Friday, January 16, 2009

PhD Application to University Durham Accepted


I received word today that may application to the University of Durham in the Theology and Religion Department for a PhD through their research programme was approved. Now comes the hard parts in terms of raising the funds to pay for my tuition, as well as the obvious research and thesis writing.
For those interested in the subject matter my proposal to University Durham is reproduced below.

Mormon Myth and Sacred Narrative: The Missing Academic and Dialogical Dimension
Mormonism continues to be a popular and growing area of study in academia. A survey of the academic literature on the topic demonstrates a variety of research perspectives, including the historical, doctrinal, cross-cultural, and social scientific. Yet even with these varying academic frameworks certain dimensions are missing (Sorensen 2007) and very much needed in order to expand our understanding of this rich religious tradition in all of its multidimensional textures. This is particularly the case with the mythic dimension, or the sacred narratives and stories found within Mormon culture. Myths in this context are defined as a narrative or “story with culturally formative power” (Hexham and Poewe 1997, 81). Hexham and Poewe have suggested that many of the new religions that arose in nineteenth century America did so with an appropriation of certain mythic fragments. In their view, Mormonism arose out of a cultural milieu of an evolutionary mythology wherein its founder Joseph Smith “wove together many diverse myths into an integrated whole” (ibid., 94). Mormonism may be understood as a new religious movement that arose out of a major mythos of nineteenth century America, and in its continued development it has formed various subnarratives making up the mythic whole. With these considerations in mind, sacred narrative represents a neglected aspect of academic studies of Mormonism.

Sacred narrative is also absent in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process that has been taking place formally since the 1990s. This is not difficult to explain. First, while Christian dialogue with world religions such as Buddhism and Islam have been going on for quite some time, Christian dialogue with the new religions is relatively new, and it has not received either the attention or scholarly focus as dialogue with world religions (Saliba 1993). Thus, it may be that those evangelicals involved in dialogue with Mormonism have not been as reflective on this process as have evangelicals in other interreligious contexts. Second, dialogue with the new religions, as in the case of evangelicalism and Mormonism (Blomberg & Robinson 1997, Millet & Johnson 2007; Millet and McDermott 2007), has taken place against the backdrop of concern over orthodoxy in contrast with heresy (Johnson 1997; Saliba 2003; Hexham, Rost & Morehead 2004) with an eye toward theological boundary maintenance (Cowan 2003). This is not always the case, particularly when Mormon scholars have dialogued with theologians beyond Protestant evangelicalism (Musser & Paulsen 2007), yet it is the case in general in regards to the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process. Given the significance of a unique set of beliefs and worldview in Mormonism, and its claims of uniqueness vis-à-vis the larger Judeo-Christian tradition, doctrinal and theological issues should not be divorced from the dialogue process, but additional room is needed for other perspectives, particularly those that may resonate more centrally with Latter-day Saint perspectives.

This is especially the case if an understanding of Mormonism is to take place from perspectives that attempt to understand Mormonism from the point of view of its adherents. In the process of interreligious dialogue evangelicals and other Protestants have tended to approach the religious other from vantage point of the Christian concern for doctrine. This reflects not only a dialogue starting from Christian presuppositions, but may also reflect lingering aspects of colonialism (Yong 2008). There is a great need for an academic study of a missing dimension of Mormonism wherein the research tries “sympathetically and imaginatively to enter into the lives and experience of those they are studying. By employing informed empathy, they can gain some access into the complex of intensions and experiences of religious adherents” (Sorenson 2007, 135-6). In our post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-9/11, globalized environment the need is perhaps greater than ever before to approach the religious other from perspectives that are empathetic, humble, and in keeping with the vantage point of adherents themselves. A study of Mormonism from the perspective of sacred narrative thus reflects a more sympathetic perspective in keeping with the ideals of religious studies and the socio-cultural needs of our time.

