Mormon Studies Moves Up a Notch

October 30, 2007 | 60 comments
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Today’s LA Times has a longish article on the recent official announcement of Richard Bushman as the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies, in the School of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. [There is also a story at the Salt Lake Tribune.] The appointment as a visiting professor is an interim post until the endowed chair is fully funded. The article makes some interesting comments.

The article states that Bushman “gained national attention as a media commentator about Mormonism’s role in American life and the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon too.” I suppose becoming a “media commentator” is the pinnacle of success from a journalist’s perspective, but if they want media commentators, those who occupy chairs of Mormon Studies or who run such programs are certainly preferred to most other candidates. Just last week I heard Bushman give a talk where he discussed the new program and his hope that it would open up a new opportunity for “conversation” between Mormonism and other denominations and faiths, a conversation oriented toward increasing understanding rather than toward proselytization or apologetics (how such interaction often occurred in the past).

Bushman is thinking primarily in terms of a scholarly conversation, but I think there are other conversations that will benefit as well. One is the discussion with the media, which, in Mormon Studies programs at Claremont and elsewhere, now has a new source to go to for responsible commentary on stories related to Mormon issues. Another is a conversation within the LDS Church itself, as scholars at BYU and CES will read the proceedings of and no doubt participate in symposia and other projects sponsored by these new Mormon Studies programs that bring a wider range of religious scholarship into the discussion.

Congratulations to both Professor Bushman and to Claremont and the sponsoring Council for Mormon Studies for creating what should be a successful and productive program.

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60 Responses to Mormon Studies Moves Up a Notch

  1. Julie M. Smith on October 30, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    “a conversation oriented toward increasing understanding rather than toward proselytization or apologetics”

    The most noteworthy aspect of “On the Road with Joseph Smith” was, to me, Bushman’s extreme disappointment that non-LDS didn’t take his account seriously. (That is, reviews of the book tended to either start with the assumption or argue the case that JS was a fraud instead of engaging the book on its own terms.)

    So: I see in that quote above a similar expectation for the chair (increased understanding) as he had for RSR. And I just don’t see it happening. Non-LDS can’t approach JS the way they can Napoleon or whomever. They can’t encounter the story (either the JS story in particular or the Mormon story in general) without rendering a verdict on it: either it is historically accurate and it’s time to sign up to help with the roadshow or it isn’t historically accurate [in which case the author is delusional] and _that_ is the single most important response one can make to RSR or any work Bushman would do as chair. Lest this seem unfair, I’d encourage any of you to imagine reading a colleague’s work and realizing as you go that the author believes in [insert some crazy, nonsensical fringe theory from your field: Lamarkian genetics, US gov't causing 9/11, inherent racial superiority, the Constitution written by Martians, whatever] and then ask yourself what your book review would look like: Would you engage the work on its own terms or would you point out that the author was one taco short of a combination plate?

    I realize there are exceptions such as Jan Shipps. But there are no exceptions (did I forget anyone?) dealing with LDS scripture in the same way that there are biblical studies profs who are not believers.

    I do think this chair is a great thing. It is likely that the biggest impact will be on media. But I don’t see students or other academics approaching the Church in this sort of non-judgmental way that Bushman desires, according to what you quote. Dare I resurrect that once-common Mormon phrase about evidence that demands a verdict?

  2. David Clark on October 30, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Julie hit the nail on the head. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    Bart Ehrman summed this up very well. In a debate where he was debating the question, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus” he said this:

    Well, that presupposes a belief in God. Historians can’t presuppose belief in God. Historians can
    only work with what we’ve got here among us. People who are historians can be of any
    theological persuasion. They can be Buddhists, they can be Hindus, they can be Muslims, they
    can be Christians, they can be Jews, they can be agnostics, they can be atheists, and the theory
    behind the canons in historical research is that people of every persuasion can look at the
    evidence and draw the same conclusions. But Bill’s hypothesis requires a person to believe in
    God. I don’t object to that as a way of thinking. I object to that as a way of historical thinking,
    because it’s not history, it’s theology.

    The entire transcript of the debate (against William Lane Craig) is here. The original subject is different but deals with divine intervention so is entirely applicable here. The bottom line is that if you want historians to engage the JS story as historians then you have to let them act like historians and not expect them to engage the JS story as believing Mormons. If you expect anything else you are bound to be disappointed.

    If Mormons were to write about Mormonism from a theological and/or philosophical perspective there it would be much more likely that non-Mormons would engage the JS story on our terms because the rules of philosophy and theology are different than history. Ironically, Mormons don’t do much of either of those, but do plenty of history. Go figure.

  3. Adam S. on October 30, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Julie,

    Your comment seems a little defeatist to me. I agree that the it may be difficult at first to expect non-lds to seriously engage in JS’s history, but I believe it can happen. There are plenty of people who take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously without actually believing the truth claims of Christians. Similar respect is granted to many historical religious figures. One way we (as Mormons in general) can help is to change our language when discussing the church. I think we as a people have so dominantly put forward the view you summarize as:
    “either it is historically accurate and it’s time to sign up to help with the roadshow or it isn’t historically accurate [in which case the author is delusional]” that we’ve closed the doors to respect sans belief. In other words, I think Mormons are the ones who have forced the true/untrue paradigm in popular discussion.

  4. Ben H on October 30, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Julie, I agree you have hit the nail on the head, as to what the big question is, anyway. But I disagree with your pessimism. I have seen a different kind of conversation, a conversation without the compulsive pre-judgment you describe, happening consistently at SMPT, in much of the conversation at the Library of Congress conference, and in flickers at least elsewhere. I think a lot of the burden, though, falls on Mormons. Mormons have a hard time approaching conversations with others without trying to proselyte. We thus often set the tone of the conversation, or put off someone who really is interested in understanding. Until we do a better job of approaching others with a goal of understanding, I don’t think we can expect them to do any better. We need people like Bushman to set the example.

    (Oh, I see Adam makes this point too)

  5. David Clark on October 30, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    There are plenty of people who take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously without actually believing the truth claims of Christians. Yes, they take him seriously, but most believing Mormons would be pretty appalled at the historical Jesus that comes out of these inquiries. Much like they are appalled at the average history of JS written by non-LDS. At a certain level people are engaging Mormons in a scholarly way, we just tend to not like it. Dan Vogel and the Jesus Seminar do the same things, the subject matter is different.

  6. Dave on October 30, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    David (#5), if that’s the case then I’m sure critics of Mormonism who make their criticisms “in a scholarly way” will be pleased with the emergence of these programs. Vogel may write “in a scholarly way” but he is hardly presuppositionless, which you seem (in #2) to be holding out as the prerequisite for being a true historian. But there aren’t any presuppositionless historians. Being open to new ideas and evidence, considering ideas and evidence opposed to one’s own and acknowledging them when writing, and disclosing one’s own biases are the best we can manage. And that’s what defines scholarly exchange at its best, not some mythical presuppositionless history.

