On Being Taken Seriously

Once upon a time, the rare article or essay on Mormonism was noteworthy and bloggable. Now, in this extended Mormon Moment, there are so many it is hard to even keep track of them. But Adam Gopnik’s article “I, Nephi: Mormonism and its meanings” deserves special notice, not just because The New Yorker is widely read and respected but because it is a serious and informed discussion. Maybe the media is getting better when it comes to discussing Mormonism.

As to informed, Gopnik lists five current books that he draws on in the discussion, including Brooks’ Book of Mormon Girl, Bowman’s The Mormon People, and Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: a Biography. A writer who wants to be well informed now has plenty of good sources, with more on the way. And Gopnik, a fine writer, draws on these sources to provide serious commentary. Some of his interesting points include:

  • Citing the Osmonds, Gopnik notes that if Mormons have been stereotyped, we “seem to have been rather flatteringly typed.” He notes, “The image seems to have turned yet again, and now the Mormons of the popular imagination are not so much honest as innocent.” Well, better innocent than naive.
  • He understands that the Book of Mormon’s role as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claim almost overshadows the actual text. “Some holy texts, the Gospels, for instance, are evangelical instruments meant to convert people who read them; others are sacred objects meant to be venerated. The Book of Mormon is a book of the second sort. … That the Mormons had a book of their own counted for almost as much as what the Book of Mormon said.”
  • Unknowingly channeling Grant Hardy (not cited; I assume he didn’t read Hardy’s commentary), he read enough of the Book of Mormon to recognize that it’s all first-person narrative. “The testimonial is the essential genre of the Great Awakening, and the Book of Mormon, for all its pastiche, is at heart a testimonial — starting with Nephi’s own account of how he got his people here. Even if you didn’t stay to find out what I, Nephi, did, the fact that I, Nephi, did it counted for a lot.”
  • Citing J. Spencer Fluhman’s new book, Gopnik endorses the “Mormons as Other” argument. “Mormonism was the great scandal of American nineteenth-century religion, somewhat as Scientology is today, though Mormons understandably dislike the comparison. Mainstream Protestants couldn’t dismiss Mormonism, couldn’t embrace it, and couldn’t quite understand it, and yet it thrived. For American Protestantism, Mormonism was the other: you defined yourself against those nuts.”

Now a couple of points from me. First, note the role that Mormon Studies scholarship plays here. Informative books make for informed writers. This seems like a real payoff for the eclipse of apologetics and the emergence of a religious studies approach to Mormonism. Even twenty years ago, a writer like Gopnik would have had a much harder time finding the sort of balanced, informative, scholarly discussion that writers rely on when writing articles and essays for a general audience.

Second, there is no discussion at all of what happens in a Mormon church building on Sunday. When Michael Otterson made that complaint a couple of weeks ago in an essay over at On Faith it didn’t really register for me, but it makes more sense in light of Gopnik’s essay. Is “Mormonism and its meanings” really a separate topic from the lived experience Sunday after Sunday of the millions of church-going Mormons? [And I think that’s an argument that can be made.] Megachurches and Sunday Mass are going to figure in a discussion of what makes Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism tick; why is Mormonism different? Is the three-hour block actually irrelevant to the meaning of Mormonism? Or are our Sunday meetings just so boring that no journalist can wring any meaning or useful commentary from them?

The bottom line: it’s nice to be taken seriously, both by the many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) publishing books and articles and by writers addressing the general public who make the effort to write informed and serious commentary.

11 comments for “On Being Taken Seriously

  1. Dave, Otterson’s critique ignores that, for most people, our worship services are ancillary to our theology and our orientation to the world. It is ancillary because they do not engage with Mormons on Sundays inside the 3-hour block but rather in everyday life. Certainly it is impossible to adequately understand Mormonism without an appreciation for our worship but that is not the endeavour of Gopnik and the like. They want to understand how Mormonism will shape day-to-day interactions. In short, the real concern, is not our worship but rather how LDS theology will influence Romney’s potential Presidency. Like you, it didn’t really register because the critique fails to understand the nature of the moment in which Mormons find themselves.

