Here is the next installment of insightful responses from Professor Philip Barlow. Thank you, Phil for participating in our 12 questions series!
7. How do your professional colleagues view your interest in Mormon Studies? Do they see it as a legitimate scholarly interest, or do they see it as weird and peripheral?
I don’t know much of what people say outside of my hearing, of course. I do know that my religious background made me something of a sensation on campus during my first year at Hanover College, a school with historical Presbyterian connections; there was a buzz about the College’s unprecedented appointment of a Mormon to the Department of Theological Studies. The search committee, of course, had explored the issue thoroughly, the more so because I did my dissertation on a Mormon topic. The buzz settled down within six months of my being here, as people got to know me and my family. These days, even new faculty members often indicate awareness of my Mormon attachment, as do some students, so it seems clear that that information circulates. I learned after the fact that a trustee of the College—an influential Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis—had argued forcefully against awarding tenure to a Mormon whose scholarship substantively entails Mormonism. And, more broadly, I am sure that there is some condescension around and about. Richard Bushman said once that the folks who hired him at Columbia later told him that they found his credentials so strong on other grounds that they decided his Mormon orientation and interests “didn’t matter.” And Jan Shipps tells me that a colleague congratulated her in the 1980s about the favorable reception of her book on Mormonism, then asked her when she was going to move on to a more serious topic.
But in general it seems that people respect the work and recognize that Mormonism represents an increasingly significant culture that is worthy of study. Perhaps in my case it helps that I write on other topics as often as I write on Mormonism; this may offer others some perspective on what I do. In any event, I have encountered only warm and supportive responses when I have sought financial support for research on Mormon topics, whether locally at Hanover College or through national funds and endowments. Invitations to speak both on campus and around the nation come as readily for Mormon subjects as for other concerns. When the study of Mormonism is not addressed parochially, but approached in relation to questions that should be of interest to students of religion and culture and to humans generally, the topic rightly commands increasing respect.
8. I’m concerned that young LDS students who now have the ability to easily access information like the “New Mormon History” will become completely disillusioned with the Church. How can we as parents and adult leaders incorporate the New Mormon History with Church-sponsored lessons to create an environment of thoughtful discussion and learning? Is this even possible given the climate in the Church? What would you recommend in terms of church curriculum given the recent New Mormon History scholarship?
That is a good cluster of questions. I don’t have easy answers for them. As you suggest, it may in our current climate not be possible to promote a thoughtful environment in most wards, though I find there are privately thoughtful individuals most everywhere. The Institute system in the Church has also moved further away from such an environment than once it was.
I try to remember with as generous a spirit as I can muster that for most people the implied purpose of (for instance) our Sunday Schools is a reaffirmation of faith and bonding in Zion—a workshop for love, which is crucial. This need not be, but these days generally is, construed in our classes as a series of semi-rhetorical or fill-in-the-blank questions yielding a kind of scripted discussion calculated to reaffirm testimony and what we think we already know. When more authentic questions are posed, they often come from places of misplaced zeal and ill-informed esoterica that lead into bizarre, so-called “mysteries.” I suppose that the need to combat this is one reason we have over-reacted with such tepid, correlated fare in our manuals and habits of discourse.
I suppose one key to our doing better is a thoughtful, prayerful bishop inclined to call (or to hear suggestions to call) a thoughtful, prayerful, and informed teacher who has the gentle strength to direct a more substantive discussion without letting it enter unfruitful cul-de-sacs or wild tangents. Maybe a group of Saints known to be faithful rather than rabble-rousing could ask to visit with the Bishop with your series of questions as the agenda. The Bishop may not know what the New Mormon History is, and at least in our present circumstances I am not sure that is necessary. But such a group plausibly could nonetheless have an authentic discussion about what ought to comprise a good Sunday School class, designed to promote a thoughtful faith.
Our God, if worthy of our worship, is a God of truthâ€”who thus, I believe, encourages our pursuit of truth. God chastened Job not because he questioned, but because (behind his angry rhetorical questions) he accused God. And yet God ranked Job above his friends who failed to question. They were sure—and they were wrong—that they already knew the truth. So it isn’t authentic inquiry as such that tends toward the erosion of faith. Without faithful inquiry, spiritual growth is not possible. Indeed, faith by itself, although necessary, is not necessarily good. Terrorists who fly jets into tall buildings full of innocent people have deep faith. What is required for mature spiritual health, however, is a thoughtful and even self-critical faith, which includes faithful inquiry.
I know of no way to encourage this in our wards in our current climate beyond modeling, all the while making our faithfulness, tolerance, and love transparent, our service devout and genuine. Perhaps talking with the Bishop about good classes. Being willing to serve where, in good conscience, you can. Asking good questions in class to try to seed the conversation may also be good, but in most wards the conversation is not likely to catch wind unless a good teacher is directing things.
