On folklore: Native Americans, blacks, gays, and beyond

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In conjunction with my work on The Religious Brain Project at the University of Utah, I’m visiting the academic side of Mormon studies on folklore. Cultural anthropologist (and, significantly, never-Mormon) Tom Mould dedicated five years to the careful study and participation in LDS community. He documented 441 narratives of personal revelation, doing methodologically intensive analysis on the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of his topic of study.

Mould admits freely that academic rigor applied to folklore is often a point of suspicion if not disdain from BOTH academic and believing points of view. The term itself is problematic, though accurate and descriptive. Says Mould:

The term [folklore] has plagued the field since its inception thanks to concurrent competing definitions in popular culture and in academia. For many English speakers, folklore encompasses the false, untrue, unscientific notions of uneducated people. It also conjures images of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and the quaint traditions of people long ago. The academic definition, on the other hand, defines folklore as those expressions of culture that reveal not only the artistry and aesthetics of communal traditions but the shared beliefs and values of a community (Still, the Small Voice).

Apologetics

Strategically, terms like “folk-doctrine” have been used by Mormon apologists, most especially Nate Oman, to create skeptical distance from past teachings by Mormon prophets, including cosmic explanations of premortal black people being less valiant spirits, thus being “cursed” with black skin in their earthly bodies.

It is precisely this linguistic shuffle by Mormon apologists, though, that actually underscores the urgencies to study and understand so-called folk notions, folk doctrinces, and folklore. In realtime, these are the concepts and ideas that make a social movement tick–especially a social religious movement. Hence, too, the impetus of The Religious Brain Project to study religious practice and belief at the level of the people in the pews every Sabbath who are the keepers of their religious faith. I do not berate the valuable neurobiology work that has been done to look at Carmelite nuns, for instance, or that aspire to map the brains of the most elite Lamas and Roshis. These are all important contributions to the overall ambition to examine this precious human life. The religion of the people, and the lived religion of the everyday person who has NOT retreated to the mountaintop, provide important prisms for discerning the working of the societies around us.

Through a glass darkly

Ultimately, all of us are limited by the patchwork thinking-machine (i.e., the brain) that evolution pieced together over successive waves of fluctuating survival imperatives. This brain, this body–they are the glass through which we see the world and ultimate reality darkly. All the more reason to take the intuitive, and to examine it with delicacy.

It would be hard to overstate the role of personal revelation in Mormon belief and practice. It is foundational in the religion, and the prized spiritual gem of the incorporated LDS Church.

As such, I approach the subject gingerly in my research pursuits. If a person–much less several million people–self-report an experience that is the most moving, powerful, and formative in their personal identity and choices, it is not my job as scientist to belittle or dismiss it. But rather to explore and to understand the multifaceted conditions and components to these events.

Folklore’s underside

In future posts, anticipate exploration of the underside of folklore, most especially the cultural colonialism that is either inadvertently or deliberately inflicted onto individuals and groups by folkloric ideas. Fresh on my mind is the Native American population. I participated in a discussion last week with a presidential candidate for the Navajo Nation, and the facts of living conditions for many of our fellow humans on American Indian reservations are overwhelming and tragic. I have to wonder, sometimes, if the Book of Mormon–published in 1830 and offering a self-reported historical account of the Native Americans–was not itself a literary attempt to assuage white guilt and make sense of the senseless genocide of entire nations. The degree to which continued assertions of Book of Mormon historicity create toxic folklore and spiritually colonize the identities of indigenous people are still open questions for me. As are the degrees to which atrocity, sublimated and attributed to the movements of the Divine, separate Mormons from accessing a much useful social and political will for Native reparations.

This breed of toxic folklore is not limited in Mormonism to colonizing the identities of Native Americans; it is an active force in the collective identities of Hispanic Mormons, gay Mormons, black Mormons, and women. It would be easy to slip into an activist’s tone of revolutionary fervor–and at times I do. But the metered examination of actual dynamics is indispensable if real change and healing are the desired outcomes.

Returning to the beginning

On a personal level, having grown up with an ultra-devout Mormon disposition, there is reprieve, and even homecoming, in the turning of my scientific lens to the experiences I myself still want to understand more fully in my own personal life history. The Tao Te Ching wisely asserts that a man (or woman) can run from home forever and never find peace. But only in returning to his origins and being at peace with those origins will they find lasting peace.

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