  7. Kaimi Wenger on October 30, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    I think that the case for Bushman being unscholarly is overstated.

    Bushman doesn’t come out and say, “there were angels and revelations and God speaking to Joseph Smith.” Rather, his basic approach consists in taking Joseph seriously.

    Bushman basically writes, “Joseph said an angel spoke to him about gold plates.” And then, he discusses events — Joseph went to such and such a place, made such and such a claim, and so on. On the reality of the angel, Bushman takes a basically agnostic approach as a writer. He’s not reporting that there were angels; he’s merely avoiding the rejoinder, “of course, there’s no such thing as angels.” (Really, Shipps often takes the same respecting-Joseph tack, and she’s not considered so non-scholarly.)

    It’s a little weird that this approach is so unacceptable. Instead, Bushman is expected to speculate and engage in armchair psychology like Vogel. “Joseph said he saw an angel. This was clearly the product of his strained relationship with his father.”

    I mean, Vogel is great as a researcher, and has some interesting ideas. Still, it strikes me as a little strange to consider Bushman’s “Joseph claimed X” approach to be biased or unscholarly, while Vogel’s “tell me about your mother” is held up as some sort of scholarly ideal.

    To use Shipps terminology, Bushman readily admits the prophet puzzle, and largely leaves it at that. His own personal solution for the puzzle (involving belief in the supernatural) is not brought directly into the book. Meanwhile, Vogel explicitly sets out to solve the prophet puzzle (through psychological explanations).

    Which raises the question — is a good historian allowed to simply note the puzzle without attempting to put forward a solution to it? Is a speculative solution like Vogel’s more scholarly than no suggested solution?

  8. Julie M. Smith on October 30, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    I would never call Bushman unscholarly. But I think, Kaimi, that as a believer yourself, you may not see the problem that “Joseph said an angel . . .” [followed by 300 pages of detail] presents to the nonbeliever. If a review copy crosses your desk beginning “Then the Martians told the Founding Fathers what to write . . .” followed by 300 pages of what the Founders did next, what would your review of that book look like?

    I accept the defeatist label. I also accept that to some extent this is our fault. I’d like to be shown to be wrong about my position, and maybe if Ben H. writes a little more about what he’s seen, I can be convinced.

  9. Kaimi Wenger on October 30, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    I don’t know, Julie. I think that one could write a perfectly well-accepted scholarly bio of various religious figures without delving into psycho-biographical speculation. If writing about Aquinas, or Mother Theresa, or whoever, it would be fine to say, “he decided to become a priest because of an important personal, mystical/religious experience,” and just leave it at that — right?

  10. Julie M. Smith on October 30, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Kaimi, I agree with you that psycho-bio speculation is not necessary (or usually helpful). At the same time, I think that almost all readers will have to weigh:

    (1) the validity of Teresa’s visionary experience as they decide whether she was deluded or inspired in order to evaluate the rest of her actions. Of course, deciding she was inspired creates no burden on the reader–it doesn’t mean that *you* have to move to Calcutta. There is, obviously, a much greater burden if one decides that JS was inspired.
    (2) whether the author believes in the validity of the experience. If she does–and you don’t–you can’t rely on the author in the same way that you could otherwise.

    A more serious response to your position is this: the example you gave is what we might call straight history–no theology. My understanding is that the new chair isn’t meant to be a Mormon History spot (although the selection of Bushman does push it in that direction more than, say, Philip Barlow would have) but a Mormon Studies spot. It is almost impossible for me to imagine an article on, say, Hebrew poetry in 2 Nephi getting an objective read from a non-LDS audience. How can there be Hebrew poetry in 2 Nephi unless the entire story of the Restoration is true? In which case . . .

  11. Ardis Parshall on October 30, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    I want to say that Kaimi is right and Julie is wrong. We (Mormon and non-Mormon) *should* be able to tackle Mormon history seriously regardless of whether we accept the supernatural — when the path Julie describes leads to, say, Vogel arriving at conclusions that are as false as I am certain they are, the bankruptcy of that path ought to be obvious.

    But in practice I’m afraid it works pretty much as Julie has described

    I don’t know how Bushman (and the breed of apologists who participate in FAIR or FARMS, or anyone else who engages nonbelievers so directly) have the stamina to go to work in the morning. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s hopeless and I’m not willing even to try except on the smallest of scales.

    That’s probably why I save Mormon history for Mormon venues, or, in the case of something like the Mormon History Association, a venue where the groundrules allow for a Mormon frame of reference whether or not all participants accept that frame as I do. Otherwise, when I do something for the newspaper or the Utah War sesquicentennial bunch or some other extra-Mormon audience, I stay as solidly as possible in Utah or American history, where Mormons may be characters and the Mormon worldview may be referenced but is not in the least taken for granted.

    The exception is when I work for non-Mormon clients who need explanations of Mormonism. In that case, I can cheerfully and effectively serve as an English/Mormonish interpreter, with the understanding that the non-Mormon may be puzzled or disapproving, even amused, but can never be contemptuous if he expects me to continue in his service.

    Bushman doesn’t have that luxury, and his isn’t going to be an easy project for that reason among others.

  12. Ardis Parshall on October 30, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    whether the author believes in the validity of the experience. If she does–and you don’t–you can’t rely on the author in the same way that you could otherwise.

    I would modify this a bit. It isn’t that the author is unreliable, it’s that you have to engage the author’s work in a somewhat different way, just as you have to do with any kind of partisanship. It’s been a long time since anyone pretended that an author in any subject could be purely objective.

  13. Julie M. Smith on October 30, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    I like your clarification, Ardis. I think the real issue here is this: belief in a missionary-minded religion such as ours creates a sense of obligation in many of its adherents to put on the happy shiny face in public when discussing our history (or anything else). I don’t think Bushman did that in RSR, but I can see how a non-LDS scholar might come across, say, “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect” and then wonder to what extent s/he can trust the writings of a believing LDS not to whitewash.

  14. David Clark on October 30, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    #6: But there aren’t any presuppositionless historians. That’s a straw man argument, which I never claimed, and neither did Ehrman. But there are certain minimal ground rules as to what is acceptable and what it not. Scholars have decided that invoking God in just about ANY field is simply not allowed in scholarly discourse. That’s not a presupposition, it’s simply how the game is played. When someone starts a story by saying, “I saw God” it simply strikes most people as silly. I really do recommend the debate, even if you think both sides are full of it, it is a good demonstration of what any Mormon Studies program is up against.

  15. Jared on October 30, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    It seems to me that no matter how LDS try to interact with “others” we will always be in a position of explaining and/or testifying about the fact the heavens were opened to a boy prophet-Joseph Smith.

    There is no way I have found to get around the fact that I “reek” with testimony.

    Jared

  16. SmallAxe on October 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    When someone starts a story by saying, “I saw God” it simply strikes most people as silly. I really do recommend the debate, even if you think both sides are full of it, it is a good demonstration of what any Mormon Studies program is up against.

    Is there really anything that Mormon Studies is up against that Religious Studies in general isn’t?

