Growing with Sunstone

By Stephen Carter

I‘m certainly not the youngest person to helm Sunstone Magazine, but I am the first editor to be as old as the magazine itself, both of us being born in 1975. Though I was not raised in a household that subscribed to Sunstone, or any other independent Mormon publication (I was kept on a strict diet of the Friend and Boy’s Life), I still felt its influence. There was always a lively corner at each Swenson family reunion, where a vigorous (and sometimes heated) discussion was galloping along. It was co-directed by my great-uncle Paul Swenson and my great-aunt Michael Turetsky. Sometimes a copy of Sunstone would be flapping around in Mike or Paul’s hand as they argued a point. My mom steered me away from that corner, telling me that the “Sunstoners” were at it again. I obeyed her, but I couldn’t help noticing that the conversations sounded kind of interesting. (I should point out that my mom now subscribes to Sunstone and has attended—and allegedly enjoyed—our two most recent Salt Lake Symposiums.)

My next memorable contact with Sunstone came while I was in college. At the end of a writing group at Eugene England’s home, Gene offered us all copies of Sunstone’s 25th anniversary issue. Intrigued by the article titles, I took one. As I read it through the next few weeks, something bubbled up that I hadn’t felt in a long time: an interest in Mormonism. I was a church-going Mormon at the time (still am), and had never considered being anything else, but Mormonism, I realized, was for me simply a place to go each Sunday, a set of rules, an invisible worldview that directed my life but rarely engaged my mind.

It was the 25th anniversary issue and my subsequent job with Gene (I was his administrative assistant during the last year of his life) that started me really engaging with Mormonism; they helped me understand that Mormonism has a history, that it’s evolving, that it’s unique.

However, it wasn’t the beginning of a love affair with Mormonism, it was more the beginning of a child differentiating from its parent. As I made my way through graduate school, studying education, anthropology, and dramatic structure—all the while maintaining my subscriptions to independent Mormon publications—I found that my entire worldview was coming apart, atomizing into its component parts and presenting me with deconstructed world where all values were open to question. It was during this time that I started to write for Sunstone.

At first I wrote straightforward articles: one about teaching Sunday School lessons, one about the function of satire in Church discourse, a few book reviews, and a humor column. But I also started writing personal essays for the Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay Contest, and this is where I did my soul work, where I first started discern that beneath all the layers of culture and religion that had defined me up until then, lay an unexplored country. I won a few of the contests and saw my essays go into print under Dan Wotherspoon’s editorship.

But then things changed radically. My wife and I graduated and, finding that the academic job market wasn’t a welcoming place for pretty much anyone who wanted to pay rent or feed their children, we took jobs as schoolteachers in rural Wyoming. It was completely not what I had envisioned for my life. I had been deeply affected by some of my college professors and wanted to teach college myself. I wanted to lead study abroads and do research. I wanted to write books and interact with inquisitive minds. When it finally sank in that I would be moving to a town of 1700 ranchers and oilrig workers, I curled up on my office floor and cried.

I felt like an alien in Wyoming. Even though the people themselves were kind and open, I couldn’t talk hunter-ese, I didn’t have an ATV or snowmobile, I didn’t go fishing, and I didn’t watch Glenn Beck. The only people I ever really connected with were the inactive-Mormon elementary school principal and his family.

Since I knew I would never fit in, I decided I would aggressively play my odd-duck card in the classroom. I made my students call me Dr. Carter; I wore shirt, tie, and slacks to every class; and using the thinkers, ideas, and structures I had learned in college and grad school, I carefully scripted each class to blow my students’ minds. I actually got to really like my students, even the ones who seemed to make a career out of bucking the system.

So, oddly enough, when Dan wrote to tell me that he was stepping down as editor and that I should apply, I was torn. Of course I wanted to put the skills I’d learned in grad school to use by editing the magazine, and of course I wanted to engage with Mormonism on an intellectual as well as spiritual level, but I had enjoyed teaching high school more than I had thought I would.

Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t apply for the job, partially because I thought we would have to move to Salt Lake City, and I didn’t want to uproot my children from school or my wife from her job. But Dan kept encouraging me to at least apply, telling me that the board might be willing to let me telecommute. Dialogue, after all, had been running out of it its editors’ basements for decades. Eventually, I decided to just see what the universe might have in mind for me and sent in my papers. And, strangely enough, I got the job.

