Monday, September 29, 2008

Mormon Studies and Sacred Narrative: Missing Dimensions in Evangelical Study

I've mentioned in previous posts that at times I find it helpful to step back and ask myself the question (in various contexts), "Why do we do the things we do?". Or "Why do we do the things the way we do?" Such questions can be very helpful since it is very easy to go with things as they have always been done and to assume this is the only way, or the best way in which to do them.

I believe such questions need to be posed in interreligious dialogue involving evangelicals. For example, we are involved in dialogue with Latter-day Saints, but the venue and manner of the dialogue often resembles a debate in its public expression, and the terms of the dialogue are those that resonate with evangelicals. Our dialogues tend to center on issues related to doctrine and worldview, especially in light of evangelical concerns over heresy. Such questions are important for Christians who remember the New Testament churches and their struggles with various teachings in a pluralistic environment, but if we step back for a moment we might consider that other religious groups do not approach the practice of religion while sharing evangelical concerns. Evangelicals emphasize doctrine, orthodoxy, and a rational orientation to the theologizing process, but groups like the Latter-day Saints do not. Most Latter-day Saints that I talk to, whether academic or not, tend to emphasize ethics, a testimony, various sacred narratives, and ritual practices in the temple and ward. Is it possible that the evangelical-LDS dialogue process, now underway in various forms for many years, represents a form of dialogue where we are largely talking past each other because evangelicals have not been able to empathetically step into the shoes and way of life of their dialogue partners?

I suggest that evangelicals are missing essential aspects in their understanding of Mormonism, and therefore our dialogue process is not what it could be. In my view, we need to engage in a research project that approaches Mormonism from the perspective of sacred stories or narrative such as the Pre-Existence and the Heavenly Council, Joseph Smith's First Vision, and the Westward Trek and Persecution to name a few. These narratives represent not only theological and historical aspects of Mormonism, and aspects of Mormon theology and history with which we can offer criticism, but sacred stories in which individual Latter-day Saints situate themselves as they seek identity and live out their faith individually and collectively. These stories are connected to strong experiential and emotional dimensions which then work themselves out in ethical conduct and ritual that takes place in the home, ward, and temple. A focus by evangelicals on LDS sacred narrative and ritual would help us understand their religious pathway more as an insider than as an outsider, and it would help us move beyond idealized or reified understandings of their faith.

We might also consider how our own understanding of traditional Christianity can be communicated more effectively and winsomely through a narrative theology that tells God's Story and which helps situate our individual stories within the divine narrative. This might well be difficult for evangelicals in that we have turned the collection of biblical stories that makeup the overarching divine story of the missio Dei into a systemized collection of doctrines. We tend to approach our own faith rationally, doctrinally, and systematically, and therefore it is no surprise that we approach the religions of others in similar fashion assuming they share our framework. Attempts at developing a narrative theology as evangelicals might go a long way in providing new avenues for understanding our own faith, and in communicating that more effectively to others who appreciate a narrative framework.

Before evangelicals write these ideas off, I have been exploring the possibilities for PhD studies by research degree, and a part of my dialogues related to this have been with Douglas Davies, Professor of the Study of Religion in in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham. He is also the author of The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Ashgate, 2000), and An Introduction to Mormonism (Cambridge University Press, 2003). In our email exchanges Dr. Davies saw great merit in my research proposal, and he made similar observations about the neglected aspects of ethics, narrative, and ritual to LDS studies in a forthcoming review of Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (Mercer University Press, 2007) for BYU Studies, and in a paper presented not long ago in Finland to the European Mormon Studies Association.

I believe there is something significant in these ideas, and I will continue to pursue them as a research project. My hope is that funds become available for PhD studies on them as well.

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