Part Seven: On Tolkien Studies And Mormon Studies

Tolkien Studies Compared To Mormon Studies

 

Well, Daymon, here we
are again.

 

Yeah.  Again.

 

I see you’ve been busy
writing this and that, Articles of Faith, Contests, and probably
god-knows-what-else.  Arguing with
apologists, which is just insane, by the way.

 

I thought you were writing all that stuff.  No?
There must be another Daymon around here, then.  A real jerk, sometimes, too.  Anyway, where were we?

 

Last time you called
amateurs maggots, I believe.

 

Ah.  Well, Farmer
Maggots.

 

Explain the difference.

 

Farmer Maggot is of the crafty old rural folk, goodhearted
and courageous.  Helps the hobbits pass
through the Shire.  But not really the
go-to guy for, say, fighting off Nazgul.

 

So, you’re saying
someone is a Nazgul?  Who?  Let’s call someone a dirty name.

 

No, I’m saying there’s a division of labor in any research
field; at least, in a functioning one: your Gandalfs, Maggotts, Aragorns, and
hobbits.  Let me draw a contrastive case.

 

Tolkien Studies, then?

 

Sure.  You be the
Mormon Studies guy, and I’ll be the Tolkien Studies guy.  MS and TS, OK?

 

Wait.  Which one am I?

 

The Mormon Studies guy.

 

But I’d rather be the
other one.

 

Next time.  Now, let
me outline what for most scholars is probably a laughable notion, maybe even
more so than Mormon Studies might be.  Ha
ha.  What does Tolkien Studies consist
of?

 

Um, nerds with fake
ears, camping out in “Rivendell”?

 

Let’s see.  You can
take a class on Tolkien and Translation at Harvard, taught by a linguistic
anthropologist. [link syllabus]

 

Maybe TT learned all
this learning there?

 

Maybe, though I don’t believe Nazgul Rhetoric was on the syllabus.  Just kidding, TT.  Anyway.
To supplement your Harvard education, assuming you have any money left,
you can also take classes on Tolkien at Bethel U, Rutgers, Atlantic Baptist,
St. Francis College, Victoria U of Wellington, U of Vermont, U of Central
Lancashire, U of Auckland, Denver U, Rice, Crichton College, and the U of
Calgary.  A very international offering,
which list would seem to compare favorably with anything offered in your field.

 

Well, we have a chair
at Utah State, and another at Claremont.
And a program at Wyoming, and sort of a program at UVU (for now), and,
well, there’s BYU.  And Mormons studying
history, religion, and so on.  CES?  And, I took a class at Penn on Mormonism.

 

Yeah, I taught it.

 

Well, you
assistant-taught it.

 

Got me.  We had four
students, three of them LDS.  Not a
promising sight.  But you guys have
things at Yale and so on, in American Religion, and American History, which
should not be ignored.

 

Yeah, I guess so.  It’s just, I’d like something focused only on
Mormons, you know?  Without all the
comparative business, reading about all those other religions, histories, and
so on.

 

Well, you have chairs.
We don’t have that in Tolkien Studies.
But what does a chair mean?

 

I think you’ve
addressed that already, so maybe we can move on?

 

If you insist.  I
suppose the truth about chairs not organically growing out of a blossoming
field is sometimes hard to bear?

 

Whatever.  Anyway, what else do you have, with all your
“fiction” escapist non-sense waste of time studies?

 

You are referring to my field, or yours?  Just kidding.
Tolkien studiesists upon graduation can obtain credit toward a masters from
the Mythgard Institute.

 

Good Lord!  Mythgard, how absurd!

 

It’s credit is good in the UK, Europe, and in the US, and it
is accredited through the U Wales Institute, Cardiff.  Now, if you prefer a more mainstream
institution, you can, like many before you, and as Mormons have long done,
conduct your graduate work at, say, Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, or any other
program, and write your thesis or dissertation on Tolkien or his writings.  But I warn you, if you think a lit review in
Mormon Studies is a pain in the ass, wait until you see what you’ll have to
read through, the piles upon piles, if you want to get grounded in TS.

