Are Book Reviews Scholarship? Explosive Tensions Within the Mormon Studies Review

June 26, 2012 | 29 comments
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Perhaps the main problem with the Mormon Studies Review, which led to this awful explosion in the last couple of weeks, can be crystallized by looking at the titles it has held over the years and thinking for a moment about what they mean.

At first, it was the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. It then became the FARMS Review of Books, the FARMS Review, and finally, just the Mormon Studies Review, expanding out the “MS” and dropping the “FAR” at the start. That is quite a journey, and expresses a range of personalities whose conflict with one another appears to have finally produced this explosion between Jerry Bradford and Dan Peterson.

The scope changed dramatically from just books dealing with the Book of Mormon at first, to all kinds of stuff related to Mormonism at the end. But those changes in scope were pretty straightforward.

The complicated part is a matter of genre. The Review started as a publication that specifically did book reviews, and ended up as a publication that invites “substantial freestanding essays that make further contributions to the field of Mormon studies.” And my hunch is that Jerry Bradford would want to emphasize these freestanding essays as the core of the publication going forward, even though they are mentioned second, as an “also” in the current description of the journal on the Maxwell site. But see, book reviews are just a very different category from regular scholarly essays. It seems to me the tensions between these two genres, mixed with a blurring of the boundaries by various parties, might explain most of why the Review has come to a point where it finds it impossible to move forward.

Book reviews may be of interest to scholars, but the typical book review is completely different from the typical scholarly article or essay. The typical book review acknowledges and sometimes announces the publication of a book and gives potential readers a sense of what the book is like. It may also offer some critical commentary to help people decide whether they want to buy/read the book, and what they should expect to get out of it if they do. The reviewer may indicate points she agrees with and points she would criticize, but the criticisms are usually expressed in a brief way that is intended to be suggestive rather than decisive. They may suggest lines of analysis that could be developed and expanded on another occasion in an essay, or perhaps in a book, which would count as scholarship.

When a book review is a review of a scholarly book, then, it is usually written by a scholar, for an audience of scholars, but intended mainly as commentary on scholarship, both about this particular piece, and about interesting possibilities for further scholarship, rather than a piece of scholarship itself.

However, there are two crucial ambiguities in the nature of the category. First, there is ambiguity about how much commentary to give, and in what depth. Some book reviews only describe, some only describe and praise, and some may get quite long and go into great depth, including sustained, reasoned critique. While some publications have a certain form and length for their reviews, the format varies widely by publication. There is no clear line between a long, careful book review and a straight-up article, because if the critique is sustained enough and thoroughly enough developed, it pretty much starts to look just like a scholarly article.

As it happens, the Review has exploited this ambiguity quite actively and unabashedly at times. Some essays in the Review are more like novellas of 100 pages or more. It was publishing some pieces that really looked more like freestanding essays for a while before it became the FARMS Review. I wrote one of them, actually responding to an essay itself (not even to a book!), but that I was willing to shoehorn into the category of a review because in other ways it seemed a good fit for the Review and its audience. The editor invited me to write it, and to exploit the ambiguity as much as I felt like. I was excited to learn, though, that just after my piece was published, the Review changed its name to just “FARMS Review“, so I didn’t have to explain any more that my piece wasn’t really just a book review, but a 17-page essay. I wanted to get credit for it as a piece of scholarship, on which more below.

But there’s another ambiguity that’s equally important. Book reviews are not always reviews of scholarly work. Reviews of scholarly work are aimed at scholarly readers, written in a scholarly tone, and written by scholars. Reviews of other work, which we might just call popular work, because it is for a broad audience, don’t have to follow any of these rules. Depending on the nature of the work it is responding to, the appropriate tone, style, and content may vary dramatically. It would seem silly to write a book review of a popular work in a scholarly tone. The point of a review is to inform people who might read the book, so the audience of a review is more or less the audience of the work being reviewed. Similarly, if the person writing a book isn’t relying on scholarly credentials for credibility, the person reviewing the book doesn’t need scholarly credentials to discredit it, so the author pool is completely different. Perhaps most importantly, if a work is not scholarly, and is in fact polemical, then the assumption prevailing among scholars that disagreement must be respected goes out the door. It is fair to lampoon the author of a popular work when commenting on it, just like it is fair to lampoon President Obama, or Mitt Romney, in a political opinion piece.