Dimensions of Mormon sacred narrative
Myth and sacred story (Sorenson 1981), and the related concepts of folklore (Edison 1989; Wilson 1998, 1995) are rich sources for understanding Mormonism, including its values and beliefs, as well as the personal and collective sources of meaning and identity for the Mormon people. Sacred narratives may be categorized under broad headings such as the Restoration, Revelation, Pioneers, Missionary Work, and stories of Courage, Healing, and Encouragement (Lyon, Gundry & Parry). They are found in a variety of cultural texts, including Mormon scriptures, General Conference talks, hometeaching messages from the First Presidency, the teaching curriculum of the LDS Church, books written by Church academics, fireside chats, and family circles. Other sources include cultural pageants and celebrations such as the Mormon Miracle Pageant and Pioneer Day, as well as dramatic theatrical productions, and Latter-day Saint culture-specific cinema.

An analysis of these sources reveals several important facets of sacred narrative within Mormon culture. These include the Joseph Smith Story/First Vision, founding Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim of heavenly visitation and a call to restore the Christian church. The power of this narrative lies not only within Smith’s experience, but also for Church members and converts as they place themselves in Smith’s experience thereby framing their personal identity and narrative within the larger narrative of the founding of the Church. Personal identification within the First Vision narrative might also connect the sacred and profane in daily Latter-day Saint thought and living as they read of Smith’s experience and revelations coupled with his continued work at farming and the mundane affairs of nineteenth century America. Smith’s narrative of the First Vision helps Latter-day Saint people realize the potential for their mundane lives to be punctuated by revelation even while this plays out against the ordinary and mundane affairs of life.

A second narrative thread is that of the Westward Trek or the Pioneer Narrative. This narrative is connected to a sense of persecution and martyrdom that links this narrative thread with that of the First Vision. The early Mormons experienced constant persecution, eventually leading to the murder of their leader and their expulsion from their homes which culminated in a trek West and a settling in what would become Salt Lake City and the beginnings of a vast geographical region under the Mormon influence. Here again the contemporary personal identification with this narrative thread is strong. Many Latter-day Saints identify with the pioneer stories as their family story, regardless of whether they have family members who crossed the plains. This narrative may also resonate with others as the Church extends itself globally. Many can imagine themselves as pioneers or trailblazers as the some of the first people to accept the gospel of the restoration in their family and nation.

The third sacred narrative is the Pre-Mortal Life. As the name implies, this story teaches that human beings pre-existed their present earthly lives and dwelt with God prior to taking on human flesh. With this foundational narrative in mind, this life is considered act two of a “three act play” of human existence. Dialogues with Latter-day Saints reveal how powerful and influential this narrative is, so much so that it even impacts child-rearing attitudes as parents considered the pre-mortal relationships with their children where a differing relationship may have existed.

A fourth and sacred narrative is the Missionary Narrative. The Missionary Narrative forms a kind of microcosm of the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Mormon missionaries leave home, are sent to a new area, spend a limited amount of time meeting people and sharing the gospel, making right ethical choices, touching the lives of other sand then returning home to loving parents. This missionary work parallels the Plan of Salvation as Mormons believe they leave the Pre-Mortal Life, enter a period of probation and mortality, only to return once again to loving Heavenly Parents. Viewed in light of the Missionary Narrative, Latter-day Saints can see their mortal life as a sacred mission in fulfillment of a probationary time of testing and in anticipation of restored relationships and progression that transcend mortality.

Bibliography/Works Cited

Bitton, Davis. 1994. The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Blomberg, Craig and Stephen E. Robinson. 1997. How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Bradford, M. Gerald. 2007. “The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1: 119-74.

Cowan, Douglas E. 203. Bearing False Witness?: An Introduction to the Christian Countercult. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Davies, J. Douglas. 2003. An Introduction to Mormonism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

____. 2000. The Mormon Culture of Salvation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

____. 1991. “Pilgrimage in Mormon Culture,” in Makhan Jha (ed), Social Anthropology of Pilgrimage. New Delhi: Inter-India.