 

Well, in MS we have
the Journal of Mormon History.

 

A legitimate scholarly publication, for sure.  What else?

 

Um, a Claremont one,
tied to the graduate program.  FARMS, I
mean, Mormon Studies Review.
Dialogue.  Sunstone.  BYU Studies.
The Ensign.  Utah Historical
Quarterly, um, Book of Mormon Studies.  Some
others.  There’s some religious journals,
too.  And an online journal.  Not a blog, I mean a real online journal.

 

Wait, The Ensign?
Come on.  Those others are all
good solid places to publish, though, I don’t know about…anyway.  Let’s see, in TS you’d have, just focused on
Tolkien and his writings, to keep up with Vinya
Tengwar
and Parma Eldalamberon,
both published by the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, which also has an online
journal called Tengwestie.

 

Just a handful of
nerds calling each other Elrondos and Almarien, I bet, prancing around in
cloaks, wearing fake swords.

 

Nerds, I don’t know.
But many of the linguistic and literary articles are hard core, I mean,
serious linguistic research.  And ELF is
part of Mythopoeic Society, a legitimate scholarly circle.  But that’s not all, my dear self.  The Tolkien Society publishes Amon Hen, Mallorn, its annual proceedings, and there’s Quettar, and, of course, international conferences held at
Oxford.  And the Tolkien Studies journal published by West Virginia University
Press.  Now, in order to keep up with
just this side of TS, you’d have to be able to read from work published in
English, Spanish, Portuguese,

 

Yeah, well, MS is
global too. 

 

Let me finish: Polish, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish,
Norwegian, Finnish, Czech, Bulgarian, Chinese, Lithuanian, and, also,
Croatian.  Probably Russian, Hebrew, and
others, as T’s work has been translated into many tongues.

 

Almost as many as
Joseph Smith’s, I suppose.  Now, that’s
fine, but aren’t these all amateurs?
Don’t you hate amateurs?  I do.

 

No, I don’t.  Amateur means they have a choice to do
what they do; so they do it out of love, often.
And many of the listservs and publications are managed by sites with
.edu addresses.  So, just because one doesn’t
make money writing about Tolkienism, that doesn’t mean one doesn’t know a lot
about linguistics, literature, mythology, history, poetry, Quenya, and so on.  But that brings us to the logic of practice,
which –

 

Quenya?

 

Don’t worry about it.
Smith’s work hasn’t yet been translated into Quenya, Sindarin, or any of
the other fifteen languages Tolkien wrote about as a linguist.

 

As far as you
know.  So?

 

So, you can read parts of Genesis, and the New Testament, in
Sindarin.  [link genesis]

 

You got us there.

 

You can take classes in Sindarin, Quenya, learn the Tengwar
and Cirth, all offered for free; though, tutors are willing to take your money
to teach you, as well.

 

Priestcraft!  You guys have priestcraft!

 

They aren’t priests.
That’s a difference we might get to. Now, you guys have podcasts and
such?

 

Yeah, with thousands
of listeners.

 

That’s great.  I’ve
heard you on there; I didn’t need to buy your book after hearing it.

 

What?

 

Never mind.  TS has
Professor Corey Olsen, whose podcasts have been downloaded over a million
times.  And then

 

Wait, a million?

 

Yep.  Then there’s
middleearthnetwork.com, middleearth radio, dunedain radio, mymiddleearth.com, a
social networking site, Tolkien-gateway.net, Mythgard.org, theonering.net, all full
of user-contributed content; and many comprehensive wikis, encyclopedias, and,
of course, online games.

 

That’s not really
Tolkien Studies, though.  The games.