If reviews of popular books are not scholarship, what should we call them? Some people in the Mormon Studies world seem to think they are just bad scholarship, but they miss the point. The goals of a popular book review are different from the goals of scholarship, so they should be judged by different standards. What standards? As informative writing, addressed to a general audience, perhaps we should think of them as a type of journalism.

This means that there is a considerable variety of stuff that has been published within the Review. One might feel it is a bit of a zoo, to use a journalistically colorful term. Mere variety is not necessarily a problem. Zoos can be delightful, fascinating, precious institutions. The Mormon theme shared by all this material is enough to make this combination sensible for the Review’s traditional audience, which has been quite broad, including both scholars and many thoughtful laypeople, but pretty much only Mormons. For these people, the FARMS name itself gave credibility to the work. FARMS was run by a bunch of faithful, believing BYU professors, willing to use their scholarly tools to illuminate questions of great spiritual significance, and for most readers of the FARMS Review of Books, that combination of faith and scholarship has been the rare and precious thing they were looking for. My distinction of three genres would have seemed a fussy distraction to many of them.

For purposes of addressing an audience of non-Mormon scholars, though, it becomes a problem that the Review includes three quite different kinds of material: articles, scholarly reviews (which are also best understood as a kind of journalism), and more straightforwardly journalistic, popular reviews.

In a scholarly context, part of the point of a journal is to establish standards of quality in scholarship, to judge submissions by those standards, and to only publish work that meets them. This way readers know they are only reading the good stuff, while authors can point to publication as proof that they measure up, and use this to argue for tenure and promotion. But that means the same standard has to be applied to everything the journal publishes, or else it’s not clear (at least, from far away) that there is a standard.

Essays and articles are the bread and butter of scholarship, and to do their job, they require this context of a uniform standard. If a journal isn’t known for such a standard, scholars often won’t bother to write for it, because they may not get professional credit. So, a straightforwardly scholarly journal can comfortably publish both articles/essays and scholarly book reviews (clearly marked out in different sections of an issue), but not reviews of popular books.

In the meantime, a publication devoted purely to book reviews could review both popular and scholarly material, and do so in a style that varies with the subject. There are publications like the New York Review of Books that offer extremely interesting and informative, journalistic commentary. Reviewers include highly respected scholars, and being published in NYRB is an impressive thing. The journalistic format allows for greater freedom than a scholarly context, which means this writing is often much more interesting than scholarship, even for scholars to read. One is free to explore, to present conjectures and make controversial statements without having to prove everything fastidiously. Book reviews in this vein may have a strong element of political commentary. It’s great stuff, but it’s a different thing from scholarship, and trying to include scholarly articles normally would just not make sense. The thematic commonalities, combined with the special audience of the FARMS Review/of Books, have made it a workable combination in this case, though, and indeed one that many, many people have found deeply satisfying to a range of needs.

In the end, how important is scholarship, really, and how many people actually want to read it? How many people’s lives are changed, testimonies built or saved, by starchy scholarship? Very few. The popular audience is much bigger, and the stakes are much higher. One could argue that the popular material is actually more urgent and important, at least in the near term. Scholarship is also very important stuff in its sphere, though, and crucial to the life of universities, which are key to our economy and culture.

So, we have three kinds of content, all of which have their own great value, but which in the long run can’t really flourish in the same journal. Those pesky articles in the long run need a special, controlled environment to thrive. What do we do?

I would have thought that the obvious thing would be to split the journal, forming one journal for articles and some scholarly book reviews, while preserving most of the book reviews, and the freer, journalistic essays, for something more like the pre-2003 FARMS Review of Books.

There are some things that might make that tricky. Is there enough material, particularly scholarly articles of sufficient quality? Does BYU care enough about the popular material to support a Review of Books, or would it have to become an independent operation again, as it was originally? Would there be one editor of both publications, or who would take over what? Would the donors care about the scholarship, or would the scholarly journal go broke? I may comment on the first question another time, but having mentioned the others will leave them at that.

