Mormonism and the Internet 2012

On March 29th, GH and I drove down to Utah Valley University to have ourselves a date for our minds. We went to the first part of the Mormon Studies conference entitled Mormonism and the Internet: Negotiating Religious Community and Identity in the Virtual World. And if you think that sounds like eighteen kinds of fun, then you really get me.

As I walked into the university library, my first thought was, "MAN I miss college." I really do. I don't miss paying for college, but I miss learning. Note to self: Must try learning more often.

We could only stay for the morning session, which was thought-provoking and positive and all kinds of good things. I took copious notes, because that is my way, and then waited waaaay too long to post them. So at times I don't remember who said what. Sorry.

Anyway, they took forever to get up here and even if nobody else wants to slog through I know I will appreciate having them here. There were sessions that I didn't get to hear that I really, really wanted to, and at some point UVU will put all the video content in their archives. Expect an update when that happens.


James Faulconer (professor of philosophy and Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU). "Professing on the Internet: What's a Guy to Do?" He talked about Patheos and about being one of the writers on LDS topics, and how it can be kind of tricky writing for this very general online audience. I did not take any notes because nothing he said really intrigued me. But then during the panel he said loads of really hilarious and insightful things, so I am guessing that the 20-minute presentation just wasn't his best venue.

Ardis E. Parshall (historian, freelance researcher, columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, and runs the LDS history blog Keepapitchinin.) "Blazing a New Trail: Doing History in the Age of the Internet." I kind of loved her. Hadn't known anything about her blog but both GH and I turned to each other during her presentation and said we needed to check it out.

Parents: If you don't talk to your children about Mormon history, who will?
Answer: Everyone will.

It's all online, coming from every possible perspective. She referred to the Bloggernacle as being kind of a battleground for Mormon identity in the digital world. It's vast and fractured. When we go online we tend to sort ourselves into communities of people who feel the same way we do about Mormon history and the present.

She talked about her own blog, and how in addition to posting content she tries to cultivate a certain atmosphere. She doesn't allow trolls, bipartisanship, or any of the Utah vs. Non-Utah stuff. Sometimes comments and posts on her blog have helped people flesh out their own family stories, or have led her to put people in touch with the Church archives because they have copies of documents that would be of interest to them (such as church meeting minutes from European branches in the early 1900s).

Talks about the value that comes from reading the stories of ancestors who accomplished something extraordinary simply by being what they should have been as Latter-day Saints.

She mentioned the Mormon Women Project, the Church History website, and the Church History Library as good sites to get primary sources.

Patrick Mason (Howard W. Hunger Chair of Mormon Studies and Associate Professor of North American Religion at Claremont Graduate University), "Mormon Blogs, Mormon Studies, and the Mormon Mind." He talked about doing a survey of graduate students who read Mormon Blogs. Found that many people read the blogs to have the kind of intellectual discussions that they do not have at church, or sometimes to float ideas that they want to study in more depth. Says it's a growing but "fractured community" where polarization or "balkinization" can occur (people stick with the kind of discussions or blogs that agree with the way they already think). Also said women seem underrepresented in many of the more "scholarly" Mormon blogs.

Joanna Brooks gave the keynote "The Challenge of Mormon Studies for the Digital Age" and man it was fascinating.

She began by talking about the portrayal of Mormons in the media in the 1800s and beyond. We were generally portrayed in cartoons and films as secretive, treasonous, and duplicitous. Since then we've cultivated an image as clean-cut, patriotic, family-focused people but the idea of the "secretive and duplicitous Mormons" was never really addressed. You can see evidence of it still in the articles written about Mitt Romney, where authors wonder what he's not telling us about his church, etc.

Then she talked about the Mormon Underground of the late 1800s.

(Note: I hadn't known much at all about this, but later found an interview with a scholar named Daymon M. Smith who wrote his PhD dissertation on the rise of the Modern, Correlated Church. It's at By Common Consent as part of a series on the long, complicated history of what we refer to as "Correlation." (Part 1--The Mormon Underground.))

Anyway. This was the time when the federal government was trying to prosecute Utahns who practiced polygamy with methods that included using spies (either outsiders or insiders who had been persuaded to cooperate) to identify people who were suspected to be in polygamous relationships. As one way of protecting themselves and their families from this threat, LDS people adopted several defensive standards of communication.

