Should I subscribe to Sunstone again?

December 18, 2003 | 40 comments
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Sunstone magazine is different things to different people: a gadfly; a breath of fresh air; a gripefest; scholarship for nonscholars; a needed Mormon arts outlet; an enabler of apostate rantings. For me, it was a first introduction to a broader range of Mormon thought than I was raised with. Unlike Nate’s youth, mine was devoid of discussions of hermeticism and hermeneutics over the dinner table.

So Sunstone provided a welcomed stimulation for me. I was a faithful reader for a couple of years, but then I lost interest. I’m not sure if the content shifted slightly, or if my interests changed, but it ceased being as edifying or challenging to me as it was when I first discovered it. I haven’t read it for a couple of years now.

I am curious to know people’s feelings about the current state of Sunstone (apart from its website, which is uncontestibly ugly). I seem to recall its new editor, Dan Wotherspoon, making a concerted effort to moderate the tone a bit and to encourage faithful scholars (read: BYU professors) to publish more often. Are these shifts necessary to the vitality of Sunstone? And has Dan been successful?

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40 Responses to Should I subscribe to Sunstone again?

  1. Clark Goble on December 19, 2003 at 1:04 am

    I wish Sunstone was different. I really wish there was something that critically approach ideas *fairly* but from a standpoint of faith. The problem with Sunstone is that all too often people seemed to have an ax to grind or were pure whiners. I’d *personally* not feel comfortable going even to the symposium, although I’ve presented twice in the past.

    The problem is that I’d like something a little less confrontational and “one sided” that FARMS typical publications. But both Dialog and Sunstone don’t exactly endear themselves to me. (Although all three publishers do have gems at times)

  2. Matt Evans on December 19, 2003 at 2:16 am

    Clark,

    Although each of my co-authors contributes to Times & Seasons for a different reason, one of my goals is to help T&S come to occupy the gap between Sunstone and FARMS.

    The “traditional Mormon media” will lose marketshare to the Internet just as the secular media titans have, and the factors driving the trend aren’t likely to reverse.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on December 19, 2003 at 11:48 am

    Dan seems like a very earnest, open-minded and intelligent guy; the hole Sunstone found itself in by the time he took over from Elbert Peck was a deep one, but I certainly think he’s made a good faith effort to climb out. Still, he just managed to beat out a very good friend of mine for the editor position, so I have my reservations.

    For what’s worth Matt, some years back several of us who were on relatively good terms with Elbert and were “Sunstone regulars” wondered why, in the midst of all the mid-90s hostility to the magazine, the whole operation didn’t shift to the internet, becoming an e-zine. Of course, this was before the dot.com bubble burst. Still, I think the basic argument stands: a shift in venue would have brought along with it shifts in readership, contributors, perspective and hence ultimately reputation. I think what we’ve seen happen here at T&S over the last few weeks, with the “orthodox” and the “heterodox” discussing things faithfully and intelligently in the comments sections, is strong evidence for that possibility.

  4. Nate on December 19, 2003 at 12:06 pm

    Greg: I have had some dealings with Dan Wotherspoon, and I think that he is quite sincere about trying to bring more mainstream voices into Sunstone. (I have to say nice things about Dan, because when he was working at Benchmark Books he was kind enough to put me at the top of the waiting list for a copy of THE WORDS OF JOSEPH SMITH.) I am not sure that he will ever be able to completely retreive Sunstone from the exile that its late 1980s early 1990s iconoclasm and the Church’s (somewhat heavy handed) response sent it into.

    I gave a paper last spring at MHA, and after my presenation, I was invited by one of the organizers of the SLC Sunstone Symposium to give the paper there. Scheduling conflicts made such a presenation impossible, but I think that my response is typical of a lot of potential Sunstone subscribers/contributers. It sounded fun, but I was worried about how the brute fact of such a presentation would be interpreted. Sunstone has a certain amount of baggage that I simply didn’t want to bother with.

    The other problem with Sunstone is that I think in many ways it is intellectually stagnant. Many of the same ideas and issues are getting endlessly recycled. I also get the impression that they have had difficulty recruiting the next generation of Sunstonistas. The result is that not only are the same ideas getting recycled, the same people are getting recycled.

