Monday, March 28, 2011

Teaching "Dispensation": What Does Mormon Literature Have to Offer?

I recently wrote up and submitted to my department a description for a 200-level English class called “American Religious Landscapes.” If the course is approved, I will spend a quarter next academic year guiding some thirty undergraduates through various works of religiously-themed literature. On my proposed syllabus, I have works by Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Toni Morrison, and several other well-known American writers. I also have Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction on the list.

My justification for using Dispensation, since I probably need one, is that you can’t talk about American religious landscapes without talking about the Mormons.

Or can you?

How much of an imprint have Mormons made on America’s religious landscape? No doubt their contribution to the formation of Utah is one obvious way Mormons have altered American landscape. But my notion of “landscape” seeks to move beyond a concrete understanding of landscape. Have the Mormons really affected the way Americans think about religion?

Certainly not in the same way evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews, and even Muslims have.

Or have they?

Part of why I want to bring the Mormons into my discussion of American religious landscapes is to get my students’ reactions to Mormon literature. In a sense, I want to find out what they think of it and, more importantly, how they situate it among the other works we study. Will they find it an easy fit? Will they see it as an anomaly? Will they be able to "get it" without knowing much about Mormonism?

Will they be able to engage with it on the same level as, say, a Flannery O’Connor short story?

Since I’ve never taught Mormon literature before, I have no way of knowing how my students will receive the stories in Dispensation. My hope is that they will value it along with the other texts we study.

Of course, I value Mormon literature, and I know what it has to offer me as a reader and as a student. What I’d like to know, though, is what my readers think:

What do you think Mormon literature has to offer non-Mormon readers?

Are the stories Mormons tell about themselves relevant to the larger American religious landscape, or is it a landscape that is best left in isolation?

What do you think?


  1. I think the stories can help people see how Mormonism plays out in a realistically human setting. I hope you'll report on how it goes.

  2. If the class is approved, I intend to keep readers updated on how the class goes.

    Since I expect most of my readers to have only a vague idea of what a Mormon is and does, I think Dispensation's realistic depiction of Mormonism will make a good introduction to the community. It think it provides a view of Mormonism as a religious "landscape" rather than merely a church with teachings, doctrines, etc.