There are 42 thoughts on “Whither Mormon Studies?”.

  1. As Brother Peterson commented, I find Professor Gee’s essay provocative. But not intellectually, academically, or spiritually so. Rather, Brother Gee is like an annoying neighbor who insists on giving you his opinion, however many times you have declined it in the past. What provokes me is the slackness of the argument, the imprecision of the definitions, and the inaccuracies of explication and anecdote when referring to the writing, thinking, and beliefs of Arthur Henry King. The bits and pieces of Arthur Professor Gee cites are not the Mormon parts, but the vestiges of his Quaker upbringing that made of Arthur something of a prig.

    After I had been Arthur’s research assistant for nearly a year—and through his recommendation—I was admitted as a reader at the British Museum where I was to study the sermons of the King James scholar Bishop Launcelot Andrewes. On my first appointment at the library, my credentials were reviewed by the chief librarian. He looked at me over his reading glasses with mock surprise and said, “So, you are recommended by Artie King?” I was too taken aback by the trivializing abbreviation of Arthur’s name to reply. I mutely nodded. “Hmmm,” the librarian hummed. “Stuffy old boy. Even by our standards, don’t you think?”

    No! I did not think! The Right Reverend Companion to the Queen, Shakespeare Scholar and International Academic, Herr Doctor Professor Arthur Henry King was above the wry definitions of mere librarians (however impressive the library!) But over the years, I came to understand there was an “Artie King” who was equally important as the Arthur Henry King. Because Arthur was many things—a man of many moods and philosophies, a scholar who was both theatrical and spiritual, an observer who could be at once profound and petty, but at all times a commentator and guide who was witty and amusing (in the highest senses of those words).

    Arthur stormed out of faculty dinners in protest of “mood music,” bellowed against the “Cult of the Hammond Organ,” and spit and sputtered about the nascent dishonesty of putting ones hands in ones pockets. He even raged against the ethical and aesthetic vulgarity of doll-shaped tea cozies used by British matrons to keep teapots warm and—in Utah Valley—to conceal telephones beneath their skirts. (Think about it.) And contrary to what Dr. Gee alleges—that the English majors were offended by being told we were not prepared to criticize the writing of the greatest author of the English language—we were dazzled! And charmed. Because although he accurately assessed our lack of preparation (we were, after all, BYU students!) he never did what the good professor has done: he never condescended to us. He never chastened us by warning that the apostles and prophets know so much more than us that we should be like Paul’s good little girls: to keep silent in and about the Church so as not to make such foolish errors as he enumerates to be the mistakes of Mormon scholarship by non-Mormons.

    Of course non-Mormon scholars mistake the deeply experiential aspects of Mormonism. Expecting them not to is like demanding non-Jewish historians and anthropologists fully to understand the affect of pogroms, diaspora, and the Holocaust on the Jewish culture and religious experience. And does Professor Gee really intend to argue that the myopia of Mormon scholars is any less a perversion of “study” than is the hyperopia of the non-Mormon scholar?

    To argue that Mormon Studies belongs to Mormons is like arguing that embryology belongs to embryos. The subject of a study often is least prepared to judge its accuracy or importance, because affiliation can cloud clear interpretation to even greater consequence than separation.

    Rather than attempting to control Mormon Studies, to correlate it as Professor Gee seems to suggest we should, should we not be hoping to cease seeing ourselves through the dark glass of our own understanding? Should we not be praying to begin to know ourselves, face to face; not through the lens of our own dogma and evangelizing, but as when a mirror is lifted to us and we see not what we hope or preach, but a nearer approximation to who we are.

    To do otherwise is to risk the fault of Professor Gee: the canonization of Arthur Henry King (who believed the violence of the Book of Mormon to be a flaw attributable to it being a colonial literature) and the humiliation of so faithful and good a friend to the Church as Jan Shipps. To say Professor Ships is an inappropriate scholar of Mormon Studies is to suggest Jack Mormons (in the original sense of the term, meaning those non-Mormons who are friends of the Church) must not merely contribute but testify, not merely research but preach, not merely take seriously the Church but be baptized of it.

    One of the highest intellectual, aesthetic, and religious virtues of the Renaissance was thought to be “wit.” Respect for wit participated in giving us the King James version of the Bible. A generation later when the Puritans dominated art and public life, wit was considered to be the gravest of aesthetic and religious offenses. Arthur was a witty Puritan, a paradox Professor Gee has not taken into account when attempting to conscript him to the service of a definition of Mormon Studies that sounds more like a class in Gospel Doctrine than an investigation of the Mormon experience.

    Elder Hugh B. Brown once observed that the risk of thinking is wrong thinking. But he did not mock the error, he did not discourage the “study.” Rather, he said the remedy for wrong thinking is more thinking. More thinking, Brother Gee. Less authorizing, less certifying, less correlation. Because sometimes being very, very near the Church is like being too near the TV: it not only ruins your vision of it, but it keeps you from seeing clearly the rest of the world.

    • I am blind neither to the faults of the Saints nor to some of those of Brother King. Remembering is not the same thing as canonization. I do not think that we should canonize either Arthur Henry King or Jan Shipps.

      Some are under the mistaken impression that Mormon Studies will help Latter-day Saints “cease seeing ourselves through the dark glass of our own understanding” and “begin to know ourselves, face to face; not through the lens of our own dogma and evangelizing, but as when a mirror is lifted to us and we see not what we hope or preach, but a nearer approximation to who we are.” I am not opposed to anything of those things (they are desirable), but I cannot see how Mormon Studies as presently done will help achieve any of that. Pollyannas praising Mormon Studies have not grappled with the data in the appendices. The data in the appendices show what has passed for Mormon Studies over the past decade at one of the premiere venues. “Queer Families,” “Ritual Nudity,” “Eco-Eroticism,” “Gay Mormon Websites,” “Female Priestly Subjectivity,” “Transhumanism,” “Seximony,” and “Mormon transsexuals” are not part of the typical Mormon experience. They are not “a nearer approximation to who we are” nor do they help us “begin to know ourselves, face to face.” There are things that are of good report and praiseworthy in the decade covered but most of what has passed for Mormon Studies is neither. To fail to acknowledge that is to fail not only as Latter-day Saints but as scholars.