    What is interesting, is that the Church’s attitude toward at least some forums has thawed a bit. When my father first worked for the Church Historical Department, employees were encouraged to participate in MHA and the church would provide time off and some modest finacial support for those who wanted to give papers. At some point in the 1980s that stopped. However, at MHA this spring there were lots of historical department employees giving presentations. More interesting, Elder Christofferson of the Seventy was one of the dinner speakers. I take this as a heartening signal.

    I agree that it would be nice to have some Mormon forum that avoids the baggage of Sunstone and some of the extremes of FARMS. Also, I think that FARMS’s subject matter is too narrow. Too much “Ancient Research” and not enough “Mormon Studies.”

    A final thought, it may be that polarization of Mormon forums in the 1990s will prove to have been good for Mormon studies. As working in overtly Mormon forums has become more freighted with political baggage, I think that many of the best Mormon scholars have been trying to mainstream their work in regular academic forums. Such forums have the virtue of being in some sense neutral. An added virtue is that they generally require a greater level fo competence and insight. It is harder to be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond. The hardship encourages quality. I don’t think that this move has been totally made, and I suspect that it never will, since there are lots of topics of interest to Mormons that an academic press, for example, is simply not interested in.

  5. Ben on December 19, 2003 at 12:08 pm

    If Sunstone is changing perhaps it deserves another look. I think that FAIR (www.fairlds.org) is taking a good middle spot. They quote frequently from all sources (FARMS and McConkie, as well as Sunstone, Dialogue and non-LDS scholars). Their conference this summer had good stuff on the priesthood ban, mormon racism, Mountain Meadows, etc. but all from friendly position, that of “members need to be informed about these things so rabid anti’s can’t use them to drive people out of the church…”

  6. Nate on December 19, 2003 at 12:10 pm

    Previous thought incomplete: Still, I think that this is probably the wave of the future of Mormon scholarship…

  7. Kristine on December 19, 2003 at 1:14 pm

    I think Sunstone is valuable largely because it provides a forum for people with axes to grind. It’s dangerous to have people running around with dull axes, after all! People have gripes with the church, as they would in any large institution. Some of those gripes are well-founded and interesting, some are not. But people need to articulate their distress, ride their gospel hobby-horses, etc., and it is good to have a place to do that besides Relief Society and Gospel Doctrine. It’s good to have someone edit your thoughts, at least for grammar and syntax, and it’s good to be able to get letters about one’s essay, or to have someone stop you in the hall at a symposium and say “hey, that was crap,” or “I really liked that and the same thing happened to me.” I don’t necessarily want to read everything in Sunstone, and I’m certainly not going to uncritically accept much of what’s there, but it’s a lot worse to try to have those discussions in Sunday School class. I continue to subscribe (and give to their annual giving campaign when I can) because I think it’s important for Sunstone to exist, even if I’m not as excited as I once was about every issue’s arrival in my mailbox.

    My impression is that Dan is trying to move things a little more to the middle. I don’t know if he’ll be successful–the church is so polarized now that there’s not much in the middle of the road besides a yellow stripe and a lot of dead possums.

    Finally, if you don’t like Sunstone as presently constituted, start writing stuff for them! I strongly suspect that they’re not weeding out very many submissions on ideological grounds; they’re just publishing what they get.

  8. clark on December 19, 2003 at 1:22 pm

    The problem with web resources is referring to them in footnotes. Also without a hard copy they are not “permanent.” That is becoming more and more significant.

    If one has a webzine one *must* also have a hardcopy. (IMO) Perhaps it will have a smaller print run, but it is important for both archives and also to have in libraries where Mormon studies are relevant.

  9. Matt Evans on December 19, 2003 at 1:59 pm

    Clark,

    I think technology will continue to diminish the significance of the hardcopy/digital dichotomy. The editors of National Review raised your concerns when they created National Review Online, but I think Jonah’s argument that articles on NRO will ultimately be much more ‘permanant’ than those on Dead Tree was convincing. As for archives and library access, I believe researchers 20 years from now will depend almost entirely upon digital articles. Associates at law firms already do nearly all of their research online. The only remaining obstacle for strictly-digital publications is a reliable citation format.

  10. Greg on December 19, 2003 at 5:32 pm

    I am interested in Kristine’s remark that “the church is so polarized now . . .”

    Now I don’t know how one could really gauge these things, but it seems to me that the last five years have actually been fairly mellow as compared to, say 83-93. As we’ve talked about, Sunstone is trying to moderate its tone, and to me it seems like Church leaders are doing the same (for example, conference talks on women’s “roles” seem less dogmatic than those given ten years ago). Am I missing something?

