Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kent Bean Doctoral Dissertation on Manti Miracle Pageant

Through my ongoing research on anthropology of pilgrimage as it relates to LDS temple openings and the Manti Miracle Pageant, I was referred to Professor Kent Bean at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. Dr. Bean wrote his doctoral dissertation, "Policing the Borders of Identity at The Mormon Miracle Pageant," for the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University. Dr. Bean touches on several areas I have discussed in previous posts, including the issues of identity and boundary maintenance, which Bean sees as key activities of engagement among the social actors attending Manti, including Mormons, members of the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, and evangelicals. Several aspects of Bean's dissertation are worth highlighting.

Bean's discussion of the social aspects of the Manti pageant are significant. Bean discusses the Manti pageant as "material aspects of public display" which sends a "meta-message" as thousands of Mormons gather to reaffirm their faith and sense of identity. Bean references Mircea Eliade's writing in The Sacred and the Profane (1962) where he asserts "that a people can become what they display." The identification of individuals and of a whole religious community through the act of public display takes on additional signficance when we consider that the presence of others from other religious communities is interpreted as an affront to the boundaries of the Mormon community. Indeed, Bean notes that the presence of members of each religious group serves as a threat to the boundaries of each group:
"Pageants have become one 'battleground' where issues of naming can be discussed and tussled over. Identity claims can be staked out by all those involved: 'I am this; you are that.' 'No, I am this; you are that.' Boundaries are explored in the process and territory is claimed."

In one section of his dissertation, Bean discusses the issue of identity formation and the importance of having an Other against which one can define oneself. He quotes John R. Lewis who notes that societies need enemies, and working against a perceived enemy provides a sense of greater unity for a community. Bean notes that it might be too harsh to conceive of evangelicals and Mormons as enemies, nevertheless, he writes, "Actually, I should not be too hasty in saying they do not consider each other enemies, for certainly some members of each group consider members of the other group to be, quite literally, enemies of righteousness. But the important point is that in the defining of someone as an enemy - indeed, in the manufacture of some Other as an enemy, which is arguably what is happening in instances of counter-Mormon activity and Mormon response - there is group cohesion."

On the issue of the evangelical portrait of Mormonism, Bean writes:
"..Evangelicals read Mormon Scripture mostly, if not completely, divorced from the context of Mormon culture, which gives Mormon Scripture a fuller structure. Evangelicals arrive at the pageant with a textual construction of Mormonism, made from the fabric of sundry Mormon texts (many of which the average Mormon does not read or would only pull down from the shelf as a reference book), and they proclaim it Mormonism. Mormons, living their day-to-day lives, often uneventful but filled with the simple, repetitive joys of family, job, and weekly church attendance, are baffled by the strange thing presented to them by the Evangelicals, and their first instinct is to charge dishonesty."

There are many other highlights and insights in Dr. Bean's dissertation that make it a worthwhile read. He has done us a service in providing another interpretive lens through which to understand the Manti Miracle Pageant. His thinking should be considered before evangelicals put together this summer's short-term "mission trip" to Manti. Are such trips really the result of sound missiological thinking, or are they subconsciously an opportunity to defend evangelical identity against a perceived religious enemy in order to claim their sacred turf as our own?

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