      • Perhaps it is because I am nearing a birthday. Perhaps because after a spring snow, the Utah mountains are bright and without the haze of inversion. Such clarity of event and opportunity may well cause us to reconsider ourselves, to rethink comments of the past, and to wonder. Only recently having discovered Brother Gee’s response to my response to him, I am moved to continue a conversation I had not realized had continued: While Brother Gee is right in listing a number of topics of research not likely to be addressed in Sacrament Meeting, he fails to provide us direction to where they are addressed and studied. Where do Mormons who are gay or transexuals “queer” go to study and be community? And simply because Brother Gee is not interested in the broader community of the church—those of us less perfect in our perceptions, passions, and lives—is that sufficient reason for us to become his negative example? Or does Brother Gee suggest it is not the study of such things that is the problem, but their existence? And while we are at it, perhaps it’s time to wonder: Why are these not subjects addressed by the church when they so affect we who are the church? If the church was made for us, shouldn’t it serve our needs more than need to demand our service? After all these year, Brother Gee, is there still no help for the Widow’s Son?

  2. I just wanted to say how delighted I am at serious conversation here. Dr. Gee’s article is provocative. No doubt about that. But “provocative” can be very good, and, clearly, it has been here.

  3. This article misses the point. The point is that we are entering an era in which people outside the Church are taking an interest in (at academic as well as other levels); and this is something that is to be encouraged, not discouraged. And traditional “Mormon apologetics” is no longer relevant to the the requirements of that particular interest.

    His objection basically boils down to saying that since most of those who are engaged in “Mormon studies” do not have a testimony of the Restoration, therefore they are disqualified from that kind of work, and shouldn’t be engaged on doing it. There are two answer to that: the first is that we are grateful to anyone who takes an interest in Mormonism, and want to encourage and not discourage it. Secondly, if Mormons don’t like the way non-Mormons are doing Mormon studies, the answer is to learn to do a better job of it themselves, rather than try to discourage them from doing it.

    If people outside the Church want to do “Mormon studies,” they will do it the way they want to do, not the way we want them to do it, whether we like it or not; and if we don’t like the way they are doing it, the answer is not to object to, or try to suppress them from doing it; but for us to be engaged in, and become good at doing it; so that we can provide a resource for them, as well as a reliable source of information for others.

    • Sorry, just noticed too many glaring typos in the above post; but have no way of fixing it unless the admin will perhaps allow me to repost it. 🙁

      • “And what *are* the requirements of ‘Mormon Studies’? What should constitute the core compentencies for an academic in this ‘field’?”

        It can be whatever it wants to be. That field of study can be as wide as you want to make it. I was defining what it is *not*, rather than what it *is*.

        “A lot of defensive posturing going on here for ‘Mormon Studies’, but I haven’t seen any consensus among the secular MS apologists on the fundamental questions concerning the ‘field’.”

        How long is a piece of string? Let us judge any work done under the banner of ‘Mormon Studies’ after it has been done, not before it is done. Quite a lot of work seems to have already been done under that banner. Have you read them all? I haven’t. But if you have, and have any criticisms to make of any of them, let’s hear it, instead of telling us that they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

        “Maybe it would be more fruitful for the proponents of MS to stop bashing Bro. Gee’s (obviously thought-provoking) article, and start trying to figure out who you are, so to speak.”

        Nobody is bashing Bro. Gee. It is a valid observation. His argument evidently is not that some Mormon studies have been of poor quality work; because he gives no specific examples. His argument appears to be that people outside the Church shouldn’t be doing any Mormon studies at all! Well, who is he to say that? People out in the rest of the world have the right to study whatever they want to study; and to do it the way they want to do it, not the way we want them to do it. If we think they have made errors in the work they have done, we can point out their errors; but we have no right to tell them what they can and cannot study.

        Mormonism is out there for anybody who wants to study; and to do it the way they want to do it, not the way we want them to do it.

        • I think you have grossly misinterpreted Brother Gee. He doesn’t say that non-Mormons shouldn’t be doing Mormon Studies, he says that they should at minimum have a basic understanding of their subject through actual experience, participation, and engagement, rather than as detached observers, unfamiliar with the core tenets that resonate with all active members.
          Tim

      • “And what *are* the requirements of ‘Mormon Studies’? What should constitute the core compentencies for an academic in this ‘field’?”

        Okay, I have given more thought to that, and I think that I have come up with a working definition ‘Mormon Studies’.

        I would define Mormon Studies as the academic study of the phenomenon of Mormonism in all its aspects, and in the widest sense of the term.

        Interestingly, that would include an academic (including psychoanalytical) study of the phenomenon of Mormon apologetics, or of how Mormons do apologetics; though not the actual doing of Mormon apologetics. 🙂

    • You’re right; anyone who wants to “study” Mormonism will conceive of that in whatever way they wish to. I think it’s quite likely that many of us in the church will find their methods shallow and conclusions flawed. But what else is new? We’ve all encountered different attitudes and focuses in people’s perceptions of the church (which strike us as narrow or biased). Mormon studies is never going to be a coherent thing in any case. The question I find particularly intriguing is the idea of the funders of these academic chairs finding themselves wondering if they’re getting what they hoped they would for their money.

      On the whole, I didn’t find this piece up to Prof Gee’s usual standards.

  4. Brother Gee,

    Your pedantic display of scholastic criticism of the published papers of Mormon discourse is amazing. On the one hand, you demand discipline and preparation, and on the other you exalt participation without credentials. You reflect attitudes of Bill Hamlin and Louis Midgely, yet dismiss those of others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their fields.

    It is true that understanding presumes participation. Hierarchical participation cannot understand the Mo Fems and the gay members. And not the fundamentalists. All of whom you assign as marginal, uninteresting, and irelivant. You miss the leven of ever evolving Church. Their search of identity may be an important study.

    • “Hierarchical participation cannot understand the Mo Fems and the gay members. And not the fundamentalists.”

      Do you have this information from first-hand observation and discourse, or is this just an uninformed presumption on your part? What inside knowledge do you have that General Authorities do not understand those who espouse morals and doctrines contrary to revealed truths?