1. Theocratic reserve around sensitive domains, such as the theological or even physical, etc. There was fear that anything they said would be used against them, or fear about outsider use of their information. The temple is a physical domain that still gets brought up when we feel a threat. (Examples: Johnston's army is coming to destroy the temple. The civil rights movement means that we be punished for not marrying blacks in the temple. The gay rights movement means that we will be punished for not marrying gays in the temple. It's a very powerful way to galvanize the defenses, even if the fear is not a valid one.)

2. Preference for information from institutional sources. Information from other sources might not be trustworthy.

3. Default posture of non-transparency.

4. Insider and outsider narratives. We use different vocabulary and have different conversations with people who are inside the faith and outside.

5. Communicate to deflect from and protect private beliefs. (Also known as "Mind Your Own Business.") During the Underground, this meant that you didn't talk about yourself or your family, and you didn't ask other people about themselves or their families either. You didn't know who might be reporting to the government. Carried forward, this means that you answer questions in such a way that you don't offer up anything private or personal about your beliefs or practices which could be ridiculed or exploited by outsiders.

These communication practices were instituted during a time of threat, but they have continued on as part of our culture. But when you compare these to the generally accepted standards of digital era communications, you see where we have problems.

1. Information wants to be free.

2. Google searches drive access to broadly sourced information. Just because something is the official source doesn't mean it's going to come up first on Google--see how the Church has worked to put our sources at the top of the search results about Mormons.

3. Meme-driven feedback loops drive attention to points of sensitivity. (Nothing ever disappears from the Internet. The more interesting or scandalous it is, the more it will keep looping.)

4. A shift from vertical to horizontal messages.

5. Expectations of transparency, reliability, etc.

Brooks gave three recent examples of when digital era communications created the kind of attention that necessitated (and received) immediate responses from the Church. (1. President Packer's talk in the October 2010 General Conference, 2. the February 2012 articles about proxy baptisms for Holocaust survivors, and 3. the February 2012 Washington Post article where BYU Professor Randy Bott expounded on possible reasons for the priesthood ban.) She says that digital technologies erode the ability to manage or protect thorny issues and public perceptions.

So. What can we do? We can avoid the insider/outsider language, we can stop unwittingly contributing to perceptions that we are duplicitous, we can normalize the complexities and conflicts within our faith. She says there are points where pressure builds and breaks the rules of undergrounding. Just like the transcontinental railroads destroyed our geographical isolation, the digital era is breaking our cultural and informational isolation.

She talks about us being a young faith and "having our adolescence in the public eye. That is never pretty." New information about our history is available to young people, but it's not necessarily being talked about by people they trust. More information, she believes, is better, but it must be processed. Moving from a highly managed history to information overload can be overwhelming.

In speaking to people who write in the Mormon Studies field, she says there can be a lot of emotion when we talk about our faith but also there can be fear. She says you have to be disciplined and create responsible work using the tools of your scholarly disciplines, which can help manage fear. Used as an example Lester Bush, who wrote a paper entitled Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: A Historical Overview in 1973 (as in five years before the priesthood ban was lifted). He received pressure not to publish it, but went ahead. Five years later the ban was lifted and 40 years later his work is appreciated as the quality piece of scholarship that it is. (And seriously. If you have some time, this thing is absolutely worth reading. All he does is lay out the facts, and it's kind of amazing.)

Still with me? Because we still have the Q & A, which was fascinating. All four speakers were up there.

One audience member said that she wanted to learn more about Mormon history, but she wasn't sure where to look. She felt that official church publications don't necessarily give the complete story, but she didn't know how to identify whether something not produced by the church was going to be neutral and reliable. She was afraid that she might come across things that would shake her faith. Another asked if there is a limit to how far faithful Mormons should engage in critical thought or discussion about these kinds of things. ("Critical" as in "critical thinking," not "critical" as in "you never unload the dishwasher".)

Patrick Mason jumped in and his response kind of brought the house down.

"When did Mormonism become afraid of truth?"

