Friday, October 26, 2007

Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman

Steve Evans interviewed Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman for By Common Consent.

Terryl Givens is a Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of many books and articles, including The Latter-day Saint Experience in America, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, By the Hand of Mormon, and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.

Richard Bushman is a Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, and more recently, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

A brief segment from the interview:
BCC: There have always been sensitive topics in the Church. Historically, BYU and BYU Studies haven’t been particularly friendly to discussions of such things. Do you see your publications as opening the discussion up beyond closed doors? Are BYU and BYU Studies willing to host discussion and publish on topics that they historically haven’t?

TG: I have never set out self-consciously to push the envelope or challenge the orthodox boundaries of Mormon studies or historiography. I don't think I have engaged in particularly controversial questions, but neither have I deliberately avoided them. Its just that I find myself fully occupied trying to address questions that I find personally urgent: was there more to Mormonism's contentious relations with the mainstream than traditional historical accounts tell us? How does one explain the potent capacity of the Book of Mormon to draw millions into its orbit, while simultaneously outraging other millions? Is there really such a thing as Mormon culture? What kind of philosophical and theological depth do we find when we examine Joseph Smith's thought? Generally, I find much more to celebrate than to deplore when I attack these questions.

As for BYU and BYU Studies, I think in an environment where dissident and alternate voices proliferate in very formal settings, there has been a tendency for many participants in the dialogue to define themselves against the "other," and this has resulted in more polarization than I would like to see. Recent efforts of some to organize Mormon Studies around facile categories like "faithful scholars" and "New Mormon Historians" and the like aggravate rather than ameliorate this problem. Mormon intellectual culture is not a two party system.

RB: I don't see many signs of a shift yet.

BCC: The zeitgeist at the LDS Archives seems to be one of opening and liberalization. It would seem that this is also the case at BYU. Why do you think that is?

TG: No one reason. The internet has made our cloistered guardedness of the past impossible; perhaps generational changes, shifting opinions about the value of scholarship to the church, the professionalization of Mormon history writing, the widespread scholarly interest in Mormonism, more moderate coverage by the media and the openness of publishers to let Mormons tell their own story, all have conspired to make the church less suspicious and guarded.

RB: The Archives are now quite open to serious scholars. Even the historians that we label as anti-Mormon work there. There is probably a realization that little is gained by hiding historical materials.

Read the full interview.

The Page 99 Test: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

The Page 99 Test: People of Paradox.

--Marshal Zeringue