10 questions with Spencer Fluhman

I recently had the privilege to interview Spencer Fluhman.

Fluhman is the director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU and an editor of “To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship?

Spencer Fluhman: I spent my first seven years at BYU teaching in Religious Education, where I taught courses on LDS history, the Doctrine & Covenants, and American Christianity. My next five years were spent in the BYU History Department, where I taught American religion, US history, and Utah history.

In 2013, I accepted an invitation to serve as editor-in-chief of Mormon Studies Review, a Maxwell Institute publication. That assignment brought me into the Institute’s orbit.

I enjoyed working with Institute folks through that editorship and was asked to serve on the search committee for a new Institute executive director in 2015.

It turned out that my time on the search committee was brief! I have been executive director since May 2016. It has been a wild but rewarding ride.

 

Kurt Manwaring: There is a saying that in graduate school you do not take classes, but you take professors. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences pursuing degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and what role some of your professors played in shaping the way you think about history?

Spencer Fluhman: I am so grateful for the influence of my Wisconsin mentors. Charles Cohen, my graduate advisor, is the most committed reader of my work I’ve ever known.

I still tell students the harrowing tale of his finding an extra space in a footnote of a dissertation chapter draft.

Who reads that closely?!

He is an exacting and rigorous thinker. He intimidated me at first but I came to appreciate deeply the time he gave his students. Cohen taught me a great deal about studying religion, too.

As a Jewish scholar who made a career of studying American Christianity, he practiced a kind of generosity and empathy in his work that was not lost on me. He worked hard to understand a worldview that he did not personally share. That commitment to understanding had a profound influence on me that sill resonates.

I watched him engage the LDS tradition in new ways, too, with me as his student. It was motivating to see his determination to better comprehend my community.

William Cronon, another mentor, dazzled in the classroom.

He’s among the most celebrated US historians anywhere and for good reason. He is a profound historical thinker. It was exhilarating to watch him wrestle with historical questions that he always made feel so pressingly important in the here and now.

Paul Boyer was so well read on so many topics that I’d find myself almost mesmerized watching him work.

He was one of those rare scholars whose breadth covered all of US history. He’d written learnedly on essentially every period of American history. There was no topic he couldn’t comment on with precision and insight.

Jeanne Boydston pushed me theoretically.

Our minds worked very differently so I found her mentoring to be so very helpful. She was a penetrating thinker in the abstract but I’d been struggling to get basic historical details down. She pushed me to begin to put small things together into bigger frames. It was uncomfortable, but I’m so grateful for her influence on my work and on my life more generally.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What is the mission of the Maxwell Institute and what role does apologetics play — or not play?

Spencer Fluhman: The Institute’s mission is to gather and nurture those we call “disciple-scholars.” That hyphenated title comes from our namesake, of course, and we draw much inspiration from Elder (Neal A.) Maxwell’s framing of LDS intellectual life.

The Institute is a research unit dedicated to religious topics but defined in particular by that intersection between the practice of faith and the rigorous study of it.

We ask our scholars to conscientiously serve two audiences: those academic fields interested in the study of religion and the Latter-day Saints themselves, whose religious commitments compel many to care deeply about the broader world of religious ideas and scholarship.

We can’t typically write for both audiences at once, so we take care to be clear about who we’re talking to. The two audiences demand different skills and tools.

Academic audiences expect specialized language, deep immersion in scholarly literature, and an academic tone.

LDS audiences, on the other hand, expect sensitivity to their covenantal commitments, to their regard for some texts and voices having spiritual authority over others, and for writing that is accessible rather than specialized.

Our scholars offer LDS audiences so much that can enrich appreciation for their scriptural tradition, their history, and their practice of faith in the present. We offer context, comparative work with other traditions, close readings of complex texts, and perhaps most importantly, reasons for faith.

We hope to model engaged LDS minds who take both the realms of scholarship and faith seriously.

That forms the core of our apologetic impulse.

Our work with the academy seeks understanding and empathy, for both ourselves and others. We recognize that to turn our backs on the world of scholarship or to “preach to the choir only” would be to fail to shape that broader world.

We know that our “hybrid” identity at the Institute is more challenging than simply focusing on one audience or the other, but we feel called to that more demanding path.

We feel it’s what our namesake’s own apostolic vision requires.