  17. Julie M. Smith on October 30, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    SmallAxe, I think the answer is ‘yes.’ Belief in the basic story of Christianity does not obligate one to a certain path in the same way that belief in the basic story of Mormonism does. One can believe the basic story of the OT and turn out to be an Orthodox Jew, a Reform Jew, a Unitarian, a fundamentalist Christian, a Methodist, or a Mormon. Belief in the basic story of the Restoration gives you exactly one option.

  18. David Clark on October 30, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Is there really anything that Mormon Studies is up against that Religious Studies in general isn’t? Yes, especially if the person in the Mormon Studies program is a Mormon. Both believers and non-believers may end up shooting at you and you may find that you have exactly zero allies. Nevertheless, my hat is off to those who try and make it work.

  19. Adam S. on October 30, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Isn’t the point of scholarship to approach a problem carefully and analytically? Why must we insist that non-lds scholars accept the axioms of practicing Mormons? The whole point is to generate fresh views and insight. It’s impossible for outsiders to approach our faith the same way we do, and we shouldn’t ask them to. All we can insist on is respect. We should not feel threatened that scholars not believe JS saw an angel, as long as they respect the fact the he and the members of the church believe it.

  20. SmallAxe on October 30, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Julie,

    I’m not sure how that relates if the question is approached from the aspect of “how does one deal with claims of supernatural experience”. People have made these types of claims in all types of traditions for who knows how long. Mormon Studies isn’t unique in facing these questions. This issue is faced by anyone studying a “religious” tradition.

    David,

    Doesn’t the same hold true for believing Christians in Christian Studies, believing Buddhists in Buddhist Studies, believing Hindus in Hindu Studies, etc.? I don’t see how Mormon Studies is unique in this respect.

  21. David Clark on October 30, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Doesn’t the same hold true for believing Christians in Christian Studies, believing Buddhists in Buddhist Studies, believing Hindus in Hindu Studies, etc.? I don’t see how Mormon Studies is unique in this respect. The is no a priori reason why this should be the case. I really don’t know why this is the case to be honest, it’s just my observation that Mormon scholars have a tendency to get shot at from both sides. Perhaps I am wrong.

  22. Dave on October 31, 2007 at 1:07 am

    I think much of the discussion here is based on how both Mormons and scholars raised and addressed LDS doctrine and theology in the past — as essentially faith claims rather than as doctrine and theology as such. Bushman’s hope in the talk I heard is that a strong Mormon Studies program will open up a discussion of the doctrine and theology to understand and explore it, without the felt need to attack it or defend it. In this scenario, Mormon scholars won’t get shot at from both sides because hopefully there won’t be any shooting. Time will tell, of course, whether this comes to pass or not.

  23. MikeInWeHo on October 31, 2007 at 1:48 am

    re: 17
    I beg to differ, Julie, and so do our friends in the Community of Christ.

  24. Jonathan Green on October 31, 2007 at 4:08 am

    I don’t agree with the pessimists.

    Take a look at the Benedictines. They publish a prestigious scholarly journal about their founder and their own history. They organize conference sessions, and show up wearing monastic robes. Many authors and presenters in those venues are themselves Benedictine monks. No one bothers to ask if Benedict’s miracles were lies or merely delusions, and no one demands that the monks choose one explanation or the other before they are taken seriously. All of this is a totally normal state of affairs for the disciplines I deal with. I see no reason that Mormon Studies can’t attain the same status as Benedictine Studies.

  25. Joel on October 31, 2007 at 8:28 am

    Part of the problem with historians’ acceptance or non-acceptance of RSR is that historians, burdened by the discipline’s focus on social history from the bottom up or cultural history focused on discourse, really don’t care about biographies in general. This entire genre of writing is largely perceived, and written off, as a nod to the “great men and women” narrative of history. We can debate whether this choice to ignore an entire genre is sound or not, but I think that it is important to acknowledge that historians are inclined to disparage RSR not only because it is written from a faithful perspective, but also because it is a 500+ page biography. Also, I think that Bushman at times overstates the historical academies hostility toward his book. As a nod to Bushman’s prestigious place in the discipline in general, the historical discipline’s flagship journal, The Journal of American History, recently dedicated 20+ pages for Jan Shipp’s review of RSR and a response by Richard Bushman. Shipp’s spend much of her time outlining the historiography of Mormonism and trying to locate Bushman’s book within this historiography. She states that RSR represents the last hoorah of “New Mormon History” as a movement that tries to study religion as an insular phenomenon. She maintains, like she always has, that Mormonism, and religion in general, deserve to receive more attention from historians in general as a part of the story of American history. Bushman’s response mainly tries to add apologetics to the historiography that inspired RSR as he calls for a view of Mormon History from a variety of perspectives–Mormon and non-Mormon alike. He seems to believe that only a variety of perspectives can truly capture the complexity of this important religious movement.

  26. Adam S. on October 31, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Re #17 Actually, belief in the basic story of the restoration gives you several options: LDS, RLDS, FLDS, Strangites, etc. Not to mention that a belief in the sincerity and well-meaning of the early saints does not obligate one to follow any of the modern ‘mormon’ denominations.

  27. David Clark on October 31, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Isn’t the point of scholarship to approach a problem carefully and analytically? Why must we insist that non-lds scholars accept the axioms of practicing Mormons?

    Because there isn’t any middle ground like there is in say Biblical Studies. A believer and a non-believer will have an enormous amount of shared material when it comes to the Bible. Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, and Latin texts provide a commonality. They can both approach the Bible historically, archaeologically, culturally, sociologically, etc. because this kind of information is available for the Ancient Near East (ANE). They can both engage in text criticism, source criticism, canonical criticism, form criticism, literary analysis, etc. They can both engage in comparative approaches with other ANE cultures and documents because they are known.

    Now, lets say in a Mormon Studies program that the Book of Mormon is at the heart of the program (why not, it is MORMON studies). Where is the commonality? There are no other languages. There is no history, archaeology, or culture that is known outside of the Book of Mormon. Mormons, to put it bluntly, rightly or wrongly, end up in disciplinary councils when they approach the Book of Mormon critically. There is no ancient American context, that has been identified, that would provide material for comparative approaches. You can compare the Book of Mormon with documents available to Joseph Smith, but again does a believer really want to do that? Can a believer really do that? In short there is zero common ground between believers and non-believers when it comes to the Book of Mormon.

    For the most part believers are restricted to evangelism and apologetics when it comes to the Book of Mormon. I think this is what Jared was getting at when he said, There is no way I have found to get around the fact that I “reek” with testimony. We all do.

    Now you can of course do Mormon Studies and ignore the Book of Mormon (well I am assuming you can, I haven’t thought about the other aspects of it). But, isn’t it odd to study a subject matter and ignore its most central document? Wouldn’t that would be like studying 18th century America and simply acting like the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution did not exist?

  28. Julie M. Smith on October 31, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Mike and Adam S., depends how you define “basic story of the restoration.”

