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For week ended January 30, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Summarized by Kent Larsen

The Battle for England: LDS writer's journey traces his struggle between church and cultural criticism
Salt Lake Tribune 29Jan00 A2
By Peggy Fletcher Stack: Salt Lake Tribune

OREM, UTAH -- LDS writer Eugene England will be named today Utah Valley State College's first Writer in Residence in a move that recognizes his influence on Mormon culture and efforts to promote the teachings of the LDS Church.

But England's journey to UVSC hasn't been easy. It has been marked by controversy and political battles, starting from his graduate school days at Stanford University to his more than 20 year tenure at BYU, from which he retired last year.

As a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960s, England was influenced by the free speech movement, anti-war rallies and fair housing initiatives that characterized life on many U.S. college campuses in the 60s. But he was also an active member of the LDS Church and a leader in the local student ward. England says he felt caught between two different and conflicting worlds, "I was seen in each place as a totally different person," he writes in a forthcoming essay. "As a naive conservative [though strangely on the 'right' side about Vietnam and racism and educational bankruptcy] when I was at Stanford and as a dangerous liberal [though strangely obedient and devout and faithful] when I was at church."

Since that time, England has struggled to bridge the two worlds, trying to get the academic community to take Mormon culture seriously and trying to get Mormons to be more thoughtful about Mormon culture. As a result he has sometimes been rejected, misinterpreted and vilified and other times revered for his thoughtful support of LDS teachings.

In 1966, while at Stanford, England and fellow academic Wesley Johnson announced that they were founding a new academic journal to focus on Mormon culture. The quarterly journal, "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought" attracted a number of LDS academics. One editorial board member was then University of Chicago Law Professor Dallin Oaks, now a member of the LDS Church's Council of the Twelve. Another was Laurel Ulrich, now a professor of early American history at Harvard and a winner of the pulitzer prize.

But at the time, his efforts were seen as radical. After England and Johnson met with San Francisco Bay area LDS leaders about the journal, his stake president told him, "What you are planning looks very good, but if you do it, you will never hold high position in the church."

After graduating from Stanford with his Ph.D., England taught at St. Olaf Lutheran College in Minnesota, where he argued for the school to maintain its religious emphasis at a time when other religious colleges were dropping theirs. But when some of his students started expressing interest in Mormonism, their parents complained and England was forced to leave.

After teaching at the University of Utah's LDS Institute of Religion for two years, England was able to land a professorship at BYU, with the help of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, now a member of the LDS Church's Council of the Twelve Apostles. England saw the position at BYU as a chance to work on Mormon literature, which had been ignored until then. He says he "caught hell from my academic friends, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, who wondered what I was doing with my interests and my gifts, going to BYU, because I would be oppressed."

But England was able to teach classes in Mormon literature at BYU and helped found the Association for Mormon Letters while there, raising the visibility of the study of Mormon literature. He was also able to do what he felt he would not be able to do elsewhere, explore religious themes in important literary works, including older works like those of Shakespeare and more current work like that of John Updike.

But in the past ten years, England feels like he was increasingly under fire at BYU for his work. He says that the 'culture wars' on many American campuses came to BYU, and other faculty members increasingly felt that modern forms of criticism such as feminism and post-modernism were wrong and devilish. BYU became increasingly less tolerant of the unorthodox. "Teaching in any way critical of Mormon culture was read as a criticism of the Mormon religion, even though there's a sharp distinction between the two that the prophets have always drawn," England said. "I could tell other faculty began to see me as an evil rather than liberating influence."

So in 1998 England retired from BYU. After struggling with what he saw as a rejection of his life's work, he was offered a position at Utah Valley State College; one that allowed him to introduce his approach to Mormon literature there. It gives him a chance to get back to what he sees as his role, that of a "cultural critic." [Mormon scriptures almost universally] "tell the story of the people of God at war with God, and God criticizing them for failing to live up to what he's told them," he said. "If we followed that model, we would all do cultural criticism."

And England sees being named a writer in residence as an opportunity to change how he has to spend his time, "I've been so involved working with our study-abroad program and the Center for the Study of Mormon Culture, that I haven't been able to have writing groups, give readings and do the normal things that a writer in residence does," England says. "I hope this event will kick that off."

And he is grateful to UVSC for the opportunity it has given him. "The thing I love about UVSC is they're genuinely interested in LDS literature. The president is not a Mormon, yet he has encouraged me to be a resource. And many non-LDS faculty members have come to me looking for ways to connect with their LDS students."

And friends and colleagues have seen the event as a way of honoring England. Retired BYU professor William A. Wilson says "Gene has always worked strongly for the good of the church. That's why what has happened to him is so tragic." Another retired BYU professor, Marden Clark, says that "Under the restless spirit of Gene England is a profound and abiding faith in that Christ and, strangely, in a kind of cosmic justice that will finally lead us to be reconciled with him."

Wilson adds, [England's] "finest sermon is his own life, where in spite of obstacles, criticisms and downright cruelty, he has never lost the faith."

See Also:

Wordsmith takes up residence at UVSC
Deseret News 30Jan00 A4
By Jerry Johnston
Eugene England is the college's first Writer in Residence

Works of restless writer tap into faith
Provo UT Daily Herald 29Jan00 A2
By Marden Clark


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