Reflections On My First Sunstone Symposium
Posted by Shawn L on March 17, 2008
This weekend, I (along with my co-blogger, Andrew) attended my first Sunstone Symposium this past weekend in Claremont, California. You’ll note from its title that this post does not aspire to be a comprehensive report of the weekend’s events. But, in hopes of disabusing people of the same sorts of prejudices I held for so long (as explained below), let me share with you a few thoughts about my experience.
To begin, a bit of background. In my house growing up, Sunstone was a “hiss and a byword,” spoken of only with disdain (if it was ever spoken of at all). As far as I understood the world, Sunstone was a rogue publication authored and consumed exclusively “liberal Mormons,” all of whom were on the high road to apostasy with their prayers to Heavenly Mother and revisionist views of Book of Mormon historicity (not to mention their peepstone fetishism). Put another way, I saw reading Sunstone as a direct poke in the eye to the Church. I went on my mission and then came back to BYU in the early 1990’s with these notions firmly in place. The concurrent rash of BYU firings and excommunications only served to cement my prejudices.
Over the past few years, as I have become enraptured with Mormon Studies, I have had rethink my Sunstone position. I have subscribed to Dialogue for some time now, but Sunstone, for some unexplainable reason. still carried a bit of a stigma. It wasn’t until this past year, when Sunstone digitized much their archives and I began actually reading the articles (what a novel concept!), that I shook off my old beliefs and have come to see the good in Sunstone. While I certainly don’t agree with everything I read, I value its contribution to the larger discussion.
So, with that in mind, here are three of things that stick out most in my mind as I look back upon my weekend experiences at Sunstone:
First, I was blown away by the new documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons,” produced by Darius Gray and Margaret Young. Bro. Gray, who converted to the Church as young man in the 1960’s, is a founding member of the Genesis Group, a support group for African-American LDS. For those who haven’t seen her many posts and comments, Sis. Young, a long-time and frequent contributor to the Bloggernacle, is on the BYU faculty. This film, very obviously, is a labor of love. What struck me about it was not the history, but the overall tone. Unlike so many other versions of these facts, the film does not stoop to Brigham-bashing or finger-pointing. Rather, the focus is on the very positive contributions that Black members — from Elijah Abel to the young families appearing in the film — have made, and continue to make, to the Church. Healing old wounds and starting fresh, not placing blame, seems to have been the filmmakers’ driving purpose. In this, they have succeeded. Bro. Gray was on hand to share his thoughts about making the documentary. His strength of will and testimony shone through his words. I had the chance to chat with him briefly after the presentation. A handshake didn’t seem big enough to express my emotion, so I hugged him (thankfully, for my dignity, he didn’t refuse me). As far as I am concerned, any discussion of “pioneers” is incomplete without a nod to people like Bro. Gray who stayed faithful, and soldiered on, through spiritual adversity on the level of any physical trial faced by those who pulled a handcart. (See a preview of the film and make a tax-deductible donation towards its distribution here).
Second, just as I am when I enter going into any new, unfamiliar environment, I was a bit of nervous about how would be received. Yes, it may sound irrational, but it definitely was on my mind. Would I be seen as an outsider, an interloper? As it turns out, my concerns were wholly unnecessary. In fact, the Symposium attendees treated me exactly the way we ask and hope our ward members will treat an investigator. In almost every session, a stranger took the chair to me, introduced themselves with a warm handshake, then asked questions to get to know a bit about me. On those occasions when I took the lead and introduced myself to someone (both presenter and fellow attendee), my inquiries were well-received and reciprocated with kindness. I truly was made feel like one the tribe.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was a spiritually uplifting, rather than faith-dampening, event. For me, I feel more “in tune” with the Spirit when I am intellectually engaged. Faith promoting rumors and “warm and fuzzy” stories do nothing for me. The presentations definitely scratched that itch. My surprise favorite in this regard was a presentation by Robert Rees, entitled “Mormons and the Cross,” which explored the reasons why Mormons did not accept the Christan cross as unifying symbol, and thoughts on why we could benefit from its adoption. Furthermore, presenters were not afraid to interject their own faith into their presentations. My favorite example of this came during the “Why We Stay” session, which is a staple of every symposium. One of the participants began by saying: “I brought of papers here with me. But my 2 children and 2 grandchildren are here. That’s the real reason I stay.” It was a touching moment for sure.
In the end, there were no prayers offered to Heavenly Mother, no one referred sarcastically to General Authorities by their first name, and no one mentioned white salamanders. My take-away from the event was just what I had been hoping to find. I was challenged intellectually, but never spoken to condescendingly. I rubbed shoulders with folks whose work I enjoy (Richard & Claudia Bushman; Newell Bringhurst; Robert Rees), and was introduced to new concepts from thinkers previously unknown to me. Were there opinions with which I didn’t agree? Of course, but that same thing happens nearly week in my Church meetings, as well.
Well done, Sunstone — I’ll see you all next year!