  29. SmallAxe on October 31, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Now, lets say in a Mormon Studies program that the Book of Mormon is at the heart of the program (why not, it is MORMON studies). Where is the commonality? There are no other languages. There is no history, archaeology, or culture that is known outside of the Book of Mormon. Mormons, to put it bluntly, rightly or wrongly, end up in disciplinary councils when they approach the Book of Mormon critically. There is no ancient American context, that has been identified, that would provide material for comparative approaches.

    First of all, I don’t think that the BoM will be the heart of the program; similar to the way in which Buddhist Studies isn’t simply about Buddhist sutras. Secondly, the disconnect is not as big as you make it sound. At a presentation Bushman gave on the BoM, sponsored by Harvard’s history department, for instance, the response from department was to welcome the BoM into the intellectual history of America. This isn’t to say that it is (or is not) a 19th century product; but it did have a stake in the intellectual milieu of the time.

  30. David Clark on October 31, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    At a presentation Bushman gave on the BoM, sponsored by Harvard’s history department, for instance, the response from department was to welcome the BoM into the intellectual history of America. Which pretty much proves my point. Everyone is ready, willing, and able to make the BofM part of American history. The problem is the book itself does not allow that interpretation, it claims to be an ancient record, not an American (as in modern USA) record.

  31. Abish on October 31, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    I read the wordy comments. I see this subject from a different perspective–any press is good press. Let the discussion happen. More people will research on their own and find the truth that is out there.

    Also, lazy typists, how hard is it to type 12 letters, 15 if you count “the.” The Book of Mormon deserves the respect.

  32. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 10:11 am

    Which pretty much proves my point. Everyone is ready, willing, and able to make the BofM part of American history. The problem is the book itself does not allow that interpretation, it claims to be an ancient record, not an American (as in modern USA) record.

    Actually I understood your point to be that there “isn’t any middle ground like there is in say Biblical Studies” (#27). And my point is that scholars of all stripes can accept the fact that the BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience. This question in and of it self need not be related to the issue of historicity. In other words, it’s not an all or nothing scenario like you make it out to be. Even on the question of historicity, many Mormons are willing to take the position that there is some of JS in the translation, that in some sense it is a reflection of 19th century America.

    On your point that Mormon scholars do/will get it from both sides, Bushman does in fact get it from both sides. But both positively and negatively. Negatively speaking some members do not like his approach, and some scholars consider him less of a historian. On the positive side, some memebers appreciate his work, and some scholars think he’s doing a great job.

    Abish,
    I don’t agree that abbreviations are necessarily disrespectful.

  33. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 10:43 am

    And my point is that scholars of all stripes can accept the fact that the BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience. I think there are two ways of interpreting this statement, both of which again prove my point.

    First, take it literally. That the BofM speaks to a 19th century American audience. In other words it speaks most directly to them or most especially to them. This is untenable from an LDS point of view, why are we still reading it and translating it to other languages if it speaks to a 19th century American audience? If true we would no longer be reading it. Scholars of the LDS stripe cannot take this view. However, my guess is that this is _not_ what you had in mind.

    Second, you can read it in the light of what you said later, Even on the question of historicity, many Mormons are willing to take the position that there is some of JS in the translation, that in some sense it is a reflection of 19th century America. In this case the BofM becomes in part or wholly a product of the 19th century. Again this does not work for LDS scholars. When they take this route they end up in disciplinary councils. So again, it is not a viable route for scholars of the LDS stripe.

    I think what will end up happening is that Mormon studies will largely ignore the BofM as a text and at best analyze it as a phenomenon, a social force if you will, and that’s a real shame. I believe that you (SmallAxe) already said as much.

  34. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I think what will end up happening is that Mormon studies will largely ignore the BofM as a text and at best analyze it as a phenomenon, a social force if you will, and that’s a real shame.

    I agree, except I don’t think it’s such a shame. A lot of interesting work can still be done in this respect.

    “And my point is that scholars of all stripes can accept the fact that the BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience.” I think there are two ways of interpreting this statement, both of which again prove my point.

    There’s still the literal interpretation, which I actually meant to employ. Claiming that the BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience, does not necessarily imply that it speaks “most directly to them or most especially to them”. Whether it speaks to us equally well in our place and time is a separate question, which need not be related.

    In this case the BofM becomes in part or wholly a product of the 19th century. Again this does not work for LDS scholars. When they take this route they end up in disciplinary councils. So again, it is not a viable route for scholars of the LDS stripe.

    I don’t think so. Ostler’s expansion thesis (“The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20 [Spring 1987] 66-123) is one example (I’m sure others could point to posts here at T&S on the issue). Someone I’m sure could also pull up the BY quote about how the BoM would be translated differently if translated at a later time period. BYU Studies even ran an article recently (on translation) articulating a position (somewhat) similar to Ostler’s.

  35. Lynnette on November 1, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Islamic Studies is currently a rapidly growing field. I don’t know much about the mechanics of how it’s being done, but I wonder whether looking at it might be instructive, as many similar issues seem to apply. How do religious scholars deal with the truth claims of Muhammed, or with the Qur’an?

  36. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    There’s still the literal interpretation, which I actually meant to employ. That’s what I meant when I said, “First, take it literally.” (#33).

    I don’t think so. Ostler’s expansion thesis (”The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20 [Spring 1987] 66-123) is one example (I’m sure others could point to posts here at T&S on the issue). It still doesn’t work for non believers. It doesn’t matter how much you hedge, as long as you still assert that the base of the Book of Mormon is an ancient source non believers will not take the argument seriously. Mormons would still have to go farther than that, which they can’t. David P. Wright argued that the Book of Mormon was a prophetic midrash, which is basically what you get when you subtract the “ancient source” from Ostler’s argument (yes, this is highly simplified, this is a blog comment not a dissertation here). This didn’t go over too well. Again, scholars of all stripes do not have a common ground for studying the BofM, so it will probably get ignored.

  37. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    That’s what I meant when I said, “First, take it literally.” (#33).

    Um… no it’s not. Your understanding of the statment “The BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience” means that it speaks “most directly to them or most especially to them”. Which in all actuality is not a literal reading. The statement “The BoM speaks to a 19th century American audience” makes no claim of “most directly” or “especially”; merely that it does speak to them. This neither includes or excludes any notion of the universal applicability of the text.

    I hate to beat this like a dead horse, but I think this speaks to my point that there is a “middle ground”, to use your term (which you claimed was non-existent); or a consensus which differing parties can agree on and perhaps do interesting work.

    In relation to Ostler’s expansion thesis, my reason for bringing it up has little to do with the viability of the thesis itself in academic circles. I raised it as an example of faithful members seeing the text in “part” a product of the 19th century, which you claimed in #33 was not a viable position for a member to take.

    I hate to get mired down in the details of this discussion, but I don’t think Mormon scholars (in Mormon Studies) are forced to choose between their Mormon-ness and their scholarly identity which you imply must be done on the basis of the lack of any middle ground. Nor are they alone in the challenges they face (as stated in #20 and reiterated by Lynette). You’re making the historicity issue the entirety of Mormon Studies, which simply isn’t fair.