Another problem with that scenario is that the journal already changed its name a year ago to Mormon Studies Review, which would have seemed the natural time to crystallize the distinction between the FARMS-branded, popular material aimed mainly at a Mormon audience (plus, perhaps, segments of the anti-Mormon industry), and the purely scholarly material that one would want non-Mormon academics to recognize as sound scholarship. Yet it stayed a single publication, while evidently the editor is heart-and-soul committed to continuing to publish the popular, thinky-journalistic (or even journalism-for-scholars) material (with good reason). Moreover, if someone wants a straight, stodgy, buttoned-up scholarly journal on Mormon Studies, trying to take the FARMS Review of Books as I know it and turn it into that, even gradually, seems like a counterintuitive and uphill path to me. Is it too late to say, uh, actually we meant this to be two journals, representing the two conflicting impulses of the FARMS Review? I am very curious to see where the Review goes next.

When we look at it this way, though, I think it becomes clear that much of the grumpiness surrounding the Review comes from the fact that people looking on from a certain distance (like smallaxe at FPR) have had different expectations of what it should be, depending on what kind of writing they happen to like to read, and in many cases it did not meet those expectations. In part this is understandable, because it includes different kinds of material that are appropriately held to different standards, and to some extent are of interest to quite different audiences. However, in part it is unreasonable, because people are judging work by standards that should not be applied to it, because it is a different category of work. Some folks of course hate the Review and everything it represents mainly because they are just on the opposite side of some of the controversies on which authors commented in the popular material, or have personal reasons (perhaps involving faith or lack thereof) why they want the scholarly claims defended in the Review to be false, but neither of these are indications of bad scholarship. In journalism, making people mad can be a sign you are really good at it.

I’ve been wondering what was going to happen with the tension between these categories for many years . . . it never occurred to me that it would lead to offense and acrimony, though, and I am very upset about that.

I will be eager to see what happens with the Review next.

[needless to say, as a longtime participant in Mormon Studies, I have been provoked to many, many more thoughts than this by the recent events at the Maxwell Institute. I may go into a few more issues another time.]

[and what genre is this? a blog post! so, any factual or logical errors should be understood as an invitation to correct me!]

29 Responses to Are Book Reviews Scholarship? Explosive Tensions Within the Mormon Studies Review

  1. Ben S. on June 26, 2012 at 7:02 am

    “some may get quite long and go into great depth, including sustained, reasoned critique”

    As an extreme example of this, my grad school advisor wrote a review of an Ugaritic grammar longer than the grammar itself, 404 pages. It included general comments, and then he reviewed each page separately, pointing out errors, disagreements, suggestions, and further examples.

  2. Ben Huff on June 26, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Wow, that is awesome, Ben! Was this brobdingnagian review published?

  3. Ben S. on June 26, 2012 at 8:13 am

    Yes, Archiv fu?r Orientforschung 50 (2003/2004). Due to its length, they decided to just put this online. I don’t see it anymore, bu have a copy if you want to gaze thereat (only 2Mb).
    Did I mention the volume under review was in German? Anyone else up to write a 400-page commentary on a German grammar of a Semitic language?

  4. KLC on June 26, 2012 at 9:12 am

    The post at FPR by smallaxe cites a 1994 piece by Dan Peterson. In it DP quotes several times from First Things. I think First Things is a good comparison to what Peterson did with the Review. It is journalism and opinion wrapped with scholarship and seasoned with a strong viewpoint and pointed humor. I always found it and DP to be interesting and valuable for what it was. Apparently there are many people in the LDS scholarly community who disliked it for what it wasn’t.

  5. Dave on June 26, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Very helpful discussion, Ben. But could BYU sponsor a scholarly journal on Mormon Studies that includes the full range of scholarship, in which case some of the articles would likely be rather critical of the standard Mormon narrative and therefore rather controversial in the BYU context? Or would the journal publish only the positive half of the spectrum, in which case it’s not really a scholarly journal? You could even have the New FARMS Review publishing nasty critiques of articles from the critical side of the spectrum that get published in the new Mormon Studies Review.

    So it’s not clear to me whether the Mormon Studies Review as a scholarly journal can actually happen at BYU. It’s not clear the folks pushing for the new MSR have really thought this through, which is ironic because it’s clear that that the decision to bring the FARMS Review of Books under the BYU umbrella wasn’t quite thought completely through either.