Dawson, Lorne L. 1998. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edison, Carol. 1989. “Mormon Gravestones: A Folk Expression of Identity and Belief,” Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter): 89-94.

Fackre, Gabriel. 1997. The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Hexham, Irving and Karla Poewe. 1997. New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost and John W. Morehead II, eds. 2004. Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional.

Jenkins, Philip. 2000. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Philip. 1997. “The Aquarian Age and Apologetics,” Lutheran Theological Journal 34:2 (December): 51-60.

Johnson, Philip, Anne C. Harper and John W. Morehead, eds. 2004. “Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (‘New Age’).” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 45. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and Morling Press.

Krieger, David. 1993. “Communication Theory and Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Summer-Fall): 331-53.

Lash, Nicholas. 1986. Theology on the Way to Emmaus. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Lyon, Jack M., Linda Ririe Gundry, Jay A. Parry, eds. 1997. Best-Loved Stories of the LDS People, Vol. 1. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

McDermott, Gerald R. 2000. Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions? Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Mortenson, Viggo, ed. 2003. Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.

Millet, Robert L. and Gregory C.V. Johnson. 2007. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing Company.

Millet, Robert L. and Gerald R. McDermott. 2007. Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Mitchell, Hildi J. 2002. “Postcards from the Edge of History: Narrative and the Sacralisation of Mormon Historical Sites,” Journeys 3, no. 1: 133-57.

Muck, Terry. 1993. “Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (December): 517-529.

Musser, Donald W. and David L. Paulsen, 2007. Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Olsen, Steve. 1996-97. “Celebrating Cultural Identity: Pioneer Day in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1: 159-177.

____. 1980. “Community Celebrations and Mormon Ideology of Place,” Sunstone 5, no. 3 (May-June 1980): 40-45.

Phillips, Timothy R. and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. 1996. The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals & Postliberals in Conversation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Robinson, Stephen E. 1991. Are Mormons Christians?. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.

Saliba, John A. 2003. Understanding New Religious Movements, 2nd ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

____. 1992. “Mormonism in the Twenty-first Century,” Studia Missionalia 41: 49-67.

____. 1993. “Dialogue with the New Religious Movements: Issues and Prospects,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 (Winter): 61-80

Sorenson, John L. 1981. “Ritual as Theology,” Sunstone 27 (May-June): 11-14.

Swidler, Leonard, 1983. “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20, no. 1: 1-4.

Tacy, David. 1990. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Louvain: Peeters Press.

Wilson, William A. 1998. “The Study of Mormon Folklore: An Uncertain Mirror for Truth,” Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter): 95-110.

____. 1995. “Mormon Narratives: The Lore of Faith,” Western Folklore 54, no. 4 (October): 303-26.

Yandell, Keith E., ed. 2001. Faith and Narrative. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yong, Amos. 2008. Hospitality & the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

8 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

Congratulations. Durham is wonderful!

Shawna Renee said...

Congratulations!

adrienne said...

congratulations!

--a new reader

Ross Anderson said...

John,
Very, very well done! Maybe its too late, but I might also suggest the role of the Book of Mormon narrative as a point of identification for Latter-day Saints. It models how to receive personal revelation, how a person acts as a witness, the cycle of prosperity-pride-downfall-repentance, the us vs. them dualism of LDS thinking, etc. Latter-day Saints also identify strongly with the "saint" and "hero" stories, like the conversion of Alma the Younger or the young warriors of Helaman. Themes from the Book of Mormon narrative consistently find their way into LDS literature and metaphor - as you know. Of course you can't cover everything. God speed with it. It will make a wonderful contribution!

John W. Morehead said...

Ross, thank you for your suggestion. Of course, it is not too late. My research process will discover many such narrative elements, and I will then have to determine which to highlight. But the Book of Mormon narratives seem like integral parts. Thanks for the suggestion.

Jack Meyers said...

Congratulations John. We can certainly use more folks like you in this field.

Quixie said...

Congratulations.

Very cool.

Ó

Yewtree said...

Congratulations!