Why Mormons Should Not Be Afraid of Mormon Studies

The title of this essay may seem a bit shocking; like an issue that shouldn’t require much thought.  Of course Mormons should not be leery of Mormon studies!   To the contrary, Mormons should embrace the fact that their religion is starting to receive greater academic attention. And it is!

In recent years, institutions of higher learning have offered a variety of courses devoted to Mormon studies.  Courses in Mormon studies have been taught at Harvard, UPenn, Virginia, Arizona, Arizona State, Southern Alabama, Georgetown, Utah State, Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, etc. Books focusing on Mormonism have been published by university presses at Oxford (probably the premier venue for Mormon studies, publishing close to a dozen in the last few years), Harvard, UNC, Nebraska, Tennessee, Yale, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Missouri.

In 2012, the University of Virginia announced plans to hire a chair in Mormon studies.  The Claremont Graduate University has for several years now had the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon studies position, Utah State has the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture (currently occupied by Dr. Philip Barlow), and presently Dr. Boyd Peterson serves as the program coordinator over Mormon studies at Utah Valley University.

Ready or not, Mormonism has begun to be taken seriously as an academic field of study.   However, as exciting as this news proves to some Latter-day Saints, there has of course been a bit of concern over the nature of Mormon studies on the part of some believers.  In light of the fact that Mormon studies is a subset of Religious studies and Religious studies constitutes a secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions, this apprehension is to be expected.

As of late, concerns over the nature and definition of Mormon studies have been expressed in a variety of online conversations, and this trepidation has appeared most recently in the form of two publications, one by BYU professor John Gee entitled “Whither Mormon Studies” published in the Interpreter Journal [1], and another by BYU professors Daniel Peterson and William Hamblin entitled “Reading Other People’s Scriptures Requires Sympathies Not Just Facts” in the Deseret News [2].

As a supporter of Mormon studies, I am sympathetic to these feelings, even though I strongly believe that they are unnecessary.  I don’t have time to alleviate all of the uneasiness reflected in these two recent publications (let alone the lengthy discussions that have taken place in the greater blogosphere), but I would like to share a few ideas that will hopefully alleviate some of the concerns that these two articles express over the prospect of having Mormonism and its scriptures studied from a secular perspective as part of the Humanities.

I’ll begin by considering an issue raised in the Hamblin and Peterson article regarding the way “scripture” should be taught in an academic venue.  The authors write:

“An approach often taken when reading scripture is to treat it as “literature,” an approach most frequently found in “Bible as Literature” classes. This approach has some value, but it fails to engage the truly important issue: that the Bible functions in the world as scripture, not merely as literature. Its scriptural quality is, historically speaking, why it is important. To study anyone’s scripture as “literature” necessarily misses the essence of why that book has changed the world. Scripture is important precisely because, to its believers, it is something much, much more than literature…

“To make matters more complicated, modern academics often treat “scripture” as a purely human production that some people happen to claim is scripture. While academics often profess objectivity in studying religion, in a very practical sense secular religious studies usually means explaining all religious claims, beliefs, visions, etc., as purely human in origin.”

It is true that secular religious studies offer another approach to interpreting scripture beyond the perspective typically reflected in the heart of the believer that their scripture is somehow divine or to quote the authors, not “purely human in origin.”  This secular approach is the perspective typically taken when teaching the Bible in an academic forum.

To put the history of this approach to biblical analysis into an LDS context, at approximately the same time that Joseph Smith was trying to make sense of what he saw as “errors” in the Bible, European scholars influenced by the previous observations of earlier philosophers such as Hobbes and Payne were beginning to work out what would eventually become known in the academic world as “higher criticism.”

The term higher criticism refers to an attempt to explain the types of inconsistencies that appear in the Bible’s narrative, legal, and theological sermons (issues that Joseph Smith himself was sensitive towards) by identifying original independent textual sources.  As an interpretive tool, higher criticism constitutes an important part of what scholars today refer to as the “historical-critical method.”

This historical-critical method refers to an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to read the text “historically,” meaning in accordance with its original historic setting, and “critically,” meaning independent from any contemporary theological perspective or agenda, i.e. as “scripture.”[3]  As an expression, “historical criticism” is the label for what biblical scholar John Collins has called “mainline” biblical scholarship, at least for the past two centuries or so.[4]

There’s no question that the Bible has had a tremendous impact upon the spirituality of much of the Western World.  Moreover, this text can be studied in an academic setting in terms of its impact upon the lives of believers who view the Bible as a book more than simply “purely human in origin.”  However, if the Bible itself is taught in an academic setting, I strongly believe that the approach that students should be exposed to is the “historical critical” method, i.e. “mainline” biblical scholarship.