  6. James Olsen on June 26, 2012 at 9:27 am

    This is very helpful, Ben, I appreciate your taking the time to give us this analysis. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that conceptual/methodological/teleological differences are tied to idealogical differences. From there it’s an easy step for orthogonal genres (as you describe) to be (illegitimately) pitted against one another. Then, when institutions (inevitably) clarify or reorient for the future, various sides declare ideological victory. Such declarations are at least as illegitimate as the confused ideological warfare that precedes the clarification.

    Here’s hoping for a better Mormon studies/review/journalism future.

  7. Robert Ricks on June 26, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Some of the most interesting academic reviews—which, as you note, are usually dry affairs—are those that aggressively disagree with the object of review. (See here for a relatively famous example from the field of Islamic studies.) But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. I think you’re right, Ben, that popular-style reviews and scholarly articles/reviews may not always co-exist easily between the same covers. No doubt other factors contributed to the most recent sturm und drang, but the tension between competing visions of what the flagship publication should contain certainly was part of the difficulty.

  8. Ben Huff on June 26, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Thanks, KLC; First Things is a very helpful comparison.

    Dave, I actually think BYU really could be comfortable hosting a journal that published scholarly pieces that directly and methodically argued against key features of LDS belief. I think it would have to be set up in the right way, though, with an editorial board that had the trust of the BYU community, and at some level the Board of Trustees would probably have to be supportive too. There would probably be some folks here and there at BYU who would never get used to it, but I think BYU could do it. I am saying this at a very general level, though, with nothing like a detailed sense of who the relevant administrators and committees are that would have to be on board, and whether the particular people in those positions would be amenable. Initially it would depend somewhat on particular personalities. I think it’s fair to say that BYU has been ambivalent about Mormon Studies in a few different ways for some time, so this would be something newish, and one might not be able to really predict how it would go in a big complex institution like BYU.

    I think it would be possible, though, in part because at SMPT we have been running conferences and a journal in that manner for years now, with a (rotating) board of around 40% BYU professors, give or take, and some of these same people, and people with a similar perspective, would probably be in the mix on relevant committees and such to secure what we might call the institutional politics if BYU hosted a journal. Dan Peterson, as it happens, has himself been a staunch supporter of critical material at SMPT that simply observes the same norms of professional discourse we expect of any contribution. FARMS/MSR has published critical pieces, too, so as far as this issue goes we’re not talking about something entirely unprecedented. The conviction of the founders of SMPT was that the things that have been legitimately upsetting to BYU about past incidents with critical intellectuals were not merely problems of criticism, but also cases where criticism was pursued in a manner that was out of step with best practices for professional scholarship generally, and we feel our experience has confirmed that. Professional scholarship in the strict sense requires respect for those one is disagreeing with, and respectful criticism just feels very different.

    You should ask someone closer to BYU, though.

    I actually think the trickier issues for a strictly scholarly journal have to do with the state of the field right now and whether there is enough material to support a whole journal devoted to Mormon Studies generally, which is really an interdisciplinary or pan-disciplinary designation, when there are not a lot of particular disciplines that have robust discourses on Mormon issues. At SMPT, for what it’s worth, we felt philosophy and theology were areas where there were enough scholars interested in firing up the discussion that we could support a journal. We have had no shortage of high-quality content; our challenges have been essentially constraints on manpower to handle the administrative side of running the organization and programming with no paid staff.

    James, you are right that methodological differences are often linked with ideological differences. Part of how I think about this is as a matter of loyalty to and identification with different audiences. If one person is thinking of a publication primarily as something that serves the church and its members, and another is thinking of it as something that serves or should serve the scholarly world as such first and foremost, they are going to react very differently because the audience to a large extent drives the choice of genre and hence the standards for good work. To a large extent, then, I prefer to see this as people talking past one another, but to those involved it often just feels like irreconcilable conflict, possibly in part because they haven’t thought through these differences of genre and audience (at least that is the theory I’m exploring in this post).

  9. Kevin Barney on June 26, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Ben H., this is a very helpful and thoughtful analysis. I don’t think I had really thought that much before about the genre confusion in the Review. I suspect its existence is partly a function of evolutionary development, as you surmise, but also partly just grounded in pragmatism, that there was an interest in and need for all of these different sorts of things, but this grab bag of Mormon *stuff* was just too small to warrant separate journals/reviews/venues.