  38. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Um… no it’s not. Well, since you seem to understand me better than I understand myself, I’ll trust you can fill in the rest of my arguments. Thanks.

  39. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    You’re welcome.

  40. Adam S. on November 1, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    Other than the snippy comments, I really think this is an important discussion to hash out.

    David, I appreciate the points you’ve been making although I do disagree with some of it. One thing I’d like to get your take on is if you think there is room for (and value in) what one may call a suspended view. It goes like this: say outsider scholars (who you correctly assert cannot take the book as literal ancient American scripture without more archealogical evidence) approach the book as Joseph Smith’s ‘translation’(suspend definition of translation). They then respectfully recognize that he and his followers fully believe it to be ancient scripture written for a modern audience. This puts polemics/apologetics aside and allows us to move on to much more interesting questions like its literary content and its reception history. I personally would love to hear from outsiders who approach the book like this.

    As an aside, I don’t think we should give the Bible too much credit in the sense that it still requires one to believe in supernatural/spiritual events. Just because a variety of ancient source texts say someone saw and angel or talked with God, doesn’t mean it happened. It just means that some people asserted it and believed in it. Accepting the Bible as God’s word still requires us to make a tremendous leap of faith. Maybe it just feels like less of leap because so many people have already done it.

  41. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Adam S.

    The suspended view is not workable in my opinion, to see why turn the argument around. Ask a believing Mormon to suspend their Mormon views for the afternoon and drink 5 shots of Jim Bean, watch some porn, and end their suspended view by engaging in extra marital sex; what’s their response? NO! But, their views were suspended, so it doesn’t count right? Of course it counts. Asking a scholar to temporarily disengage their critical outlook will be about as successful, there is too much riding on their critical outlook.

    The basic problem comes down to this, scholarship is based on taking a critical look at a particular subject. In theory, scholarship goes where the evidence leads. With the Book of Mormon there is only one conclusion possible, that it is an ancient document translated by a prophet. Well, when you have the conclusion ahead of time you can’t do scholarship, at least not critical scholarship, which is the kind most scholars do. You can do apologetics, but not much else. I think ultimately the problem is that many Mormons (especially the T&S, blogging, and/or intellectual variety) really want the Book of Mormon taken seriously in the academy but don’t want to follow the rules of the academy. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Others just want Mormonism taken seriously in the academy. This is more likely because there is more room for common critical scholarship. However, again it will be the believers who are limited, they simply cannot be critical about some things. My guess is that Mormon Studies will take hold in a few places, but it will for the most part ignore the Book of Mormon. This guarantees that Mormons will be studied as a culture, not as a religion (roughly akin to the separation between Jewish Studies and Old Testament/Midrash/Talmud Studies).

  42. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    By the way, I am not arguing this because I am glad that things are the way they are when it comes to a critical scholarship of the Book of Mormon and Mormonism. I truly wish there would be a way to combine critical scholarship with these subjects, I just don’t see there being a viable way. The only way is with a “middle way” between disbelief and orthodoxy. Church leaders have repeatedly said that there is no middle way. They say looking for a middle way is not a problem, as long as you go about it real quietly, which again precludes scholarship because scholarship is a public phenomenon.

    If anyone has a solution to this problem it would be nice, but I am skeptical at this point. Retreating back into the arcana of science and/or technology seems like the best way to exercise one’s critical facilities.

  43. Dave on November 1, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    David, your “no middle way” position is flawed for several reasons. First, let’s be clear it’s your position — why do you keep trying to attribute all your positions to “Church leaders”? Second, it’s not like Mormon Studies is a plan on the drawing board that’s going to be given a real-world try starting in Fall 2008. It’s been going on for about fifty years now. Third, the “middle way” discussion concerns the basis for continued activity in the Church, not for an approach to scholarly writing or discussion of Mormon or any other religious topic or issue. It really doesn’t apply in this context.

    Scholars don’t need a “middle way.” They can have opinions for, opinions against, or no opinions at all regarding Mormon faith claims and still publish good research on Mormon issues. That’s certainly true for religious studies in general — biblical scholars are all over the religious map. I’m sure there are Evangelicals who try to force biblical scholars into the same boxes you keep outlining — hey, either you believe the Bible came direct from God or you don’t. I just think you are giving your stereotypical characterizations (“With the Book of Mormon there is only one conclusion possible …”) too much weight. This isn’t Sunday School.

  44. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    The suspended view is not workable in my opinion, to see why turn the argument around.

    Your example is wrong-headed. Bracketing the question isn’t taking the opposite position (never mind that you’re equating an intellectual position with moral action); it’s consenting that we are not going to make that particular question the issue of debate. Bracketing the historicity of the BoM isn’t denying its authenticity (which is what your example would call for). It’s simply saying that we are going to talk about different things. It would be more equivalent to one member saying to another, “We aren’t going to come to a consensus as to whether Coke is against the WoW, but we can still have a lot to say about the WoW.” Bracketing my belief about Coke to engage in this discussion neither confirms or denies a position about Coke.

  45. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Taking a deep breath…

    First to Dave’s points:

    David, your “no middle way” position is flawed for several reasons. Yes it is flawed, that’s my point, it’s not available to believing scholars.

    First, let’s be clear it’s your position — why do you keep trying to attribute all your positions to “Church leaders”? …Third, the “middle way” discussion concerns the basis for continued activity in the Church, not for an approach to scholarly writing or discussion of Mormon or any other religious topic or issue. It really doesn’t apply in this context.

    Now quoting Dallin H. Oaks’ interview with Helen Whitney for “The Mormons”

    HW: Could you use the middle way, though, in terms of the approach, let’s say the Book of Mormon? Is there a middle way?

    DHO: I don’t know what kind of middle way there could be on the Book of Mormon. Either it is a translation of an ancient record under the gift and power of God, or it was written by a mortal. What’s the middle way on that? I don’t think there is a middle way. I think where it came from is either this or that. It’s either what it claimed to be or somebody wrote it. If somebody else wrote it, we don’t have a scrap of evidence, not a viable theory remaining after the facts have been looked at, that anybody wrote it other than Joseph Smith. And the theory that Joseph Smith had the capacity to write it is even discredited by the people who don’t accept what he said about where it came from!

    The link for this quote is here.
    Elder Oaks makes it very clear that there is no “middle way” for BofM scholarship available to LDS scholars. Note, non-believing scholars can make any argument they want. For an LDS scholar to publicly claim that the BofM is not 1) divinely inspired and 2) ancient is courting apostasy as I read Elder Oaks.

    Scholars don’t need a “middle way.” They can have opinions for, opinions against, or no opinions at all regarding Mormon faith claims and still publish good research on Mormon issues. Yes, that is viable for non-believing scholars, not for LDS scholars as regards the BofM. Again, I’ll quote a general authority. This time Marlin K Jensen talking to Helen Whitney:

    What are some of the doctrines a person might be excommunicated for opposing?

