|Richard Lyman Bushman|
The following is making its rounds on Facebook (from this video):
Questioner: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
Richard Bushman: I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that's what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.
As I have seen this quote flash across my Facebook news feed and thought about how to make sense of it, I have been reminded of the short essay response questions I would often have on tests or assignments in college or even high school. It would not be uncommon for these questions to be built around a quote from an important scholar or historical figure, with the essay prompt asking something along the lines of (a) what do you think this means, and (b) do you agree or disagree, why or why not?
In these tests, (a) always came with (b) because (b) is utterly unintelligible without (a). Before a person can agree or disagree, and understand why they do or do not agree, they have to make sense of what is being said. And not everyone is going to make sense of it the same way. For a teacher grading (b), it is hard to tell just what the student is actually agreeing or disagreeing with without first getting (a) from the student. It involves contextualizing, and contextualizing is an act of creation that we all engage in as we read, whether we know it or not.
Some contextualize differently than others. Some contextualize well while others do not. Generally, those who are unconscious of how they are interpreting (think the meaning is “obvious”) are not contextualizing well, and are likely importing context from their own background, assumptions, and understanding without even knowing it. But even among those who are good at creating contexts within which to interpret statements, there are disagreements.
For me, in trying to make sense of Bushmen’s recent comments, I am looking for other things he has said that might help me understand what he means by the “dominant narrative” and it being “not true” and needing to be “reconstructed” and “absorb” new information.
I look at his remarks about seer stones less than a year ago, where he compared them to an iPhone, and clearly articulated his belief that seer stones really worked and Joseph Smith really used them to receive real messages from God and translate real ancient records. I remember John Dehlin specifically being shocked to find out that Bushman was not really on the same page as he was. Remembering that leads me to suspect that others now are misreading him here, just as many had misunderstood where he really stood before his seer stone/iPhone comments last year.
I also look at his essay on Joseph Smith and money digging in the recently published A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, edited by Laura Hales. There Bushman talks about how, back in the 1970s money digging seemed so momentous and damaging to the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith, but now with all the context from the 19th century folk practices, it seems pretty harmless. It is easily woven into the narrative about Joseph Smith and we can all move on.
I also think of his Foreword in the book From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Mike MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, published just last year. Bushman gives the book high praise. The book tells the familiar story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, but includes many new and unfamiliar details for most Latter-day Saints, such as Joseph Smith’s money-digging, seer stones, and so on. But the story still involves angels and plates and translation.
These are relatively recent publications, so are likely close to Bushman’s current views. When used to contextualize Bushman’s recent comments, they suggest to me that Bushman does not have in mind wholesale abandonment of the core LDS narrative, including the First Vision, translation of the Book of Mormon, etc. Rather, that these narratives as told by the Church stand in need of correction. As they stand, they are not true and cannot be sustained. They need to absorb the new information and reconstruct the narrative (as is done in the MacKay and Dirkmaat volume), but they do not need to fundamentally change.
Understood that way, I wholeheartedly agree with Bushman (though I probably would not have said the way he did), I see progress in this regard already being made, and look forward to seeing more.