Mormonism, History, and Religious Studies
Just a quick note to commend you to a series of terrific posts, reflecting on the study of Mormonism (and its key figures, including Joseph Smith) in academia, at Juvenile Instructor, including an insightful review of Reid Neilson and Terryl Givens, eds. Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries, reflections by Brian Birch of Utah STate on "The Awkwardness of Mormonism and Its Place in Religious Studies," Philip Barlow's address on "Mormon Studies in Relation to the Liberal Arts," and finally Chris Jones's essay/defense of the importance of history in Mormon studies, against those who would wrench "Mormon studies out of the monopoly of historical studies."
Matt Bowman's review of the Neilson/Givens volume raises particularly interesting questions of what happens at the divide of history and religious studies (and other fields), when what Robert Orsi has called "abundant events" overflow the categories for which historians can account. He concludes:
But the nagging question still remains, because those sources – the possibilities of visionary experience that Smith experienced, and, as importantly, imparted to followers like Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others – lie exactly at the heart of who Joseph Smith was. In another context, the eminent theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith warned us that if students of religion hid behind words like “demonic” and “crazy” instead of seeking to understand the religious creation of Jim Jones, they might as well abdicate their claim to understanding religion at all.  It may be that, as Orsi laments, the critical apparatus given to scholars in the humanities is insufficient to apprehend Joseph Smith, and we must continue to use words like “genius” to describe his puzzle. But, one hopes, the sort of work this volume offers may eventually bring us a sword capable of cutting through the Giordian knot Joseph presents to us.