 

No, but pretty cool.
All your Book of Mormon derived stuff is pretty lame, cartoons, and
boardgames, dumpy action figures, living room kitsch, blatant propaganda badly
executed, most of it.  A shame what’s
been done in the name of that book.  And
that awful movie where Nephi wore a watch –

 

That was the Liahona!

 

Oh.  My point is, if
you want to see a thriving amateur driven community

 

You mean fan-driven.

 

The term can be applied to Mormon Studies, as well, you know.

 

No, we don’t have
fans.  We have Mormon Studiesists.

 

What’s the difference?

 

Well, there’s a big
difference.  I’m sure.

 

The difference is something we can bring out, maybe.  What TS doesn’t have is the requirement that
you “believe” in certain truth claims, that you don’t consume certain things,
or watch certain movies (except maybe The
Chronicles of Narnia
).  It’s a
voluntary research body, without a church.
And though there’s the Tolkien Estate, and New Line Cinema and the like,
we don’t have a corporate headquarters that generates mountains of material
designed to script our voices, and so, we don’t have a Priestly Caste
subsidized by donations.

 

We?  You’re not really in Tolkien Studies.

 

No, but we’re playing, remember?  You’re not in Mormon Studies, either.

 

Right.  I forgot.

 

Anyway.  This is an
important contrast.  Because one studies
art and the artist, and the other studies a religion comprised of humans living
and dead; a certain clarity of purpose is seen in one, absent in the other.

 

Let me guess which one.

 

No.  To study a
religion is fine, unless you allow what you are studying to define the subject
for you, without realizing how such things are actually constructed.

 

Why is that a
problem?  Jewish Studies is similar.

 

Perhaps.  But “Mormon”
is a thing created by language, without folks using that word and applying it to
people, things, ideas, and so on, there is nothing to study.

 

So?

 

So, it means that your subject is a “symbolic sign” as
Peirce would say, and that means, all that is required in order for your
subject to exist is, one, the word itself; and two, agreement between a few
people that the word stands for some other thing, a Mormon.  That’s it.
Then they all can go around sticking and unsticking that label until
they have a thing with enough material around it, that it can be subjected to
“academic” study.

 

And what comes of
that?

 

It means that all the powers of modern culture enter into
the construction of Mormon: capital, legislation, armies, social compulsion,
mass media, and so on.  What happens, as
I’ve laid out in a few other writings, is that some construction of Mormon is
taken as a subject, as “the” authentic version; and rather than explore
self-critically how that subject comes into existence as a researchable entity,
your Mormon Studies folks seem to insist that they are studying some real
thing.  And when this is done, the
creative powers are confirmed, and given translation into academia.

 

That’s too simple.

 

It’s a summary of other writings which I’m not going into
here.  Look, the Priestly Caste
constructs a subject for MS, and to oppose that construction is to offer a
challenge to priestly power, not merely to provide an alternative reading of an
identity.  Gay Studies, Women Studies,
Ethnic Studies, and so on; these wrestle with identity, for sure, and have
their heavy hitters, big funders, and so on; but they can’t really threaten a
scholar with eternal damnation for wanting to include, say, sex indeterminate
individuals in their study of “Women”.

 

That’s only if you
believe the Priestly Caste, the damnation threat, I mean.

 

And that’s the problem: that “belief” in statements not
restricted to the research corpus are allowed into the research process,
because “Mormon” is what it is: a symbolic sign.  For example, you can study Tolkien’s theory
of art without being read as proselytizing or opposing that theory, or be read
as wanting to include hobbits into the race of elves.

 

So, you can study
Joseph Smith’s theology from an objective perspective.

 

Perhaps, whatever “objective” means.  But your reading of that is informed by
nearly two centuries of discourse addressing your subject, and many many people
with an interest in your research concluding very specific things.  These people sit on boards that oversee editors
who control publication channels, presses, blogs, and so on.  They read, fund, complain, write-back, call
you names.  No new blog or journal is
free from that, unless it recognizes and explores how “Mormon” is created.

