Pop Mormon Studies: John Dehlin’s Gift to MormonismBy: Andrew S
IMAGINE is a collection of stories—all pop-science these days must be translated into stories, as if readers, like children, cannot absorb the material any other way; but some of Lehrer’s stories do not necessarily support his thesis, and some of them contradict it. Consider the tale of Don Lee, who worked as a computer programmer before deciding to embark on a life of inventing cocktails. At this he has succeeded: he is currently the head mixologist at one of David Chang’s restaurants. Lee’s creation of a bacon-infused cocktail, Lehrer notes, can be attributed to the fact that Lee is an “outsider.” “It’s a parable about the benefits of knowing less—Don was a passionate amateur—and the virtues of injecting new ideas into an old field.” This story is only a slight variation on the previous discussions of horizontal thinking, conceptual blending, and the glories of the right hemisphere. Lehrer concludes the chapter by noting that “knowledge can be a subtle curse.”
Chotiner continues with what I believe to be a particularly interesting description of the genre to which books like Imagine belong:
IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
“Pop-science books” (and their patron popularizers — journalists like Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell who have the dual gifts of being able to craft a coherent narrative and of divining clarity from the murkiness of scientific research) seem to have popped (pun not intended) out of nowhere. Obviously, this is not true — there have been plenty of people working to convey complex and complicated scientific research results to the public. There have been plenty of people who have simplified (and perhaps oversimplified) experimental data to fit certain paradigms, narratives, and metaphors. I fully admit that I am not an archivist of all of the major science popularization works, but from my (quite) limited experience, it seems that even if they do not mark the start of any tension, journalists like Lehrer and Gladwell still represent distinctive, recognizable examples of tensions in science popularization.
That tension is this: Lehrer and Gladwell’s talent for telling stories makes them extremely popular with the consumer public. When people read books like Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, they come away feeling that they have great insights about human sociology. In a critical article, Edward Champion likens Lehrer as being the Malcolm Gladwell of the mind — reading Lehrer, you might feel that you now know certain secrets of the human brain (even on really trying and troubling psychological and neurological issues, like depression).
…but as you may have assessed from the articles I’ve been linking, writers like Lehrer and Gladwell are not universally appreciated. The other side of their fame with general readers is their infamy with more science-savvy readers.
What does this have to do with John Dehlin?
If you have ever heard of or listened to the Mormon Stories or Mormon Matters podcasts (there are certainly other efforts Dehlin has pioneered, but these are a couple of the biggest), then you should know the name John Dehlin, as John Dehlin is the founder of these efforts. John Dehlin, like Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, is a polarizing figure — there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who would view Dehlin positively as someone who has helped them traverse various issues in Mormonism. (Granted, there are quite a few more who would find Malcolm Gladwell insightful.)
…However, for all the people who think that he is doing a great deal of help, there are others who believe him to be harmful, naive, or otherwise uncompelling. Rosalynde Welch’s recent Patheos post (among other goals) critiques John Dehlin and Mormon Stories.
(As an aside: there is a lot of history behind Welch’s post. I won’t go into detail on that, and it is not the focus of this discussion.)
Welch summarizes and comments on the genesis of Mormon Stories:
What is currently available for investigation are the goals of the Mormon Stories organization, at least as stated on their website. Dehlin has described the genesis of his organization as a personal crisis in 2001, when he discovered some basics of early church history and was thrown into confusion. By his own account, there were no interpretive resources available in 2001 to help him make sense of these issues, and Mormon Stories was born to fill that void: through a series of podcasts, Dehlin would develop a repository of unbiased historical information and interpretation to bring to light and make sense of the issues he encountered.
In one sense, this is a bit silly: in 2001, there were numerous Mormon journals—including BYU Studies, Dialogue, Sunstone, Irreantum, and others—that had been dealing with precisely these issues for decades, and by 2004, long before Mormon Stories got started, the Mormon blog-world was well launched on its treatment of the same. To my knowledge, Mormon Stories has not brought to light any new historical knowledge or even any novel historical interpretation; the organization does not fill any actual intellectual void.
What was novel about Dehlin’s project, it seems to me, was its non-textual platform—podcasts rather than essays or articles—and the edge of anger in the social community surrounding the podcasts that was generally taboo in mainstream Mormon blog discussions at the time. This anger brought an energy to the community ethos, and thus an intensity to the social bonds formed there. This is hardly a remarkable achievement: feelings of community are easy to generate on the internet simply by provoking any intense emotion in the audience and providing a place for discussion. Still, it did represent a novel contribution to the landscape of Mormonism.
When I read this part of Rosalynde’s post, I thought there were things that she definitely got right: Mormon Stories doesn’t really bring to light any new historical knowledge or even any novel historical interpretation. Additionally, it does not necessarily fill any actual intellectual void.
But here’s the thing: that’s not what it’s for. This is in the same way that Jonah Lehrer has not set himself out to pursue groundbreaking neurology research — he just gives narrative and story to what already exists. He popularizes what already exists. One can critique whether or not Dehlin’s “repository of…historical information and interpretation” is as unbiased as he would assert it (that’s not the point of this post, either), but the real question is not whether there were other journals around, but whether they in any way reached a popular audience.
Popularizing Mormon Studies?
