Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jan Shipps: Mormonism and the Primacy of Myth

Today I received a few books that are important in my PhD dissertation research on Mormon sacred narrative. One is Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition by Jan Shipps (University of Illinois Press, 1987). I thumbed through the Index and found the following excerpt relevant to my dissertation focus on myth, and through it another piece of confirmation as to my direction. In the chapter "History as Text" Shipps discusses parallels between the rise of Christianity and Mormonism and how distinctions are properly made in understanding them. In this context she writes:

For the purposes of this discussion, the most economical and unambiguous means of making such distinctions is developing definitions that all refer to the usual categories or dimensions - mythological, doctrinal, ritual/liturgical, ethical, social/institutional, and experiential - that scholars have developed over the years to facilitate discussion of religion. Here however, these dimensions need to be ranked so that the most significant is the mythological rather than the experiential (the classification very often receiving greatest emphasis in studies of specific religious traditions, because it is the one that includes the reports of direct encounters with the sacred that are turned into the founding stories of new religious movements), the doctrinal (the area so often stressed in apologetic works), or the social/institutional (the dimension that was the main focus o both the sociological and historical study of religion for many years and the one that remains the primary focus of much of the sociological study of the topic). Moreover, besides elevating the mythological dimension to primacy in this instance, it is extremely important to keep in mind that when it is used in religious studies, mythological does not refer to fairy tales, fables, and other forms of patent untruth. It refers to story, to accounts of beginnings (holding out possibilities both of devastation and renewal), of sin and redemption, of heroes, heroines, and life lived out in the larger-than-life "oldest days" when divinity is said to have dealt with humanity face to face, providing a foundation for culture.


Ross Anderson said...

Since you're interested in sacred narrative, you may also be interested in LDS folklore narratives, the stories repeated by the people among themselves that reaffirm central meanings and values. If so, check out the writings of LDS folklorist William A. Wilson. I just finished reading an insightful collection of essays by Wilson called "The Marrow of Human Experience." He explores the meaning of narratives commonly told by and about LDS missionaries, stories of the Three Nephites, personal history reminiscences, etc.

John W. Morehead said...

Yes, I've identified this in my research as well, Ross. In fact, I have a meeting next week with Eric Eliason of BYU, an expert in such matters, to explore how this might relate to my thesis. Thanks for mentioning these things.