    • Professor Gee is accused of reflecting the “attitudes of Bill Hamlin [Hamblin?] and Louis Midgely [Midgley?], yet dismiss those of others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their fields.” I have exactly no idea what Robert Rey Black is complaining about. What attitudes, I wonder, does Black have in mind? And who exactly are these “others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their [academic] fields”? And how does this remark contribute to an effort to sort out what is meant by “Mormon studies”?

  5. Thank you, John, for comments that are provocative in a valuable sense. My own experience is not helpful in grasping the squishy mass of writing and thought that goes under the heading Mormon studies. It may be of historical interest to note that Leonard Arrington strongly urged me to attend the organizing session of the Mormon History Association in order to represent a non-historian’s perspective that he considered vital to what he hoped would become a “more-than-history” organization. but the MHA took on a life of its own and defined itself rather narrowly. Both he and I were somewhat discouraged by the restricted range of thought represented in the long term. That suggests that Mormon studies too will follow a course of its own (unpredictable) development that your observations will do little to influence. M. S. seems to me to be developing into an unfocussed Mormon history-lite. Pardon me if my response is not anger, enthusiasm, or concern, but boredom at a burgeoning corpus of comparative triviality.

    Regarding the subject matter of Mormon studies, when Mark Leone and I in the 1980s put together a book manuscript of ethnographies on Mormon groups (in Bolivia, Arizona, Canada, Mexico, etc.; we never found a publisher for it), we were not talking about “Mormonism,” a much vaster topic. In my view it is presumptuous to expect that a consistent methodology, or epistemology, can usefully inform a Mormon studies that purports to carve up the whole elephant.

  6. “Garbage is garbage: but the history of garbage—that’s scholarship.”

    I find this statement rather accurate. Yes, garbage itself is “mundane.” However, the history of garbage may help us understand the development of germ theory, historic plagues, and likely informs our modern choices on safe waste management. The study of the mundane often provides unexpected insights and results.

    I’m afraid I have a difficult time agreeing with Elder Oaks here. Just because one doesn’t believe in the historicity of the BoM does not mean that they therefore must view the BoM as “mundane.”

    On the one hand, one could consider Royal Skousen’s work “mundane.” After all, regardless of what the various manuscripts may tell us about the BoM translation process, none of it really matters. The Book is historic and was translated by the gift of God, right? Why bother with such a mundane thing as original manuscripts when we know our current version is just fine?

    I would argue, however, that Royal’s work is invaluable. That he has taken something mundane and through detailed study of that seemingly mundane thing, he has helped us better understand the BoM translation/production process.

    Also, I would like to echo what has been said above. That the General Authorities are the only “real” experts on what is going on within Mormonism is just silly talk. I’m surprised that Professor Gee, being absorbed in the bureaucracy of academia, would recognize that mid-to low level managers are generally hesitant to deliver bad news up the food chain so if anything, top level managers in any organization are much more likely to have a skewed view towards the positive. Of course the GAs know of the happenings of the Church but are they likely to be able to tell you the social and cultural conditions in Country X that may be contributing to lower retention rates amongst women ages 30-45? I’d probably turn to Pew Research to help me answer that question.

  7. Your article reminded me of an observation by Dallin Oaks. He quoted a former colleague at the University of Chicago, who said, “Garbage is garbage: but the history of garbage—that’s scholarship.”

    Elder Oaks remarked,

    “[S]cholarship can take what is mundane and make it sublime. So with the history of garbage. But scholarship, so-called, can also take what is sublime and make it mundane. Thus, my friend could have illustrated his point by saying, ‘Miracles are just a fable, but the history of miracles, that’s scholarship.’ So with the Book of Mormon. Those who only respect this book as an object of scholarship have a very different perspective than those who revere it as the revealed word of God.”

  8. “Yes. I have wondered if the institutions would tolerate anti-Semitic students in their Jewish Studies programs.”

    Yet that raises the interesting question of how a large portion of the Haredi world views the academic study of Judaism, even (or, perhaps, especially) by other Jews. Here are some examples of topics Jewish scholars have studied which caused no little consternation in the Haredi world: R. Hayim Vital, a preeminent Kabbalist, accusing R. Israel Najara, a prominent sacral poet, of drunkenness and sodomy; the Belz rebbe and his brother encouraging the Hungarian Jews to stay put instead of fleeing the Nazi occupation, while they themselves escaped to safety; statements by 18th century Mitnagdim accusing Hasidim of antinomian behaviour; Sabbatean teachings and practices found among some of the most prominent bastions of Jewish orthodoxy in the 18th and 19th centuries; multiple cases of Jewish authorities in Eastern Europe sanctioning the murder of informers; the conversion of Habad’s founder’s son to Christianity; contemporary accounts stating that the Seer of Lublin feel to his death not as the result of an attack by the forces of evil, but from drunken revelry; and the intense, violent persecution of Bratslav Hasidim by other Hasidic communities throughout the 19th century. All of these are frequently seen by Haredim as an attack on Judaism itself. One popular Haredi speaker, Amnon Yitzchak, frequently and harshly targets academics in his devotional meetings as ignorant heretics out to destroy Judaism. Back in the 1950s, Habad librarian Hayim Lieberman wrote a caustic piece claiming that only Hasidim were qualified to study Hasidic history. Are scholars to ignore those aspects of religious history unsavoury to its adherents?

  9. Let me just echo the earlier question about “general authorities being the experts on the church,”which I think leaves more to be desired:

    [your answer] “Any given General Authority in the Church probably knows more about what is going on in the Church than you or I ever will. That sobering fact should cause those of us who do Mormon Studies to be much more humble than we usually are. If a General Authority were writing about a topic in the current Church, it would probably be better informed than if I were. What strength we have is in our particular niches.”

    From a managerial perspective, it may be true that general authorities have a better grip on the intentions of church leadership and certain kinds of trends among church membership, but is it really true with respect to the church’s position in the world and the broader context it finds itself in? As it is, your response leaves off gesturing to a vague esotericism. Having just learned from an interpreter friend of mine here in Japan of uninformed comments made by a general authority regarding local politics, I really wonder if GAs are informed in the way you seem to imply when it comes to the work that Mormon Studies has been doing in recent years.

    Further, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by the phrase “what is going on in the Church.” Is the “insider view,” however you define it, the proper object of Mormon Studies? Are most people outside the church–which is where much of Mormon Studies has been oriented–really interested in the arcana of LDS organizational or bureaucratic life (GA expertise)? Can you clarify what you mean here?

