The Dance of Discourse

By February 17, 2017

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Really nice post and thought provoking questions, Hannah.

    I think that having controlled audiences permits compartmentalized thinking on our part. But, I don’t think compartmentalizing is healthy. I’m not advocating to academically interpret history through a religious narrative, or to base a church-talk off of Nietzsche (although I really like him and think he actually can be mentally and spiritually healthy). But, the danger of compartmentalization is that we as human beings assume the validity of something without understanding its function (History or the Gospel), which turns that thing into a black box–something we depend on and don’t understand. Historical critical thinking is capable of shedding light on the contingencies of the Mormon past and making Mormons (and religious people in general) question sufficiency and necessity in past events. Mormon studies ultimately humanizes its subjects of study (which I think is a good thing).

    There’s a difference between being personal and being devotional. While Mormon audiences expect the latter, I think they’ll just as equally appreciate the former, and so would generous academic audiences. Maybe presenting about the experience of research and the troubles of choosing how to think about a topic would effectively reach a hybrid audience (but I’ve never presented in front of one that I know of, so this is just a guess).

    Just my two cents. I’m happy to hear pushback or different opinions

    Comment by Jeff T — February 17, 2017 @ 11:37 am

  2. I think about this a lot. At both stops in my graduate career I’ve been known as an active Mormon but also as a student with a deep interest in the ways religion and religious people work. It’s never been a problem for me because I could speak to academic audiences about Mormonism because I have the language to do so–then few people care if I’m Mormon because I can speak in terms that others understand.

    I also have taught seminary and youth Sunday School for years, and although I use more academic language than most (history of capitalism, “lived religion,” etc.) no one seems to mind because they know where I stand in terms of my faith. I can speak the language of faith even while using the vocabulary of the academy.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that when speaking to different audiences I have to show my bona fides in some way to each audience. When members of both groups are there, I consciously use vocabulary from both groups. Both groups are looking for signs that the speaker has a stake in the community. While that may not be fair, I think it’s reality.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 17, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

  3. Thanks for some of the food for thought.
    Jeff T. thanks for your comments. I like the idea of being personal as a halfway point for both audiences. I will need to think about what you said about the dangers of compartmentalization more – I agree in theory but, I compartmentalize all the time. (Is that just me or is it everyone?) Is the urge to compartmentalize something that we need to be constantly checking within ourselves?

    J Stuart, interesting. It seems like when you are homogenous groups your dual identity as Mormon/academic allows you to introduce other aspects of yourself into the discussion (like the history of capitalism into a devotional context or your subjectivity as Mormon in an academic context). Yet in these contexts of homogenous audiences it is easier to control how you introduce other frameworks. Is it possible to have that same control using both group’s vocabulary in mixed audiences?

    Comment by Hannah Jung — February 17, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

  4. I wish I had a better answer than “it’s really, really hard.” It’s what makes me envy folks like Tona, Laurel Ulrich, Spencer Fluhman, David Holland and others that are experts at speaking to both audiences.

    In my case, I’ll often use a phrase that will signal to a member of each audience that I know what I’m talking about. Using a colloquial LDS phrase or insider joke combined with mentioning important scholars or books that academics recognize can go a long way.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 17, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

  5. Hannah, I also trouble with compartmentalization. It’s easy to get lost in the trees when studying history or reading scripture. But I don’t think the actual activities are all that different. For example, one of my undergraduate professors asked why I wasn’t going to use something that we read in class as a framing source for my final paper. I simply didn’t think about it. That was something that I had read for the purpose of participating in discussion whereas my final paper sources were things that I read for the sake of writing… which is a dumb way to not use something that I already did the work for. It happens to me all the time, and I try to be aware of it as much as possible.

    I guess my main point when using the word danger was: when compartmentalizing, it’s easy to take “History” and “Gospel” for granted. It’s easy to rely on historical method without questioning its theoretical underpinnings, which leads to interpreting the past in a particular way. It’s just as easy to depend on Gospel stuff (maybe the Atonement is a good example here) without understanding how different theories/explanations about that stuff affect the way a person lives life. I just don’t want to take those things for granted, because they’re worth exploring in multiplicity. I think compartmentalization feeds into that danger, whereas being aware of both worlds together can help them illuminate one another. The unexamined life is not worth living, man.

    Comment by Jeff T — February 17, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

  6. Jeff, Joseph – I agree! Thanks for engaging with me on this.

    Comment by Hannah Jung — February 17, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

  7. Excellent post and questions, to which I don’t have terribly useful answers.
    This kind of thing happens all the time at Claremont, even in coursework. In most of the graduate classes I’ve been in, by day 2 everyone knows everyone else’s religious background and sometimes even theological commitments.

    Comment by Ben S — February 17, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

  8. Joseph, Laurel Ulrich’s writing, in particular, shows a remarkable ease in dealing with both worlds. I have doubts about whether it can be learned. But I wish I could.

    Comment by wvs — February 18, 2017 @ 12:27 am

  9. I think part of Laurel’s gift for that is being so at ease with herself that she just IS herself, no matter where she is, rather than trying to please / appease a particular audience. I would deflect the “expert” label for myself, Joey, but I would say that in putting together that particular presentation I found it helpful to literally take several different perspectives, in turn–each fully authentic–rather than trying to speak from just one.

    Comment by Tona H — February 20, 2017 @ 9:06 am


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”