  2. From a note to a friend whose response to the article was not quite as positive as Dave’s:

    I’m a long-time New Yorker subscriber and Adam Gopnik is one of my favorite writers on their staff. Despite his light journalistic tone, he makes a number of insightful observations. At the same time, I, like you, was a bit disappointed in his treatment of the Book of Mormon. Yet I think this is largely our own fault. I assume that Gopnik read the standard edition of the text, and for me, the undifferentiated verses and double columns do give the impression that “the action seems to take place underwater.” [My new favorite description!] First-time readers shouldn’t have to “thumb back through the pages when [they] realize that something cool–Israelites travelling in a boat to these shores–has already happened.” The blocked, KJV format makes it difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, where the story is moving forward as opposed to pausing for doctrinal expositions, how the various parts of the text connect to each other, where inserted documents begin and end, and how the narrators interact with their source materials or their readers though explicit editorializing. In other words, I think that Gopnik would have gotten much more from the text if he had read something like my Reader’s Edition. It seems to me that it would be in the Church’s interest to make the Book of Mormon more accessible to outsiders with a new, thoroughly reformatted edition. Otherwise it’s hard to complain when otherwise astute readers fail to see the appeal, coherence, and complexity of our scripture.

  3. I read the Gopnik article and wondered what Grant Hardy would say to that, and now I know. Thanks for the commentary, Grant and Dave!

  4. It’s been fascinating to read the various responses to Gopnik’s article. I saw folks on facebook–smart, informed folks with PhDs with track records of being prudent and thoughtful in their commentary–call it “excruciatingly obnoxious,” “caustic and sarcastic and demeaning,” and “reductive [in its] treatment of religion.”

    It wasn’t the best commentary I’d ever read on Mormonism, and I’m not always a big fan of the tone of the New Yorker, but I was thrilled to see an author engaging with several smart books on Mormonism (and so many of them written by faithful Latter-day Saints) and like you, Dave, found his commentary to be well-informed. Thanks for the write-up.

  5. The New Yorker piece struck me as shallow, superfical, inaccurate on points that matter to me. How hard is it really to figure out that the Book of Mormon is NOT about that lost 10 tribes, or that Joseph Smith was not convicted of glass looking?) How hard is it really to figure out that Brigam Young actually had many interesting and relevant things to say, in a marvelous prose style? (See Eugene England and Hugh Nibley, for instance.) How hard is it to explain that most anti-Mormon literature comes from Evangelical Counter cultists? It is perfectly illustrated by the iconic New Yorker figure, wearing a top hat, exaggerated stiff necked collar, and despite holding up a monicle, he clearly has his eyes closed, the perfect representation of one who is obviously more interested in being looked at, than in being perceptive.

  6. I thought it was a pretty good article, but his tone seemed really obnoxious to me. Maybe I was misreading him, but it came off as if he thought he was an expert of Mormonism because he had read the Book of Mormon and a few books about it.

  7. @Kevin Christensen

    How hard is it really to figure out […] that Joseph Smith was not convicted of glass looking?

    i don’t consider it a point of much importance, but isn’t it actually the case that the outcome of the 1826 “glass looking” trial is unknown?

  8. “Is “Mormonism and its meanings” really a separate topic from the lived experience” — great question, and the shallowness and issues the article has all seem to flow from that point.

    Enjoyed the comments and enjoyed the OP. Thank you.

  9. “Or are our Sunday meetings just so boring that no journalist can wring any meaning or useful commentary from them?” YES.
    Well, maybe not. There’s probably enough uniqueness about one three hour block to make a newspaper column on, but has someone who’s attended for three decades and sees how frequently themes are repeated, it sure feels like it.

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