Friday, December 20, 2013

The New Mormon Studies Review and the Passing of an Age

I guess I’m getting old enough to understand that I have lived through historically significant times. What used to be current events are now my personal (should I say biased?) memories of the past. I have just recently come face-to-face with this reality as my son Spencer handed me the first volume of the new (and much anticipated) Mormon Studies Review (Volume 1, 2014).

I have been eager to read this new issue for many months now. As a regular subscriber to The FARMS Review (which had just recently changed its name to Mormon Studies Review), FARMS Review of Books, and Review of Books on the Book of Mormon – all of which (together) comprise a continuous publication that began in late 1980’s – I had been receiving notices that the next issue had been put on hold while new formatting and editorial changes were being made. The new Review was scheduled to come out by the end of this year (2013). And indeed it has.

I realize that it may be presumptuous of me to comment on the recent changes. I have never been privy to the decisions that have directed any of the previous forms of the Review. My perspective is simply one of an interested reader – albeit a reader of decades. And it is with this limitation in mind that I consider this important LDS publication through my own historical lens.

In truth, the new publication has left me feeling a bit nostalgic. I discovered the earlier versions of the Review during the formative years of my under-graduate and graduate education at BYU. From an academic standpoint, I have grown up with the Review.

In the mid 1980’s I had just recently returned from my mission and had stumbled upon my first volume of Nibley’s opera while foraging in the Harold B. Lee Library for something religiously substantial to read. This first encounter with Professor Nibley’s work was a real life changing experience for me, just as it has been for hundreds (if not thousands) of others.

This was during the time when the newly formed Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies had joined efforts with Deseret Book to publish The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. In 1989, the year I graduated with my Master’s Degree, I received a copy of Volume 1 of the Collected Works from my parents for my birthday.

That year (1989) also marked the beginning of the Review (called then the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon). And, in hindsight, it is obvious how I have come to associate both the Review and the works of Nibley in a common light. Both (together) have virtually defined Mormon apologetics for over half a century. Yet this admission almost seems to be an understatement. Beyond defining Mormon apologetics, they have come to define a large part of Mormon scholarship to a rapidly expanding world of educated Latter-day Saints. The Review, in particular, has been one of only a few venues that faithful Latter-day Saint scholars have had available to them.

And this has been beneficial. But, as I can see now, it has also been limiting. It was immensely satisfying to emerging academics, like me, to see that there were legitimate answers to our critics. We could continue our scholarly subjects even as we continued true to our faith. Indeed, our scholarly pursuits could often be seen as strengthening our faith. We developed a real regard for the scripture in the 88th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants (verse 118) that encourages us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith”.

I should add here a note on the significance of this to young people of the Church. Most emerging scholars come into their own during the very impressionable years of their 20’s. This is a period of important spiritual development, a period when students rely heavily on mentors – especially academic mentors (such as major professors, committee members, teachers, and other capable adults), and a period when academic zeal can get away from the best of us and relegate the importance of the First Commandment to a side-bar in our lives.

Ecumenicalism can have the unfortunate effect of minimizing faith or of making faith a matter of relative preference. Faithful arguments – especially scholarly arguments in defense of faith – have a way of balancing this tendency. They are also the arguments that endure where current scholarly trends often become dated. There is a reason that Christian apologetics has been around from nearly the beginning of the faith. And it is a needed endeavor among Latter-day Saints today even as it was nearly two millennia ago among the first Christians. 

There is a recognized place for scholarly apologetics among our other Christian friends. The ecumenical journals First Things and Touchstone are two that come readily to mind. These journals are filled with a Christian scholarship that is not afraid to defend the faith. Are we unwilling (or unable), as Latter-day Saints, to do the same?  

Or maybe the time is not right. Perhaps now is the time for bridge-building, for mending some of the relationships that have been strained and broken through decades of misunderstanding. Mormonism certainly lends itself to American ecumenicalism. If we have to put or defensive hats in the closet in order to fully engage with this needed dialogue among our religious peers, maybe it is for the best.