    If you advocated, for instance, that gay people should be allowed to marry, and you were openly vocal about that, and in the process malign the leadership in the church for not adopting that position, that’s something that would be severe enough, I think, to warrant disciplinary action.

    Another example?

    Another example would be to take on the Book of Mormon, for instance, and its divine origins. To begin to criticize it on the basis of its geography or its historicity or the doctrines it contains or the way it came to be and the translation of it by Joseph Smith — those are all core issue that would be so central to the church that they would require disciplinary action.

    Again, pretty cut and dried. By the way, the link to that one is here. Again I’m not saying that believing LDS scholars can’t do some aspects Mormon Studies, but it looks like a critical study of the Book of Mormon is out of the question. Maybe you don’t think there is something odd about doing Mormon Studies while ignoring the founding document of Mormonism, it just seems odd to me.

    That’s certainly true for religious studies in general — biblical scholars are all over the religious map. I’m sure there are Evangelicals who try to force biblical scholars into the same boxes you keep outlining — hey, either you believe the Bible came direct from God or you don’t. I just think you are giving your stereotypical characterizations (”With the Book of Mormon there is only one conclusion possible …”) too much weight. This isn’t Sunday School. Yes, you are correct about that, in Biblical Studies you can be all over the map, for the most part. Some conservative evangelical seminaries will restrict you on biblical inerrancy and Catholics used to be restricted from using “modern” methods in scriptural analysis (before the 40′s). You are also correct that non-believing scholars can say what ever they want, but believing scholars cannot, at least according to the previous quotes from general authorities.

  46. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Another deep breath… Responding to SmallAxe:

    Your example is wrong-headed. Bracketing the question isn’t taking the opposite position (never mind that you’re equating an intellectual position with moral action); OK, I’ll spell it out. Ask most scholars the following question: What is the most important thing for a scholar to thrive? They will tell you something like “pursuing ethical critical inquiry wherever it leads”. Ask a Mormon: What is the most important thing for a Mormon to thrive? You will most likely get “keep the commandments.” My point is that asking a scholar to jettison what is most important to him/her (free critical inquiry) is just like asking a Mormon to jettison what is most important to him/her (keeping the commandments), you cannot in all seriousness expect either to comply. The bracketing idea might get a few takers, but most scholars will simply balk at a priori limitations on what they can pursue, self imposed or not.

    it’s consenting that we are not going to make that particular question the issue of debate. Bracketing the historicity of the BoM isn’t denying its authenticity (which is what your example would call for). Sorry, but I again I think most scholars are not going to accept bracketing, it’s just another way of saying “self censorship.” Scholars do have to accept limitations imposed on them by physical reality such as lack of funds or time, but I know of no scholar who “self brackets” at the outset of some inquiry.

    It would be more equivalent to one member saying to another, “We aren’t going to come to a consensus as to whether Coke is against the WoW, but we can still have a lot to say about the WoW.” Bracketing my belief about Coke to engage in this discussion neither confirms or denies a position about Coke. There is a difference here, drinking coke won’t get you in a disciplinary council. Heck, getting stone cold drunk every single night won’t get you in a disciplinary council, I believe leaders are specifically told that there are some issues on which they cannot hold a disciplinary council and WofW issues are one of them (of course if it involves breaking the law you might get one if you are legally prosecuted, but then it’s criminal behavior that’s the issue, not the WofW). Questioning the BofM critically might get you in a disciplinary council. Besides, follow my example and just drink the coke:)

  47. Ardis Parshall on November 1, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    David Clark — I kind of get the feeling that you feel under siege here, and I admire you for sticking to your guns, explaining yourself clearly, and remaining courteous through it all. My reaction to what you seem to be saying:

    You seem to be saying that a Mormon Studies program must focus on (or emphasize, or feature, or whatever other level of involvement you mean) the Book of Mormon, because it is the central document of Mormonism. Granting that, would you say that the Book of Mormon is the *only* valid study within Mormon Studies, or would you allow as valid scholarly Mormon Studies such things as history, theology, arts, etc. (understanding that all other fields might occasionally refer to the Book of Mormon without its being their chief focus)?

    Looking at the Book of Mormon, you seem to be saying that the question (the main question? the only question? important but only one of many questions?) is “Is the Book of Mormon an ancient record inspired by God, engraven on metal plates, delivered to Joseph Smith by an angel, and translated and published by him?” Or perhaps you mean that the scholarly question is rather “Given that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record inspired by God, engraven … and published by him, what can Mormon Studies teach us about the role of Jesus Christ, the civilization of ancient America, the future of the Lamanites, etc., etc., etc.?”

    If I understand you this far, my real question is, why must that be *the* question a Mormon Studies program asks about the Book of Mormon, even granting that the Book of Mormon must play the significant role in a Mormon Studies program that (I think) you call for? Wouldn’t it be valid (more valid for an academic institution) to, say, make comparative studies between Christ as seen in the Book of Mormon and Christ as seen elsewhere? study the Book of Mormon as a literary work? examine the role of the Book of Mormon in Mormon history, and in the life of modern members? look at the decisions made by translators and the effect of those decisions on Mormon theology in different language regions? and on and on?

    Scholarly standards of evidence and reasoning can perhaps be applied to matters of faith, but matters of faith are not the only face of religion, the lives of religious people, and the interaction of religion with the world. Why are those other approaches not enough to sustain a Mormon Studies program?

  48. SmallAxe on November 1, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    My point is that asking a scholar to jettison what is most important to him/her (free critical inquiry) is just like asking a Mormon to jettison what is most important to him/her (keeping the commandments), you cannot in all seriousness expect either to comply. The bracketing idea might get a few takers, but most scholars will simply balk at a priori limitations on what they can pursue, self imposed or not.

    Bracketing the question is neither jettisoning that which is most important nor an a priori limitation. It may be a kind of self-imposed limitation, but not in the sense that one forever keeps the bracket on. Discourse is multi-directional and contextual. If a Mormon scholar is speaking to other Mormons at a Sunday meeting over the pulpit, the rules of dialogue are different. He can make the claim that the BoM is the word of God; but he can’t assert his political opinion that a certain candidate should be president of the country. When a Mormon scholar is in front of other academics at a conference, the rules of dialogue are different. You’re missing the point of my Coke example and how it relates to this. We bracket issues all the time; and while bracketing the issue of the historicity of the BoM may be different, it’s not completely foreign to what we normally do. It simply depends on our context. What we are in essence saying (both member and non-member scholars) to each other is “We’re not going to get any where discussing this particular issue, so let’s move on to other things.” And this of course relates to everything I was saying earlier in terms of other common ground to discuss since the historicity of the BoM is but one of the many things people can discuss in terms of the BoM and Mormonism. Now, non-member scholars can walk away and tell others how crazy so-and-so is for believing XYZ, but: 1) Most scholars believe half the other scholars in their department or field are crazy for other reasons. 2) And more importantly, Mormon scholars are still respected for their work in other areas; evidenced by the fact that Bushman was hired and got tenure at Columbia.