    • As prophets, seers and revelators, the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles have keys and rights to revelation that allows them to know the needs of the church members and the direction the Lord wishes to have the Church go that no member, no academic, no observer can access nor claim right to. In this way it is very easy for me to agree with Mr. Gee’s statement with respect to the leaders of the Church.

      • Precisely. There is nothing at all wrong with “Mormon studies” as an academic pursuit (although their has been, is, and certainly will be regarding the various ways in which this kind of study manifests itself and the purposes for which it is deployed). However, the perennial desire (wish?) that gospel doctrine and teaching be funneled through and concentrated within the confines of a small, degreed, academic elite who would ultimately come to function as “experts” who’s job it is to filter, critique, and scrutinize the teachings and counsel of the Brethren through the prism of “historical critical method” and other contemporary intellectual templates (the appendix here is quite adequate in providing a glimpse into just what this will inevitably entail) is undying.

        It would ultimately destroy the Church from within, just as the Hellenization of early Christianity and its subservience to Alexandrian philosophical trends emptied it of both its doctrinal substance and ministerial authority in a previous age.

    • I’d like to add to comet’s comment. The problem s/he raises is, I believe, a problem that is endemic in your argument and only serves to severely -if not fatally- weaken it, especially given your heavy emphasis on learning very particular, fine-grained disciplines upon which you hang this article. If discipline in Mormon Studies is so necessary that one can only publish in the field after twenty years in another field, then I expect you to notice the large differences between epistemologies and methodologies cultivated in different institutions and communities and respect those differences, recognizing the unique value and contribution of each.

      Comet points out that you conflate the knowledge gained in bureaucracy with the knowledge gained through research methodologies, but there are other grievous conflations. For one, you equate missionary pedagogy and teaching experience with academic pedagogy and teaching. While it is true that for an exceptionally broad understanding of “pedagogy” it is probably true the missionaries have more absolute experience in time teaching than do PhD candidates, the styles and objectives of missionary and academic pedagogy differ so radically that I find the very fact you deem them comparable stunning. Further, I would venture to say that while some missionaries become exceptional teachers, and people can become professors and still be abysmal teachers, you’ve greatly overestimated the effectiveness and expertise of LDS missionaries. (Maybe that’s just the cynical/realistic returned missionary in me. But I know that even relatively terrible, but sincere, missionary teachers can lead people to the Gospel.)

      On another count, you show a remarkable degree of presentism in your evaluation of what Mormon Studies scholars should study. While it would certainly be valuable for non-Mormon Mormon Studies scholars to attend church meetings and familiarize themselves with official present-day doctrinal discourse, this is not absolutely necessary for the study of certain aspects of Mormonism. In fact, if a scholar is primarily interested in, say, Mormons in 1850s Europe, studying modern Mormon discourse without studying the development of that discourse could actually be misleading. The past is, indeed, a foreign country. Treating it as home or as the present can render it incomprehensible, or reduce historical figures to subjects of hagiography or debunking; on the other hand, treating history as a different world can lead us to amazing insights into newly rediscovered worldviews and fascinating people ins three dimensions. Further, by pointing out that Mormon Studies scholars should be humble outside of their niches, you undermine your accusations of Jan Shipps. If she were writing academic articles on 1960s ward bazaars, then not attending sacrament meeting would be a fatal error. However, if she is writing about 1840s Mormonism, then the ignorance of the present perhaps only minorly affects her niche knowledge. Perhaps your indictment of Jan Shipps is deeper than that, but if you’re critiquing her outside of her academic work, I’m curious what your objective is.

      Further, you never acknowledge that Mormon Studies could include other ecclesiastic organizations descended from (or tracing their ancestry to) the church Joseph Smith, Jr. founded. By your definition, and particularly by your designation of non-members as “tourists,” these groups are beyond the pale of Mormon Studies. Why? In addition, can Mormons, as outsiders and tourists, study Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews?

      To conclude, when you speak so pointedly about niches and Mormonism being too big a subject to actually study accurately, you seem to undercut a large amount of scholarship as a whole. If Mormonism is too big a subject for a scholar to claim some basic knowledge of it, then what are we to do with Catholicism? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? American politics? While I believe that there are some out there that might claim some sort of objective, comprehensive knowledge of Mormonism, inasmuch as they make those claims, they are being irresponsible. However, many times this humility is an unwritten assumption; responsible scholarship admits and encourages revisions. A deliberate and attentive knowledge of methodology is, in itself, a concession to humility and the boundedness of scholarly assertions; by merely describing methods, we acknowledge that other disciplines are valid and could add to or contradict the arguments that our discipline has made. If it were a requirement to preface every assertion with a powerful acknowledgement of the limitation of personal knowledge, books would be crowded to overflowing with irrelevant qualifications.

      • Striving,
        I think you have articulated some valid points, but I also believe that you are overlooking the salient point of Brother Gee’s post. While Mormon Studies can be as broad as the ocean, the point is that if you haven’t been in the ocean then your ability to make an accurate assessment is limited at best. I don’t believe that Brother Gee is implying that there is nothing to be added to the conversation by those that have not been in the water. Certainly somebody flying over the ocean would have a great deal of perspective to add in describing it, but simply looking at something verses experiencing it are two radically different things.

        Since Mormonism today (“presentism”) is downstream from its founding, experiencing it today does in fact provide valuable information to understanding its past, although it may not be as pertinent to a study of European Mormons in the 1850’s as it would to a study of modern cultural issues and the Church. If I were writing a paper on the history of basketball but had never played the sport, the detachment from the subject would inevitably permeate my report. Those who play basketball regularly would likely garner new insight, but would certainly recognize a gap between their experience and the understanding of the author. While rules, uniforms, and venues may change over time, the experience of the subject itself is inestimable.

        Additionally, I believe that your assessment of Brother Gee’s discussion of missionaries as teachers is off the mark. The point that he makes (and he can correct me if I’m wrong), is that missionaries are actually engaged in their subject. While they do not apply academic methodologies from various paradigms into their teaching, they do incorporate the sum and substance of Mormonism – personal revelation through the Holy Ghost (as JS mentioned to Van Buren, cited by Gee above) – which is why their teaching, from a crucial perspective, trumps the detached acamedic methodologies employed by niche scholars. We can talk about piano theory all day long, but at the end of the day it is the piano player that actually provides the music, and without the music, the theory is pointless.