I was sorry to see that one reader/participant in Times&Seasons mistakenly (in my view) posited Lowell Bennion’s writings as overrated. Bennion’s profound mind tended to transcend complexity to achieve simplicity (as opposed to being simplistic). His think books offered an entire generation of (especially college-age) Saints an avenue to authentic religion and spirituality when their alternatives seemed either a mindless faith or a departure from the church. Many of these thin books—such as The Things That Matter Most, I Believe, The Unknown Testament, The Book of Mormon—a Guide for Christian Living—would themselves be superior manuals for study in our classes. (And the idea is not preposterous; Bennion was the most prolific author of Church manuals from the 1930s through the 1960s.) These are not cutting works of scholarship; they are simple and profound meditations, summaries, and questions that provide a path for a more fruitful public LDS pursuit of God and good.
Bennion was also a simple (again, not simplistic) teacher. I used to drive from Bountiful to Salt Lake City once a month to attend his Sunday School class. His idea of a good Sunday School or Institute lesson was “one ideaâ€”unpacked, exemplified, explored.” He thus abhorred the tendency of later, correlated manuals whose thrust was to move serially through the scriptures, several chapters at a time.
I doubt that in our current climate we can expect Church interest in a direct study of the New Mormon History. Perhaps our goal should be an encouragement of the local appointment of judicious, faithful, loving teachers who are themselves informed by thorough scriptural study and such things as the New Mormon History and can draw on these in the framing and discussing of single questions each Sunday that might foster genuine spiritual exploration and edification.
9. If I remember aright, a footnote in Mormons and the Bible discusses the rare instances when Mormon biblical, or related, scholarship was praised/well-respected/taken seriously as scholarship and not overt apologetics. In your view, how are things looking these days for rigorous biblical scholarship by Latter-day Saints?
I devoted an entire chapter (chapter 4) to a consideration of the Mormon response to “Higher Criticism,” so you could take another look at that if you cared for a more ample response than time allows here. Among the case studies I considered there was William H. Chamberlin, an example of a faithful Saint who in the early 20th century embraced critical tools in his teaching and writing about scripture. On the one hand, he was run out of the Church Education System. On the other hand, President McKay thought that fact a tragedy and wrote that we ought to have embraced him and treasured his knowledge and faith. Chamberlin was also later invited to return and teach within the System, but not, alas, until his health and resources had run down. I mentioned in response to an earlier question that some teachers at BYU are launched upon a project whose end product is to be a multi-volume commentary on the Bible and who aspire at least to be informed by modern critical tools. I can see a dozen ways that this enterprise could go awry, but it sounds like the most ambitious effort I am aware of to date in Church-sponsored circles.
But in general not too much has changed; few Latter-day Saints are interested in serious biblical scholarship. That is of course a basic problem for thoughtful believers; we would do better as a people to understand more of these matters. And yet an uncritical, unambiguous embrace of the methods of the secular academy can be problematic, both logically and spiritually, just as an uncritical embrace of all the rationalist assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers seem a problem from the vantage of the 21st century. For more on this, see #6 above.
10. What are some research projects you would like to see taken up by Mormon scholars in the near future?
We might do well to parse the term “Mormon scholars”: there are Mormon scholars and there are scholars of Mormonism, Mormon and otherwise. It may be that the finest art our people achieve will be rendered by those informed by their Mormon spirituality and sensibilities as they deal with themes of universal importance, rather than by those who focus exclusively on explicitly Mormon images, figures, and concepts.
Similarly, it is plausible that our most profound scholarship may emerge from Saints informed by a Mormon consciousness and spiritual questing, not necessarily from Saints treating an overtly Mormon topic. For example, is there something in the journal-conscious Mormon background of Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard historian Laurel Ulrich that contributed to her illuminating an entire culture through a tale teased from an old midwife’s diary? Is there something in her quilt-conscious Mormon genes that enabled her to do similarly by attention to quilts and the history of material culture?
Another idea: no Mormon scholar that I am aware of has done for another religious tradition what Perry Miller did for the Puritans or Jan Shipps has done for Mormon studiesâ€”revolutionizing a field by looking intently through sympathetic but critical eyes at an understudied religious culture apart from one’s own.
As for topics focusing on Mormonism itself, I spoke on matters that include this at last October’s conference at Claremont on positioning Mormon Studies in relation to Religious Studies and American Religious History. As there are people working on the possibility of publishing the papers, I shouldn’t undercut this effort by going into detail here. But an example is the need to de-parochialize the study of Mormonism, to work at placing it in wider contexts than typically occur. Another is to pursue topics of universal importance in their Mormon iterations. Combining these two principles, I am working on a series of case studies (one of which is Mormonism) on religion and the concept of “time.” Another project I am pursuing, though I am not sure how and whether it will deeply intersect with Mormonism, is religion and “silence.”
11. Has the emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon in the last twenty years resulted in a weakness in knowing the Bible, and thus undermined our understanding of all scripture?