But what is to become of our Latter-day Saint tradition of apologetics at this stage of the game? Will the changing focus of the Review absorb this history of debate into a more conciliatory dialogue? Will Mormon detractors become less vitriolic, or will we simply ignore them? Maybe these are not even the right questions.

To the extent that the new publication refuses to review misinformed and sloppy anti-Mormon publications, it will be providing a needed service. This I see as a positive development if, in fact, the first issue is any indication of things to come. Sadly, however, I don’t think it likely that deeply flawed anti-Mormon publications will stop being produced. The average Latter-day Saint will continue to be confronted with critics and will need to look for answers about specific texts. I’m not sure that the new Review will meet this need. For readers that want a balanced and nuanced treatment of Mormon publications, the new Review will be a clear improvement. For those needing a simpler clarification of a text – spelled out in more black and white language – some other resource will need to become available. Perhaps we will rely on the internet, and this may be sufficient. But it may also leave many of us disappointed, if not misled.   

The new Review is a publication for scholars – Mormon and non-Mormon alike. But it also serves the Mormon Church as a resource to promote inter-faith dialogue. It is very well named – focusing, as it does, on “Mormon studies”.  But it will not be lost on previous readers that this focus, now long in coming, will be seen to contrast with Mormon apologetics. We will not be seeing any more classic defenses of the faith in this new Review. Any defense that we do see will be more of a nod to scholarly decorum than to a reasoned faith.

In the final essay of the new Review, Blair Hodges finds Mormon Studies extending back as far as Leonard Arrington and Moses Rischin, then proceeding to authors such as Grant Underwood and Jan Shipps, and continuing with Richard Bushman, among others. These are impressive names, for sure, but it is quite a different pedigree from what the “former” Review would claim. As an organ of Mormon apologetics, the former Review carried on a tradition that extended back at least as far as Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (published by the Deseret News Press in 1952). 

So while I am impressed with the new Review – with both the wisdom and timing of this new direction – I am also saddened at the passing of an age. And I’m somewhat worried about where this will send our would-be Mormon apologists. Is it too soon to recognize a now erstwhile period of classic Mormon apologetics? Maybe we should call it the “Age of Nibley” – but this sounds too patronizing. Maybe this former tradition will move in another and equally profitable direction. Or maybe the significance of the period, and the demise of classic Mormon apologetics, will go un-noticed and fall from our interest altogether. I guess we will have to wait and see. In the meantime I wish the new Mormon Studies Review and its custodians a healthy and long-lived success. And even more to the point – I look forward to a long and positive dialogue with our non-Mormon colleagues. Bon Voyage!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Real Live Treasure Maps

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, the young Jim Hawkins finds a map in the sea chest of the erstwhile pirate Billy Bones. Jim learns that the map is, in fact, a treasure map and sets out with a colorful crew of adventurers to find the hidden wealth.

In Susan Cooper’s children’s classic Over Sea, Under Stone, the Drew children find themselves secretly going through the attic of an old coastal house in Cornwall while on vacation. The youngest child Barnabas happens upon an old manuscript containing a map and an ancient text that lead the children on an Arthurian adventure to find the Holy Grail.

Treasure maps and coded messages make for fun suspenseful stories. They show up regularly in books and magazines targeting all age groups. The film industry also capitalizes on their appeal on a regular basis. The Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies are just a few of the more popular examples but there are many others.

Another genre of treasure maps exist, however, that far fewer people are familiar with, even though they involve very real maps and just as much romance and adventure as their more popular counterparts. I’m referring to the hand-crafted maps tucked away in the notebooks and memories of naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts. And it is no exaggeration to say that these maps are sometimes guarded with the same level of secrecy as any map pointing to a stash of precious metal.

I’m not referring to the thousands of distribution maps of organisms that occur in the libraries and private collections around the world – the kinds of maps one finds in field guides and in the more scholarly journals describing animals and plants. These maps are very important in showing the geographic ranges of species. And as animals and plants change where they live over time, these maps can help us understand more about them. They are fascinating maps in their own right. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call them treasure maps. They are usually drawn to scale and are widely published – without the sensational aura that surrounds a secret.  