    A lot of people forget that one of the functions of the Review was to critique pro-LDS literature as well. For example my own “Isaiah Interwoven,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 353-402 is a lengthy and technical review essay on Donald W. Parry, _Harmonizing Isaiah: Combining Ancient Sources_ (Provo: FARMS, 2001).

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=15&num=1&id=478

    (If you look at it, be sure to click the PDF option so the Hebrew comes through.)

    If I had published a review in Dialogue, it would have been two or three pages, as is typical in that venue. This was a much more exhaustive and technical treatment of 50 pages (sort of along the lines of the example Ben S. gives above). Note that I was critiquing a FARMS publication; I was often asked to review such publications, as I was far away from Provo and didn’t have the same conflicts of interest most BYU scholars would have had. Still, it was hard for me, because I know Don a little bit, and I really like him and consider him a friend. But the book was deeply flawed and I felt necessitated a thorough, critical review. And I’m not sure where else such a review would have or could have appeared.

    As for the new direction of the MSR, I suspect it hasnt’ been fully fleshed out yet (much will probably depend on the vision of the new editorial team, whenever they might be assembled). It will be very interesting to see what they come up with, and I think we can be sure that your post will be one of the things they take into careful consideration in forming that new vision.

  10. Ben Huff on June 26, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Robert, as you observe, my points about genre can be taken as one way of cashing out the disagreement over two different visions, in the vein of what Bill Hamblin describes, based on whether to create an environment in which those scholarly hothouse flowers would feel 100% at home or one that provided a broader spectrum service of Mormon-themed material with a strong commitment to the inquiring Mormon-on-the-street.

  11. Adam G. on June 26, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Ben H.,
    good discussion. I agree with the commenter who said that the Review had a touch of First Things in it, though a little more scholarly and a lot more Mormon.

  12. Ben Huff on June 26, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Kevin, I agree the combining of material was probably driven in part by the pragmatics of not having or being in a position to maintain separate publications (yet?). As you say, a great deal of the Review’s material addresses the needs of scholars and the nascent field of Mormon Studies scholarship in a direct and robust fashion. As for those determining the next steps considering my post, it is hard to imagine that people who’ve been closely involved with the journal for years would learn anything about it from my post; my hope is more to help the rest of us process what is happening; but if it is helpful in some way, they’re welcome to it.

  13. BHodges on June 26, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    It is fair to lampoon the author of a popular work when commenting on it, just like it is fair to lampoon President Obama, or Mitt Romney, in a political opinion piece.

    It is. But is it wise? I submit, in some cases, the lampooning and the fun have become detrimental and alienating to a considerable segment of potential audiences. Also, suppose a person is thirsty and I provide them with a warm glass of milk. They might be incredibly grateful but a cool glass of water might be more appropriate depending on the season. If the person has never enjoyed a cool glass of water, though, they’ll be satisfied with the milk. We must distinguish between underlying needs and the means by which we try to account for those needs.

    As a trained journalist non-practicing, I think your invocation of that category is somewhat misleading. There is NPR-style journalism and there is cable news commentary-style journalism. There are serious differences between them, and between ever more types of journalism. You bring this out when you call up the NYRB as an example later in the post.

    That said, I like how you call attention to the fact that the Review has housed a variety of approaches reviewing a variety of genres by a variety of authors. The trouble is that people can so easily and readily call to mind the more polemical bits of the Review and thus dismiss the whole enterprise, throwing baby and bathwater to the wayside. Is the jocular, the aggressive, the polemical stuff so necessary that we should be cool with it overshadowing the more substantive stuff? No. Can a popular audience and popular books still be addressed without an abundance of snark or life-or-death dramatization? I think so, yes.

    And Dave’s #5 calls explicit attention to an elephant in the room: the problem of policing “faithful” narratives, and institutional authority when it comes to academic work, or even “popular” work.

