The Religious Educator, published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center, is aimed largely at the Church’s Seminary, Institute, and BYU Religious Education instructors. I’ll highlight two excellent pieces from the most recent issue, one of its best ever, over the next week. Back issues are available online, but nonsubscribers must wait a year before accessing the latest issue. (You can subscribe for ten bucks here.) The following excerpt is from Dana M. Pike’s “Mormon Studies and Religious Studies: A Conversation with Spencer Fluhman.” Fluhman is editor of the Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review. Preceding this excerpt, Fluhman describes the rise in academic interest about Mormonism over the past decade. Fluhman’s responses give a good sense of the Maxwell Institute’s developing vision for Mormon studies. We thank the Religious Educator for providing this excerpt for our blog.—BHodges
Fluhman: For Latter-day Saints, I think one of the questions is: how does one write about Mormonism academically? One model is to simply write for Latter-day Saints, and that has been the case for many. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but this new setting does open up academic space for those who want to write for a mixed audience—or who can write for a mixed audience. But that demands that LDS authors translate the Mormon experience into language that is accessible to non-Latter-day Saints. They are often forced to make their work more comparative, more rigorously contextualized. Those who are interested in that are finding an academic audience for that kind of analysis of the LDS past, scripture, or doctrine. Often it requires a religiously neutral tone; although, the postmodern academy is often chaotic enough that it doesn’t have to be a brazenly secular analysis either. As long as one signals to the audience what assumptions are in play, what authority is at play, what questions of audience and text are being addressed—as long as one makes those kinds of things as transparent as one can—there are still many non-Mormons that will give those kinds of analyses a hearing. That is one of the happy accidents of the academy as it has developed. There are certainly also downsides to this approach, but one of the upsides is that one doesn’t have to necessarily hide one’s religious commitment to write in the academy. That’s a development that’s surprising to some.
Pike: How extensive do you think this willingness is?
Fluhman: It depends on the field. In my field of American religious history, it’s actually believing historians who have contributed to the field in fairly dramatic ways. Evangelical Christians, in a large measure, have been aggressive in their attempt to write for audiences that aren’t just evangelical Protestants, but they make their work compelling and meaningful to nonbelieving audiences. In some ways they have made possible the kinds of writing that I do—someone who does not hide his belief in Mormonism but writes in a way that is accessible to a broader audience. Religious studies is big enough and it is not monolithic; there are all kinds of voices within the field, including those who are practitioners of various faiths writing about that faith and bringing to bear on analyses all sorts of epistemological and historiographical and ethical questions that reflect a religious worldview. There is space for all sorts of perspectives.