 

Not all the people.  I mean, not all the people are biased.

 

I didn’t say all the people.
But you better believe that MS is not composed of, funded by, and
addressing itself to some exclusive clique of scholars with no horses in the
race, as it were.  Anyone can say they
are concerned with only the Truth, but anyone is also free to define what they
mean by The Truth, and often what they mean is, what they’ve already worked
out.

 

It’s not all
apologetics.

 

I didn’t say that.
Apologetics is just a genre, wherein scholarly posture, style, and
conference presentations are mobilized to conceal the decontextualization of
the findings of others outside the community, all for the purpose of arriving
at conclusions already decided upon by the community one addresses.  Apologists are just doing Public Relations,
often stealing from the work of others, and translating it inside a very narrow
circle of, um, “readers”.  Not a Priestly
Caste, but servants of it, albeit often doing more damage than good.

 

What do you mean?

 

I can’t get into that right now, but let’s just say FARMS
made relevant the counter-claims of archaeologists.  Now, if you’re an eighteen year old kid, who
are you going to believe?  The guy at
Yale, with books and breadth and depth of knowledge, or your neighbor the
software salesman presenting on “symbolism” at a conference where they bear
testimony to the truth of something, before they begin presenting on that
thing?  Which sort of reader do we thereafter
retain in Mormonism?  But that’s for
later.

 

Alright.   So,
your TS has no Priestly Caste.

 

And no Correlation: no awareness or absurd imagining that
there’s some secret committee that sits around and ensures that everything said
in one venue, tv station, or kitsch-shop is all approved by the Lord.  And

 

Go on.

 

And, there is no explicit rules by which they, that
committee, conduct their work.  That is
to say, the end result is tossed around among Mormons, but how they got
there?  Not so much.  Not even the guys on the committee are
trained in any way.  That is, if you
wanted to get a Masters in Correlation, there is no curriculum.  It’s a game of guessing what other people,
Priests, might find inspirational, true, or offensive; and so, a game of
guessing how a text affects others, and how they might read into an author’s
spirituality, or some other abstract quality seemingly manifested in a
text.  That’s the paranoia that shapes so
much of your MS, though you’ll have to read my other work to flesh out the
logic, evidence, and implications.

 

I’ll get around to
it.  But I read a summary from a guy who
heard about it.  And, wait, that was my
work.  And –

 

And, what?  Tolkien
Studies is fortunate that its subject is an art, not a religion, and so the
truth claims are easily bracketed from the beginning, and the research can move
forward.  There is no wrestling with
Faith versus Scholarship, with how I can please Mammon and not displease God
simultaneously.  Just students who love
the subject, study it, and write about it.

 

You’re a
Pollyanna.  What about the money being
made?  Doesn’t that induce bias?

 

Bias?  That’s not my
favorite word.  No, it doesn’t.  Peter Jackson has an interest in a review of
his work being favorable, but not really in ensuring that proto-Quenya is
taught to seven year olds, or that scholars writing about Tolkien come to some
conclusion.  There are firewalls built
into TS, because its subject is an art.
You can believe in it, or not.  It
doesn’t really affect the scholarship, because there’s no one patrolling, and
no one to imagine is harmed, and no one to fear because they claim, or others
claim, there is an eye, lidless, wreathed in flame, o’er watching your
scholarship.

 

Huh?

 

I prefer fans to apologists covert, and to apologists proudly
out of their FAIR closet; and I think the research, that is, the Truth, prefers
fans, too.  They at least can admire,
without finding something proves their case.
Patriotism may be the refuge of scoundrels, and Faith an easy cover for
Power; but Art is the last refuge of Truth, perhaps.  And science.

 

So, that’s sort of
like what Bloom was advocating for the study of religion, I think.

