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!

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