Thursday, October 1, 2009

How Mormon Studies is like ruining the movie

"LDS students at the University of Utah need to know that their church encourages secular knowledge and religious knowledge. And they need to know that religious studies represent the opportunity for crucial secular knowledge about a religious topic. Many of them are going to think, 'Why do I need secular knowledge about my religion?' This is a bit like thinking 'God made my body, why would I need medical knowledge about my body?'"  Philip Barlow: Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University speaking on the need for a Mormon Studies program at The University of Utah.*

There been have been a few movies whose releases I’ve really anticipated.  The first Star Wars prequel, the new Star Trek, and even the new Indiana Jones (sigh).  But the movie whose release I anticipated more than any other was the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (that’s right, the one movie to rule them all).  And while it wasn’t perfect, seeing it was a real experience.  The best part was how well the film’s makers recreated Tolkien’s world as it existed in the books and in my mind.  It felt as if the scenes were actually shot in Middle Earth. 

The DVDs came with something like 15 hours of extended features and, being the geek that I am, I eventually got around to watching each and every one of those hours.  That’s like an entire waking day of my life!  Most of these extras were in-depth making-of features that covered almost every scene from the film.  They showed the sites in New Zealand as they looked in real life and how they transformed these locations with sets and CGI.  They showed the masks, and models, and how they produced the digital effects.  There were even interviews with the actors talking about what was going on in their minds and around the set when various scenes were filmed. 

The next time I saw the movie it was different.  I didn’t just see Middle Earth on the screen, but instead I also saw the real locations.  I saw where the lights had been placed.  I saw acting techniques and motion capture animation.  In short the movie was ruined just a little bit.

Watching movies requires the audience to suspend disbelief.  You have to be able to accept the show as it is presented or else the film becomes nothing but lighting, acting styles, location scouting, plot construction, composition etc... 

This is not unique to films, but everything (or virtually everything) that we experience requires us to engage in similar suspension of disbelief in order for that activity to be comprehensible.  When your professor is giving a lecture, you have to ignore teaching styles and techniques if you are going to learn the material being conveyed.  You have to just take for granted everything that has been artificially constructed around you and pretend, at least for a moment, that this artificial system is real.

When you seriously study something it becomes much harder to suspend this thinking.  This is because the most important part of studding a subject is being able to step outside of that subject, as much as possible, so that you can approach it with an objective mind set.  Once you step outside a system that you are studying it becomes more difficult to experience that system as it is meant to be experienced from within itself. My background in philosophy and law makes watching presidential and other TV debates almost paralyzing.  I find it almost impossible not to focus exclusively on rhetorical devices, logical fallacies, inference chains, and narrative techniques.   It’s almost as if I can’t even hear the messages that the candidates are attempting to communicate.  Of course, philosophical and legal training enhance my understanding and appreciation of these debates, but to a certain extent they also get in the way.

This same phenomenon occurs with the secular study of Mormonism.  To properly study Mormonism it is necessary to go beyond the spiritual point of view and approach the religion with secular eyes.  This entails understanding the Gospel not just through spirituality, but also through politics, economics, philosophy, history, law, sociology, psychology etc…  It is like stepping outside of the movie in order to see lighting techniques and acting styles. 

Now, I believe that a purely secular viewpoint is insufficient to explain Mormonism.  Mormonism is necessarily spiritual and therefore cannot be fully explained by appealing solely to secular disciplines and explanations.  Still, it would be just as wrongheaded to claim that there is no need engage in secular approaches to study the faith.  Surely Mormonism is influenced by the same principles that govern secular systems and secular tools can provide a better understanding of the religion.