 

Kurt Manwaring: How would you define Mormon Studies to someone who is not familiar with the concept? Is there a universally accepted definition of it within academia?

Spencer Fluhman: There is no universally accepted definition of “Mormon Studies,” no. Rather, it’s definition is a live debate, fraught with all sorts of interesting possibilities and tensions.

Generally, Mormon Studies names an academic sub-field interested in the study of Mormonism from various methodological perspectives.

It generally functions within the broader rubric of religious studies, which has a presence on most US campuses and which itself is prone to all manner of definitional intrigue. What is religion? Who gets to define it? Practitioners? Scholars? Can religious studies respect practitioners’ regard for the supernatural or does religious studies inevitably reframe religion in secular terms?

These are electric questions for the broader field that never find full resolution.

Mormon Studies inherits some of those same definitional burdens. Who decides the boundaries of Mormonism? Can non-LDS scholars fully comprehend or explain a world that they don’t inhabit? Can LDS readers benefit from scholarly work that does not necessarily align with their own explanations of how the universe works?

Some LDS folks have experienced Mormon Studies as bewildering or threatening. I have not.

For me, Mormon Studies is the natural consequence of our tradition’s longevity and influence.

Inevitably, scholars seek to comprehend human phenomena and it’s unsurprising to me that scholarly attention would turn towards the tradition as it’s developed to the present.

We’re living in a time of increased public interest and I, for one, count it as an opportunity. This moment provides LDS scholars an opportunity to increase understanding and empathy if they can craft their work in such way as to connect meaningfully to the questions and problems that academic fields wrestle with.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What are the criteria you use in selecting books to publish through the Maxwell Institute? Could you give us a sneak peek of an exciting Maxwell Institute publication we may see in the future?

Spencer Fluhman: We’ve focused our publishing program over the past two years. To avoid duplication of effort, we’ve partnered with BYU’s Religious Studies Center (RSC) to produce much of what we publish.

We co-publish some of what we publish with RSC, too, and we’ve partnered in a similar way with Deseret Book on some titles. This lets us focus on supporting the scholars in residence at the Institute.

That being said, we maintain a significant book series called “Living Faith.”

The series includes important titles such as Patrick Mason’s “Planted,” Ashley Mae Hoiland’s “100 Birds Taught Me to Fly,” Adam Miller’s “Letters to a Young Mormon,” and others. See our website for the full list.

In addition to our Living Faith titles, we publish other works as well.

A few weeks ago, we made a major announcement of a volume that will hit shelves later in 2018: “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition.”

This study edition has been years in the making and features scholarly and editorial helps from Dr. Grant Hardy, a leading LDS scholar of the Book of Mormon, and original artwork by Brian Kershisnik. It will be a beautiful volume that will enrich readers who want scholarly support with the text.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Kurt Manwaring: Were articles solicited for the different sections in “To Be Learned is Good,” or were essays sorted into sections you created after receiving all of the submissions?

Spencer Fluhman: We’re very proud of “To Be Learned is Good,” and are grateful to honor Richard Bushman, who has mentored so many of us.

“To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.” Image provided by Maxwell Institute.

We invited scholars to participate in a colloquium held at BYU in 2016 and grouped their essays by topic once they came trickling in. We formed colloquium sessions out of those related topics and those sessions in turn became book sections once we moved to the editorial stage.

It’s remarkable how well the various pieces work together. We did not assign topics per se.

I think it’s an especially nice touch, too, to have such thoughtful meditations on the sections from non-LDS scholars. Richard insisted on this not being a completely insular colloquium or volume and his vision really enriched both.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What kind of association have you had throughout your career with Richard Bushman? Could you share any personal experiences that would give readers a glimpse into his personality and character?

Spencer Fluhman: It’s hard to overstate Richard’s influence on my life and career.

I might be the only two-time participant in the summer seminars he directed starting in the late 1990s. I was in one of the first cohorts in 1999 and then participated again in 2008 when he directed a seminar for BYU faculty and Seminaries and Institute teachers.

Along with those two summers of close association, we’ve mingled in academic and other circles for nearly twenty years.

A couple of experiences stand out.

The first came in 1999 as we spent the summer working through Joseph Smith’s critics’ work. I remember a session where he said something like, “We don’t work around problems, we work through them.” His courage and candor had a profound influence on me. He reminded me of Elder Maxwell, who insisted that the truth can stand scrutiny. Richard’s confidence and calm just infused that summer and it’s never left me.

