Interview: Dr. Brian Birch
by Steve Evans
Originally published on February 1, 2005 in By Common Consent
We’ve had the good pleasure of conducting a brief interview with Dr. Brian Birch, Director of the Religious Studies Program at UVSC. As you may know, UVSC has a vibrant Mormon Studies program, involving top-notch academics from a variety of fields. This week, on Feb. 3rd, the program presents its annual Eugene England Lecture, delivered this year by D. Michael Quinn on the topic: “’To Whom Shall We Go’: Historical Patterns of Restoration Believers with Serious Doubts.” March 3-5 this year, the program will host a Mormon Studies Conference, touching on themes of mormonism and social justice. Like the Eugene England lectures, the conference promises to be of great interest.
We asked Dr. Birch about the program, its goals and aims, as well as challenges facing Mormon Studies. Rumor has it that he may reply to some commenters, time permitting.
1. Your program is relatively new, but already has gained a lot of momentum. In particular, your Eugene England lecture series and Mormon Studies Conferences seem to be at the forefront of contemporary Mormon Studies. To what do you attribute this interest? Is it more than just Mormons who want to talk more deeply about the Church outside of Elders’ Quorum?
Two reasons come to mind. First, Mormon scholarship for the past fifteen years or so has suffered from suspicion, misunderstanding, fear, and sniping from both sides of the “great intellectual divide.” Part of this has been due to the lack of opportunities for frank and honest dialogue. I believe there are many in the LDS community who are interested in overcoming this situation and we are in a position to help given our willingness to explore a wider range of issues and invite speakers that BYU, for example, has chosen not to pursue. Second, there has been increased interest in Mormonism on the part of the scholarly community. This has been long overdue given the rapid growth of the Church and can be attributed, in part at least, to traditional prejudices against Mormonism by scholars of religion who have simply ignored a fascinating and influential religious community.
2. It’s a daunting task to set up a Mormon Studies program in Utah Valley without direct LDS affiliation of some sort. In particular, one would think that access to archives and resources would be difficult for a secular program. Has UVSC’s objectivity proven an advantage or a hindrance? What has the Church’s reaction been to your research efforts? Do you foresee collaborative projects with the Church within your program?
All things considered, I believe our position as a state institution is definitely an advantage. The Church has not reacted in an official way to our efforts and I do not anticipate that they will. A few Church leaders have contacted the school to learn more about what we are doing and, from everything I know, the exchanges have been friendly and productive. There has not been an opportunity for collaboration with the Church thus far, but we are certainly open to the possibility. However, we have worked closely with several BYU professors on projects of common interest such as the newly formed Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology.
3. Your program seeks to provide “a neutral forum wherein issues can be engaged from a variety of perspectives and methodologies.” What steps have you taken to ensure this neutrality? What issues do you see in particular in Mormon Studies wherein neutrality would be of importance?
Neutrality is difficult to ensure, but we make every effort to be even-handed and fair to all perspectives. We have received calls from those who object to one speaker or another being invited to campus, and we respond by saying that we do not want to be judged based upon one speaker, but on the totality of events over the past several years. We have enjoyed a rich variety of guests including Margaret Toscano, Jan Shipps, Robert Millet, Marion D. Hanks, Teryll Givens, and Dan Wotherspoon. Mike Quinn will be delivering the Eugene England lecture this week and we will have Lynn Wardle speaking on same sex marriage as part of our Mormonism and Social Justice Conference next month — variety indeed!
4. A number of commentators have cited (in their view) a decline in the readership and authority of mainstay journals of Mormon Studies: Dialogue, Sunstone, and the like. What do you see as the future for scholarly Mormon journals? Will your program have such a journal?
I have not heard of such a decline, but given the increasing number of publications and outlets for discussion in Mormon studies, it is not surprising. Any authority that Dialogue or Sunstone has enjoyed has come from the fact that they have been the “only game in town” for progressive Mormon scholarship. I believe that the academic study of Mormonism will continue to develop in such a way so as to problematize the traditional scholarly divide between, for example, Farms Review of Books and Sunstone. Although our Mormon Studies Program does not have a journal at present, I am editing the new journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology called Element. The first issue should be off the press within a month with the financial support of our Religious Studies Program.
