Saturday, July 20, 2013
Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar
I just got back from doing the Maxwell Institute's Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture. I did not finish the lazy man triathlon. It has been a great six weeks (minus the part about Susan not being able to join me). I have very much enjoyed many, many things this past month or so. I will list a few here.
Terryl Givens is amazing. I've been a fan of his scholarship ever since I first read his By The Hand of Mormon back in 2004. He's one of the best and brightest that the church has to offer as far as scholars, and he and his wife Fiona are wonderful people, dedicated to the gospel and to the church, committed to helping people stay in the church, and I'm honored to consider them friends. It was also marvelous to see them doing their "the church is more complicated than you learned in seminary but still wonderful and true so stay in it" fireside at my brother Xan's stake center. It was great to be able to study under Terryl, to learn from his example, and to have him critique my work. My paper was all the better for his leadership and guidance. He did say on the first day that part of the purpose of the seminar was to show how scholarship can be both faithful to the church and scholarly rigorous. I hope we met his expectations on that front. That's a balance that all of us who claim to be disciples of Christ and followers of Joseph Smith, yet have academic training, will always have to strive for. I was glad that was a focus of the seminar, as it's something that I am always trying to balance correctly. Terryl is much more skilled at that task than I, and so it was good to see him doing it in his own scholarship, and to have him as a guide in mine. I'm sure all of the other participants would say much the same things about how great it was to study under him.
On the scholarship front, it was fascinating to read through so many of the primary documents. As Ryan said in his presentation, as a philosopher, he didn't know those existed. As a theologian, that's largely my lot as well. It was a little difficult to determine how to go about it, and I frequently wished that I had academic training in history. I think it was a bit of a handicap for most of us as we studied and worked, but we muddled through. Early Mormonism is so much more complex than we give it credit for. Wonderful to look at the early saints trying to make sense of the glorious light that had burst upon them. We, in the 21st century, nearly two hundred years after the founding of the church, have had time to process and sort and make sense of that light, but for those experiencing that influx of gospel light live it must have been blinding! All the participants seemed to struggle to make sense of the mass of primary sources that we had at our disposal, but I think we made it all work in the end.
Speaking of the other participants, they are another thing that I would like to say I really enjoyed. The group was more diverse than I expected in the sense that not all of them were graduate students in religion. I think we were all the stronger for it, and I was happy to meet all of them, from the lawyer leaving his law career and coming back to the light side and doing Mormon scholarship to the lawyer for whom this was the last hurrah of Mormon scholarship before running off to the dark side to make money and start their law career, from the political theorist to the student of Christianity studying in Turkey, they were all great and I had so much fun getting to know them, discussing things with them, and just having a great time.
I also connected with other friends, some new, some I had met before. I enjoyed the atheist who was there at BYU doing research for his dissertation. He was roommates with one of the other participants, so would come to our lunches and discussions. The day the supreme court ruled for gay marriage, I was in a bit of a funk, and he and I had a good discussion that, by the end of, I felt respected and appreciated, even though I disagreed with the court's ruling. I met veteran scholars at BYU. I met new professors at BYU. I met bloggers from Feminist Mormon Housewives. I met disaffected Mormons. I met those who had left the church once but were now back. I met one of the September Six, Maxine Hanks. It was a good group of people to meet. The scripture study groups at Joe's apartment were inspiring. Oh that every class in the church could be as invigorating!
We got to see the $7 million Church History Library, with Assistant Church Historian Richard Turley himself as our guide. I was the guinea pig to show the safety features on the moving shelves. I went to the back of the aisle, and they didn't move when he pushed the button to have them do so. I came closer, and then they began to close. I had to turn sideways eventually, and with inches to spare only then did my foot hit the sensor on the floor and stop them from crushing me. Had I died, my friends, I would hope, would put on my tombstone "Killed by Richard Turley, the Assistant Church Historian." That way in a thousand years people would look at that tombstone and wonder "what a heretic that Cranney guy must have been, to have been personally slain by an official Church Historian!" Haha.
SLAB pizza is wonderful. If you live in Provo, you should try it out. I recommend the chicken bacon ranch, in particular, though the rosemary potato was surprisingly good.
Good to catch up with old mission buddies, even if they're not currently active in the church and write 75 page letters detailing all their problems with church history. Why hang out with him? Because how can you turn down lunch when he says "You're the only apologist I'd go golfing with." Dawwww. (We didn't go golfing.) Thanks Jeremy!
And finally, unsurprisingly, I had a great time with my family. In particular I had a surprisingly good time with my little sister, Catherine. You see, I had plans to get her into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Catherine is now sixteen and I felt could use a good dose of feminism and girl power, and Buffy Summers and the Scooby Gang seemed just the way to do it. A while back when she and my brother Caleb had their wisdom teeth out, Caleb burned through, well, all of Buffy. Catherine came in to watch one episode, lost interest, and left. It was an episode about an abusive boyfriend, and I really wanted her to stay to get the message and theme of the episode, even if it was couched in terms of feral vampires, werewolves, and Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde transformations. So I had it in mind to get her to watch the TV show this summer while I was around, or at least get her started and addicted to it.
However, I had underestimated how mature she was. She didn't want to watch Buffy because it would be about high school, and she was already kind of sick of high school in many ways. Living three years in Russia, having to go to church on her own now (Caleb is on his mission, Mom and Dad serve at the MTC, and Xan goes to his single's ward), and just being the youngest child of a fairly accomplished family has made her a remarkably independent and grown-up woman. I was surprised at how alike she and I are, particularly with regards to sarcasm against people we disagree with. I'd never really got to hang out with her for an extended period of time since, well, before my mission. When she was three. So, basically, watching a coming-of-age-girl-power TV show didn't appeal to her.
Besides, she hadn't seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings movies. So, Buffy next year. We had to stick with basics this time around. I introduced her to TNG and she watched all of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings on her own after I watched the first disk of the first movie with her. Thanks, Allan, for letting us borrow those DVDs. Star Wars maybe someday later. This was the one thing I thought was more positive for Susan not being present. It was good to get to know Catherine merely as a brother. Dynamics change when you're married, but with my spouse not around, those changed dynamics weren't as present.
That being said, of course I'm glad I'm home with Susan. I'm grateful I had this opportunity to spend time with my family and not share them with my wife. It was a return to how things used to be, but on a more equal level with my now-older siblings. However, I'm back in DC with Susan and life is as it should be.
In short, I had a great time over the six weeks I was in Utah. Here are some photos from the seminar. But it's good to be home.
Edit: Here's my paper, Web of Kin or Chain of Family? Theological Implications of Early Mormon Sealings to 1894.