The problem is that secular study of Mormonism, as important and rewarding as it is, makes it harder see the Gospel without reducing it to purely secular concepts.  A good example is the use of the cross.  Mormons usually explain that they do not widely incorporate the image of the cross because the cross focuses on the Savior’s death rather than his resurrection.  But a secular study offers a different explanation. Mormonism’s aversion to the image of the cross is largely the result of geography and history. When Mormonism began, the image of the cross did not have much widespread use among American non-Catholic Christian churches.  The fact that the Church did not embrace the use of the cross was typical of Protestant churches of New England and the Midwest during that period.  Later when the LDS church was relatively isolated in the West, the cross gradually became more and more prominent in American Protestant congregations. By the time Mormon and Protestant cultures began to more fully interact with each other in the twentieth century, Mormonism had missed the boat on crosses. By then the cross was seen as a way to distinguish the LDS faith from other religions and church members had begun to associate the cross with the apostasy.**

Explanations like these are fascinating but they can also change the way we experience our Faith.  For example, now, every time someone talks about Mormon theological aversion to the cross, I can’t help but focus on this historical/geographical explanation and I tend to ignore the doctrinal side of the discussion.  I worry that I may even, unconsciously at least, dismiss the point of focusing on the Savior’s resurrection.

I love the secular study of my faith.  Not only is it interesting, but my understanding of the Gospel is enhanced.  However, secular study can never have the same life altering effect as spiritual study and I worry that focus on secular study can detract from spiritual understanding.   

I like Barlow’s analogy to medical knowledge.  By possessing medical knowledge we can better understand what we need to do to improve our physical health.  Likewise secular knowledge of the Gospel can help us better know what we must do to improve our spiritual health.  But we can never forget that the focus must always be on doing as opposed knowing. 

Aristotle makes a similar observation.  After explaining that the only way to become good is to do good acts he observes: “Yet most men do not perform such acts, by taking refuge in argument they think that they are engaged in philosophy and that they will become good in this way.  In so doing they act like sick men who listen attentively to what the doctor says, but fail to do any of the things he prescribes.  That kind of philosophical activity will not bring health to the soul any more than this sort of treatment will produce a healthy body.”***

We cannot let ourselves be deceived into thinking that simply by engaging in secular study we will become better Mormons. The only way to become better Mormons is by doing.  It is the spiritual side of the gospel that gives us the courage and motivation to live it.

* Grote, Michael. “Mormon Studies may join University of Utah curriculum.”  Mormon Times 09,Sep. 2009

 ** This historical/geographical explanation of cross use is discussed in Givens, Terryl. People of Paradox.  pages 114-115.

 ***Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics Book II 1105b 11-18


Dagny Marie Kelsey said...

I really enjoyed this post.

Anonymous said...

Not that I'm missing the whole point of your post here, but I like to get picky at times: I once saw an original architect's rendering of the the Salt Lake Temple. It had crosses on all the gates and, I think, on the temple itself. This may be a symptom of the growing use of the cross in protestant society at the time since the Nauvoo Temple did not have a cross. Anyway, I was told, and this may be hearsay, that Brigham Young asked to have the crosses removed because they focused on the death of Christ, etc. This then began the rejection of the cross in Mormon theology. So, you need not worry about the historical/doctrinal conflict in this instance if you choose to have faith in my totally inspired (aka: I have no sources to back this up) explanation of our doctrine of the cross. :)

Great, insightful post though. Quite fascinating. Getting the right balance and perspective in secular vs. spiritual knowledge is tricky. It's a lifetime goal.

SGarff said...


Interesting. I had never heard that about the Salt Lake Temple plans or about Brigham Young. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Obviously, the history of the use of the cross in Mormonism is very complicated. Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an interesting article earlier this year about a recent master's thesis on the subject that reaches yet another conclusion about this history:

I'm not sure if I agree with his theory, but it's interesting.

I enjoyed checking out your blog. I've had 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young for some time, but I haven't read it yet (I did just finish Leonard Arrington's Biography of Brother Brigham, American Moses, which was excellent). You've convinced me to move 40 Ways to the top of my reading list.

Anonymous said...

Hi Garff,

I'm trying to track down that drawing of the SL temple with the crosses on it. If I find it, I'll post it on my blog.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

The 40 Ways to Look at Brigham book is a good fun read (the list of his wives and children is interesting), but I'm sure Arrington's biography is much more in depth. The authors of 40 Ways do put an interesting twist in here and there. Not sure if Brigham would appreciate being compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt though.