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.
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