If the Bible were to be taught as “scripture” in the way that Peterson and Hamblin suggest, the question that would need to be addressed would be “whose scriptural model should the professor privilege?”  When teaching the Hebrew Bible, should the professor teach the text as “Christian” scripture, or as “Jewish” scripture?  If the professor opted for both, which Jewish and Christian scriptural approach should the professor privilege?  A Catholic reading?  An Orthodox Jewish reading?  A Protestant reading?  A Mormon reading?

Obviously adopting this approach in a limited amount of time would quickly turn a course on the “Bible” into a course on reception history.  Moreover, in spite of its great spiritual value, teaching the Bible as “scripture” runs counter to the academic method of higher criticism which leads to the view of the text “as an artifact that can and must be understood by using the scientific tools of anthropology, archeology, and linguistics just as one would employ for any other artifact.”[5]  A course in the humanities should not privilege a text as “scripture” in the way that the Bible is read in Sunday School or in Synagogue (despite the value of these religious forums).

This observation reflects the academic standards of the Society of Biblical Literature (the premier academic venue for biblical scholarship).  Concerning the Society’s expectation that professors and writers on biblical topics will employ “bias-free” language, the SBL Handbook of Style states:

“Bias-free writing respects all cultures, peoples, and religions… Uncritical use of biblical characterizations such as the Jews or the Pharisees can perpetuate religious and ethnic stereotypes.”[6]

Thus the Handbook declares that the term “Hebrew Bible” should be used rather than “Old Testament;” and the expression “Second Temple period” over “intertestamental period,” etc.  The SBL rightfully pushes for this standard so that one group’s “scriptural” reading of the Bible will not be privileged over another and that all may feel a sense of inclusivity when studying the Bible from an academic perspective.

This does not mean that when teaching “scripture” a professor should seek to deconstruct the religious approach or value that a student brings to the Bible (or any other sacred text), but in addition to reading the Bible as “something more than purely human,” the Bible can and has been studied since the 17th century from an historical critical perspective and professors teaching the text itself (as opposed to reception history) have a responsibility to expose students to this “mainline” academic approach in which the Bible is treated as a “real” book.

One of the concerns that many believers (including Latter-day Saints) have when entering into a class on the Bible that teaches historical-criticism is that this approach will prove incompatible with their religious convictions.  It is true that studying a religious text independent from any specific theological lens can present some challenges to certain religious traditions regarding the text.  A believer on occasion may need to shift his or her paradigm of faith in order to account for new historical insights.  But it is possible to be both religious and critically minded.

In his introduction to reading the Hebrew Bible from a critical perspective, Dr. Marc Brettler concludes his book How to Read the Bible with a chapter explaining how he is able to exist in both the academic realm of critical scholarship and in the religious world of an observant Jew.  Brettler writes:

“In a nutshell, here is my view of the Bible as a Jew:  The Bible is a sourcebook that I—within my community—make into a textbook.  I do so by selecting, revaluing, and interpreting the texts that I call sacred.”[7]

In the rest of the chapter, Brettler goes on to explain the difference between a textbook versus a sourcebook.  A textbook adopts a singular point of view.  In contrast, a sourcebook presents multiple perspectives.  The Bible contains more than one opinion on almost any single item of importance, from the nature of God, to intergenerational punishment, to the relationship between men and women.

Brettler provides the following explanation of his religious connection to the text, “after carefully considering its texts, I use selection to adopt some texts as more meaningful to me than others.”[8]  Since sociality is an integral part of any religious experience, Brettler shares that after his selection, he then moves forward to find communities that share these choices.   In terms of Mormonism, which is a faith that establishes religious communities through geographical boundaries, this process can admittedly be a bit more difficult.  However, a religious community can also be created with like-minded friends, or an extended family.

Granted, Brettler approaches this issue from the perspective of an observing Jew.  I believe, however, that this same basic tactic can be adopted by Latter-day Saints who begin to study the Bible not as “scripture” but as a real book.  As LDS Apostle, Elder John A. Widtsoe recognized, studying the Bible (or any other scripture) from this angle does not conflict with LDS theology:

“In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the Bible has played an important part. The careful examination of the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form, has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary reader of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth… To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study—a search for truth… Whether under a special call of God, or impelled by personal desire, there can be no objection to the critical study of the Bible.”[9]

The implications of historical criticism admittedly contest some traditional perspectives many Latter-day Saints have held regarding scripture.  Yet these insights into original authorial intent and the development of scriptural sources simply derive from scholars who have devoted years of careful analysis to uncover the true historical background of the text.