  11. Russell Arben Fox on December 19, 2003 at 6:16 pm

    I agree with Greg. Obviously I’m far removed from the Mormon heartland right now, so I’ve no idea if the halls of the JKHB (is it still standing?) or the letters page of the Utah Country Journal (does it still exist?) are still filled with argument and tension. But I don’t get the sense from friends in Utah that church-related controversies are particularly polarizing these days, certainly not in comparison to what I remember. The four years or so (1990-1994, say) of the church’s statement on “alternate voices,” BYU’s crackdown on particpation at Sunstone, the September Six and all those weird vigils, Steve Benson’s antics, the Farr and Knowlton firings, VOICE’s Take Back the Night marches, and the Signature/FARMS smackdown all and all made for a pretty crazy time in Happy Valley.

  12. Dave on December 19, 2003 at 6:19 pm

    These are interesting comments–it has not been evident to me that there is any “thaw,” so I find these remarks encouraging. Problems remain, however.

    First, the Internet broadens the “market” for Mormon Studies from a few thousand Sunstone/Dialog subscribers (I’ve never been one) to anyone who can use the Internet and Google. That is likely to make LDS leaders more sensitive rather than less sensitive to the critical branch of Mormon studies.

    Second, giving FARMS official status as a BYU institute (Pres. Hinckley himself made the announcement, with glowing comments about FARMS) suggests that LDS leaders are giving their stamp of approval to the confrontational FARMS style rather than a more moderate form of dialogue.

    Third, there’s a communication problem if people who would like to know (like me) have to find out encouraging news trading messages on boards rather than through some more legitimate channel. I shouldn’t have to read the Mormon tea leaves to figure out what Church policy is. I read about the (unacknowledged and secretive) operations of the Strengthening the Members committee, see how FARMS carries more influence in the Church, listen to what comes out of Conference, and draw my own conclusions. If there is really anyone at the COB pursuing a moderating course, it needs to be somehow communicated to the general membership through acknowledged, legitimate channels.

  13. Nate on December 19, 2003 at 6:51 pm

    How about Elder Christofferson giving a speech at at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association.

    How about publishing the Joseph Smith papers. On the church website here:

    http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/content/0,15757,4609-1-2335,00.html

    How about making a huge volume of previously inaccessible documents available via DVD. On the church website here:

    http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/archives/0,15481,3940-1-2058,00.html

  14. Russell Arben Fox on December 19, 2003 at 7:00 pm

    Reagrding the Joseph Smith Papers, Nate: I’ll believe it when I see them. I mean, I certainly hope they’ll get published. But as I’ve mentioned before, previous publishing efforts ground to a halt, with no official explanation. It’s been a very frustrating ten years since the church last allowed anything with Smith’s signature on it escape the archives.

  15. Nate on December 19, 2003 at 7:23 pm

    Russell: My understanding is that most of the Church’s corpus of Joseph Smith papers has been released on the DVD. I don’t know what is missing from that collection, although I am sure that there is some stuff. (The Book of the Law of the Lord.) Admittedly, the DVD has scanned graphics of the documents so it is about as user friendly as a filing cabinent of 19th century documents. However, this represents a huge release of documents. I don’t understand why it hasn’t gotten more play. Perhaps I am missing something here…

  16. Kristine on December 19, 2003 at 8:04 pm

    It is hard to gauge such things. My sense is that there’s less controversy because people who were troubled/troubling have left. Among women in my college cohort (I’m 34), I know few who have questions but have stayed active in the church. They’re either feminists and out, or decidedly not feminists–the fence-sitting Exponent II/Sunstone/Dialogue crowd just doesn’t exist. It could be that people who are a little younger and thus missed the early 90s uproar are more content; it could be that the leadership is a little less worried about intellectuals now that they’re more focused on the gay marriage threat. I’ve been busy with kids for a few years, so maybe my sensitivities are a few years out of date.

    Still, I spent this summer at BYU as a research fellow at the Smith Institute, and I have to say that I was amazed at how careful anyone who’s doing anything that could possibly be construed as “feminist” has to be, regardless of how tame their research or conclusions might be.

