Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mormons VII: A Note for the Faithful

Before I post my report from Salt Lake City, I’d like to explain my position a bit further regarding my longstanding interest in Mormonism. I’ve been impressed with how many Mormons have tuned into my blog, and this little foreword is for you. If you are not of the new chosen tribe, and if I haven’t offended you previously on the subject, no need to read on. Check back in a couple days.

Religion is a delicate subject, but an important and fascinating one, especially in a country that embraces a plurality of faiths. I do not mean to be disrespectful of the sacred, yet as a historian this can be tricky, what I may see as historical narrative, others see as god given truth. There is no bridging this divide; critical examination necessarily runs counter to the lion’s leap taken by believers in the miraculous.

The timing of Mormonism compounds these tensions of faith and fact. Joseph Smith established the Church of Latter Day Saints in the first half of the 19th century, so the bulk of the Mormon creation myth is subject to an historical scrutiny not possible with older faiths like Judaism and early Christianity.

As a student of American history, I couldn’t resist exploring the Mormon narrative and the character of Joseph Smith, perhaps the most underappreciated character in American history. Yet because the more colorful dimensions of Joseph Smith— Joe Smith the drinker, gambler, con artist and womanizer extraordinaire—are aspects not easily incorporated into the latest prophet of Jesus Christ on Earth, the history itself is necessarily provocative to the believer. The Mormon story of the New World, though sufficiently ancient to be safe from the historical record, does little better against what we know of pre-Spanish America.

If the historical examination weren’t bad enough, I also bring an echo of the Gonzo journalist to my subject matter. This is where the ice of objectivity begins to crack—I am putting myself into the story, and I’ll push a little if I think someone’s going to add to the tale. It probably doesn’t help noble objectivity that the people out there willing to talk to a guy with a notebook in hand at religious sites are either recruiting souls or are total nut jobs.

So there are obviously limitations to my approach. Sometimes I stumble onto a story, sometimes the fanatics find me.

In the case of the Latter Day Saints, it was a bit of both. For those of you who read this blog, you know that the Mormons first found me in grade school. Years later the hamsters and I drunk dialed an LDS ad. Several years after that I spent my last month in Slovenia with two missionaries, themselves converts to the new gospel as revealed by Joseph Smith.

There is benefit to this Gonzo route. While I have a rough sense of what I am after, I’m not setting out to prove anything. The stories are the experiences. This doesn’t like much, but with this approach I’m abandoning years of schooling and professional training. From high school themes to my first college newspaper assignment, to my first paid clip, I’ve been encouraged to write and think as a determinist. Determinists make a thesis and then seek out the facts to prove the thesis is correct. It is a method hoisted on professional journalists and academics of all stripes in this country. Not that everyone takes the bait, yet most cannot afford not to, it pays to write the story an editor expects or with the slant de jour of the academe.

Thank goodness this little forward isn’t supposed to go anywhere. I respect believers of all faiths, maybe even Scientologists, even if it doesn’t always come off that way.

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