Expecting Surprises

by Jacob Rennaker, PhD

Scholar in Residence, John A. Widtsoe Foundation

Have you ever been startled by something familiar? It doesn’t happen nearly enough for me, but when it does, my view of the world changes for the better. This sense of surprise by the ordinary is just the sort of thing that Mormon Studies can provide for both academic and religious communities, and is something to which the John A. Widtsoe Foundation is deeply committed.

By re-examining the world through the lens of Mormonism, scholars have found a way to make the familiar worlds of American religious history and global religions unfamiliar. Because Mormonism often doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional boxes that scholars (myself included) take for granted, studying academic questions from this perspective can provide surprising answers and lead to even more perplexing questions. For the academy, it is questions that make the world go ‘round, and Mormonism raises enough questions to keep the academic world spinning for a very long time.

Now, for the Mormon community itself, Mormon Studies can do something similar. In reading the same set of scriptures and repeating stories of the church’s beginnings in the same way, week after week, it’s easy to lose sight of just how remarkable Mormonism is. For those who are living Mormonism as a religion, Mormon Studies can help to reinvigorate an individual’s worship by asking different questions of those scriptures or stories and by providing the sort of historical and cultural background that can make those same scriptures and stories become more vivid, more real, and more personally relevant.

I’ve experienced both academic and religious surprise in the face of the familiar during my first year as the Widtsoe Foundation’s Scholar in Residence. A distinctly Mormon interest in temples led us to organize the Sacred Space, Sacred Thread conference last November, which created room for both scholars and religious practitioners to present their own perspectives on temples and religious clothing. Many of these presentations prompted the participants to ask themselves and each other questions they hadn’t considered before, which is a sure sign of a successful academic event. Similarly, I’ve been surprised by the sorts of academic insights and unexpected questions that the Widtsoe Foundation-sponsored BYU New Testament Commentary project has provided for my own study of this very familiar set of scriptures.

Here at the John A. Widtsoe Foundation, we expect many more unexpected surprises as we continue to foster a community of individuals who appreciate both the academic and religious value of Mormon Studies. Whether it’s establishing a chair of Mormon Studies at USC, supporting the study of Global Mormonism, or facilitating interfaith conversations between Christian and Jewish scholars, I hope you’ll join us as we seek to be startled by the familiar.  

Jacob Rennaker, an adjunct professor of religion at BYU and Ph.D. graduate of Claremont Graduate University, has been named Scholar in Residence with the Widtsoe Foundation.