Inside outsider: Studying the religion of “others”

Posted by on Jun 27, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on Inside outsider: Studying the religion of “others”

I’m doing a lot of thinking these days on what it means to study a religion of which you’re not a part.  This has been an issue of interest to me (and to the Mormons I study) since I began ethnographic work among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints four years ago. Still, it always catches me off guard when folks express incredulity that a non-Mormon would study Mormonism.  Doesn’t that happen all the time?  Isn’t it, after all, the classic anthropological model? My professor and mentor John L. Jackson Jr. studies black Hebrews… but isn’t a member of that movement. My advisor and friend Carolyn Marvin recently spent a year in India on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, studying  Hinduism in public spaces.  Guess what? She’s not Hindu.  It doesn’t seem to surprise anyone when scholars enthusiastically study communities such as these.

Mormonism is in a different category, for several reasons: For one thing, Mormonism is so big and so American; more traditional anthropological studies have always focused on the “exotic other”.  Additionally, LDS communities are already academically reflexive, with vibrant scholarship in the emerging field of Mormon Studies (a field which seems to be overwhelmingly populated by Mormons).  And of course Mormons throughout their history have become accustomed to hostile scrutiny and often approach outsider interest with suspicion– and increasingly so in this “Mormon moment” when everyone seems to want a bit of the Mormon pie.

But here I am. I’ve never been Mormon.  I’ve no plans to become Mormon.  Yet when my colleagues or friends hear I study Mormonism, they assume I am– or once was– Mormon myself.

I loved this piece on Patheos by Seth Perry, who shares both my affinity for all things Mormon and my non-Mormon status.  I laughed when I read his anecdote about being approached after giving a conference presentation on Mormon patriarchy and authority.  Like him, after presentations on some aspect of Mormonism, I have been approached– and less often, accosted– by a member of the Church who has heard my talk and wants to know if I’ve read and prayed over the Book of Mormon. Like Perry suggests about his own experience, I’m uncomfortable with the question.  I hesitate.  I mumble. 

Mormonism teaches that if you read the Book of Mormon and then sincerely pray to know if it is true, the Holy Ghost will manifest its truthfulness to you.  Mormons generally describe this manifestation as a “burning in the bosom”– a feeling in your heart that what you’ve read is true and right.  Affect is taken as evidence for the Book’s divine source.  So implicit in the question “Have you read and prayed?” is the suggestion that if I took the faith I study seriously and approached it on its own terms, I would adopt it as my own.  I would be Mormon.

have read the Book of Mormon; I have never had a special feeling when I’ve read it.  I have not prayed about it: to do so feels disingenuous which already precludes me from receiving an “answer” since the answer is predicated on the seeker’s sincerity. Despite my lack of a testimony of the Book of Mormon or the Church’s truthfulness, I find space for studying and appreciating the faith without accepting its truth claims.

Although my insider-outsider dilemma has been ongoing, lately I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it means to study the religious “other”, and for good reason: on August 3, I am presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR).  This year marks FAIR’s 14th annual Mormon apologetics conference, and I’ve been told by conference organizers that I’m the first ever non-Mormon to present.  Given that FAIR is an apologetic organization, and the conference is meant to be faith-promoting, it makes sense that a non-Mormon would be a bit out of place there.  What can I contribute?  Hopefully, I’ll offer what only a non-Mormon could add: a different perspective.