        Tim

        • If you’re talking about bodies of water, let’s talk about rivers: how even though the riverbed might be relatively constant in shape, whenever a person crosses a river they are crossing over a new body of water. The name, the hierarchy, and the institutions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the riverbed here; the water, always changing, are the people who live within that system. Because you visit the river today doesn’t mean you can necessarily tell me how it was decades ago, and you certainly can’t without training in alluvial geology; further, there is no possible way you can know the character the river will have in the future.

          Further, what does an NFL football coach know about the experience of football as it was first played at Ivy League colleges in the 1870s? Do modern players have any idea that at one point it was illegal to pass the ball forward? You’d have to do some pretty big abstraction to find the constants (maybe things like competition, team solidarity, dedication, some level of athleticism, and the like). Likewise, modern Mormon authorities, members, and visitors might have little or no inkling about what it was like to be a Mormon (not to mention a Mormon woman, a non-white Mormon, a Mormon apostle, a Mormon bishop, a Mormon missionary, and a whole host of other Mormon identities) in the 1840s, 1870s, 1920s, and beyond. Do they know that Brigham Young was well-known for his glossolalia while on his mission in Britain? Do they know what it’s like to never have a church meeting inside a building? Do they know that Joseph Smith was sealed to 30+ women at the time of his death, much less what it was like to participate in polygamy at Nauvoo? How about living during the polygamy debates in Utah, or to be viewed as radical feminists because they were the first to give women the vote? Would modern Mormons understand the apathy with which Brigham Young viewed the US government during the Civil War, seeing the bloodshed as the wrath of God meted out upon two unrighteous sides?

          Sure, if you aren’t a baptized Mormon, there will be a little detachment from modern Mormonism. But we have to understand that time’s arrow runs one way for the human experience: while the past can help us understand the present, to read the present into the past unreflectively (as in this post) muddies the waters and confuses the onlooker.

          And your point about missionaries is nowhere stated in the article. Here is the quote: “This is not to say that missionaries are particularly gifted teachers; their training in teaching is rather minimal. For all its brevity, however, it is more extensive than the amount of pedagogical training necessary to receive a PhD. So a Mormon Studies graduate is likely to be no better informed about the Church in general than a stake president and no better a teacher than a missionary.” He does not say that missionaries have the Spirit and thus can teach more authentically; he states that missionaries have more teaching experience than PhD candidates.

          Besides, a cursory glance at American religious history will serve to prove Joseph Smith’s statement about Mormon difference wrong, at least as onlookers were concerned: plenty of others believed in baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost at the time (in fact, the Campbellites, Sidney Rigdon’s former congregation, had very similar teachings). We, as Mormons, believe that there was something more authentic about the LDS experience, but Van Buren had probably heard such claims multiple times. In fact, at that time those items were some of the areas in which Mormons were least distinct. A good question, then, would be why Joseph not mention experiments in economic communalism, priesthood authority, visits of angels, the Book of Mormon, and the like. (And yes, his quote says that all these other things are encapsulated under the Holy Ghost, but are angelic visitations or the translation of the Book of Mormon reducible to the workings of the Holy Ghost?) This is the role of historical investigation: to discover the roots and trace their path through the soil of history.

          • “Besides, a cursory glance at American religious history will serve to prove Joseph Smith’s statement about Mormon difference wrong, at least as onlookers were concerned.”

            Well that is the entire point, isn’t it? How good can an assessment be if an onlooker is unable to distinguish the difference between Joseph’s claims vs. other religionists of his era? Only those who get in the ocean (I like my analogy better) are able to sufficiently understand why Joseph’s claims were substantially different than those of his contemporaries. The implicit point here that is critical to this conversation is that water is materially the same today as it was 180 years ago. You can go into all the nuances about pollution, marine biology, or global warming to continue the analogy if you want, but in the end, water is water, and an observer will never understand the ocean the same as somebody who has immersed themselves in it. Not that the observer wouldn’t have insightful and valuable input, but they’d have a detachment from their subject that would be an identifiable disconnect from those fully participating. Again, two experts on piano theory could talk as much as they wanted about the piano’s capabilities, scale progression, key changes, and the like, but if neither of them play the piano, it may be an interesting phenomena, but ultimately it would just be pedantic.

            I simply disagree with your assessment that the current product is irrelevant to understanding its predecessor.

  10. Mr. Hedge, after reading the article my view is that this is written by a Latter-day Saint, for fellow Latter-day Saints, in an effort to make them aware of how a typical Latter-day Saint would view the field of Mormon Studies. As an outsider I can understand how this cause confusion for you (as evidenced by your lengthy questions) since you are not the target audience. For myself, as a fairly typical Latter-day Saint, I found myself in agreement with nearly everything professor Gee wrote.

      • Ah, sorry Brother Hedge. My mid-judgement was based on the academic jargon in your comments. It felt more like I was playing a game of buzzword bingo (which, thanks to the free space in the middle, I won) than hearing the speech I’d normally associate with a typical Latter-day Saint.

  11. Many thanks for your responses, though I must admit they have mostly murkied the water for me. If I may ask for more clarification, mostly so we could ground some of your sweeping claims in the tangible field:

    1. So are you dismissing all the papers you list as too rushed and indicative of the flawed system? Or only a few? If the latter, which ones? And your primary accusations in the OP were against publications, which of course are supposed to be more advanced than conference presentations, so I would like to hear some specifics. Let’s please consider the books I mentioned in my above, which are considered the leading publications in the nascent field of Mormon studies: are any of those too rushed? Embodiments of the problems you try to locate in the field? Or do they miss the problems?

    2. Would love to debate that further, but I am amused at your statement that we have “already reached” circular and parochial arguments, given that one of your primary accusations is that Mormon scholars are giving up on a Latter-day Saint audience to appease the broader academy. Which is it, or are you just covering all accusatory bases?

    3. So you admit that you aren’t aware of the conditions and situtations of the various programs, chairs, and appointments, and are just basing your accusations and problems on your own assumptions?