    As far as I can tell, we agree that Mormons involved in the Study of Mormonism for the most part have not played by the rules of academic discourse. You claim however is that it hasn’t been done because it cannot be done; whereas I am claiming it hasn’t been done but can be done.

    This question comes up for anyone studying another religion–what do we do with claims about the supernatural. The “bracketing” of that issue has lead to Religious Studies done as a descriptive enterprise–one which is not involved in determining normative (or in this case metaphysical) issues. Incidentally, this is also somewhat related to a post I did a while back at http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/2007/09/10/the-study-of-mormonism-a-growing-interest-in-academia/

  49. Dave on November 1, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Yes, David, take another deep breath. It’s nice you are sharing your opinions, but no more soapboxing. I think you are equating “critical study” with simple criticism. In this context, “critical” means careful and reasoned. All Latter-day Saints are encouraged to undertake “critical study” of the Book of Mormon, i.e., careful reading of the text and reflective consideration of its message and meaning. Scholars engage in a more refined version of critical study, but it is simply wrongheaded to equate careful study of the Book of Mormon — or any other text — with simple criticism. I’ll remind you that the book itself welcomes and invites careful reading and study. What’s wrong with studying the Book of Mormon?

    And quoting Elder Oaks as if he is supporting your reactionary views is so misleading as to be irresponsible. Perhaps you noticed that the endowed chair that is being established at Claremont is named the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies. I heard Elder Holland gave moving remarks on what a fitting memorial the establishment of this chair and program is to President Hunter. It will promote a good deal of understanding of Mormonism (by students and scholars) and of other religions (by Mormon scholars who become involved with the program). You may think there will be problems, and there might well be some, but LDS leaders are supportive and are hoping for the best in regard to this and similar programs. Seems like a nice attitude to take. I commend it to you.

    Finally, your idea that only non-Mormon scholars can engage in full scholarship vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon or Mormonism in general is just bad policy. Who would you rather have studying our history and theology, LDS scholars or secular scholars? Do you really think having Evangelical or Catholic scholars rather than LDS scholars setting the agenda for Mormon Studies is what we want? What makes you think non-LDS scholars are preferable to LDS scholars in this field of study? What do you have against LDS scholars?

  50. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Responding to Ardis:

    I kind of get the feeling that you feel under siege here, and I admire you for sticking to your guns, explaining yourself clearly, and remaining courteous through it all. Thank you for the compliment.

    You seem to be saying that a Mormon Studies program must focus on (or emphasize, or feature, or whatever other level of involvement you mean) the Book of Mormon, because it is the central document of Mormonism. Granting that, would you say that the Book of Mormon is the *only* valid study within Mormon Studies, or would you allow as valid scholarly Mormon Studies such things as history, theology, arts, etc. (understanding that all other fields might occasionally refer to the Book of Mormon without its being their chief focus)? Study of the Book of Mormon does _not_ need to be the center of Mormon Studies, in fact it may be a very small part, but I would argue an absolutely necessary part. The best analogy I can make is to consitutional law. Most of the discussion in constitutional law revolves around opinions, judgements, dissents, context etc., at least that is what I have gathered. However, if you remove the constitution from constitutional studies what you are left with is incomprehensible, even though most of the time it may not be discussed. I think something similar holds for the Book of Mormon and Mormon Studies. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s the best I have got.

    Looking at the Book of Mormon, you seem to be saying that the question (the main question? the only question? important but only one of many questions?) is “Is the Book of Mormon an ancient record inspired by God, engraven on metal plates, delivered to Joseph Smith by an angel, and translated and published by him?” Or perhaps you mean that the scholarly question is rather “Given that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record inspired by God, engraven … and published by him, what can Mormon Studies teach us about the role of Jesus Christ, the civilization of ancient America, the future of the Lamanites, etc., etc., etc.?” I would argue it is the most important question among countless other questions, all of which are important in their own rights. Your two questions about the Book of Mormon can best be summarized, I think, by the following shorter questions: What is the Book of Mormon? What does the Book of Mormon say? To a non-believing scholar the first would need to be answered first because it might very well influence how you answer the second. To a believer the first question is already answered, only the second one needs to be answered. This is where the disconnect happens between the two groups.

    Wouldn’t it be valid (more valid for an academic institution) to, say, make comparative studies between Christ as seen in the Book of Mormon and Christ as seen elsewhere? study the Book of Mormon as a literary work? Yes, it would be a valid way of approaching the Book of Mormon. Most non-believing scholars would want the “What is it?” question answered first. There is some room for commonality in a literary study of the Book of Mormon. I do think that Mormons would feel uncomfortable always analyzing the Book of Mormon in literary terms without recourse to things like prophecy and revelation.

    Scholarly standards of evidence and reasoning can perhaps be applied to matters of faith, but matters of faith are not the only face of religion, the lives of religious people, and the interaction of religion with the world. Why are those other approaches not enough to sustain a Mormon Studies program? I am sure they would be enough to sustain it. You can explain lots of things and ignore the Book of Mormon. You might even be able to explain crazy things like why a 19 year old punk (like me 13 years ago) would decide to spend $10,000 and two years of his life serving a mission without recourse to the Book of Mormon. However, I would personally reject any such answer, it would completely miss everything, the Book of Mormon and its testimony of Christ WAS the reason I served, case closed.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

  51. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    SmallAxe:

    We bracket issues all the time; and while bracketing the issue of the historicity of the BoM may be different, it’s not completely foreign to what we normally do. It simply depends on our context. Yes, we do bracket issues all of the time. I just don’t think that non-believers and believers would be able to bracket themselves into a position where they would have enough commonalities to engage in discourse. I am not saying they have to be in agreement on everything, but they need to agree enough to talk. Perhaps it could happen, I’d like to be proved wrong on this one.

    The “bracketing” of that issue has lead to Religious Studies done as a descriptive enterprise–one which is not involved in determining normative (or in this case metaphysical) issues. Again, something like that would be nice, I am just skeptical that it can happen. One’s metaphysical issues shade one’s outlook in very enormous, yet subtle ways.

  52. David Clark on November 1, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    Yes, David, take another deep breath. It’s nice you are sharing your opinions, but no more soapboxing. It was my attempt at humor, I guess it did not go over very well.

    I think you are equating “critical study” with simple criticism. In this context, “critical” means careful and reasoned. I am using it the way biblical scholars use the term when they say things like historical-critical, source criticism, form criticism, canonical criticism etc. Basically the scholars are looking at every aspect of the Bible and do not accept authority or tradition as valid reasons. That’s not to say that authority or tradition always are necessarily wrong, but that any conclusions they come to must be validated through evidence and reason. Secondaril,y I am using it like English translations of Immanuel Kant use the word. When Kant engaged in the “Critique of Pure Reason” he was not denigrating reason but was examining the foundations and conditions for reason to operate as it does and examining its limitations. It is in those two senses that I, and I imagine most scholars, use the terms “critique” and “criticism.” It is that kind of criticism that I think is difficult or impossible for believers to engage in vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon.