  17. Clark Goble on December 19, 2003 at 10:00 pm

    I don’t have time to add much yet. I’d just say that the problem with electronic vs. hardcopy is when a company loses its web site. With large companies/trusts like National Review this is not a big issue. However with smaller more volatile companies that is a bigger trust. Consider, for instance, a certain unnamed but large ezine on the net that has had considerable financial troubles. If it goes banckrupt and the servers are sold off, what happens to the data? If I refer to it in an article, how can those reading my article ten years from now fact check me? And those who’ve been in LDS studies for long realize that checking footnotes is paramount. Often the sources referenced are not read quite the way they ought to be. (And unfortunately there seems to be a direct relationship between the number of footnotes and the number of poor references)

  18. Matt Grow on December 20, 2003 at 11:07 am

    Dave: The take-over of FARMS by BYU can be seen as part of the moderating trend in the Church–I think it’s partly an attempt by the Church to control FARMS and will result in a much less confrontational style by FARMS (as the FARMS people themselves well know).

    Russell: Last year at the Mormon History Association meeting, Ron Esplin and others involved with the Joseph Smith Papers Project laid out their plans for publishing the rest of the Smith corpus. By the standards of similar documentary editing projects, they have a very ambitious agenda, with the resources and support from the Church to make it happen. (I’m biased, as I worked on the papers project last summer.) And a revised edition of Joseph Smith’s Personal Writings came out in 2002. So I think there’s good reason to be positive about the publication of Joseph’s writings.

    Also, one more example of a “thaw”–I’ve heard that search committees for hiring professors at BYU are now concerned more with what you have published rather than where you have published (i.e., publishing in Dialogue or Sunstone no longer necessarily marks you as undesirable).

  19. clark on December 20, 2003 at 3:42 pm

    I’m not sure BYU’s takeover of FARMS has made for a kindler gentler FARMS. I’m not quite sure how to take the ouster of the guy who was more or less in charge of FARMS this year. (I forget his name unfortunately) We’ll see what happens.

    I actually think FARMS is very valuable and think that the problematic papers are in the distinct minority there. Further, even a lot of the controversial papers often are a result of connotations perhaps not intended by the author. I had a discussion with someone regarding a paper utilizing Tillich where it became apparent that my reading of it perhaps entailed too much negative connotation. I think this was, perhaps, inevitable given the way the paper was written. But this says more about the context FARMS has found itself in the last 10 years than perhaps the papers themselves.

  20. Amy Petmecky on June 21, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    I believe the Sunstone website is great!

  21. Ethesis (Stephen M) on October 31, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Russell: My understanding is that most of the Church’s corpus of Joseph Smith papers has been released on the DVD. I don’t know what is missing from that collection, although I am sure that there is some stuff. (The Book of the Law of the Lord.) Admittedly, the DVD has scanned graphics of the documents so it is about as user friendly as a filing cabinent of 19th century documents. However, this represents a huge release of documents. I don’t understand why it hasn’t gotten more play. Perhaps I am missing something here…

    Err, did you see the price. That is an HDTV for each DVD. Given that the price to duplicate a DVD runs about $.50 ….

    ’m not quite sure how to take the ouster of the guy who was more or less in charge of FARMS this year. — they got rid of Welch & Norton?

    I’d like to hear the story — or a link to it.

  22. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 6, 2004 at 4:46 am

    Came back when I saw comments — I’m up getting some cold medicine and letting it take effect — and hoped someone was responding with a link to the questions I had.

    Just spam.

  23. Anonymous on December 16, 2004 at 2:22 am
  24. Kevin Winters on December 16, 2004 at 2:44 am

    On FARMS’ focus on Ancient Research as opposed to Mormon Studies, I think the focus comes from its generally (or at least foundationally) apologetic bent–in apologetics the historicity of the Book of Mormon (or the Pearl of Great Price) generally gets more air than do issues such as polygamy or Mountain Meadows (or at least the arguments are more prominent on the former than the latter). Also, I imagine the interests of those who frequent and write for FARMS are more in line with ancient studies, so it’s natural that they publish more in that area of study. But, as someone else said with Sunstone, I’m sure FARMS wouldn’t mind more “Mormon Studies” work if you want to write them. :o)

  25. Kevin Winters on December 16, 2004 at 2:46 am

    Oh, and a note on Dan Wotherespoon–I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with him on a number of occasions and I will concur with others’ feelings that he is genuinely trying to ‘salvage’ Sunstone. I can say that he is actively trying to recruit more ‘faithful’ LDS who are not pushing an agenda but who simply want to put out good work on Mormon studies; that appears to be one of his goals.