Treasure maps are different. They are not generally printed in color on glossy paper (at least not until the treasure has been discovered or until it has gained a general historic interest). They tend to be drawn in notebooks, on separate sheets of paper, or on whatever writing scraps happen to be available. They are frequently drawn in pencil with thin curvy lines showing streams, natural outcroppings, farms, buildings, meadows, prominent trees, etc., all of which are almost never drawn accurately to scale. And the location of the specific habitat is usually marked with an ex – which is often encircled.

Yet while it is true that these crude methods of crafting treasure maps can add to their mystique, I don’t mean to imply that other maps are not similarly appealing. Most maps are capable of sparking the imagination.

The first gifts that I remember receiving as a young boy were maps. One was a globe and another was a book of antique maps. Before I learned to enjoy reading, I loved to look at them and imagine what unknown places were like. Then as a young teenager I became fascinated with birds, mammals and insects, and I discovered – from distribution maps – that different kinds of creatures could be found in different places not far from my home.

This discovery led me on day hikes and short overnight adventures into the foothills and mountains above my home. I was thrilled to find an abundance of interesting mammals including squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. On occasion I also saw moose, badgers, and skunks. I loved watching the juncos and towhees that were common, and I was thrilled beyond belief the first time I saw an owl – at dusk, as it flew silently over my head. Maps, in a very real way, introduced me to a whole new world.

I began making my own journal entries that occasionally contained hand-written maps of the places I had been. As I go back and read these entries (at least the ones that aren’t lost) I find that the maps are more interesting to me than the texts. I think I understood this at a fairly basic level even as a teenager.

It was then that I began to look at maps a bit more closely. What could I find on another mountain or by a desert spring? What about the many streams and rivers with unusual names that curved in thin blue lines away from mountain peaks? Maybe I would discover a new species near one of them.

Jerry Brotton has recently pointed out that maps have given many imaginative souls the ability “to rise above the earth and look down on it from a divine perspective…”. This comes pretty close to describing the thrill I have often experienced looking at maps and planning expeditions to fascinating places both near and far. I have never really lost my romantic fascination with unknown wild places. Just opening a field guide and glancing through the pages of distribution maps inevitably sets my mind to work planning my next trip.

I have to admit, however, that this sort of thing often gets me into trouble – sort of like chasing a wild goose, as my Mother used to tell me. Just because a map shows the distribution of an animal or plant does not mean that you will automatically find the specific habitat or location of what you go looking for.

Take for example Lewis’s woodpecker. This is a fairly good-sized bird – about the size of a robin – with an attractive red face and pink and white breast. It was named after Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). A distribution map indicates that this interesting bird occurs throughout the western United States – especially throughout the Rocky Mountains. It occurs over a fairly large area. And yet I have only seen it on one occasion, even though I have been watching birds in the Rockies for decades.

I remember the occasion well. I was at home one weekend working in the yard when my friend Steve – obviously excited about something – found me and divulged his important news. He said that a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers had been sighted near the town of Mapleton, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in driving down to look for them with him.

I quickly rearranged my schedule and off we went. I remember well the lonely road where we found them. There were a few scattered farm houses about with meadows and fields extending into the foothills of the Wasatch Front. We were driving slowly with heads peering up into trees and into bushes looking for any sign of the birds. Finally Steve spotted them in a distant tree.

They weren’t behaving like typical woodpeckers. They would often be perching on branches instead of hanging to the trunk of the tree. And at times they would fly into the air after insects instead of pecking at the bole for subcortical creatures – like most woodpeckers do.

Both Steve and I were thrilled. The place is marked in my memory like a real treasure map. Sadly I have lost the one I think I drew. Even the two tall cottonwoods and the barbed-wire fence – where the two birds where foraging – remain clear to me after all these years. I remember thinking as we left the site that I had just experienced something unusual, something unexpected. In a way I felt privy to a secret.

