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For the first time, students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., can enroll in a Mormon studies course and get credit for it.
Last month, GTU, one of the nation's premier theological schools, awarded a doctorate in theology to Sheila Taylor, believed to be the school's first Mormon to earn one.
But students in these classes don't have to be Mormon, and, during the program's first year, many weren't.
A course in LDS origins, theology, culture and sacred texts attracted Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ members, along with adherents from three Catholic traditions (Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican). The Mormon classes also drew LDS students from the University of California at Berkeley, including Savannah Reid, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's granddaughter, and Marilyn Bradford, a granddaughter of Mary Bradford, a former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
No matter their religious backgrounds, the students' common task, Gale Tompkins-Bischel wrote in the Lake County News, was to "delve into the scriptures that 'South Park' has made infamous to modern audiences: The Book of Mormon."
This rising interest in Mormonism goes well beyond Broadway and into academia.
GTU's incipient LDS program puts the Berkeley campus on par with Claremont Graduate University in Southern California and Utah State University, which have offered courses on the Utah-based faith for several years. Next year, LDS historian Richard Bushman, who just finished his stint as Claremont's head of Mormon studies, will teach a class on Mormonism at Columbia University.
In a letter to a local Latter-day Saint, Arthur Holder, GTU's dean and vice president for academic affairs, called the yearlong course "a significant step toward what we hope will eventually be an expanded program." GTU administrators and Bay Area Mormons hope one day to establish achairman of Mormon studies to direct the program.
Robert Rees, a Latter-day Saint and a scholar of Mormon studies who taught this year's classes, considered the experiment a resounding success.
Week after week, students gathered around a big table at the LDS Institute of Religion across the street from GTU's campus known as "Holy Hill," and posed tough questions about Mormon scripture, sermons and practices.
Why didn't that apostle mention Jesus Christ in his General Conference address about the Sabbath? Why would Jesus cause the destruction in America after his crucifixion in the Old World if he was preaching forgiveness?
Students were also required to attend one weekly three-hour block of meetings at a ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and listen to two General Conference sessions. Several wondered why there were not more women and minorities on the stand during the conferences, why the women's sermons seemed less substantive than the men's and if negative votes were missed when the congregants "voted" on (sustained, in Mormon parlance) church leaders.
Although the class made no LDS converts, proselytizing was not its goal understanding was and, on that score, everyone benefited.
"Engaging with my students in serious discussions of belief has also expanded and deepened my own faith," Rees said in an email. "For example, I wasn't aware of how out-of-date some of my perceptions of Catholicism were. My students gave me articles and books to read that helped me understand the broader dimensions of their faith."
The students' views of Mormonism enlarged as well.
Tompkins-Bischel, for one, discovered that she did not have to believe in the authenticity or historicity of LDS scriptures in order to appreciate them.
At first reading, her mind chanted "heresy, heresy, heresy," she wrote, but eventually she let it go, recognizing that all traditions have "bizarre aspects they try to pass off as 'truth.' ... Yahweh himself and through his prophets 'said' some pretty wacky things, too, and Christians find a way to live with those without doubting the entirety of the Bible."
She came to see that Mormons believe, as she does, that the fundamental message of Jesus is to love and serve one another and discovered that LDS scriptures are, in fact, "astonishingly compassionate and 'liberal' in the sense that the writers wanted desperately for their brethren and their descendants to forgo wealth in order to care for one another."
The class, Tompkins-Bischel concluded, brought together the "most unlikely neighbors" and helped them forge a bond of respect.
Rees saw his GTU teaching experience as a fulfillment of the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's call for greater understanding and cooperation with other faiths.
"It was one of the most hopeful experiences of my academic and spiritual life," Rees said. "I can imagine Joseph Smith looking down from heaven with approval and even joy."