In their own quest for truth, I believe that Latter-day Saints should not feel afraid to lay aside incorrect assumptions regarding scripture (no matter how long these traditions have been held).  The prophet Joseph Smith made this point very clear in his famous letter written in Liberty Jail. “We should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things,” wrote the Mormon prophet (D&C 123:13).

The insights into the background of the Bible gained through historical criticism are independent from any specific theological agenda, including Mormonism.  However, as defined by Joseph Smith, Mormonism is a religious philosophy that seeks to uncover and embrace all truth, including truths uncovered by the minds of secular scholars through scientific analysis.

On this subject, Joseph Smith once declared, “one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth let it come from where it may.”[10]  This process of accepting truth from whatever source it stems was important to Joseph Smith.  On another occasion, the Prophet taught:

“The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we have the right to embrace all, and every item of the truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds and superstitious notions of men.”[11]

Using Joseph Smith’s approach to Mormonism as a guide, Latter-day Saints need not feel beholden to the “superstitious notion of men” that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch,  or that Paul is the author of all of the Pauline epistles, nor should a Latter-day Saint feel obligated to maintain a type of creedal allegiance to traditional assumptions regarding scripture when an historical analysis directly counters those beliefs.  To do so runs opposite to the way Joseph Smith defined Mormonism.

While taking an academic course on Bible may challenge some traditional perspectives on scripture, it must be acknowledged that higher criticism in and of itself does not reveal that the Bible is somehow devoid of inspiration; that it is somehow not truly “scripture.”  The Bible is an ancient record of human beings striving to respond to the divine by which they had been touched.[12]

There is evolution and contradiction that occurs in this process, and one might argue that these factors are to be expected. For lack of a better word, writing scripture can be a bit messy.  Yet given our own history, of all people, we as Latter-day Saints should allow room for messiness in the production of sacred texts. Even the Book of Mormon, the scriptural work that Latter-day Saints define as the “most correct book,” allows for the possibilities of human error and contradiction in its Title Page.  All that historical criticism does is take this claim seriously.

Finally, to return to the notion that some believers as of late have expressed public concern on the nature of Mormon studies, I would like to focus on simply one assertion in John Gee’s recent essay cited at the beginning of this post.  Gee seems to fear the fact that non-Mormons, i.e. “outside” academics researching and writing about Mormonism cannot possibly hope to get Mormonism right for the mere fact that they are “outsiders.”

I would contend that rather than being afraid, Mormons, as well as believers in all religious sects, should welcome an academic assessment of their faith from a secular Religious studies perspective.  Like historical criticism, an academic outsider’s interpretation of Mormonism’s history, scriptures, and traditions simply provides one more lens that a believer can employ in an effort to understand his or her religious experience.

In this sense, a religious commitment might be compared to a marriage relationship.  Both are sacred relationships in which the participating parties carry deep emotional sentiments.  How unwise would a man or woman be to simply dismiss or ignore the outside perspective of a professional third party on what he or she witnesses happening within the relationship?

Admittedly, the professional outsider may or may not get everything right.  But who would not welcome an opportunity to see things happening in a marriage from an outsider’s perspective?!  What a wonderful opportunity to learn and to grow; even in cases when the believer may see his or her religious experience differently from the perspective of the academic non-believer.

At minimum, such an assessment would provide another tool to assist in a Latter-day Saint’s quest to uncover truth.  And as Joseph Smith recognized, if there is one thing a religiously minded person should never fear it is the quest for greater understanding.

[1]  John Gee, “Whither Mormon Studies?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

[2] William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson, “Reading Other People’s Scriptures Requires Sympathy, Not Just Facts,” Deseret News April 30, 2013.

[3] In their essay entitled “The Modern Study of the Bible” featured in the Jewish Study Bible edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Brettler, and Michael Fishbane, the authors explain the expression “historical criticism” with these words:

“General philosophical developments of the 17th and 18th centuries prompted an approach to the Bible that is often characterized as ‘critical.’ It was critical in the sense that it was free of presuppositions, especially those derived from either theology or tradition. To fully understand the Bible, scholars increasingly adopted an inductive approach, interpreting the Bible as they interpreted secular literature, setting aside views of its authority and authorship…

“The overriding goal was ‘historical’: to determine what had actually taken place, and to recover the actual persons and events of the Bible as they had been preserved in the various stages of biblical tradition. The nature and development of these stages were to be understood through the historical-critical method.” (p. 2084).

