26 July 2010

3rd Annual Faith and Knowledge Conference- Duke/UNC

A Call for Papers

“The Intellectual Prospects for Mormonism”: The Third Biannual Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS Graduate Students in Religion
Duke University/University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
February 2011

The Faith and Knowledge conference series was established in 2006 to bring together LDS graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines in order to explore the intellectual interactions between religious faith and scholarship. In past conferences, graduate students have been invited to reflect upon aspects of their own personal intellectual reconciliations—or their own failures to do so—between church and academy, and to offer fruitful solutions to fellow students undergoing similar intellectual journeys.

In keeping with these past objectives, we invite graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines (including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, ethics, history, and others) to consider Mormonism’s intellectual prospects. The Latter-day Saints are now a powerful institutional presence on the American scene, but they are not likely to have a significant intellectual presence in the Academy until scholarship and intellectuality are more fully integrated into Mormon life. An inquiry into the intellectual prospects of Mormonism must then address many questions. Such considerations may include, but are not limited to, the following inquiries:

  • How can we describe the changing nature of Mormon thought in the current era?

  • Where are the centers of intellectual creativity among Mormon scholars and thinkers today?

  • Will Mormon theology ever win the respect of other theologians?

  • Can the work of Mormon theologians be of any value to ordinary Latter-day Saints?

  • What theorists are of value in explicating Mormon thought?

  • What is the state of Mormon theorizing about an embodied God? Is it registering with other Christian thinkers?

  • Does Mormonism have anything to say to the world other than “join us?”

  • Are we making any headway on theorizing Mormon praxis?

  • Can ordinary Mormons make their peace with modern biblical scholarship? How can this be accomplished?

  • What is the role of Mormon scholars in integrating scriptural scholarship into Mormon life?

  • How can Mormons combat the “nice people–wacky religion” syndrome?

  • Does inter-faith dialogue dilute or intensify Mormon thought?

  • Why should Mormons participate in theological dialogue with non-Mormons?

  • Is a Mormon background a handicap or a help in getting a job in a non-Mormon institution?

Panelist papers should last approximately 10 minutes. Short proposals (no more than 250 words) should be sent to Ariel Bybee Laughton (ariel.laughton@gmail.com) by October 1, 2010. Presenters will be notified by December 1, 2010. Conference participants will be eligible to apply for financial assistance with travel and lodging expenses.

12 July 2010

A thought experiment on Church statistics

Meaningful statistical information on the LDS Church is notoriously hard to come by, in spite of excellent work being done by Ziff and others here. The Church has its own department for creating and investigating such information, but seems reticent to share that news elsewhere. Other studies by outside third parties are necessarily incomplete, since they are inevitably based on samples, and those samples are generally heavily weighted towards American members of the Church living in the Mormon Corridor.

But instead of simply bemoaning the lack of statistical information, lets take a step in a more positive direction. Name a statistical measure of anything related to the LDS Church that would tell you something that you thought would shed light on the current health and progress of the Church, or would simply scratch some nagging itch in your own mind.

There are only two rules:
1. You do not have to pick a statistic that you know is actually collected in real life (either by the Church or by some other party); however, pick a measure that could conceivably be collected and reported in some kind of comprehensive and accurate way. A bad example of this would be: "I want to know the number of sacrament cups used worldwide each week as a proxy for how many worthy members of the Church attend their Sabbath services." This statistic does not work because it is difficult to see a) how this statistic would be collected, and b) even if it could be, how accurately the statistic would reflect on the purpose of its collection. It would be inconceivable to put an observer in every meeting of the Church each week to see how many people are taking the sacrament. Someone might suggest using instead the number of sacrament cups ordered by each unit. However, I do not know whether all units in the Church worldwide order sacrament cups from the same distributor (probably the Church). Furthermore, even if good information on the orders was available, Church units certainly keep an unused inventory of the cups, so it would be hard to determine how many of them were actually used given that unused cups are probably thrown away each week after the sacrament.

2. Don't pick financial information. Its an arbitrary rule, but a sound one. Beyond the fact that I am not sure that financial or budgetary information qualifies as a statistic, this answer is just a cop-out. We're all curious. We would probably all want to know how much $ the Church has, or how much it spends on BYU, temples, etc. So try thinking a little harder about it.

