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John Dehlin as the Malcolm Gladwell of Mormon studies…at Wheat and Tares

July 5, 2012

In my latest post at Wheat & Tares, I assert that what John Dehlin is essentially doing with Mormon Stories is serving as popularizer for others who are really moving things forward when it comes to Mormon history, philosophy, and so on. In this sense, we might view him as the Malcolm Gladwell of Mormon studies.

Malcolm Gladwell

The interesting thing is that Malcolm Gladwell certainly has his critics…and looking at some of the claims that are levied against Gladwell, those criticisms sound uncannily like certain criticisms of Mormon Stories and John Dehlin.

As background information, for my post, I mostly deal with Rosalynde Welch’s comments about Dehlin and Mormon Stories (which I addressed previously in this blog post from a different angle).

The discussion has already bore a great deal of  interesting fruit, I think. For example, one thing that came up about the comparison was the fact that Malcolm Gladwell is an outsider to the field that he covers in his books…he’s not a scientist popularizing science, but a non-scientist doing so.

So, should we similarly consider John Dehlin to be an outsider. As Bonnie commented:

I think it’s interesting that you compare John Dehlin with “outsiders” who are working with the material provided by intellectuals within a field and who tailor that material for general audiences. In any field in which someone engages in that kind of work, the “insiders” are going to find that kind of reductionist effort offensive.

Would Dehlin classify himself as an outsider? There’s a pretty animated discussion over at T&S about the whole question of a speaker’s orthodoxy and its impact on the subjects s/he chooses to address.

This led to more discussion on who could be considered an insider in Mormonism, to which Bonnie elaborated:

We have multiple “insider” groups in Mormonism (depending on the subcommunity in which people participate), but the ultimate insider group is the priesthood structure, what for many people is the “faith group.” As a self-professed atheist, he approaches discussions of the history very differently than someone, say an apostle, who speaks from a position of cultural authority rooted in faith/annoitedness rather than academia or populist discussion.


The populist platform is compatible with the faith platform if it’s correlated.

…One analogy that was used (and I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten where I read it) talked metaphorically about stonecutters who size and prepare the block and sealers who seal it in place in the structure, building on the work that went before. In order for stone masons to work that way, they have to agree on the size and shape of the stone from the beginning. Any old populist platform isn’t going to be supportive of a faith platform; it needs to be a platform that the builder can ultimately build the intended structure on.

Is JD doing that? That’s the problem people on both the faith and academic platforms are having IMHO. What can they build on from what he’s begun?

Now, is anyone else doing that from a, pardon the use of that inflammatory term, correlatedprocess? No. You’re right. There is discussion in other circles about this, of which I’m peripherally aware, but we don’t have anything in place now. I think and the mormon channel and other sources are bridging into that, but real populist discussion forums? No. I would love that. I admit that the absence of that is what prompted me to join W&T, as small and insignificant a voice as I am.

This all seems reasonable to me (and it seems to me that correlation was begun basically as a movement to take all the varying threads and ideas of Mormonism and make them accessible to a general, worldwide Mormon church audience) — but then the dynamic becomes very different…all of a sudden, ALL blogs and ALL podcasts and ALL journals and even MANY statements from General Authorities become at odds with the faith platform…we can only go as fast as institutional correlation has gone, because everything else is speculation, folk doctrine, or heresy.

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