5. Your program’s multidisciplinary approach is especially interesting; you engage scholarly methodologies from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature, communications, and history. Prof. Phil Gordon, for example, has explored the Church as an institution of social power in the context of mass communications. Some see this varied approach as the future of Mormon Studies, while others question the long-term potential of such projects. Has this multidisciplinary approach enhanced the scholarship of traditional Mormon Studies? What other fields would you like to see experimenting with Mormon Studies — economics? Psychology?
Our multidisciplinary approach is in large part due to the scholarly interests of our faculty who do work in Mormon studies. For example, Eugene England brought his interest in Mormon literature to our English department and established a course now taught by Jen Wahlquist and Boyd Peterson. David Knowlton, Phil Gordon, and Dennis Potter are currently teaching classes in Anthropology of Mormonism and Mormon Cultural Studies respectively. We have enjoyed success with this varied approach and will continue to support the work of scholars from all relevant disciplines. That said, we have made a decision to focus more attention on Mormon philosophy and theology because we believe this is an area of growing interest in which, frankly, there has not been very much work done. By sponsoring Element and being involved in the new society mentioned above, we hope to help develop this area of study. In addition, plans are in the works to develop a Mormon theology course in the Philosophy and Humanities department.
6. Your upcoming Mormon Studies Conference (March 3-5) is themed “All are Alike Unto God: Mormonism and Social Justice.” Obviously this will hit on issues of communitarianism, Church welfare and themes of wealth redistribution; what other aspects of social justice are of concern for Mormons? Are Mormons interested in economic social justice any more?
We have invited speakers to address a number of areas including race, gender, homosexuality, and economic justice. Latter-day Saints appear to be increasingly aware of social justice issues and how they relate to public policy. Most of the effort, however, has been directed toward conservative social causes such as resisting same-sex marriage while, as far as I can tell, very little attention has been paid to issues of economic justice. Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, for example, is an important organization, but does not appear to have the widespread support it needs to make a significance impact on the Mormon ethos despite our history and strong scriptural support.
7. D. Michael Quinn is giving the Eugene England lecture on February 3. His topic is “To Whom Shall We Go?”: Historical Patterns of Restoration Believers with Serious Doubts.” For some, Quinn is the embodiment of the challenge for those LDS who perform Mormon Studies. Your program seems to walk near the edge of controversy at times — does this bother you as Chair of the Committee? Is controversy inevitable? Is deep water what you are wont to swim in?
Whether you agree with his scholarship or not, Michael Quinn is an important historian of Mormonism whose ideas deserve to be heard and critically scrutinized rather than bushed aside and ignored. He is controversial to be sure, but we believe that the best way to deal with controversy is to meet it head on in a spirit of openness and good will. I do not believe you can maintain a credible program in Mormon studies without walking near the edge of controversy at times. We certainly do not revel in controversy, but we will not shy away from tough issues that we believe need further discussion. Furthermore, if engaged in the right spirit, these issues will lead to a deeper understanding of those with whom we disagree and possibly to a place of tolerance and respect.
8. Finally, where should a neophyte to Mormon Studies begin? What are the most essential texts in Mormon Studies? Here’s a list, compiled elsewhere in the blogosphere: any additions or comments? What books have yet to be written?
§ R. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
§ Quinn, Magic World View
§ Nibley, Approaching Zion
§ Givens, By the Hand of Mormon
§ Barlow, Mormons and the Bible
§ McConkie, Mormon Doctrine
§ Sorenson, Ancient American Setting
This is certainly a good list. I would add to this Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive, and Blake Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God. I look forward to the future of Mormon studies and believe that there will continue to be quality books published by major university presses such as those of Terryl Givens, Kathleen Flake, and Philip Barlow.
Published with the author’s permission.