    4. I agree with those points, but you have yet to attach your accusations to the actual field. Do you see this playing out? Surely, if your hypotheses are correct, there has to be evidence out there. While the field is still evolving, it has been around long enough and has produced enough fruits to engage tangible results.

    5. So a listing of the titles of presentations (and at times, excerpts from abstracts) at a single conference is enough evidence? When I read the list, I actually see a vibrancy that addresses many different fields, issues, and ideas at the heart of Latter-day Saint experience. We obviously disagree, so it is not enough merely to list it, you have to interpret and explain. That is how argument usually works, anyway.

    6. My apologies for assigning King the Nibley quote. Again, our experiences differ, so argument demands you provide more than one concrete example–and *concrete* is pressing it, since you still failed to list names and presentations. For your argument to get traction, I think it needs to be held at a higher standard than just half the references alluding to a dated book and sweeping accusations against a shadowy field with few examples.

    7. Again, I think a substative contribution to the discussion would involve more than just “pointing to” some mysterious “insider” discourse without tangible evidence or examples. This is supposed to be an academic publication, not a blog post.

    8. Examples?….Academic evidence does not, again, remain in obscure and indirect accusations, but actual examples and engagement. You can’t prove your point by merely alluding to, “I promise this is the case! Trust me! But I won’t share my evidence!”

    9. So, again, you don’t have any actual information on how the chairs were presented to donors, what the donors agreed to, and how the donors feel, but are rather, again, projecting your own accusations in the space of the lacking knowledge.

    I guess I’m just curious why this article was published without evidence to back up sweeping generalizations and accusations. An academic state-of-the-field or review essay is expected, I would think, to at least demonstrate an awareness of the field more than just looking over the programs of the last decade of AARs. I would posit that the future Mormon studies does not so much depend on the measuring up to such amorphous and obscure standards as it does actually engaging one another, providing relevant evidence and sophisticated interpretation of that evidence, and moving beyond merely accusing a blanket and indecipherable field with no connection to real life.

  12. A very provocative article. A few questions:

    1. It seems a bit of a stretch to judge the entire field of Mormon studies when you only cite one practioner of it (and a dated one that represents a previous methodological viewpoint, at that). Are there specific scholars and/or books that represent your broader points, or are you just assuming that this is how it plays out? Your argument would be more convincing if you actually pointed to actual examples rather than speaking in generalities and the abstract. You speak of scholars rushing through with their books before they have time to actually form an opinion–allow me to ask for particulars. For instance, is this the case with books by Patrick Mason, Kathleen Flake, Spencer Fluhman, Jared Farmer, or Sally Gordon? Those are, I think, the leading practioners in the field who either just recently or soon will go up for tenure, so I imagine they’d be apt case studies. I just think a state-of-the-field essay should, well, engage actual works in the field.

    2. I’m not sure that a university only having one Mormon studies chair. In fact, I would be worried if there were more located within a faculty. Mormon studies, as it is currently practiced, is at its best when in conversation with other scholars and methodologies. As soon as there are so many positions in the field that they only speak to each other, that’s when the parochialism and circular debates kick in.

    3. Are you familiar with how the Mormon studies programs currently work? I may be misreading you, but it seems like you are assuming that a student gets their degree in “Mormon studies,” when that is not the case. A student will get their degree in the same broader field as their cohort, but will likely only participate in events, perhaps take a class or two, and maybe incorporate Mormonism into part of their dissertation. Plus, your statement that a Mormon studies chair will be forced to prove themselves to the committee seems to miss the fact that each Mormon studies chair currently in use (USU and Claremont) and about to be filled (UVA) have stipulated that the chair is a tenured position from the time of appointment.

    4. Based on critique of modern academia (i.e., the publish-or-perish model), is it possible for there to be an academic in today’s world? Where can an academic gain a position without following the model you decry? (Besides obtaining a privately-endowed research chair.) And doesn’t Nibley himself serve as a counter-model to your ideal of waiting 20 years before publishing?

    5. Your description of religious studies topics as “far removed from the issues that most Latter-day Saints deal with on a daily basis” seems to be quite subjective and a projection of a single person’s experience. Indeed, a case can be made that those topic strike at a critical crux of the experience of many Latter-day Saints, and more than mere “drivel,” they represent a more conscious turn in the academy to encompass questions that transcend methodological frameworks that privilege narrow perspectives.

    6. The religious studies approach you (rightly) denounce—i.e. the King quote, “to attack religion is the one safe course for the ambitious intellectual”—has mostly been discarded by the academy. As someone who participates in religious studies, I cannot say how many time it has been drilled into me that my job is to provide a sympathetic reconstruction of my subjects; the phenemological approach to religious studies dominates the day to such an extent that those who are “critical” in the negative sense are a minority. (I would argue that the ignorance apparently displayed at the 2005 AAR is such an aberration that it can be mostly discarded, especially after the creation of the Mormon Studies sub-group within AAR that is mostly led by active Latter-day Saints.)

    7. Could you please provide an example of how to do academic work that incorporates the influence of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the lack of such an approach is because there are a lack of models, so if you could provide one that would change the game and everyone would be indebted to your work!

    8. Do you have reason to believe that some “Mormon Studies programs [are] hous[ing] and promot[ing] students who are in Mormon Studies to promote their own anti-Mormon agenda”? If so, where? Those are major accusations, indeed.

    9. Based on your statements concerning the funding of chairs, and what makes them worthwhile, it seems you have a different understanding for how academic chairs work when it comes to Mormon studies than any other field. (I.E., they should serve the needs of common Latter-day Saints rather than, with the agreement of the donors, being used to further the academic study of whatever field that chair is in.) Can you further elaborate why this is the case?

    In short (apologies for the length of this comment!), do you think the study of Mormonism should be completely separate from academia? With such a bleak outlook concerning the latter, should Mormon scholars just leave academic work behind and allow non-Mormons to dominate the academic discussion? Some pragmatic advice would be greatly appreceated!

    And, again, specific examples of current Mormon studies works that fail to live up to your standards, and how, is my most pressing question.

    • The purpose of the essay was to raise issues for discussion and provide a Latter-day Saint point of view on them. It was not to provide definitive answers. I have not seen these topics discussed but think they ought to be.

