Sunday in Outer Blogness: Facts and Interpretations Edition!
When studying history, it’s hard to separate fact from interpretation. Chris Smith argues that it may not be possible. And even a simple question like when to use Obama’s middle name in textbooks has an ideological component. Meanwhile, faithful-LDS blogger DKL really gets it right in his defense of Fawn Brodie and No Man Knows My History. I especially liked this part:
Theres this dynamic that ensures that really flattering biographies of religious figures can only be written by atheists or non-believers. Specifically, to the extent that the religious figure accomplished amazing things, the atheist will attribute them to the figure. The believer will attribute them to God, and will posit weaknesses in the figure to make the accomplishments even more miraculous.
That is so true. (Also, he’s clearly mastered the art of the compliment: compliment people on skills/traits that they’re proud of.) On a related note, I finally got around to reading Eugene England’s famous essay “Blessing the Chevrolet” (because it was posted online). Naturally (being an atheist) I found it a little odd to read about him thanking his priesthood, his magic olive oil, and the Lord, while the mechanic who actually fixed the car was right there…
Here are some other subjects where we need to teach the controversy. Geology: Are diamonds really a girl’s best friend? Emily has found a hilarious alternate mineral choice! Mathematics: Martin Gardner (who died recently) was a famous skeptic who, nonetheless, was willing to take emotions as evidence in some cases (as I found when I read his novel). Linguistics: Chomsky made a difficult-to-falsify claim — which may, in the end, get falsified. Genealogy: Should you brag about your illustrious ancestor (even if it’s Blackbeard the pirate)?
In politics: Check out the new website America Speaking Out, especially some of the patriotic highlights. Meanwhile, it appears that the oil leak disaster is still leaking, and has reached the shore — jcfitzner blames the Randian mindset. Urban Koda separates the real libertarians from the posers. And djinn reminds us of the other reason why pouring crude oil straight into the ocean is a bad idea. The Liberals, naturally, think we need to start putting a real priority on renewable energy (which is why the proceeds from ExMormon are going to Solar Aid — people in the developing world don’t benefit from being dependent on fossil fuel any more than the rest of us do).
OK, enough heavy stuff. On to personal anecdotes!
The anecdote of the week is from Yep. Stuff. (I don’t want to spoil it for you — just go see!) Donna went to Paris to see the sculptures BYU banned, while Froggey had an eye-opening visit to exotic Wendover. KingM had a nightmarish experience with a certain financial institution, whereas Jana had an inspiring one.
And let’s wrap up with some Mormonland tips! Watch your swears, how to find the CoJCoL-dS’s name-removal service, and how to survive fast Sunday! Have a great Sunday, everyone, and a great week!
Thanks for noting this part of my post on Fawn Brodie — it is my one original theoretical contribution to the understanding of religious biography, and I’m quite proud of it as an insight.
p.s. I listened to two Mormon Expression podcasts this week, and they were both excellent: An expert analysis of the Glen Beck phenomenon, plus historical perspectives on the differences between the CoJCoL-dS and the CoC (formerly RLDS). And while I’m talking about Mormon Expression, consider participating in their live recording-and-reception this August and their essay contest.
DKL — That’s great! (And it shows that I, too, know how to compliment people on what they’re proud of. 😉 )
As I said earlier, I had just gotten done complaining about the members unfairly dismissing Brodie’s work, and then I read your post. And I was very happy to see my grumbling proven wrong. 😀
I’m not sure how “faithful history” works in other faiths, but the example of linking Smith to the divine and foregrounding his weaknesses to make his miracles seem more miraculous is how all church leaders in Mormonism are maintained as “just like you” to prevent them from being worshiped like Egyptian pharaohs. They can be racist and homophobic, plagiarizers and sexist, because they’re “imperfect” and tied to this world, but since they also have a stronger link to God than you, you can’t be too critical of them.
I don’t think Mormons do this to make historical events “more miraculous” (or to merely write God into the story), but to maintain a particular balance between the “human/divine,” so that church leaders can maintain their ecclesiastical power. “Faithful” Mormon history maintains this balance in such a way that, personally, I think “God” is often written out of the story. An event might have been considered “miraculous” at one point and the human maligned, but if the culture leans more toward a secular understanding, in which the event is explained within a secular context, then faithful history will change accordingly. I have qualms, for example, about the 1978 revelation being reduced to secular understandings (imperfect humans in a racist world). On the one hand, it demonstrates that leaders are fallible, but on the other hand, this fallibility is necessary in Mormonism, and plays into the power dynamics inherent in the culture. Thankfully, because Mormon history writes God into the story, the revelation will always be important, and in some way, must be “resolved.” It’s a strange dynamic that puts Mormon historians in a bind because history doesn’t end up being about God so much as a collected image of leaders’ links to God (and their discourses about God). Unfortunately, this stuff doesn’t play out in everyday discourse, as leaders actively dissuade the teaching of “advanced history” at church, but really, this history is simply “Mormon history” and all its paradoxes.
In terms of atheists or non-believers writing Mormon history, I think if one does their research enough, they can mimic (and even feel) the “spirit” in ethnographic terms. In anthropological circles, there’s the joke about the researcher “going native,” but I think one has to “go native” to write good Mormon history that will be accepted by the Mormon community. The atheist/non-believer will be able to approach this history in very influential terms, particularly if the culture is in dire need of resolving historiographical conundrums that expose the power dynamics on which Mormonism relies. I’d be curious of a story of the non-Mormon influence on “faithful” Mormon history.
DKL provided specific examples to back his claim. Take, for instance, underestimating Joseph Smith’s (self) education. If you point out that he was a very intelligent, well-read guy who was perfectly capable of writing a complex book, then it’s good-bye to “There’s no way some lowly, ignorant farm-boy could have written a book like that without a miracle!”