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    I agree that First Things is a prime example of a journal that has combined pretty sophisticated scholastic articles (on topics like theology, religious history, the religious aspects of music, painting, and architecture, and of course politics), personal essays, and very lengthy reviews that in some cases are detailed rebuttals of the books reviewed. And then of course there were the somewhat cynical observations of the silly in the religious field, which was always the first thing I read when Richard John Neuhaus was still alive to write them. One feature that First Things has that has never been a part of the FARMS Review (et al) is the Letters section, which has included sometimes lengthy submissions, often in response to negative book reviews, which sometimes took on the character of symposia as several scholars responded to an article and the original author responded to them. The Letters reflect the fact that no one expects everyone to agree about the topics of the articles, essays and reviews. First Things is a very polyglot publication in some ways, with contributions from Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and even a Mormon or two.

    I think a lot can be said of the need among the Latter-day Saints for a publication that can assemble several scholarly articles to rebut the assertions made in a single book about DNA and its implications for the Book of Mormon. In the one instance when I submitted a book review to the FARMS Review, I was held to just as high a standard of scholarship as when I prepared articles for legal journals. That standard of scholarship gives the reviews and the rebuttals published in the Review a credibility that is part of their value for Mormons.

    Just as there is a social need for a journal like First Things, I believe there is a legitimate need in the Mormon community for the kind of publication that the FARMS Review has been.

    I can see an argument that there is a need for a different kind of journal, which seeks to publish scholarship in the field of Mormon Studies from both Mormon and non-Mormon authors, such as those who participated in the Joseph Smith Bicentennial symposium at the Library of Congress in 2005, drawing on the Mormon Studies programs at schools like Claremont, UVU, Utah State, BYU (Provo, Hawaii and Idaho), Southern Virginia University, and work by LDS scholars like Campbell at Notre Dame, etc. But I seen no reason why the existence of such a journal has to be at the expense of the continuation of the fine work done for over 20 years at the FARMS Review. The new journal would then have the problem of defining boundaries with BYU Studies. Is its mission to serve as a sort of neutral ground where Mormon and non-Mormon scholars can discuss Mormon history and scriptures without fear of hostility? That sounds like a positive goal, but I personally still feel the need to hear what scholars like Peterson and others can tell me when I want to be able to respond to the more polemical and critical publications that denigrate my beliefs. My guess is that the enthusiasm for the FARMS Review can generate more funds in sales and donations to support the “neutral ground” journal than could the neutral ground journal without a FARMS Review.

    The Brethren have been explicit in recent years in asking the Saints to get engaged in apologetic work in the internet discussion forums. the FARMS Review has been the armory, a great repository of ammuition for those of us who want to take up the mission Elder Ballard has called us to. It is ironic that, just when we are getting more deeply involved in the campaign to defend Mormonism, a central pillar of that effort is being shut down.

  15. BHodges on June 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I forgot to add, I write a lot of book reviews. I write them with a popular audience in mind and also try to make them relevant to scholars in the field and even to the authors and editors of various publications as well.

  16. Steve Smith on June 26, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    This all begs the question of if there will be a significant future for Mormon apologetics, or if it will just become more fragmented and decentralized. Part of the problem of FARMS and the review was that it was so rooted in an ancient Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon and couldn’t accommodate alternative explanations very well. It reviewers were ruthless not only with Mormons who advocated a 19th century BOM like Grant Palmer, but also people like Rod Meldrum who promoted a North American setting for the BOM using rather unconventional scholarly methods based on prophetic insights and even personal revelation to substantiate his claims. The attempt at the John Dehlin hit piece seemed to have provided enough impetus for the reformers to rid themselves of the old guard of Peterson, Hamblin, and the like. A good move in my opinion, but now we’re left with the question of: reform to what? If you try to accommodate a greater variety of views, it may appear to be just another Sunstone or Dialogue. If it tries to provide more scholarship that positively tries to prove an ancient setting for the BOM and not criticize those who believe otherwise, then good luck. It seems that most of that type of research has been done and has failed to gain any acceptance by non-LDS scholars.

    Faced with a lack of evidence that convinces the non-LDS audience of the BOM’s ancient setting, it seems that most apologists just resort to the idea that the BOM is to be accepted based on faith anyway. I mean at that rate they might as well just subscribe to Rod Meldrum’s mystical points of view.

