Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

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Other articles
in this issue

The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy


The Indispensable Source
by Philip Barlow

Lawrence Wright’s 17-page New Yorker article on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have set a record among the dozens of journalists covering the "Mormon angle" of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Not until the last line of the first column of the last page did it mention Jan Shipps, the emeritus Indiana University-Purdue University professor whose judgment has grown beyond prominence to dominance as a source for reporters writing about Mormonism. (See companion article, The Mormons Score a 9.6)

More typical was Newsweek’s September 10 cover story on the church. Although religion editor Kenneth Woodward spent weeks interviewing Mormons and scholarly scrutinizers of Mormonism, the one expert he cited was Shipps—and her repeatedly.

In 15 "Mormons and the Olympics" articles from such papers as the New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Republic, USA Today, Denver Post, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Los Angeles Times, Shipps was cited two dozen times. This was more than four times the frequency of any other figure, be it another scholar, an official Church spokesman, Salt Lake Olympic Committee President Mitt Romney (Mormon), or Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson (non-Mormon).

Indeed, these proportions do not change much inside the groves of academe. Shipps is the most frequently cited living authority on Mormonism among American religious historians who specialize in Mormon studies, including the specialists who gather annually as the Mormon History Association.

And even with the highest governing authorities of the LDS Church, Shipps enjoys a special esteem. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, for example, has publicly designated her as "that celebrated Mormon watcher."

How has Shipps become Mormonism’s indispensable expert?

She is not a Mormon, a fact that promotes trust when she speaks of the movement to the non-Mormon world. While she is not the only distinguished outsider to have studied the religion, she has focused on it at such length (for over 40 years) and with such thoroughness that there are few—inside or outside the church—who cannot learn from her.

She is also possessed of a genius for discovering and forging conceptual categories and metaphors that make the elusive apparent. These she communicates with brevity, authority, and flair.

Indeed, she is fluent in all the necessary vernaculars: academese, mediaspeak, and what might be called Mormonish. Faithful Mormons, and the scholars and reporters who study and cover them, all tend to find in Shipps a gregarious, balanced, competent, and above all comprehensible mediator.

So what is the vision of Mormonism that Shipps mediates?

Its core is that this is a legitimate religious expression; that its devotion to Jesus Christ is earnest; and yet that the church’s nature is sufficiently distinct that it cannot rightly be classed as one more slightly idiosyncratic form of Christianity.

The movement’s sacred stories, singular history, open canon of sacred texts, exclusive priesthood, unique rituals, theological goals, and Hebrew-Christian consciousness combine to render Mormonism not merely "different" but "other." Mormon Christianity is to traditional Christianity what Christianity once was to Judaism: a new religious tradition.

The Shipps take on Mormon-ism is not only shrewd and plausible, it has proved palatable to outsiders and insiders—a significant accomplishment. But it is valid only up to a point.

Mormonism’s rich, enigmatic, and multi-faceted legacy has been explored since the mid-20th century through a virtual explosion of scholarship by many different experts, at a depth and breadth that has come to rival the study of America’s Puritans. Mormonism today is as layered as baklava and as global as McDonald’s.

To view so complex a reality through a single lens is rather like thinking one can comprehend American Protestantism by speaking with Martin Marty. Jan Shipps’ vision may be a necessary condition for understanding Mormonism. It is not a sufficient one.

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