He says all communities do this, but why do we feel we have to be scared of our history? Why do we worry that truth will harm our faith? We live in a modern age now and sometimes we look at everything through that lens. There are tough questions out there, and we may have to come up with new narratives to answer and understand them. We can't be private about our history or our beliefs.

Ardis Parshall gave a great analogy when she talked about people who want to start studying their family history. They come in with a story about how Robert E. Lee was their ancestor and that's what they want to go for. They don't want to start with themselves or their parents or grandparents, and if it turns out that the Robert E. Lee story isn't true then they are just shattered. She compares it to us, and how sometimes we don't want to get to know the basics or piece things together from the beginning. And then we accuse people of lying or hiding things when all the information was right there for us but we never took the time to see it.

Faulconer said we sometimes approach things with what he would call "naive scientism." But real history, real lives, and real theology, are messy. We want things cleaned up and neat. When they are not, we think there is a problem, but the problem is likely with us. We we study the scriptures, we are looking for the things that re-affirm what we think we already know. We're not looking for things that challenge us and make us ask questions, but we should, because that's what study really is.

Brooks(?) pointed at that we sometimes carry shame and fear about our history. Can we replace that with curiosity and responsibility?

Mason said that we've become trapped in the narrative of defending the character of Joseph Smith. The first anti-Mormon attacks were about his character, and so our first response to it was to defend his character. But if you look at prophets throughout history you can see that they are portrayed as flawed, imperfect humans who were also prophets. Are we perhaps trapped in unhelpful narratives that shouldn't be what our faith is based on?

Q: How does the Internet enrich and/or disconnect your lives?

Patrick Mason pointed to a paper by Eugene England called "Why the Church is as True as the Gospel." Said we can't just be self-selecting. Wards force you to deal with people who are different from you.

Someone said Internet communities give you an outlet so you can relax on Sundays. Can be a life of the mind vs life of the body thing.

Faulconer said that if we go to church and have issues with people for not wanting to talk about the things we want to talk about, sometimes that can be an issue of class and that's not cool--we should not think our brothers or sisters are inferior.

Q: How do we talk to people who don't understand our need for inquiry?

Faulconer told an awesome story about how his stake president took him aside after he started writing for Patheos. He didn't realize he was being "taken aside," but at the end of their conversation the SP said, "I don't think God cares what you think, He cares about if you do the right stuff." When Faulconer realized what they had been talking about, he thought that was kind of sweet of him. So, you know, keep thinking strange things but doing the right stuff. He says you can built social and spiritual capital with people--when he moved into his ward 30 years ago everyone else were steel workers and he was the only professors. But he's built relationships and now they know he's a generally decent guy with weird thoughts.

Brooks says that you can project good feelings about your faith and your questions. Don't reinforce feelings of shame, fear, or worry.

Faulconer(?) said that Sunday School shouldn't be about having these conversations. It should be about helping people learn about scripture.

But then Brooks asked if we are perhaps doing too much compartmentalizing and reinforcing the idea that some things shouldn't be talked about. Do we just cede Sunday School?

Faulconer said that there are some dumb things people say. And it's not his job to correct people when they say dumb stuff. BUT. There are certain dumb things that do need to be responded to. (In his ward, it's comments against Catholics, at which he consistently raises his hand to shut it down. But, he acknowledges that he is in kind of a privileged position to do so: he is a white, male, high priest who is a longstanding member of the ward.)

Q: How do we get rid of the shame/worry/fear about asking difficult questions?

Brooks: We should foster spaces where we can be wrong. We can have a bad day, we can make mistakes. And to be wrong or make a mistake isn't a deep, shameful character flaw.

Parshall: History does not have to equal shame. If you go read the journal of a polygamous wife and really understand her story and see her as a person, you might not feel that way anymore.

Faulconer: (Agreeing with Parshall). Get to know the historical figures. The more you know about them the more you will see that they could be wrong at times but still be admirable people.

And that was it! Lovely way to spend a morning, and it's given me loads of stuff to check out and read.


Liz Johnson said... [reply]

I really want to watch the video archives of this, because it sounds like it was fabulous.