I do think there is something to this. It is one of the reasons why I believe scholars are missing something elemental when they fail to grasp the importance, much less the nature, of the complex historical relationship of the Latter-day Saints with the Bible. I personally allow room for the notion/experience of inspiration and revelation. But the other LDS scriptures are more complexly related to and based on the Bible than the Saints (and most even of their scholars) are conscious of. To be further removed from a deep understanding of the Bible is to be more superficial in understanding other Mormon sacred texts, even if one has virtually memorized them.
12. What advice would you give to LDS graduate students in the field of Religious, Biblical or Ancient Near Eastern Studies?
I have been impressed and blessed to correspond with and even to get to know a number of such students pursuing advanced studies currently at some of the best institutions in the country. It is moving and exciting to sense their talent, ambition, thoughtfulness, and hopes. They are capable of giving me good advice too. But in response to the questions, here are a few personal points and a professional one.
First: give yourself some psychological, emotional, spiritual, and even temporal space to enjoy what you are doing and to enjoy the fact that you are doing it. You need not be self-congratulatory (in the spiritually eroded sense) to remember to take joy in the adventure that you have chosen. It takes a measure of courage, curiosity, faith, openness, and disciplined wonder to embark as you have. It entails the capacity to tolerate ambiguity and irony. Like most growth, it entails sustained hard work. But if you quit enjoying it, including the difficult challenges and even some of the pain, you are off-track in some way, and might consider backing off for a time. If you choose to respond well, what you are doing is a good thing for its own sake, even if you later decide to become a banker or a farmer. Because of this experience, your consciousness will change; your inner life will change. You will approach life differently. You will, then, be a different, and potentially better, person. This is all worthwhile irrespective of unfolds for your professionally.
Second: stay humble. In church settings, you are going to spend the rest of your life understanding some problems, facts, and concepts that are invisible to the faithful around you. With restraint, care, wisdom, modesty, and love, you may be able at points to draw on some of this understanding constructively to enliven your own mind and spirit and/or the minds and spirits of those about you. You may be tempted to think yourself superior when in conversation, church classes, and worship, as academics are tempted to do whenever they engage in subjects in which they have training. Remember that God’s Project entails an invitation to the divine, which leaves little room for preening, artifice, self-promotion, inert or arrogant intellectualism, or one-upsmanship. Understand that you are always surrounded by people, even when they appear simple, who are better at some things than you areâ€”often without conceit. Some of them are expert at fixing the engine of your car, at removing your tonsils, at growing or preparing food, at making music; in none of their superiorities is aloofness or condescension appealing, admirable, or helpful. Some Saints with whom you attend church or among whom you live are expert at disciplined, courageus, intelligent (or naive) loving, which generally matters more than whatever academic perspectives you bring.
Third: seek out good conversation partners and role models, including some LDS ones, with whom to stay in regular contact as you progress in your studies. No matter how smart and well-grounded you are, this is wise. It is easy to get lost in your unusually complex terrain. Cultivate, share, and exchange with some one or two friends who are working in this realmâ€”or with a small group that gets together regularlyâ€”concerning your delights and insights and struggles and doubts. There is now a critical mass of you doing what you are doingâ€”a privileged circumstance unavailable to any who preceded you.
Fourth: do not forsake the wisdom of the 13th article of Faith. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, we seek after these thingsâ€”they are a part of our religion, whatever their immediate source. We have good things to offer the world; we have good things to learn from the world.
Fifth: do appreciate, but do not be overawed by, brilliance in your colleagues and teachers. The form of intelligence that lends itself to genuine scholarly accomplishment is rare and wondrous in the general population. It is not so rare in the academy. Brilliance and learning are treasures; they are wrongly disdained by those who sneer at and with the epithet of “intellectuals.” But brilliance and intellectual accomplishment are also not adequate compensation for lack of wisdom and character and loss of God. Moreover, the correlation between brilliance and goodness, or between brilliance and mental and spiritual health, is not obvious to me.
Sixth: do not overestimate the rise in the academic interest in Mormonism by anticipating a burgeoning of positions in Mormon Studies at non-Mormon colleges and universities. As I noted in Question #3, the prospect of endowed chairs for accomplished scholars at major universities is a significant development for Mormonism and in the study of religion. But it is not at all clear to me that such positions will multiply. Unless you are hoping to teach at BYU and have reason to believe that BYU has interest in recruiting you, plan your studies around your passions as though you were going to work in the wider world of religious, biblical, or Ancient Near Eastern studies. You are probably better off doing that either permanently or for a portion of your career anyway. Your interest in Mormon studies will maintain itself simply because you are Mormon; you need to establish strong competences in other arenas, both for their own sakes and because you will make better contributions to the study of Mormonism if you do this. In most instances, that means a Mormon should find a dissertation that focuses elsewhere than on Mormonism, or at least makes Mormonism a case study in a wider arena. Exceptions exist, but that is my general advice.
Well, I hope I have not gone on excessively. Again, thank you for having me.