Answering the question for myself, I would love to see the numbers on the net number of temple marriages contracted each year. To show what I mean by net, I mean only living members of the Church (no proxy sealings counted), and subtract out all divorces by Church members (both civil and temple but only count each divorce once) and any occurrence where a temple-married member has their name removed from the records of the Church. Exclude also any second temple marriages for persons over the age of 50. In my opinion, getting married in the temple is a good proxy for the general spiritual health of the Church membership, especially for the youth. No doubt an imperfect one, but likely the best that would be available. This information could easily be gathered from the Church's records department and would not likely include any investigation outside official Church records. As far as why I made the choices I did on delineating the metric, I think it ought to be clear why sealings for the dead are excluded. I want divorces subtracted because of course, if temple marriage signals the formation of a family (the fundamental unit of the Church...and of society, as Church leaders continuously remind us), then divorce signals the dissolution of that family. Because a dissolution of the sealing bond sometimes occurs some time after a civil divorce is finalized (except possibly in the case of major transgression), and in some circumstances that I am aware of, sealing bonds are not dissolved until the remarriage of one of the partners (usually the female), we need to account for civil divorces. I waffled on counting name removal the same as divorce. Technically speaking the sealing bond should be broken, but if a name is removed for excommunication pursuant to transgression, then it may still be that the family remains together, the transgressor is rebaptized and the sealing "reactivated." In that case, we count both the name removal and the re-sealing, and it comes out a wash. The reason why I exclude second marriages involving members over 50 is that usually these occur when one party to the original marriage dies, but after a great deal of the child rearing is complete. I do not think that it indicates how healthy the Church is spiritually or how well the youth are absorbing the lessons on the importance of temple marriage that an older widow or a widower finds another mate. Thus, a young adult who marries in the temple, but is later divorced from the first spouse or whose first spouses dies, and then remarries soon thereafter to another young adult, gets counted. This is a new family, and one that still reflects the purpose for which the statistic is collected. However, Elder Nelson's recent remarriage following the death of his wife, would not be counted.

So you have now read the above too-long justification for my own choice. Of course, there are literally dozens of statistics I would like to see other than the one described above. What would you choose and why?

06 July 2010

Response to Ebert- Video Games can be Art

Back in April, Roger Ebert, the highly-esteemed Chicago film critic, wrote a post on his blog entitled "Video Games can never be art." I suspect that I do not need to explain the gist of his post. In response, he received over 4500 comments, overwhelmingly in disagreement with Mr. Ebert.

Wisely, last week Mr. Ebert walked back his comments somewhat in his follow-up post "Okay, kids, play on my lawn." He correctly admitted that it was foolish and wrong of him to discount that video games as a medium could never attain the status of Art, given that the future of video games is completely unknown. Furthermore, Mr. Ebert acknowledges that his firsthand experience with modern video games is almost completely non-existent and that "I would never review a movie I had not seen." Well put.

As almost anyone who has seen a Rothko or Jackson Pollock or experienced John Cage's "4'33" for the first time can attest, the question "What is Art?" can be a tricky one to answer. Any attempt to achieve a universally acceptable and effective definition is bound to be unsuccessful.

I have been playing video games since I was about 5 years old, having received the original NES and Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt as a Christmas present. I had the NES, followed by the Super Nintendo, followed by PC games, and most recently have been enjoying the Nintendo Wii. In addition to my own game systems, I have had plenty of experience playing video games on the various XBox, Playstation and Sega systems. I can say that rarely have any of my experiences attained the status of Art, but there are a couple. Various titles in the Final Fantasy series come to mind. Those with more extensive gaming experience, such as Mr. Ebert's other correspondents, can likely name more. And as the genre grows and matures, it undoubtedly will produce Art that qualifies with even the best literature, movies, music, and other visual art currently being produced. (Note that even games that are not Art may contain art, particularly including music. If film scores qualify as art, why can't video game scores?) We need to remember that this medium is less than 50 years old by most counts, and has primarily been the province of the young and relatively uncultured for most of its history. As that changes, and the first generations who truly grew up with household gaming (as well as a well-rounded mix of other cultural experiences) move into the production of games, the medium will mature, grow, and flower.

One of Ebert's chief arguments against video games as Art seems to be that the experience of playing a video game leaves the outcome to be determined by the player and that a video game can be "won" unlike other forms of Art. This is peculiar to the genre, but not fatal to its claim to Art status. In some sense, video game players are collaborators in creating a game. The game as shipped, marketing, and sold in stores can never be Art. It is inert and lifeless. The same can be said of a CD or DVD sitting on the racks at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, no matter what the quality of the music or film embedded on that medium. Nevertheless, unlike a video game, the playback experience of the CD or DVD is fixed at the moment of its recording, as for that matter, is the experience of reading a book. Someone reading this will certainly point out that all experience of Art involves some measure of subjectivity, which is true. We are all conditioned in our response to Art but cultural influences and our own personal history, amongst other factors. But this does not detract from my point, but rather strengthens it. The element of malleability or subjectivity in an experience of Art does not render the object or experience "not Art."

One who plays a video game is filling in the blanks left by the creator. The game as Art is incomplete until played. By the same token of those items discussed above, our previous experiences of playing video games, as well as other education and experience, affects the way that a gamer interacts with the setting and interface provided. The choices of how the blanks may be filled in can be more or less limited, at the discretion of the game creator. For most popular games, the choice is simply die or advance. But for others (and I am thinking of the Fable games for XBox and the Elder Scrolls series for PC), there is a much more choose-your-own-adventure flavor to the storytelling. And at their heart, this is what truly great games (and movies, books, etc.) do-- they tell stories, and allow players to participate in their telling, as if reading the lines of a soliloquy or a choral response to Greek tragedy.

If you want to see a more gung-ho take on the "Video games=Art" argument, watch the video found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww.

Sitting on my shelf is a copy of Tom Bissell's "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" waiting to be picked up. Its probably third in my queue following my current read (an excellent, if lengthy, tome on Teddy Roosevelt and the environment) and Ariel's dissertation. I may have more thoughts on the above following that read, and if so, I may post them here.