Patrick Mason is a good friend (actually, I'm better friends with his wife, Melissa) and I'm optimistic for Mormon studies and greater transparency/growth/openness in the church because of the work that he and others do. I really see the future as being quite bright for the atypical Mormon.

Science Teacher Mommy said... [reply]

This is such good stuff. Your are on FAIR's website and/or podcast, right? I just posted a bit on Mormonism in the progressive era. A lot of correlation and the standardization of Church materials in an outgrowth of popular movements at the time.

Also, in that concealment era of which you wrote, mormon women were so involved with all of the Progressive causes--especially the suffragettes. The first elected woman ANYWHERE in the US was a democrat to the Utah legislature. She beat her husband to do it.

How is that for a little RS history?? What a legacy.

liesel said... [reply]

ooh! so cool! Thank you for your copious notes. Makes me wish I was there.

abby said... [reply]

I went to London study abroad with Patrick Mason. It's awesome to see what he's up to now. What a small LDS world we live in.

Saskia said... [reply]

This is awesome. I couldn't watch the live feed (stupid time difference) and the recap I read on BCC was more snark and less information, so I really appreciate this! And to do the whole small world thing, I was a respondent in the Mason internet survey ;-)

Nemesis said... [reply]

Saskia, I should have guessed that you would have been one of the survey participants!

I was disappointed too at the snarky "live-blogging" over at BCC because, while funny, it gave me absolutely no real information. I especially wanted to know about Kristine Haglund's "Homemaking as Performance Art" (aka "Let's talk about Mormon Mommy Blogs"). Can't wait for that one to air in the archives.

When I was trying to get my notes straight I found some helpful resources here and here.

Mrs. Clark said... [reply]

Excellent! Wish I could have been there, too!

Ardis E. Parshall said... [reply]

I apologize for the weirdness of the BCC live-blogging. Because the session was being broadcast, and the recording eventually posted, it didn't seem necessary to do authentic live blogging -- rather, it was more like what we do when we live blog Conference: no need to summarize the talks because they will be available so soon in a better form than we can reproduce.

However, I didn't think about those who might not be able to watch the livestream and who were looking for real reports from the live-blogging. I hope the recordings are up soon so you can catch up on what you missed.

Otherwise, thanks for this very positive, very thorough and upbeat summary of the Thursday morning session. It was an interesting conference to be a part of. As much as the internet connects us, it also tends to isolate us, and I very much enjoyed being able to meet and hear and talk with so many people face to face.

Kristine said... [reply]

_No one_ is as sorry about that BCC thread as I am! For the record, there was no dancing.

Melanie said... [reply]

I work with students and I've been doing some research recently on creating an online presence. Many sources warn that once something is out there on the internet it's accessible (to someone, somewhere) forever. I'm not techy enough to know to what extent this is true, but it's repeated so much that it seems likely.

This got me thinking about how this will affect the church, especially future church leaders. Today's teeneagers publish so much of their lives online. What will the church's policy be when a stupid/snarky/edgy Facebook status update or picture of a General Authority surfaces?

Nemesis said... [reply]

My husband is laughing at me right now because I'm kind of hyperventilating over the part where both Ardis E. Parshall and Kristine Hagland just showed up and commented on my blog.

It's a little bit like having really put-together people stop by your house and you're standing at the door wondering just how many dirty diapers are rolling around on the living room carpet behind you. Not that I know how that feels. At all.

Ardis, I did enjoy the live-blog for the piece of silliness that it was, and I can't wait to watch the archived sessions. It really was fun for me to put faces to so many of the names I read online, even if I didn't go up and say hello because I get shy at things like that.

Kristine, I will be incredibly disappointed if there is, in fact, no dancing. My friend Sarah K-W knows you from her Boston days and says you are lovely, by the way.

BruceCrow said... [reply]

Nice summary. I missed the presentation due to real world work obligations. Thanks.

Ardis E. Parshall said... [reply]

Now, really, who're you going to believe? The contemporary, on-the-spot reporting by an eyewitness, or the denial by a dancer who is unnecessarily modest about her incredible talents? Hm?

Next time, Nemesis, please do introduce yourself to whoever you're listening to. The best part of going to conferences is meeting people ... and speakers are just as shy as you are, believe it or not.

Except Kristine. She has no inhibitions.

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