21 November 2007

My experience at AAR/SBL 2007

My wife and I spent this last weekend in sunny San Diego for the Annual American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference. She was there to present a paper in her field, but I took advantage of the opportunity to see as much Mormon-related stuff as possible.

1. On Saturday afternoon, there was a session by the Mormon Studies Consultation on how to teach Mormon Studies at the university level, featuring several professors who teach or have taught classes involving Mormonism . I missed the first part of the session (because my wife's presentation was scheduled for the same time), but I made it for the Q&A. I was honestly shocked at how many attendees there were for the session. I figured there would be 10-15 interested people in the room. Instead there were about 40 or 50, including several of the leading lights in Mormon Studies, such as Kathleen Flake (Vanderbilt), Laurie Mafley-Kipp (UNC), and Grant Underwood (BYU). The Church had sent a number of its own representatives as well and I thought that the participants and the attendees discussed some very important issues relating to Mormon Studies classes, including how to use the unique Mormon scriptures as primary sources and how to deal with one's own belief and involvement in Mormonism. Afterward, there was a business meeting of the Mormon Studies Consultation, at which the leaders suggested that they had plans to expand their involvement at the conference in the near future. Based on what I saw and heard at this session, in addition to the new Claremont and USU chairs, and this statement from the Church, I think Mormon Studies may be entering a sort of Golden Age. Obviously, how this all turns out remains to be seen, but the pieces are falling together. I have personally heard some of the prominent participants in the field (no names) express skepticism about the maturity of the field and the ability of Mormons to be objective and forthright about subjects relating to their own faith, in the way that Judaic studies has achieved a certain stature in the academy.

2. Saturday night, there was a reception for "friends" of BYU, basically I guess meaning Mormons. There was good representation from BYU's Department of Religious Studies as well as from Mormon graduate students, many of which graduated from BYU and have moved on to some of the leading graduate programs in the country. There is great camaraderie among these students, and I believe they represent a great wealth of talent on which the Church could draw in so many ways (I am not a totally disinterested observer in these matters, as my wife is one of these graduate students).

3. Sunday night, there were two events of interest. First, there was a sort of "release party" for a new book published by Mercer University Press (Mercer is a Christian college in Georgia), entitled Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. The folks over at Juvenile Instructor previewed it over here. The book has a very interesting history and came about between collaboration between the BYU Philosophy Department and others (primarily David Paulsen) and some prominent Christian theologians. The premise of the book is extremely interesting, as the collaboration seems to have been largely friendly and Mormons are generally unsophisticated in their understanding of Christian theology (especially as thought of by academic theologians) and how that may differ and compare with LDS thought. I have only read through a couple of chapters but I hope to have a review up in the next month or so.
Second, Terryl Givens gave a presentation to a meeting of the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology on his research for his next book, When the Soul Had Wings, which traces a history of theories and ideas of the pre-existence in Western thought. From his remarks at the conference and from a similar talk he gave at a visit to the Durham-Chapel Hill Institute in March, I have high hopes for his book. The traditions that Givens is analyzing are wide and disparate. Given's insights are profound and this should be a book of interest to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

4. My wife and I left early Monday morning, but several BYU professors and other Mormon Studies folks (incl. John-Charles Duffy- UNC grad student) gave presentations later that day. I really wish I could have been there to see them, so I could give you a report.

Having been to the AAR/SBL conference last year, it seems that fewer presentations were given by BYU faculty and other related individuals, however, the representation of Mormons and Mormon Studies seemed to be larger as a whole. It was a promising year for the progress of Mormons and Mormon Studies, and I believe that it will continue in the future. I hope I will be there to see it.


  1. Thanks for the interesting writeup. I concur with the not named Mormon academics concerning the state of the Mormon studies field.

    Unless believing Mormons (and especially the BYU folks) learn to approach their own religion just as any other faith, there will always be a deep distrust towards the field by other academics.

  2. i was planning on driving down to california with a few professors to attend, but set it aside in order to study more for the gre. thanks for the recap.

  3. Thanks for linking to the Juvenile Instructor's preview of Paulsen's book, but the link takes you instead to the lds.org newsroom page.

    Thanks also for the write-up. I agree with the notion that Mormon Studies may be entering a sort of Golden Age, primarily in the sense that it is being engaged seriously by academia in regards to how it fits into larger frameworks.

  4. Christopher,

    Thanks, I fixed the link.

  5. I think "Golden Age" may be premature, especially since there are less than a dozen really qualified scholars that do this kind of thing well, but I agree that it is certainly pregnant with potential!

  6. TT, I think we're not into a Golden Age yet, but the groundwork seems to be in the process of being laid. Two Mormon Studies chairs established (with more on the way), increased Mormon presence at AAR, SBL, and ASCH, classes on Mormonism in history and religious studies being taught outside of the Mormon corridor, the continuing maturation of Mormon scholars willing to engage their religion academically, and the ever-growing number of non-LDS scholars integrating Mormonism into their research seems like a solid start.

  7. I agree with the comments so far. Calling it a Golden Age may be premature, but I think that one is potentially in the offing. Interest in Mormonism is at a high right now, in terms of quantity and the quality of those interested in it. Mormonism is developing some important institutions, such as the Mormon Studies chairs, around which future developments can revolve and take root.

    My only concern is that we will see a repeat of the Sept. Six incident as interest and scrutiny increases, and that intellectual inquiry will be pushed out of the Church yet again. I mentioned in a post below that if I were President of the Church, I would reevaluate and in some cases reinstate the Sept. Six (and Margaret Toscano) because I think that their excommunications were largely a mistake. There was probably error on both sides, but I think that a more amicable and less damaging solution could have been reached.

  8. "I mentioned in a post below that if I were President of the Church, I would reevaluate and in some cases reinstate the Sept. Six (and Margaret Toscano) because I think that their excommunications were largely a mistake."

    I am glad you aren't, because every last one of them got what they deserved! The best part is that many intellectuals of their kind left the LDS Church as they realized what they didn't believe did not match what the Restoration taught. At this point the LDS Church has become too shy to openly excommunicate again. Hopefully they can still do the right thing if another set of the above shows up again.