The problem with Welch’s criticism is that BYU Studies, Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, and others are not for a general audience. I actually don’t think that all of these things go together (with Irreantum specializing in literature), but broadly, I would state that these journals are for a more scholarly, intellectual audience.
That’s certainly not a problem; in fact, it’s great that there are journals like this for this audience…but if these things aren’t for a general audience, then who will reach out to a general audience?
In his article on Practical Apologetics, Dave Banack recognized the need for personal and practical apologetics. As he wrote:
My view: the FARMS approach has become outdated. Mormon apologetics will become more decentralized and more social as people (both LDS and non-LDS) turn to Google and Facebook rather than the bookstore, the library, or journals to get answers to their Mormon questions. Apologetics will therefore become more personal and more practical. People still want answers.Mormon.org, blogs, and Mormon Stories are the shape of the future for apologetics: diverse, personal, interactive. [Disclaimer: I'm not endorsing the agenda of Mormon Stories, whatever it is, just noting the popularity of the format.]
While blogs, Mormon.org, and Mormon Stories certainly reflect more diverse, personal, and interactive ways of providing answers to Mormons and non-Mormons on historical and theological issues, I’d say their notability can be summarized more simply: they popularize the groundbreaking work that scholars, historians, philosophers make in Mormonism.
I think the issue is this: most people do not have the time, energy, resources, or background to pursue the issues to the level that scholars, historians, philosophers, and scientists can. This is something that is true in response to critics of science popularization, and this is something that is just as true in response to critics of Mormon studies popularization. What I so often see from critics of Gladwell, Lehrer, and now, of Dehlin, is that the critic is someone who often has done a lot of leg work with science, or history, or whatever the fraught topic is. As a result, the critic is often an insider who is well aware of the specialized literature in that field — and they may either take for granted that knowledge or expect others to invest the time that they did if they want to join the conversation. (This is especially true of science, I think, because of the paradigmatic value that scientific experiments should be repeatable and their findings verifiable and reviewable.)
With Welch’s post, we can see this in how she describes Dehlin’s personal faith crisis as being over discovering “some basics of early church history.” (The many, many people who experience crises of faith would not see these issues as being “basic” early church history, even if someone like Welch, who has a lot more experience as a scholar, would look at these issues as basic — or even if these issues may, in fact, be basic.) I have seen similar sorts of attitudes elsewhere: Ben S described certain returned missionaries who had not heard about Joseph Smith’s seer stone usage (and who had not read various sources in which the issue is broached) as being naively arrogant and lacking intellectual curiosity. If you only do the “absolute minimum” (relying on what you hear from Sunday School and Seminary for what you know about the church), then there is no sympathy for you.
To a certain extent, I sympathize with these ideas. The material is out there. There is research and history being done. The church does not necessarily have the responsibility of teaching everyone about every issue.
However, for whatever reason, different media do not penetrate the general Mormon consciousness as effectively as other media do. In many cases, someone’s access to Sunstone and Dialogue (or even their acceptance of these journals as being legitimate) may depend on their home environment — and that’s not something that will stay constant from member to member. Whatever the case is, as early as 2004 and 2005, John Dehlin was suggesting using podcasts as the media to reach more folks.
…Over the past 35 years, we’ve made some progress with the written word, Internet, and now blogs, but how can new technologies, and new formats, help us achieve 1 & 2 [dialing up the intellect as part of the overall development of LDS folk, and making our collective contributions more permanent] to an even greater extent than it has thus far? We know that there is a “generational issue” with subscribers and participants in Dialogue and Sunstone being largely “chronologically gifted” (shall we say). So how do we reach out to the “new generation”? How do we penetrate not just academics, but college students, and young married couples, BEFORE they stumble on the wrong things and spiral into destruction (as they are doing now in decently large numbers)? Are there new media, and new formats, that can take the facts and truths behind Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Bloggernacle and blast them into the mainstream?
…I hate to say it, but the prose and length in Dialogue and Sunstone, as well as in many Bloggernacle posts, are not very accessible to young, or average LDS folk. The level of the conversation is just too elevated. There are names, and dates, and events, and issues, and facts that are just plain ASSUMED to be known…that an average LDS person simply does not know, or even know that they should know. Then there is the “stink” issue…that I believe is “over-come-able”…but only with time–and until that happens, there are legion who won’t touch Sunstone/Dialogue purely because of the murky name/reputation/”brethren denunciation”. Also, the articles are often far too long, or detailed, for the average LDS reader. Don’t get me wrong…Dialogue and Sunstone have an irreplaceable place in Mormonism….and they should not try to be all things to all Mormons or they will lose current subscribers as well….but NEITHER publication will have as broad a penetration as they wish if left to their own devices. If they don’t “raise up a ‘thoughtful seed’ ” now, they will have little to no subscribers later.
So, some of the questions I have wold be these:
What do you think of John Dehlin’s podcasting efforts (such as Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters)? Do you think they reach a broader audience than Sunstone, Dialogue, or even FAIR or FARMS apologetic organizations? Are you even aware that FAIR has a podcast as well? If you think there are issues with Mormon Stories or Mormon Matters, how would you instead propose spreading information to a more general audience?
Do you think that a comparison with someone like Malcolm Gladwell, as a “popularizer” (rather than researcher) is valid? What is your opinion of Gladwell or Lehrer and their works? If you think there are issues with those guys’ books, how would you instead propose to spread information regarding sciences both soft and hard to a more general audience?