    What’s wrong with studying the Book of Mormon? There is nothing wrong with studying the Book of Mormon. You can approach it in at least two ways, critically and devotionally. There are no problems with a devotional study of the Book of Mormon and I think this is what people mean when they are encouraged to study the Book of Mormon.

    And quoting Elder Oaks as if he is supporting your reactionary views is so misleading as to be irresponsible. Please explain how instead of just insulting me. I gave the entire quote plus the link, which gives you ample opportunity to explain wherein I am wrong. Believe me, I want to be wrong on this issue, please show me where I am wrong (this is not sarcasm).

    Perhaps you noticed that the endowed chair that is being established at Claremont is named the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies. Yes, I noticed. Those providing the endowment usually get to name the chair. They are Mormons and they like Howard W Hunter. So do I, he signed my mission call. What does that have to do with anything we are discussing?

    Finally, your idea that only non-Mormon scholars can engage in full scholarship vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon or Mormonism in general is just bad policy. Who would you rather have studying our history and theology, LDS scholars or secular scholars? Do you really think having Evangelical or Catholic scholars rather than LDS scholars setting the agenda for Mormon Studies is what we want? What makes you think non-LDS scholars are preferable to LDS scholars in this field of study? What do you have against LDS scholars? I don’t have anything against LDS scholars. I am simply laying out what I believe are the limitations that believing Mormon scholars must work under (they cannot engage in critical study), plus my general skepticism that meaningful discourse between believers and non-believers with regard to the Book of Mormon can take place.

  53. Adam Greenwood on November 2, 2007 at 12:04 am

    I think I’m probably closer to your point of view than I realized when this argument started. Not all the way there yet, though. Still, this is awesome:

    You might even be able to explain crazy things like why a 19 year old punk (like me 13 years ago) would decide to spend $10,000 and two years of his life serving a mission without recourse to the Book of Mormon. However, I would personally reject any such answer, it would completely miss everything, the Book of Mormon and its testimony of Christ WAS the reason I served, case closed.

  54. Dave on November 2, 2007 at 1:48 am

    I don’t have anything against LDS scholars. I am simply laying out what I believe are the limitations that believing Mormon scholars must work under (they cannot engage in critical study), plus my general skepticism that meaningful discourse between believers and non-believers with regard to the Book of Mormon can take place.

    Well, David, after about twenty lengthy comments, your position finally emerges: You think Mormon scholars should not be allowed to engage in critical study, which you describe as using evidence and reason to support their ideas. If you thought everyone should be so constrained, that’s just misguided anti-intellectualism. But thinking only LDS scholars should be constrained from doing scholarship — that’s really bizarre. Generally it’s the anti crowd that portrays membership in the Church as some sort of limitation on one’s ability or freedom to think and reason.

  55. David Clark on November 2, 2007 at 7:17 am

    Re #54, Dave: “they cannot engage in critical study” should have been “they cannot engage in critical study of the Book of Mormon” I’ll say this again, this is not something I want to be right on. I really do want someone to show me where I am wrong. Ad hominem attacks are not the way to do that, I can assure you I am neither bizarre nor anti-Mormon. But, you seem to want to caricature my positions so I don’t think it would be wise continue our conversation.

  56. Dave on November 2, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    David, LDS scholars have been doing criticial study of the Book of Mormon ever since Nibley started publishing his stuff. Or maybe it goes back 75 years to B.H. Roberts. It continues today with some of the projects sponsored by FARMS and others. Now one may or may not like their approach or the results they get, but you can’t really deny what they’re doing is “critical study” of the Book of Mormon the way we’ve discussed it here. No one is waiving the spectre of church discipline at these folks, as you suggest is called for — far from it. If decades of LDS scholars doing critical study of the Book of Mormon can’t convince you that LDS scholars can do critical study of the Book of Mormon … well, I really can’t make it any simpler for you.

  57. SmallAxe on November 2, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    David,

    Let me first say thank you for sticking with this conversation. It’s certainly been worth my time to think through these issues.

    Yes, we do bracket issues all of the time. I just don’t think that non-believers and believers would be able to bracket themselves into a position where they would have enough commonalities to engage in discourse. I am not saying they have to be in agreement on everything, but they need to agree enough to talk. Perhaps it could happen, I’d like to be proved wrong on this one.

    I’m not sure why you dont see yourself as already proven wrong on this point. Myself and others have shown that:

    1) The question of the historicity of the BoM is but one of a myraid of meaningful questions.
    2) Mormon Studies should not make the historicity issue the key issue of Mormon Studies.
    3) Mormon scholars such as Bushman are respected enough to graduate from Harvard, get tenure at Columbia, get positive reviews in academic journals, etc. And while there are also negative reviews, this is not unlike other things in the academy, where everything is contested. This point should demonstrate that there is enough common ground to engage in a discourse.
    4) “Non-believers” have been studying other religions for a long time, and your line of thought would lead to the conclusion that no meaning discourse has come about as a result of their efforts.

    On the issue of metaphysics, I’m not claiming that one’s metaphysical system does not impact the work that one does (I think almost everyone has abandoned the possibility of a “view from nowhere”). My point was that one could engage in meaningful descriptive analysis without directly engaging the normative issues: What did JS describe as the relationship between human beings and God? vs. Is JS’s description of the relationship between human beings and God right? If you feel that this is something that academics would not buy into, perhaps you could pick up a copy of Clifford Geertz’s “The Interpretation of Cultures”. He studied Javanese religion, and his theory of “thick description” (which he covers in the first essay) has been very influential in the study of religion. Under the influence of Kant and others, many scholars are hesitant to “transcend” (to use Kant’s terminology) the limits of reason.

  58. Richard Bushman on November 2, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Claudia said I must read this thread and she was right. Exhausting but pertinent. A question came to mind as a got down to about comment #10. What if Shakespeare said he translated Hamlet from gold plates? Would anyone read Hamlet seriously?

  59. SmallAxe on November 2, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    What if Shakespeare said he translated Hamlet from gold plates? Would anyone read Hamlet seriously?

    I think it depends on what it would mean to take it “seriously”, which IMO depends on what one would want to do with the text.

    If one wanted to engage an aesthetic expression of human experience, then perhaps it wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But I dont think this is what most members expect the text do (and this of course speaks to the point that believers and scholars may want the text to do different things; and perhaps members could be more open to the possibility of multiple readings of the text). It seems to me that most members view the BoM as more of an instruction manual of sorts. A spiritual instruction manual if you will; meant to get you somewhere (to return and live with God, or something to that extent. Step one: Faith…). And the feeling is that if one were to find out that it wasn’t based on “real” experiences, it would be the equivalent of reading my book on “how to build a house”, only to get to the end and find out I not only never built a house, but don’t really know much about building anything.

  60. Dave on November 2, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    And on that pleasant note, I will put this productive comment thread to sleep, perchance to dream. Thank you for your comments, everyone.

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