    I don’t often agree with Dan Peterson and Bill Hamblin, but I agree with them saying that the Review has no future. It thrived on their type of no holds barred brand of apologetics. It was their zeal that excited the believer base to donate money, time, and interest. So I am going to go out on a limb and proclaim a victory for John Dehlin’s Mormonstories with the new vision of mormonism that espouses and a defeat for the Hugh Nibley type of apologetics.

  17. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 27, 2012 at 6:39 am

    Thanks for the reasoned perspective.

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 27, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Raymond Takashi Swenson — I had wondered where BYU Studies fit in the mix, vis a vis the new direction for FARMS.

  19. James Olsen on June 27, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Steve Smith: that was quite convenient for you to so aptly illustrate my point (#6).

  20. Robert Ricks on June 27, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Steve Smith, I think you’re right that a Mesoamerican model of BoM geography was a central feature of the classic-FARMS approach and perhaps more of a shibboleth than it needed to be.

    I don’t believe, however, that the aim of the review or other FARMS publications ever was to convince non-LDS scholars of BoM antiquity/historicity. Indeed, I would find it very odd—given the production process and the nature of the truth claims—that anyone could accept the historicity of the BoM without also accepting at least some version of the concomitant truth claims. As this was never the goal of their approach (as far as I can tell), it doesn’t seem fair to fault them for a lack of success here. Nor does it mean that failure as measured by this arbitrary criterion means that all arguments on behalf of BoM antiquity have run their course.

    I would also add that while there certainly were/are competing visions for the review and the Maxwell Institute (articulated quite clearly by Hamblin), I don’t think that Dehlin really enters into this conversation at all, except possibly as a final straw that precipitated recent events. His project seems to me to represent a sociology of faith transition, or possibly a popular anthropology of 21st-century Mormonism. He offers no overarching vision for Mormon studies qua academic discipline and, therefore, no plausible “victorious” alternative to the FARMS /Nibley approach to apologetics.

  21. Steve Smith on June 27, 2012 at 11:07 am

    James Olsen, I agree that it is often the case that different ideological camps often proclaim victories after institutions “clarify or reorient the future.” But I disagree that these proclamations are always illegitimate. The proclamation of victory by free market ideologues when Gorbachev unveiled Perestroika and Glasnost was certainly legitimated by the collapse of the Soviet Union not long after (of course don’t take this as a comparison of Mormon apologetics to communism). The new Soviet policy reorientations may not have caused the collapse, but they were signs that it was teetering on the brink.

    But might I remind you that what occurred at the Review was no minor reorientation or clarification of its future. Have you not read Dan Peterson’s emails, let alone the whole story of what happened? It seems quite clear that his dismissal coincides with the Review’s attempts to smear John Dehlin. Dehlin preempted the hit piece by asking Peterson through email if he could see it before publication and by also emailing one of his GA friends about their plans to publish it. This all strongly suggests that Bradford and co. (and perhaps some of the GAs, although still no evidence of that) are deeply uncomfortable with the Review defaming other LDS be they promoters of a more mystical historiography of the BOM like Rod Meldrum or those who lean towards a 19th-century BOM like John Dehlin.

    As for the future of the Review? I just don’t see bright prospects for Mormon apologetics. My best guess is that it will either merge with general Mormon studies (in which both believers and non-believers are equal participants) or adopt a more kumbaya CES approach.

  22. Ben S on June 27, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Steve, like Robert, I disagree with some of the way you’re framing this

  23. Steve Smith on June 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Robert Ricks, convincing a non-LDS audience of BOM antiquity may not have been a stated aim of the apologists. But judging by the themes of many of their publications (i.e. Dan Peterson, “Evidences of the Book of Mormon,” 2007), making truth claims based on archaeological evidence to convince whatever audience seems to be a strong implicit aim. Of course all apologist arguments for an ancient BOM are built around the classic, and rather clever, Nibley question of how could have JS written the BOM rather than x evidence supports y claim.

    The whole raison d’etre of apologetics and FARMS/review in the first place was to define an intellectual space within which Mormon thinking about historicity claims, mainly of the BOM and Book of Abraham, could exist comfortably with the church’s official policies and beliefs (otherwise it wouldn’t be apologetics). It gave voice to a certain range of Mormon intellectuals’ ideas but minced no words in ostracizing other intellectual trends within Mormonism (namely the September Six or Signature Books types and also the Rod Meldrum types). It created a standard against which Mormon intellectual thought could be measured vis-a-vis its belief and acceptance of the official church.

