at X University, not realizing that he just scared away anyone in that room from wanting to take the BoM seriously as an object of study, because they don’t want to have to deal with that. Maybe the scholars were wrong who flinched at the thought of becoming a target of Mormon testimonies, but I saw it as a huge missed-opportunity. One scholar generously tried to contextualize the missionaries testimony as an example of why scholars should pay attention to it, but I felt the damage was done. Maybe some don’t think that it is important what scholars of religion and American historians think about Mormons and Mormonism. I do.

    Ardis, where I think that where there might be a disagreement, however slight in actuality between us, is when you say “We plebes do want to hear from non-Mormon scholars on topics like sacred space not as an intellectual exercise, but to take from them whatever enhances our own devotions.”

    This represents the kind of one-way interaction that I think is at the heart of counterproductive conference behavior (though I highly doubt you’d be guilty of anything like what I have in mind). I agree with you later when you say that what is most valuable about conferences is “the give and take.” What I am criticizing is when we think that there is just a unilateral “give and take,” where we Mormons think that we have something to offer or to appropriate, but rarely to learn or to be challenged by. This was the attitude of the young missionary who bore his testimony, not realizing how much he didn’t know and not knowing how to behave in such a situation.

    It is not the encountering of Mormons that is the problem. It is that some Mormons refuse to be encountered.

    As for the direct challenges to whether or not I am sufficiently “devotional,” I am not going to defend myself or VCR repair as a discipline. I think that this is getting unnecessarily personal, and you seem to think I am mounting a veiled attack on you. I’m not. Don’t be so insecure.

    Comment by TT — June 7, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  53. I’m not insecure, TT, or defensive until this moment. I made no challenges to your personal devotional bona fides, nor made any remark I intended as personal — certainly nothing as personal as your accusing me of insecurity. Accept it or not, I have genuinely tried to understand your position and that of others, and respond in a productive way, every comment offered (after the first) being in response to some other comment addressed specifically to me. You seem determined to misunderstand everything I say, and in the nastiest way possible.

    You are a snob.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 7, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  54. That’s a nightmare story TT, and I have heard about it from other witnesses. I think the anecdote speaks powerfully to the point you are making here.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 7, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  55. TT-
    Your example of the missionary was a great one. There was plenty to be embarrassed about at Sacred Space. However, I fully expect scholars to know the difference between silly audience members and people like themselves, and take it in stride.
    Even Fishbane mentioned certain Jewish circles that believed X (which he seemed to think was off), and Cohen asked Mavani why the fanatics (my words not his) got all the attention in Islam. I imagine at an Islamic conference held in Egypt you would get an entire spectrum, many people who would frustrate academics.

    Cohen was kind when asked the question about Jesus, as strangely out of place as it was.
    Maffly-Kipp was benevolent and responded to audience members in a thoughtful way. I imagine it could be a good look inside the minds and hearts of rank and file members to her as people asked questions, or made comments that perhaps were not at all pertinent to the discussion at hand.
    Any discipline has this problem. It is a bit self-centered to think we can dance around in academic circles and ignore any pertinence, or perceived pertinence and the implications of academic work to real world application. I would think that in the study of religion, if not especially in the study of religion, that the end would be a better understanding of ourselves.

    Comment by lowly blogger — June 7, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

  56. I fully expect scholars to know the difference between silly audience members and people like themselves, and take it in stride.

    I agree, and this is how I have seen all of the off the wall comments/speeches handled at all of the conferences I have attended. It’s not as if scholars of religion are shocked by the fact that devout insiders operating in a devotional mode are often at cross-purposes with them. After all, most of these folks teach undergraduates who have never experienced a discussion of religion outside of a devotional context in their entire lives until they take a course in religious studies at college.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 7, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  57. Ardis,
    Now I’m the one who is mystified. I feel like I’ve conceded and agreed with essentially every single point you’ve made, and only tried to tease out the most minor of possible differences as potential areas of discussion between us. I apologize if I’ve offended you in any way, but I confess to absolute confusion about how I may have done so. Please contact me at ubranmormon AT gmail Dot com.

    Comment by TT — June 7, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

  58. TT, while that is certainly an awkward anecdote it is also a strawman. No missionaries show up at MHA.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 7, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  59. lowly blogger and Sc Taysom,
    You are both likely right that I am overreacting to being uncomfortable by such episodes. My worry is that Mormonism has not yet reached the degree of respectability in which such comments can be dismissed as “off the wall comments,” but rather Mormonism is such that these comments are often taken as emblematic of what Mormons are like because they reaffirm stereotypes. My experience that this is the case is possibly idiosyncratic, but that is my impression.

    Comment by TT — June 7, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

  60. Steve,
    I am not talking about MHA, nor have I ever. In fact, I have put it forward as a model of a conference that would solve this kind of problem in my comment #52. Ardis seems to have thought that I was talking about MHA in comment #34, but I have only spoken about Mormon-themed open conferences like DC, Yale (2003), Sacred Space, the NYC Manhattan temple conference with JZ Smith, and a handful of other Mormon lectures that were open to the public.

    Comment by TT — June 7, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  61. TT-
    I admit I share your concern. However I think it’s a bad idea to let such valid concerns make one less compassionate towards those that are sincerely trying to find deeper meaning in there own faith (although sometimes I do wonder if the general Provo audience member simply feels more righteous by going to more and more religion conferences).

    Comment by lowly blogger — June 7, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  62. My apologies TT. I sympathize with what you’re saying in 59. Let’s all work to keep this friendly.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 7, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  63. Is there an emoticon that mimics the patient fondness of an old lioness watching her cubs practicing their roars and making mock assaults on her swishing tail?

    I think one of the cubs just bit the lioness’ tail.

    Comment by smallaxe — June 8, 2009 @ 7:44 am

  64. lol. It was just brought to my attention that I misspelled my email address. should be urbanmormon at gmail dot com. Sorry Ardis if you’ve been trying to reach me!

    Comment by TT — June 8, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  65. #52, I remember the to-do after that missionary encounter at XXX University. Such a merrily miserable encounter.

    Comment by smb — June 9, 2009 @ 12:14 am


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