Richard Bushman, Photo provided by Richard Bushman

The second experience in 2008 was as impactful. We were in a heated discussion as a group and I found myself making a point with exuberance (which will surprise no one who knows me). I knew well that Richard would be supportive of my argument but was humbled when he touched my arm gently and whispered, “let him talk.”

That’s Richard. He’s as generous and kind as he is brilliant, and that’s saying something. I fall short of that standard at every turn, but those of us who love him like I do have long appreciated him as a quintessential “disciple-scholar.”

 

Kurt Manwaring: How would you characterize Bushman’s legacy if he had never published “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”? Is his legacy intertwined with that work, or would his imprint remain even without it?

Spencer Fluhman: For me, his legacy was assured even without “Rough Stone Rolling.” But I’m a historian and an LDS intellectual. Most Latter-day Saints at large might not have known or appreciated him. I’m glad that the book now stands as a monument to his genius, his profound respect for Joseph Smith’s consequential life and mission, and his twin commitments to the life of the mind and the life of the soul.

 

Kurt Manwaring: If there were a patron saint of Mormon Studies, it just might well be Richard Bushman. If he published something new every week, there is likely a significant demographic that would thirst for each new thought. I am curious about reception outside Mormon circles. Is there a sense of “Bushman-fatigue” among non-Mormon scholars? What can scholars of Mormon Studies learn from recognizing the needs of varying audiences?

Spencer Fluhman: No, Richard has earned the respect of non-LDS scholars across the nation. He’s that rare scholar who was able to contribute in ways that demanded a hearing for his work on LDS history. The force of his own excellence provided him a place at the academic table.

Non-LDS associates often find themselves hearing him out about religious history because of the trust he earned from his broader work.

For LDS scholars of my generation, he did indeed provide the formula: do your work so well that you belong in the conversation.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What are your thoughts on the relationship between religious belief, history, and fear? Should religious believers be troubled by history if it sometimes reveals new truths that deviate from long-held beliefs?

Spencer Fluhman: No. We should not fear any true thing, even if it’s a difficult or challenging true thing. There is not an argument formed against Mormonism that I have not read or engaged in some way. Yet I feel no fear about our past.

I’ve long said that I’m a committed Latter-day Saint not in spite of my careful study of the past, but because of it.

I’ve come to appreciate the deep humanity of it. I’ve come to be humbled by the cultural-imbeddedness of it, to invent an inelegant phrase. By that, I mean that watching people wrestle with their sense of divine calling in a world of brokenness and turmoil is its own kind of sermon.

I don’t expect Saints in the past or present to be perfect. I don’t expect leaders to be infallible.

I don’t expect simplicity, ever.

My experience over two decades as a professional historian has provided other lessons.

I expect complexity. I expect believers to wrestle with living their faith in a diverse and often confounding world. I expect challenges as we strain to discern God’s mind in the cacophony of culture. I expect change and the complexities that come with it.

But I also expect to be moved by the stories I find. I expect to be inspired. I expect to find beauty and truth.

In truth, I experience the opposite of fear as I engage LDS history. I experience the exhilaration of finding fellow-travelers in the past. I experience a rush in the challenge of rethinking my place in the present. How do I relate to culture? What are my blind spots? What are my commitments and values? How do I navigate change? What is worth preserving and what can or should be let go?

History has been a prod to greater consecration for me. History has been a site of profound introspection for me. History has driven moral striving in me. History has given me eyes to see and hear people anew. It has deepened my empathy and expanded my capacity to love.

So, no, I feel no fear about our past. It’s a well of insight and learning that will challenge and sustain us as long as we’ll let it.

 

Kurt Manwaring: You are working on a biography of James E. Talmage. If you could go back in time and observe any moment in his life, what would it be and why?

Spencer Fluhman: Great question. He’s a fantastically interesting figure and I feel like I know him well in some ways.

Even so, he was somewhat reserved in his diaries and in his correspondence and typically seems emotionally beyond the reach of this biographer.

So rather than observing any moment, I suspect I covet a conversation with him. He wrestled with heavy intellectual questions, about science and faith and the like, but often kept much to himself.

I would like to sit with him for a spell. I’d get him talking about fishing on the River Kennet in England. We’d go from there.

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