Stephen Carter and Mary Ellen Robertson in June 2008, a few days after beginning work as Sunstone’s editor and symposium director, respectively.


Stephen Carter and Mary Ellen Robertson, June 2014. Still plugging away.


I made my entrance into Sunstone’s office on a hot day in June 2008. As I opened the back door, the first thing that registered was the musty vintage-house-with-wood-floors aroma. It overtook me with memories of my grandmother’s house where I had spent a great many hours during my teenage years. She was an inveterate collector of information, clipping numerous articles from magazines and newspapers that I organized into the dozens of filing cabinets that stood like the great stone moai throughout her house. “This house was built for words and ideas,” I thought.

Sunstone had been in the house on 3rd West for at least a decade, and its history decorated the walls: snapshots and posters from past symposiums, magazine covers, sun-themed knick-knacks arranged inside built-in corner cabinets, a basement groaning with boxes of back issues, an attic stacked with symposium cassette tapes. Walking through this museum of independent Mormon thought, I felt a little like Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris when he realizes that he’s stumbled into a party populated by his favorite authors.

I’m very glad that Dan was there to help me get my feet wet. Though I had been the news editor at my college newspaper and later a full-time journalist, I had never been involved with the nuts and bolts of layout and publication. I was amazed at the hundreds of little rules governing the magazine’s look: the difference between an en dash and an em dash, the wonders kerning can do for an infestation of orphans, the rules around ellipses (Sunstone style is . . . instead of …). It was a good thing I had learned QuarkXpress in college, otherwise, I would have been completely overwhelmed.


Back when people used pen and paper to communicate, Sunstone printed boxed sets of stationery emblazoned with some of Calvin Grondahl's more memorable Mormon cartoons. How many Dear Johns were written on this paper is a question that still keeps us up at night.
Back when people used pen and paper to communicate, Sunstone printed boxed sets of stationery emblazoned with some of Calvin Grondahl’s more memorable Mormon cartoons. How many Dear Johns were written on this paper is a question that still keeps us up at night.


After I got over the enervating fear that dogged my first few issues (“How in the world am I going to fill up all these pages?”) and had built up a backlog of material, I started to realize that the Internet and the advent of blogs were forcing me to rethink the purpose of Sunstone. Looking back through old issues, I saw how extensive the Letters to the Editor section used to be and understood that it had functioned similarly to today’s blog comment sections. I also saw that our Cornucopia section was an early version of blogs: providing fun, short, easily digested bits of information and thought. The same went for the Touchstones section. As blogs got more and more popular, these parts of the magazine started to shrivel simply because it was so much easier for writers to post their thoughts to their blogs and get immediate feedback than it was to send a short essay or article through the eternal rounds of editing, layout, printing, and mailing that accompanied publishing in a magazine. And then people might or might not send in a letter to the editor about your piece.

I also remembered Armand Mauss’s advice to me during my first symposium as editor. He pulled me aside and said, “Don’t try to use Sunstone as an organ to change the Church. And see what you can do about finding some fresh material. Sometimes it seems like we’ve been talking about the same things for twenty years.”

So, I tried to do what Sunstone has traditionally done best: take a few chances; try something new; explore a little. My first attempt was when I put together the “Twilight and Mormonism” issue. It was kind of a counterintuitive issue for me. Stephenie Meyer’s vampire-ridden Twilight Saga hadn’t interested me at all, but I was intrigued to find out how many intelligent people had found something worthwhile in its pages. So, I brought Sunstone back to its Sunstone Review roots and analyzed a popular book series to see what light it could shed on Mormonism.

My second attempt at exploration was The Best of Mormonism 2009. I envisioned it as an annual or bi-annual that would gather the best writing by, about, or for Mormons into one book that would be sent to Sunstone’s subscribers. It included writing from all kinds of publications: Mormon and otherwise. As I look back through it, the book is full of fantastic work. But people didn’t seem as excited about it as they were about simply receiving a regular issue of Sunstone. So I decided to discontinue it. (Not to mention the fact that it caused all sorts of headaches for librarians, who were constantly calling Carol to find out how they should be cataloging the thing: as an issue or as a book?)