  26. Rob Briggs on December 16, 2004 at 3:48 am

    Since this thread mentioned “polarization,” maybe this is the place to note the mini-firestorm over Grant Palmer’s disciplinary council & his disfellowshipping. Signature Books released a press release which was picked up by AP. The LA Times carried stories both before and after the DC, as I’m sure many other media outlets did. Palmer’s “Insider’s View of Mormon Origins,” which had been around #450 or so on the Amazon chart, climbed as high as about #175 and has now settled back at around #325, all courtesy of the free (and ill-advised?) publicity.

    Some Mormon forums have had particularly divisive exchanges over “the Palmer Affair.”

  27. Vanel on February 19, 2005 at 11:39 am

    I love sunstone. It’s “liberal” but not apostate. When I read Sunstone and Dialogue, I don’t feel bad being Mormon and French at the same time.

  28. annegb on February 19, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    welcome, Vanel.

  29. Sheri Lynn on February 27, 2005 at 10:22 pm

    The issue I saw did not strike me as helping to improve the Saints, proclaim the Gospel, or save our dead. Help me here. I do a lot of stuff that doesn’t promote those goals but I try to stay away from stuff that is counterproductive, and I sure don’t want to pay good MONEY to flirt with apostasy. Apostacy? No, Apostasy.

  30. Kaimi on February 27, 2005 at 11:43 pm

    Flirting with apostasy isn’t so bad, as long as you’re not making out on the first date.

    “You know, apostasy, have I ever told you how pretty your eyes are?” . . .

  31. annegb on February 28, 2005 at 10:29 am

    Kaimi, who knew you had a sense of humor?

  32. Arturo Toscanini on February 28, 2005 at 10:34 am

    annegb, he doesn’t. I think he’s serious.

  33. Sheri Lynn on February 28, 2005 at 9:35 pm

    Kaimi is a he?

    –SISTER Sheri Lynn (maybe we all need to clarify a few things….!)

  34. Arturo Toscanini on February 28, 2005 at 9:43 pm

    Yes. It’s true. Kaimi’s a he. Check it out his intro. Eat your heart out, bloggernacle bachelors.

  35. annegb on February 28, 2005 at 9:46 pm

    I thought Arwyn was a man, but somebody told me Kaimi was a guy. Maybe I read the thing about him. LOL We could all be mixed up. You made me laugh.

  36. Kaimi on February 28, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    Sheri,

    Yes, I’m a he. Also, my first name (the shortened version I use in general) gets a tri-syllabic pronunciation, as discussed here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=1495 . (This pronuciation despite the best attempts of many, including one Nate Oman, to redefine the pronunciation rules of the Hawaiian language.)

    We have four female permabloggers. They are Kristine, Melissa, Rosalynde, and Julie. (But even that list overstates the possibilities for those bloggernacle bachelors about whom Arturo is concerned, since all but Melissa are currently married with children). We also have eleven male permabloggers, including myself; bloggernacle bachelorettes will want to focus any attention on our token unmarried male blogger, Ben H.

    Annegb,

    Arwyn a guy? You’re clearly not a Tolkein geek. Back to Fellowship of the Ring for you! Don’t come back until you have a doormat that says “Speak Friend and Enter” and you work “my preciouss, my preciousss” and “you shall not pass” into conversations at random points.

    :P

  37. Sheri Lynn on February 28, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    This is terrible. Terrible. And I’m so sorry! Kaimi, I can’t have any more kids, but I found myself thinking that if I COULD have another daughter, Kaimi would be such a lovely name.

    (My youngest daughter’s middle name is Dallin for Dallin Oakes, so…..)

    (nevermind, I think maybe I ought to go to bed.)

    I’m so sorry!!!!

    (but not sorry I won’t have THREE girls sharing one bedroom….oy!)

  38. Sheri Lynn on February 28, 2005 at 10:11 pm

    Oh, and annegb, http://www.lordofthepeeps.com/ is absolutely the BEST way to get to know the Lord of the Ring series. Forget the books and that noisy long trilogy of films. :-D

    (Gosh, I love that website so!)

  39. Arturo Toscanini on February 28, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    As far as my heart going out to the bloggernacle bachelors, Kaimi, it has to. The only alternative was is to start talking SSM.

  40. annegb on February 28, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    Kaimi, you have a beautiful name. I’m sorry, but I’m busting a gut over this. Maybe we should call ourselves Brother or Sister or something.

    How do you pronounce that anyway?

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