I attended the 2006 Sunstone West Symposium at Clarmont last month and attended six sessions. It was worth every penny, although with several of the sessions offering concurrent presentations, you are guaranteed to leave mildly frustrated about the speakers you missed. In this post I will summarize two of the morning sessions I heard. I'll get to the other presentations in later posts. [Click here for the full program.]
Speaker: R. Dennis Potter, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy, UVSC
Title: Mormon Studies as Cultural Studies: The Americanization of Mormonism Reflected in Pop Culture
Potter started out by showing the entire South Park episode that summarized (with some comedic license) Mormon origins in one easy lesson. Potter's point was that the Mormons actually come across pretty well in the episode, especially in terms of practice or daily living, if not theology. By comparison, other denominations have been portrayed very negatively in other episodes of the show. In the abstract, Potter wrote:
I believe we can learn much about Mormonism's relationship to networks of American power through reflection on the ultra-positive representations of Mormons in pop culture.
I think what he's hinting at is that Mormons are now part of the networks of American power, although I don't think he came right out and said that in his talk. If that sounds like an overstatement, think Romney.
Despite all the bad press I'd heard about the South Park episode, I'd have to agree with Potter's take on it: showing Mormons as people who kill you with kindness and Mormon families as just too happy is hardly an insulting or derogatory portrait. Caveat: This was the first South Park episode I have ever seen.
Potter made two observations that made it into my notes: (1) Mormon Studies will "arrive" only when non-LDS will study Mormonism without the goal of debunking it; (2) the mainstream Mormon style of discussing and describing Mormon "fundamentalists" is the same style once used to describe all Mormons.
Speaker: Todd Compton, author of In Sacred Loneliness
Title: Stories From My New Book
From Compton's abstract:
Hugh Nibley gave a series of talks about sophic and mantic in society: the sophic offers the shallow, deceitful cleverness of PR and spin, which often leads to success in this world while the mantic (from Greek mantis, "seer") looks to the eternal vision of things. My new book, Victim of the Muses, looks at the origins of poetics in western civilization in this perspective.
Compton gave a nice overview of his new book, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History, published by Harvard University Press. In his talk, he highlighted the ambiguous term pharmakos as indicating either healing or killing. Applied to a man, a pharmakos was a marginalized social outcast who, in time of crisis or ritually at the end of the year, would be ejected from the city. But this scapegoat pharmakos thereby saves the city. There's more of this kind of stuff in the book. Buy it for the English or Classics major in your life.
He also spent a few minutes relating his material to some of Nibley's ideas, the sophic representing wisdom and rationality/reason, the mantic representing seers and revelation. I managed to dig deep into the residual memories of my undergraduate philosophy courses and ask about why Plato wanted to eject the mantic types from his ideal city. For more on Nibley's take on the sophic/mantic theme, Compton recommended Richard Cracroft, which I think means his essay Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature. Or go read an excellent post on Cracroft at T&S by the sophic/mantic/charismatic Rosalynde Welch.