[4] John J. Collins, Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 4.

[5] W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), xxii

[6] The SBL Handbook of Style (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 17.

[7] Marc Brettler, How To Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005),  280.

[8] Brettler, 281.

[9] John A. Widtsoe, In Search of Truth: Comments on the Gospel and Modern Thought (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1930), 81-82.

[10] Lyndon Cook and Andrew Ehat, eds. Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Grandin Book Co, 1991), 229.

[11] Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 420.

[12] Adopting the expression from Philip Barlow in his essay “The Uniquely True Church” in A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, (Salt Lake City, Canon Press, 1986), 39.


Why Mormons Should Not Be Afraid of Mormon Studies — 9 Comments

  1. Lots of good quotes and observations here, David. Seems to me, though, that you’re blending two different models of how to be a “faithful” scholar.

    In one model, which seems to be what Marc Brettler is advocating, the scholar approaches the text in two different modes depending on the context. At church he approaches the text as a “canon” that speaks with a single voice; at university he approaches it as a compilation of historical documents that speak with many voices. This would seem to involve a kind of mental compartmentalization that doesn’t necessarily integrate what is learned through the two different modes.

    In the other model, which would seem to be supported by your Joseph Smith quotes, one alters the religious mode of reading the text in order to reconcile it with findings obtained through the critical mode. This seems like a more “authentic” way of being a faithful scholar, but it also poses greater risks. I know from experience that this truly can be a “slippery slope” which results in the total destruction of the religious mode of reading the text.

    These two models of faithful scholarship obviously aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’d argue that most faithful scholars probably do a little bit of both. (There’s also a third model you don’t mention, which is the apologetic or confessional approach: the critical mode of reading the text is assimilated to the religious mode, rather than the other way around. Most faithful scholars probably do at least a little bit of this, too.) However, these two models also seem to be rooted in very different assumptions and values, especially about the unity vs. the relativity of truth.

    I’d be interested in hearing you comment about whether you agree with what I’ve just described; and if so, then how do you personally reconcile these two models?

  2. Oh, it depends upon the day, Chris.

    I don’t want to put words into Brettler’s mouth on his own perspective or experience, but I personally don’t find what he is describing in own effort to exist as both critical scholar and observant Jew antithetical to Joseph Smith’s notion of the pursuit of truth.

    Even though Brettler states that he treats the Bible as a “textbook” in his religious community, it is only after he has sought to identify the perspectives in the text that he accepts as true (“inspired” if you will). He then focuses his spiritual attention on those notions while taking great interest in the process of identifying and explaining even those voices in the Bible that he finds problematic in terms of their moral value.

    To me, this seems very much like what Joseph Smith appears to be describing.

  3. Interesting, David. When you put it that way, it does sound more like the second model I described. It sounds like maybe the compartmentalization functions more at the level of discourse than at the level of thought. That is, within his own mind he has created a “canon within the canon” (CWC) through the use of critical methods. But when engaging people within his religious community, he’s not going to openly challenge or violate the community’s theological framework by denouncing parts of the canon. Instead, he’s going to find ways to emphasize his CWC within and through his religious community’s theological framework. I guess that makes sense. When in Rome, speak Latin.

  4. Bro David: I enjoy your defense of (or: quelling the fears about) Mormon Studies. I wonder, though, if “most Saints” even have concerns; sometimes I think the analysts simply assert theoretical possibilities as if they are somehow near-universal sentiments. I read much of your approach as transcendent – that is, promoting a willingness to adjust paradigms in order to move forward. Although I am concerned that an outsider cannot (by definition) ever have an insider perspective, my two initial responses to that concern are 1) So? Does that matter? and 2) do any two insiders have precisely the same perspective anyway? Besides, to me (similar to your marriage analogy), all feedback, though not of equal value, may be useful as an evaluative (especially self-evaluative) tool, and the results of Mormon “studies” or “criticism” are simply: feedback. My only concern with your article is the marriage analogy itself; as a divorce attorney who has been involved in thousands of divorces, my experience is that MOST counselor feedback is directly linked to emboldening one or both side(s) to seek divorce; certainly a believer would not hope that Mormon Studies would TEND TO lead to a divorce of a Mormon from his/her religion, nor lead a non-LDSaint away from desiring to investigate further.