Through the years I have marked many of these experiences in my journal – often with lined maps and descriptions on how to find the place again. Many biologists do the same thing, especially if they keep a field notebook, like most field biologists do.

I was surprised many years ago to find that these same landmarks and general features found in field notes are also part of real treasure maps. My brother-in-law, who is fascinated with the history of Spanish mines and miners, introduced me to some of the maps of the lost Rhoades gold mines in the Uintah Mountains of Utah. The kinds of maps that have been found (and, in some cases, recreated) are just what one finds in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of field notebooks around the world. Of course this makes perfect sense. A landmark is a landmark regardless of the treasure.

And make no mistake about it, this information is guarded. Biologists know that many species – especially the less common and unusual ones – can be easily exploited by unethical collectors. And so they withhold information about specific localities where some of them live.

I recall some years ago hoping to find a few specimens of the beautiful tiger beetle (Cicindela pulchra). I knew a place above Fort Collins, Colorado where several had been collected in previous years and went looking for them. In fact I ended up returning to the same place several times over several years (always at the right time of the year when they would be out and active) yet I never found a single individual. It turns out that they had been driven to extinction in that place by over-collecting. It’s no wonder that serious biologists are suspicious about anybody they don’t know seeking locality information. And while the removal of a few individuals from a healthy population may be fully justifiable – even helping to promote understanding about a species – removing too many can destroy the population.

Some time ago I was involved with a discussion group considering this very issue. The group was comprised of editors of the international journal Zootaxa. One editor, that was responsible for an interesting but less popular animal group, wanted to get feedback on why specific localities were not listed with the original description of a species. The dilemma became apparent immediately. Locality information should be available, especially in a professional publication; and yet it also needed to be protected, especially when vulnerable species were involved.

This may seem like an unsolvable problem, and yet it has been handled quite nicely now for hundreds of years. Since specific locality data are almost always kept on museum labels near the individual specimen or in the field notebooks of researchers, museum curators get to monitor who has access to this information and who does not. Field notebooks and their accompanying “treasure maps” aren’t available to just anybody.

I don’t mean to imply that only museums keep these valuable maps. This would be impossible given the fact that professional biologists are not the only people interested in finding interesting species, or who draw maps of interesting places. And this brings me to a very important part of the issue: we need more people keeping field notes. We need you to start taking field notes.

Maybe your notebook will be nothing more than a list. Birders are famous list keepers and many of their lists also include valuable locality information. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in keeping butterfly and dragonfly lists too. Wildflower enthusiasts are frequently good note and list makers – as well as good photographers (and artists). When one considers just how intimately connected many animals are to the plants that sustain them, it becomes obvious how valuable good geographic information can be.

If you happen to stop by the side of a country road to take a picture of a pretty wildflower, why not take an extra minute or two to draw a little map of where you spotted it – and perhaps a note of the date and circumstances. Try and capture any insects that might be feeding on the flowers, or what other kinds of plants are doing. The more you do this, the more you will become drawn to the area and its inhabitants even as you begin making a record that could become quite valuable. And you will have started creating your own real live treasure maps.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit too fanciful. But that is precisely the point. Remember that the word “fancy” has several meanings.  Yes, it can refer to an impulse or a delusion. But it can also refer to a skill, to an inclination, or to a dream. It most certainly refers to the imagination. And it is in this context that the difference between joy and sadness are most apparent. And why shouldn’t we be part of a very long and honorable tradition of adventurers, dreamers and romantics? Being able to appreciate a beautiful sunset or the song of phoebe depends entirely upon your fancy – upon your imagination – just like it was for the artists and adventurers of generations past. And besides, human nature is quite clear on this point: there is no better way to capture this very real and very local fancy than with a picture, a poem, or a map.  


The statement from Jerry Brotton comes from the introduction of his book, A History of the World in 12 Maps, published in 2012 by Viking. My distribution map of Lewis’s woodpecker is from National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (fifth edition). For several images of the Rhoades treasure maps visit