 

The art thing?  Yeah,
but a little too late.  Once art takes
that step to becoming not merely representing and creating, but also concerning
itself with holding together the relationship between what is doing the
representing and what is being represented –

 

The Truth of the work

 

At that point there is no turning back.  Drama to Mysteries.  Actors to Priests.  MS is constructed in that latter dynamic; all
the chairs and graduate programs and fellowships, and journals and sincerity,
these don’t alter that fact.

 

It’s not solved by
really sincere effort?

 

No, because the problem is not that one doesn’t believe in
MS enough.  The problems are
otherwise.  And until MS arrives at a way
to construct “Mormon” independent of the cultural processes which gave rise to
Mormon Studies, and to its subject, there is a clear distinction between my
pretend field, and your pretend pretend field.

 

Cynic.

 

Ignoramus.  There is
no reason to worry about who is an elf, a hobbit, or Nazgul.  Social classifications and identity politics
have been blocked at the door of TS, and yet the requirement to classify and
construct a Mormon is at the heart of, is the first word, of your MS.

 

Um, I just think if we
really try sincerely to be objective that’s good enough.

 

Fine.  Until that hope
comes true, we can turn away from certain vulgar and foolish practices, and
give no ear to lying voices, and to those looking for servants.

 

That’s too
metaphysical for me.

 

You’re the MS, and I’m the TS.  I guess that makes sense, unfortunately.  Now, did you order that book on Sindarin
philology?

 

Which one?

 

It’s published by the University of Utah Press.

 

 

Next time, I’m going
to ask you about the division of labor, the ways in which amateur researchers
can step into the study of Mormonism, and the ways they ought not.

 

Fair enough.  I’ve put
that one off far too long.  Consider, for
your homework, which disciplines are “prodigy-rich” and which
“prodigy-poor”.  That’s an easy way into the
division of labor and logic of practice of research.

 

And you don’t mean
signs and wonders, as prodigies?

 

Huh?

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3 thoughts on “Part Seven: On Tolkien Studies And Mormon Studies

  1. I haven’t agreed with the majority of your arguments–and I don’t fully agree with your argument here–but I will admit that this is a valid point:

    “And until MS arrives at a way
    to construct “Mormon” independent of the cultural processes which gave rise to
    Mormon Studies, and to its subject, there is a clear distinction between my
    pretend field, and your pretend pretend field.”

    • Ben,
      thanks for admitting it is valid. What is your dispute with other things I’ve said?
      Certainly I’ve said many, sometimes somewhat contradictory things; I would respond if you were to outline your position.

  2. Wow. Talk about a failure to check back on blog posts after making a comment. I apologize if I seemed like a hit-and-run commenter!

    I actually go back and forth–a lot–on these issues, so I don’t know if I should venture on a sophisticated critique; it is a lot easier to do drop-by commenting!

    Mostly, I disagree with your perception of what Mormon S/studies is, and what Mormon S/studies looks like. What you depict as amateurish, unprofessional, parochial, apologetic, and “correlated” (however I’m using the term here), I see as fringe works not worthy of the label. To me, Mormon S/studies is not work done at MHA, but at AAR, Claremont, AHA, and, in a few years, U of Virginia.; it’s not (mostly) published in JMH, but in JER, Church History, Fides et Historia, and Religion and American Culture, etc. It doesn’t navel-gaze at Mormonism as a tradition or perpetuate a specific history or narrative, but utilizes Mormonism’s history and culture to examine broader themes and issues. This makes the field much smaller (though still surprisingly large)–and ignores the vast majority of practitioners who self-identify their work as “Mormon Studies”–but its where I see the most impressive and important work being done.

    But, when I step back, I see that this is just me creating the field in my own image and conveniently dismissing those parts that don’t miss my own standards. That’s the purpose of boundary maintenance, right? Somedays I talk myself into my ideal of Mormon Studies, and somedays I just convince myself that I don’t do Mormon studies–I’m just an early Americanist who sometimes touches on Mormonism.

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