      1. You obviously did not read the appendix.

      2. This is a topic worthy of discussion. My major field is one where a university typically has no more than three scholars, and the discussion in my field is how the lack of more faculty and exposure to multiple points of tends to be an undesirable thing. You are right about the circular debates; but we may have already reached that point.

      3. If you are right, how nice for the junior faculty who lands such a post. Some of us were not so lucky.

      4. Whether or not the current academic model is a good thing or sustainable is beyond my intent. Some people produce good work right from the beginning, others mature into it. The current tenure process does not really take this into consideration. There are excellent teachers who produce nothing; I have a hard time saying that they should be punished for not publishing if their major responsibility is teaching. The point is that we need to consider how these pressures might change the work that is done in Mormon Studies.

      5. My comment is based on more than one person’s subjective impression and it is based on the specific examples cited in the appendix.

      6. The quote is by Nibley, not King. If you were taught to “provide a sympathetic reconstruction of my subjects” that is well. The 2005 meeting, however, has not been an aberration in my experience. I hope it becomes more rare.

      7. I am pointing to a disparity I see between what insiders talk about and what outsiders talk about. I have heard several inside the Church mention this as missing from outsider accounts. I noted that it may not always be possible or desirable to discuss such matters. I note only that its absence is noticed by those inside.

      8. Yes. I have wondered if the institutions would tolerate anti-Semitic students in their Jewish Studies programs.

      9. I said “What sort of return do the investors expect from their investment? Are the publications and the type of research done by those chairs in line with the expectations of their Latter-day Saint funders? Obviously the donors are the ones who can best answer those questions.” Unfortunately, information about the expectations of the donors is not widely known. I was not one of those funding the chairs so I cannot say but I do know something about endowed chairs. I hope the donors were both aware of what they were buying and are happy with they bought.

  13. It appears the larger question you are getting at is whether or not there is a place for an objective study of religion, one that is neither devotional nor attacking. To the extent that our God is a God of truth and not propaganda, I do think that religious studies serves God. At the same time, that is somewhat misleading. The point of religious studies isn’t to serve God. The point is to look at Religion (and in this case Mormonism) and apply what we know about the disciplines of History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Phenomenology, etc. to Religion to gain insight beyond conventional wisdom. The goal of this discipline isn’t to serve God, it is to serve man by helping him to better understand his place in religion and in the human experience.

    As to the general authorities being the experts on the church, I’m a little confused by what you mean. Clearly they are much more knowledgeable about the current administration of the church. But the scope of their expertise is limited. Across the board do they have graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies? What about Book of Mormon Studies? How familiar are they with theory and method in the study of religion? How much of their time do they do research and produce peer reviewed studies? With this in mind I don’t think they can be call “the real experts on Mormon Studies” even if they are truly experts on current church teachings and church administration.

    I do think that Mormon Studies experts need to know basically all of the things about the church that you mentioned above. To the extent that someone is very uninformed, their “insights” are more likely to be misleading than truthful. But to me, this is precisely the reason why we need programs in Mormon Studies to be able to systematically educate people rather than to make the try to develop an understanding piecemeal.

    • The conceptual category of “objectivity” is incoherent (see Peter Novick). There is no “objective study of religion.” I actually do religious studies in two other fields besides Mormon Studies so I am not opposed to religious studies as such. I do think there are better and worse ways of doing religious studies. I am also cognizant that I am an outsider when dealing with faiths other than my own. I am consciously aware that I could be getting it all wrong, especially in those areas where there are no longer living believers to correct me.

      Any given General Authority in the Church probably knows more about what is going on in the Church than you or I ever will. That sobering fact should cause those of us who do Mormon Studies to be much more humble than we usually are. If a General Authority were writing about a topic in the current Church, it would probably be better informed than if I were. What strength we have is in our particular niches.

      I agree with you that we need better Mormon Studies. In order to get there we need a discussion about what is the vital core knowledge that those doing Mormon Studies need to master.

      • I’m not very familiar with Novick, (though I will look into him) but perhaps “objective” is the wrong word. I think what I was aiming for was “theologically uncommitted”. As an example, I really yearn for books applying the historical critical method to the Book of Mormon. Maybe there are a ton of books out there that I just don’t know about (my religion department didn’t offer any Mormon studies classes when I was in school) but I really wish there was more analysis out there from a non-devotional/apologetic perspective. Obviously such an approach would be somewhat inherently different in Book of Mormon studies than New Testament studies (i.e. it would be significantly less concerned with determining the original words as penned by the authors), but it would still be concerned with better understanding the historical context of and the historical perspective through which the books of the Book of Mormon were written in, recognizing that if it really is an ancient record, the writers’ worldview was much different than our own. Obviously you run into an issue of whether or not it is possible for one to assume the Book of Mormon is an ancient record and at the same time be theologically uncommitted, but I optimistically think that can be worked around.

        As for what the core of knowledge is that the Mormon studies student needs to master, one thing that you left out is some training in theory and method in the study of religion. I think people in any subset of religious studies need some familiarity with people like Durkheim, Tylor, Frazor, Freud, Weber, Geertz, Turner, and Eliade. I also think that they would need some academic exposure to some other religious traditions, especially mainline Christianities and early Christianities because without that I think it is difficult to really appreciate and understand the contours of Mormonism.

    • “As to the general authorities being the experts on the church, I’m a little confused by what you mean. Clearly they are much more knowledgeable about the current administration of the church. But the scope of their expertise is limited. Across the board do they have graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies? What about Book of Mormon Studies? How familiar are they with theory and method in the study of religion? How much of their time do they do research and produce peer reviewed studies? With this in mind I don’t think they can be call “the real experts on Mormon Studies” even if they are truly experts on current church teachings and church administration.”

      They are “experts,” not in “Mormon studies” (whatever that is or may be in the future) but in the teachings, principles, doctrines, organization, law, and governance of the restored Church and gospel. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Brethren’s revealed knowledge, mantel of authority as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” and spiritual (and hence, intellectual) insight into the nature of the gospel and the church that presents and teaches it, takes precedence over any academic or strictly secular approach to the same subjects (and academic study cannot really approach spiritual things at all without the revelation that is the fundamental epistemic ground of any claim to have appropriated anything one could call “true” regarding ultimate questions).