  5. Very important post and discussion. What I find intersting about the fear or criticism of Mormon scriptural studies is the claim that an outsider will not understand how I as a Mormon read the text. But the first point of any serious reading of any text is not to understand what I or any other person thinks of the text. It is to understand the text itself. 99% of Mormon writing on the Book of Mormn for example is not about the Book itself, but about when it was written, as if its message were unimportant. Is this the way we should teach Mormon studies?

    Invariably, I have found the most spiritually insightful interpretations of the Book of Mormon from non-Mormons, because they are interesting in actually reading the text. The book is often so exciting and refreshing to them they catch insights about the text that Mormons invarably miss in our rush to prove what we are trying to prove wuithout carefully listening to the text. Do we really want people to understand US or are we really serious students of texts? Then what are we afraid of from outsiders? Losing power? Having to learn something new? Having to listen to the text? Scriptural studies is a competitive war in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the defeated listener.

  6. David

    Very interesting post…. I’d love to hear your answer to this Question: In what way has your testimony of the Book Of Mormon and the D&C impacted how you approach biblical criticism? Have you rejected any of the major arguments of biblical critcism because of the faith in the divinity of these works?

    I’d be very interested to know.

  7. David you state, “But it is possible to be both religious and critically minded.”

    Seeking truth is religious and being critically minded is necessary to seek to truth.

    Alfred North Whitehead – The race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…We can be content with no less than the old summary of educational ideal which has been current at any time from the dawn of our civilization. The essence of education is that it be religious…Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. (The Aims of Education, ch1)

    True religion has always fought in the face of rote ritual and traditions. Galileo is more religious than those who silenced him. Dr. King is more religious than those who silenced him. Gandhi, Joseph Smith, and most certainly Jesus. Their examples show that true religion craves critical minds. The death of true religion would be lack of criticalness and/or mindedness.

    So David I’d say, “You can’t be religious without being critically minded.” Or “Lack of being critically minded is a lack of true religion.”

    Maslow, A. H. – (People who are Self-Actualized) find it possible to learn from anybody who has something to teach them – no matter what other characteristics he may have. In such a learning relationship they do not try to maintain any outward dignity or to maintain status or age prestige or the like. It should even be said that (they) share a quality that could be called humility of a certain type. They are all quite well aware of how little they know in comparison with what could be known and what is known by others. Because of this it is possible for them without pose to be honestly respectful and even humble before people who can teach them something that they do not know or who have a skill they do not possess. They give this honest respect to a carpenter who is a good carpenter; or for that matter to anybody who is a master of his won tools or his own craft. (Motivation and Personality p168)

    Walter Lippmann – For at some point, even in a totalitarian state, it is indispensable that there should exist the freedom of opinion which causes opposing opinions to be debated. As time goes on, that is less and less easy under a despotism; critical discussion disappears as the internal opposition is liquidated in favor of men who think and feel alike…For in listening only to his yes men… the despot shuts himself off from the truth… For, while the right to talk may be the beginning of freedom, the necessity of listening is what makes the right important. (Indispensable Opposition, 1939 essay)

  8. Great post David. I think it nicely dovetails with the view of Mormon Studies that I tried to lay out a couple of days ago at Patheos/Peculiar People. I definitely had in mind some of the differences and exchanges that I’ve seen between you and people like Peterson/Hambin/Gee when I wrote it. Though I think there are a few rough edges in what you’ve described here (e.g., the question that Chris raised), but it seems to me a reasonable way to try and sort through some of the unavoidable tensions between an explicitly academic and an explicitly religious approach to engaging the text. Appreciate your insights.

  9. I’d feel far more comfortable, David, if you hadn’t accompanied your piece with that silly art by Tom Lovell. It is nearly as distracting as an Arnold Friberg painting of a Nordic Nephite.

    I would also be far more at ease about all this talk of “Mormon Studies” if someone would acknowledge that it virtually always entails modern history, and eschews ancient history. Indeed, you seem to be the only exponent of Mormon Studies (versus Peterson/Hamblin/Gee) who actually knows anything about ancient languages, source criticism, and the Bible. Since there is no reason to believe that any Mormon Studies program anywhere is actually going to sponsor ancient research such as you, Marc Brettler, or David Wright do, what we are really discussing here is the demise of serious ancient studies — since they are apriori inapplicable to the Mormon Canon.

    In that context, a discussion of good and bad scholarship cannot even be imagined.