'A Hotbed of Malcontents, Free-Thinkers and Doubters'

Sunstone began in 1974 as a magazine exploring "Mormon experience, scholarship, issues and art." For nearly 40 years, it's been a major forum for independent Mormon thought.
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Second wife Nicki Henrickson of Big Love, one of television's more easily scandalized characters, was horrified when her sister wife Barb began participating at Sunstone in "A Seat at the Table," episode 2 of Big Love's most recent and final season. Barb defended it as "just a think tank," while Nicki insisted it was "a hotbed of malcontents and free-thinkers and doubters."

As it turns out, Barb was wrong; Sunstone is not a think tank but an educational foundation. Nicki, however, was right -- in a good way.

Named after a motif in the architecture of the LDS temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, Sunstone began in 1974 as a magazine exploring "Mormon experience, scholarship, issues and art." In 1979, it began offering a yearly symposium, with panels and presentations on topics in Mormon scholarship. For nearly 40 years, it's been a major forum for independent Mormon thought.

Full disclosure: I've been publishing work in Sunstone since the early 1990s, and attending the symposium since 2001. I like to show the magazine to non-Mormons and watch their reaction as they read the cartoons (it's full of them -- the September 2010 issue was even devoted to LDS comics) and check out the article titles. "Wow!" a friend once declared after reading an issue. "I had no idea Mormons had such interesting sex lives. Or senses of humor."

But that's not a message that the hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to see conveyed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Church went on the offensive against Sunstone, warning the faithful against symposia that offered a platform for "alternate voices" about Church history or doctrine. Faculty from Brigham Young University, some of whom had been frequent participants at the symposia, understood that it would be dangerous for them to attend-much less present papers. (Both a church employee and an untenured BYU professor told me recently that the only way they'd participate at Sunstone was under a pseudonym.)

The Church's action initially hurt both attendance at the symposium and subscription, and also changed the demographic of participants: the orthodox center shrank; the unorthodox margins grew. But that has actually expanded the types of conversations Sunstoners can have. It's hard to imagine another place where fundamentalist sister wives, female apostles from the Community of Christ (formerly the Re-organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), and feministmormonhousewives.org would all participate in panels about polygamy, marriage, female ordination and feminism.

Barb Henrickson would fit right in at the real Sunstone. Past sessions she might have liked include

  • Possibilities in Mormon Feminism
  • Is Priesthood Necessary for Women's Full Equality in the Church?
  • Repeating History: Comparing the 1953 and 2008 Raids on the FLDS
  • Big Love's Temple Episode: What the Controversy Shows About the World, the Church, and Ourselves
  • Sex and the Heavenly Mother: Human Implications of Divine Embodiment
  • The Dynamics of Power and Authority in the LDS Church
  • Sharing Husbands in Celestial Marriage: Perspectives of Nauvoo Women 1841-1846
  • Women and the Priesthood: The Community of Christ Experience
  • Gender-Specific Roles and the Eternal Patriarchal Order: A Theological Look at Joseph Smith's Polygamy
  • What's Up with the Principle? Serving the Polygamous Community

Other intriguing sessions from previous years include

  • A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten's Cain and the Conception of Evil in Mormon Folklore
  • Maturing Faiths: A Comparison Between Mormonism and Islam During Their First Two Centuries
  • Toward an LDS Account of Physician-Assisted Suicide
  • Eternal Perdition? Bureaucratic Limbo? The Theological Ramifications of Excommunication
  • Male Mormon Feminists
  • Divine Malfeasance
  • Is the Afghanistan War Just?: A Book of Mormon Approach
  • The future of catholic-mormon Dialogue: bridges between rome and Salt lake city
  • Toward a mormon theological Justification for environmental Activism

Every year, multiple sessions try to unravel and understand the Church's homophobia and what to do about it. Additional panels have discussed such famous/infamous Mormons as Glenn Beck, Harry Reid, Mitt Romney and the web's Mr. Deity; looked depictions of Mormons in South Park and other media; explored the phenomenon of LDS stay-at-home dads; examined Mormon thought in the Twilight series.

This year's symposium theme is "Mormon Artifacts and Material Culture," or the "things Mormons make to signify their faith, beliefs, history," including "Mormon art, architecture, Mormon blogs and web sites, apps, books, comics, crafts, cookbooks, games, films, LDS jewelry and apparel, magazines, message boards and online communities, statues and figurines, textiles, youTube videos, and the near-ubiquitous resin grapes [a craft project from the 1970s]. We will also examine the role parody, satire, and kitsch play in Mormon material culture" (which means the new Book of Mormon musical will be well parsed). Proposals are due May 15, 2011.

Typically held each summer in downtown Salt Lake City, the symposium has been forced to move this year because of scheduling problems. Instead it will be held August 3-6, 2011, at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, an easy 35-mile trip from Salt Lake City on northbound Interstate 15. Historically Ogden was a gentile town; its raison d'etre was the intercontinental railroad, which attracted a large, diverse population.

Full of terrific architecture, Ogden has many attractions, including a vibrant downtown with galleries, restaurants, and shopping. At Union Station, there's both a train and a gun museum (John Moses Browning, arguably the most important gun designer in history, was born and raised in Ogden). There's a Dinosaur Museum near the mouth of Ogden Canyon, the Ogden Nature Center and the Ogden River Parkway, plus hiking, biking, and summer recreation at local ski areas and parks. It also puts visitors closer to other attractions such as the Golden Spike National Historic Site and Spiral Jetty.

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