      Asking whether any of the FP or the Twelve have “graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies,” what their grasp of “the theory and method in the study of religion” is, or “how much of their time they dedicate to doing “research” and producing “peer reviewed studies” seems to me, and I say this respectfully, to be a rather aggressive exercise in point missing.

      The point here is that prophets, seers and revelators do not need any of these academic props to do what they do and know what they know, or to discharge their responsibilities as the Lord’s anointed servants to “teach, preach, expound, exhort” and “raise a warning voice” to the Saints and to the world. The leaders of the Church are not theologians, philosophers of religion, or academic historians, nor is the “historical critical method” of academic historicism in any way relevant (or necessary) to their calling and authority as prophets (those who understand, speak, and teach truth and the words of Christ through the principle of revelation), seers (perceiving the future and the consequences of present acts through the same agency), and revelators (revealing correct knowledge/doctrine through the power of the Holy Ghost (principle of direct revelation)) which, absent this, would remain unrevealed and unknown.

      “Critical historical method” is just as likely, dependent upon the nature, extent, and quality of the evidence at hand and the biases, predispositions, and characterological attributes one brings to any historical study, to lead one away from the truth and away from any real expertise and substantive knowledge of “Mormonism” – let alone the eternal verities that are its special and unique area of distinction – as towards them.

      Historical critical method is a human (and so very mortal) created intellectual tool, and as such it can be deployed for, against, or in disregard for, the core truth claims of the church or any historical problems presented by its early development and growth.

      • “Asking whether any of the FP or the Twelve have “graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies,” what their grasp of “the theory and method in the study of religion” is, or “how much of their time they dedicate to doing “research” and producing “peer reviewed studies” seems to me, and I say this respectfully, to be a rather aggressive exercise in point missing.”

        I think the issue here is that you and I seem to fundamentally have a different understanding of what the purpose of Mormon Studies is. If the purpose of the discipline is to “edify the saints” then you are right. If the purpose of the discipline is to step out side the supposition that the church is true, and evaluate the church (and its figures, scriptures, and doctrines) on its own merits (which is closer to what my experience in a religious studies program was) then I don’t think your point is strong.

        “The point here is that prophets, seers and revelators do not need any of these academic props to do what they do and know what they know”

        From an outsiders perspective, this is really problematic. To an outsider, this looks like circular reasoning. “They don’t need academic methods to know what they know because they receive revelation. How do you know the receive accurate revelation? Because the church is true! What if the church isn’t true? But the Church has to be true, I followed Moroni’s advice and asked God with a contrite heart!” While this may be a compelling argument to Mormons, it looks logically and academically irresponsible to someone who doesn’t accept your basic premise of church truth. Again, IF the purpose of Mormon studies is to increase the faith of Mormons, this isn’t relevant. But my experience in Religious Studies programs (specifically in Christianity and Judaism) suggests that the purpose of these programs has little to do with strengthening faith.

        I think that if Mormon Studies is set up to strengthen faith, that the church authorities should be the ultimate authorities. However , I think that if Mormon Studies is something intended to be a respected part of the Academy, that we need to used more universally accepted methodologies for analyzing the history, scripture, ritual, and doctrine of the Church. Yes, this inherently means we are using “human (and so very mortal) intellectual tool[s]” but it is the only way to that will have any meaning to non-mormons. If we just say “trust me, we’ve got divine revelation, so we know we’re right” then we don’t look like we have any credibility. If someone with a diametrically opposed beliefs said the same thing to you, how seriously would you take them?

  14. Hi Prof. John Gee–

    Thanks for your interesting, and provocative, commentary on Mormon Studies. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting. I hope that changes sometime soon.

    I ask this out of genuine curiosity. But it seems that, to examine your idea of Mormon Studies “tourists,” that you believe no one who does not have a temple recommend should consider themselves Mormon Studies scholars, that we “tourists” (I’m one of the authors–the “guilty”–of two of the papers you cite from recent AAR meetings), have nothing to add, or perhaps nothing constructive.

    Do I understand you correctly? I don’t want to reduce your argument to something that it’s not. So I’d genuinely appreciate you helping me understand your position.

    Thanks, I look forward to your response.

    • To continue in the analogy: Baptism, not the temple, is the gateway into citizenship of the Kingdom of God. Those who have been baptized are citizens, those who have not are tourists. (I specifically excluded the temple from consideration for this essay. I do not think that possession of a temple recommend necessarily correlates with possession of insight.)

      That is not to say that tourists do not have interesting and important and insightful things to say and are not worth listening to. I think some do and some do not. I think a blanket statement is unwarranted. In the end, though, the interests of tourists are not the same as the interests of citizens.

      I made no particular comment about the merits or lack thereof of the papers in the appendix except one. I did try to be comprehensive for a ten year time period. I think it much better that the reader go through the list on her own and decide whether a paper on such a topic would be of interest to her.

      • I genuinely thank you for your replies. Still, I don’t think I fully understand.

        So I ask two more straight-forward sets of questions:

        1. So whoever is not a member of the Church (baptized as such) is a tourist in Mormonism? Or a tourist in Mormon Studies?

        2. Why use such language as “tourist,” which implies non-commitment at best (personal for sure, but also professional), while many of such tourists have dedicated their professional lives to the careful and critical (in both senses of the word) study of Mormonism (40 years among the Saints that Jan talks about is more like 50 now)?

        Would you not agree that terms like “tourist” and “guilty” are meant to discredit and demean? (You didn’t imply just one of the authors of the AAR papers is “guilty.” You implied the whole bunch.) These are “blanket statements” that you have introduced to this conversation. I ask you with sincerity and desire to understand, can we have a better, more inclusive (I’d say, more honest) set of terms?

          • My guess is that Brother Gee’s time is more valuable then spending time on debating semantics. It seems to me that your questions have already been addressed above.

          • Tim–

            If we have learned anything from this discussion is that what you call semantics (I would label them as not-so-veiled terms of division) matter a lot.

            Is the difference between the terms “cult” and “sect” and “church” merely descriptive, Troeltschian terms? Or are they politicized to the point that they should be avoided in academic discourse?

            And no, I don’t see how my questions have been answered above.

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