And then came the “comic issue” (issue 160). Sunstone has been printing comics in its pages for most of its run, and the Sunstone-published Freeway to Perfection by Cal Grondahl was a regional bestseller. During the ten years previous to issue 160, comics as a genre had grown into a powerful literary force. They were winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards, and many Mormons were involved in this movement. But no one had taken much notice. So, under the guest editorship of Theric Jepson, Sunstone became the first publication to do an issue-long exploration of Mormon comics (Jepson winning an award from the Association for Mormon Letters for his efforts).

Those were the three times I really went out on a limb, trying to honor Sunstone by doing something new. There have been many other times when I have reveled in simply sticking with tradition, though. One of my favorite magazines was issue 164 which included work from D. Michael Quinn, Levi Petersen, and Gary James Bergera, three long-time pillars of independent Mormon thought.

A few articles have changed my life. One of them was among the first I published, John-Charles Duffy’s “Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates: Perspectives from the Sociology of Knowledge” (issue 152), which shook my worldview to its core. The second was David V. Mason’s “Religion is Art: Mormonism after Morals” (issue 169) which helped me see what I could make with this newly deconstructed worldview. The world does not deconstruct for the sole purpose of disintegrating; it falls apart so that we can participate in the act of creation. I also return often to Bob Mesle’s “Success and the Body of Christ” (issue 162) where I’m reminded of just what a paradox it is to follow Christ: this man whose success was predicated on failure. And then there was Rodello Hunter’s story “The Spell of Foolishness” (issue 154). Great Mormon literature in every sense.

Sunstone's first electronic collection of magazine articles contained the text of 94 issues including the Sunstone Review. The package cost $99.
Sunstone’s first electronic collection of magazine articles contained the text of 94 issues including the Sunstone Review. The package cost $99.

After six years and a lot of thinking, I have decided that Sunstone’s mission is to follow the 13th article of faith: seeking out the best that Mormon thinkers and creators have to offer; enhancing and perfecting it; creating a beautiful space for it, and curating it for future generations. Sunstone is like an illuminated manuscript: many labor over its words, many pour their lives into its creation, many comb through its details. Though the magazine’s readership may not be as large as that of most online forums, its purpose is fulfilled simply in the weight of the work that brought it about.

Sunstone has given me many opportunities: I’ve been able to hone my writing and editing skills; I’ve been able to work with many of my intellectual and creative heroes; I’ve learned something about being an art director and a page designer; I’ve felt the satisfaction of admiring a newly printed issue. But the best thing Sunstone has given me is the chance to raise my daughter.

About 10 months after I started my editorship, a baby was born into our family. If I had stayed with my nice, steady teaching job, the arrival of this bundle would have forced my wife and me into deciding who would give up his or her job to take care of the baby. But since I was working from home and could set my own hours, I got to take on a role I never thought I’d have.

I’ve written before about what it was like to be a full-time father to this exquisite little being, but I’ll say it once more: I had not lived life until I spent five years in the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute presence of this child, her breath turning to voice, her eyes gathering the world, her arms conducting invisible orchestras. Watching a child grow up at such close range is like watching a galaxy form; I have not experienced such a sacred time in all my life. Of course, it wasn’t easy juggling a baby with Sunstone; I would often start work after putting dinner on the table and go until two in the morning. But it was worth every bleary night. I got to produce a beautiful magazine and raise a beautiful child. I’ll be forever grateful to the Sunstone Foundation for that opportunity.

In the 25th anniversary issue of Sunstone there’s a cartoon by Calvin Grondahl where an angel announces to a group of general authorities that the second coming is running behind schedule. “Another 25 years of Sunstone,” grumbles one ga to another. Well, it’s been another 15 years, anyway, and things are still going strong. Sunstone is a kind of miracle, surviving sometimes on pure cussedness. I love to look back through old issues and watch as my intellectual and spiritual ancestors wrestle with difficulties that, in many ways, are still with us today. I feel a sense of kinship with them and a swell of gratitude for their willingness to prepare the way for today’s explorers. I take great pleasure in continuing their legacy by coaxing the most clarity, elegance, and spirit I can out of each element of the magazine.

Being Sunstone’s editor doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like a calling: one I fulfill with great gratitude.