Though Taylor Petrey did his doctoral work on ancient Christian debates about the resurrection, this last year he found himself teaching a course at HDS on the 200-year-old tradition of Mormonism—a newcomer, by the standards of world religions.
Petrey, who was a 2016-17 Women’s Studies in Religion Program research associate, is himself a relative newcomer to the academic study of Mormonism, though it is the faith in which he was raised. But even if some of the materials used in the course were new to Petrey, the environment in which he was teaching them was very familiar. That’s because it was here at HDS that Petrey first earned his MTS and ThD in the field of early Christianity.
Now the Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Associate Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, Petrey, MTS '03, ThD '10, wrote a dissertation at HDS that eventually became his first book, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference. It examined a surprising debate that developed in the late second century CE concerning the nature of the resurrection that Christians would experience after death.
“Early Christians started writing huge treatises about whether the body would be resurrected and what kind of body it would be. And a question arises about whether these bodies would have genitals. In the Gospels, Jesus says of the resurrected, ‘They shall be as angels in heaven.’ Well, do angels have penises? It turns out to be an important question!”
By focusing on this seemingly obscure conflict, Petrey highlighted an early attempt in Christianity to fix sexual difference into two binary categories, male and female, even as other Christians were arguing for greater sexual fluidity.
Petrey said HDS was the perfect place to tackle this topic, since the school is home to many of the feminist scholars who first brought gender studies approaches to bear on the study of Christianity. These include Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a pioneer of feminist Biblical interpretation, and Petrey’s doctoral advisor, Karen King, who is an expert on Gnosticism.
“Karen King was a big inspiration to me and to a lot of my peers as well,” Petrey said. “Another major influence was Amy Hollywood, whose classes were completely transformative for me. They introduced me to ways of thinking about gender I hadn’t really considered before that brought into focus the topics I wanted to pursue in my dissertation.”
Of course, such issues are not confined to the texts from late antiquity that Petrey was poring over at HDS, and in 2008 he found current events intruding on his consciousness.
“While I was a doctoral student here, I was also interested in things happening in my own faith community as a Mormon, big debates around gender and sexuality that came up when the Mormon Church got involved in Proposition 8.”
This ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage in California eventually passed, with support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other institutions. In the process, Petrey said, an internal debate was touched off about the Mormon Church’s teachings on same-sex relationships and other gendered issues that Petrey had already been studying in a second-century context.
So after Petrey finished at HDS and started teaching at Kalamazoo College, he began delving into the study of Mormonism on the side. Though studying an American religious tradition that took shape only 200 years ago might seem far removed from examining the nearly 2,000-year-old origins of Christianity, Petrey says the move felt natural.
“The field of gender studies is truly interdisciplinary, so I can bring the same set of questions to radically different texts, time periods, and traditions. What unifies my work is a core commitment to these questions about gender and sexuality, which in a sense are contemporary questions, even when I’m reading early Christian texts,” Petrey said.
Despite this unifying theoretical approach, Petrey admitted that the research process could be very different.
“I had to master so many languages to write my dissertation, since I was dealing with Coptic, Greek, and Latin texts, and then reading the German, Spanish, French, and Italian scholarship about them. On the other hand, Mormonism is all in English!”
Languages aside, Mormonism presented its own difficulties.
“With Mormonism, I’m working on a tradition where there’s so much stuff, whereas early Christianity is great because there are like 12 texts. I’m learning skills in archival research and also trying to take a historical perspective on recent events, but it’s a lot of fun because it exercises different parts of my brain. I’m very lucky to be able to stretch myself as a scholar in this way.”
Wanting to turn this newer interest into a book project, Petrey came back to HDS through the Women’s Studies in Religion Program. Last semester, he shared some of the fruits of his research in a course called “Gender, Sexuality, and Mormonism.”
Caroline Matas, MDiv ’17, who studies American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, is one of the students who took the course.
“It was fascinating to see how contemporary Mormon communities share such similar concerns and values with evangelical Christians, even though the histories of those communities are very different. I appreciated that Dr. Petrey allowed students the flexibility to think about how the subject matter pertains to their own fields of inquiry and to really pursue those interests, as well as the friendly and open classroom discussions,” Matas said.
Though the Mormons and evangelicals have sometimes made common cause for political reasons in recent decades, Petrey said part of his project is to point out important underlying differences between the two American traditions.
“After World War II, Mormonism is interested in assimilating to American culture, and they do so by adopting conservative Christian rhetoric about the family. But Mormonism still has its own distinctive texts, its own prophetic tradition, which are not easily assimilated into the sola scriptura approach of the evangelical Christians, who have a very different set of authorities.”
Petrey said that while evangelicals tend to rely on a literal reading of the Christian Bible, Mormon theology has its own underpinnings.
“In my book project, I’m trying to show the historical contingency of how Mormonism came to think about a gender binary and about what it believes to be a ‘natural’ heterosexuality and an ‘aberrant’ homosexuality. These are not natively Mormon notions but rather borrowed from a broader conservative Christian culture.”
In addition to explaining how the Mormon Church arrived at its current positions, Petrey is also trying to find precedents in Mormon history and scriptures for other ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.
“I’m also attempting to read the tradition queerly, looking for the instabilities and gaps in the ways Mormonism has come to think about same-sex relationships and the differences between male and female.”
One place Petrey is looking for instabilities is the nineteenth century.
“Mormonism now embraces the model of the heterosexual nuclear family. But before polygamy was abandoned in the 1890s, Mormons had an expanded sense of kinship, since polygamy wasn’t just about marrying all these other wives but also adopting other male family members and their wives into your family,” Petrey explained.
“What’s more, polygamous wives sometimes continued living in kinship with each other after their husband died, sometimes in the same house. So I’m looking at these different aspects of our tradition to say, ‘Look, here’s this totally different sense of family that could be a model for thinking about same-sex kinship formation.’ ”
Petrey also sees room for queer interpretations of the Mormon cosmology, which differs in many respects from that of other Christian traditions. For instance, the Mormon church sees a model for the heterosexual family in the union of God the Father with a Heavenly Mother, and Mormons also differ from Trinitarian Christians in seeing the Godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—as three separate beings who are united by love.
“There’s no real difference in the way Mormons talk about the unity of the Godhead and about the unity of the Father with the Mother. In describing the oneness of the Father and the Son, Mormons even use the ‘one flesh’ language of Genesis 2, which usually describes the oneness of a man and wife. So we already have same-sex kinship as a model in the divine realm. That’s not changing the theology, it’s saying it’s already there.”
Creatively engaging the history and teachings of Mormonism in this way might raise some eyebrows, both in the church and outside it, but Petrey believes it is impossible not to bring contemporary concerns to scholarly work, whether researchers acknowledge those concerns or not.
“When we’re doing historical research, and often when we’re doing theological research as well, the subtext is the present context of the world we’re living in,” Petrey said.
By devoting a book as well as a class to Mormonism, Petrey is also helping to raise the profile of an understudied current in American religion.
“Mormon studies is a growing field right now, and I think people have questions about whether or not it’s just a subfield of American religion or whether there’s enough interest to warrant its own detailed inquiry. I think it’s a sign of the health of the field that students here were interested in taking this class. It bodes well for Mormon studies as a discipline, since HDS is a trendsetter for the future of the study of religion.”
—by Walter Smelt