    What John Dehlin does at mormonstories.org is in essence create a space for a wider range of Mormons, including openly gay Mormons and the September Six/Signature Books-type of Mormons (who believe in a 19-century BOM), and legitimate their voices within Mormonism. He also gives voice to non-Mormons who research Mormonism and its claims, such as archaeologist Michael Coe, and legitimates their approaches. This is something that the apologists would never do. Peterson and co. certainly identify themselves as being in competition with Dehlin in how legitimate Mormon belief should be represented. Peterson indirectly equates Dehlin (without saying his name) with Korihor in a Deseret News op-ed published on June 21, 2012 after his dismissal had been revealed: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765584731/Korihor-and-Social-Darwinism.html?pg=all.

    So yes, I think that Peterson’s dismissal is a defeat for the traditional representation of what legitimate Mormon belief vis-a-vis BOM historicity and a range of other subjects should be, and a victory for those who promote a broader scope of legitimate Mormon belief a la John Dehlin.

  24. palerobber on June 27, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    the journal already changed its name a year ago to Mormon Studies Review, which would have seemed the natural time to crystallize the distinction between the FARMS-branded, popular material […] and the purely scholarly material

    from what i’ve read it appears this was the time when the new scholarly direction was crystallized, it just took a while for Bradford to determine that Peterson was never going to get on board.

    Does BYU care enough about the popular material to support a Review of Books […] ?

    it would seem that BYU has just answered this question: no.

  25. palerobber on June 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    @ Robert Ricks, #20

    I would find it very odd—given the production process and the nature of the truth claims—that anyone could accept the historicity of the BoM without also accepting at least some version of the concomitant truth claims.

    why would this be so for people studying the BoM when it doesn’t hold for biblical scholars?

    also, “production process”?

  26. Ben H on June 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    For a lively account of the development of the journal over the years, including the thinking behind the various changes of name and expanding on some of the points I’ve mentioned in my original post, see the Editor’s Introduction to Issue 23:1, the first issue printed under the name Mormon Studies Review. I am pleased to find that my description matches Dan’s surprisingly closely where they overlap, not having read this piece before, and certainly knowing the Review about 0.25% as well as he does. Including a pretty good taste of Dan’s editorial philosophy and goals, as well as mentioning many notable reviews and developments along the way, it is an excellent introduction to the full range of what the Review has been.

  27. palerobber on June 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    @ Ricks #20

    elaborating on my previous question…

    from the perspective of scholars, why would Smith’s translation (which many mormons see as inspired) of the BoM from an earlier record be looked at any differently from the KJV translation (which many christians see as inspired) of the bible from an earlier record?

  28. Ben H on June 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    It is worth noting that there has in fact been only one issue published of the Mormon Studies Review! The Maxwell Institute web page for the Review lists it from start to finish as The FARMS Review, including the html version of issue 23:1. On the PDF version, however, one can see in the corner of the page the new title, Mormon Studies Review. I just called the Institute to ask what the story was on the new title, since the website lists everything from the start until now as the FARMS Review, and the staff person who answered the phone was not sure how the numbering would work for the journal going forward; she made it sound as though there are a number of things yet to be settled about it, as the announcement suggests.

  29. christine on July 2, 2012 at 10:33 am

    so the MI idea is to change the name every few years and let the subscribership find out what changes in the content….?fun…or in this latest instance to fire people and then have the readership figure out what exactly the new lot are supposed to write about ? With or without BYU ownership I think it is fair to say that it will be something to try and a) prove that something in the BoM is trueb) disprove any claim that something in the BoM is not true…so that it will be easier to see for LDS Members or Inquirers that the BoM is true. ? with this one sided approach or should I say conflict of interest, can this be real scholarship ? maybe not so relevant, it can still be very educational as to the processes and which parts of the BoM they might use as a basis or… as per DPs book about why Mormons are Christians.. focussing in on a specific piece of criticism that shows interesting aspects such as the beliefs of should I say “other” non roman catholic derived christians from before and after the Schizm in Constantinople.