Author: Ben Huff

Ecology of Intellectual Culture: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part IV

Intellectual life is a social endeavor, involving both a community of participants and institutions that support their activities. In this post I discuss some of the key elements of the ecosystem that is needed for a flourishing intellectual culture. In my view, these key elements include scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs. At the moment, while Mormon Studies has some version of each of these elements, they are all quite limited and in many cases rather rudimentary. Yet in standard ecological fashion, each of these elements symbiotically depends on the others, and I’ll discuss why. It is an interesting question, then, how to get from our current situation of a few scattered sparks to one of established intellectual vitality. Perhaps the primary components of an intellectual culture are people who think, and thoughts. While thinkers are not necessarily associated with a school, I will call them scholars. While our thoughts may simply take place in our…

SMPT Reminder/Travel Funding/Arrington Lecture Update

The July 16th submission deadline for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2012 Annual Meeting is approaching. The conference will be held at Utah State University, September 20-22, with the theme, “Theology of The Book of Mormon.” For a fuller discussion of the theme and submission information, see the Call for Papers. Some funding is available, on a competitive basis, to defray travel costs for student presenters of up to $650 each, based on the merit of the proposal and the distance traveled. Details on travel awards also appear on the Call for Papers page. Those considering attending may also be interested in another event that weekend in Logan: Terryl L. Givens, “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint” 18th Annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Thursday, September 20th, 7pm Logan Tabernacle, 50 N. Main Street Givens will be speaking on the unique theology of the prophecy of Enoch in the Book of Moses, including its portrayal of…

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

Perhaps the main problem with the Mormon Studies Review, which led to this awful explosion in the last couple of weeks, can be crystallized by looking at the titles it has held over the years and thinking for a moment about what they mean. At first, it was the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. It then became the FARMS Review of Books, the FARMS Review, and finally, just the Mormon Studies Review, expanding out the “MS” and dropping the “FAR” at the start. That is quite a journey, and expresses a range of personalities whose conflict with one another appears to have finally produced this explosion between Jerry Bradford and Dan Peterson. The scope changed dramatically from just books dealing with the Book of Mormon at first, to all kinds of stuff related to Mormonism at the end. But those changes in scope were pretty straightforward. The complicated part is a matter of genre. The Review…

David and Uriah: A Meditation

The most upsetting thing about the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) is not what he did with Bathsheba, bad as that was. That he was intrigued with her is unremarkable, even natural; she was totally hot, after all. Bringing her to the palace is a different story, disgraceful even if he had only sat her down for a chat, since her husband was away at war. Even as a phenomenally successful and revered king, David displayed the priorities of a ten-year-old who’s been hanging out with bad company. I would have said “of an adolescent,” except that apparently David wasn’t much past adolescence when he volunteered to risk his life for the nation of Israel, declining the sword and armor of King Saul, to take on Goliath, the decorated, feared, and enormous champion of the Philistine army, with only a leather strap and five smooth stones. He had come a long way since then. The adultery that…

Mormons and the American Project: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part III

Fulfilling the promise of the gospel requires embodying it in concrete and active living, in a particular time and place. Since living the gospel is a social matter, this means embodying it in institutions, with design, policies, and practices that reflect and serve gospel ideals. There are particular challenges to doing this in the conditions the church finds itself in today. In this post, I continue developing the themes from Part I and Part II, considering the situation of the church in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international, even global church. Still, its founding, much of its history, and the lives of a very large number of its members, have unfolded in or just outside of the United States. Seeing the radical social implications of the gospel, after founding the church, Joseph Smith quickly laid plans to found cities. The Saints’ efforts to embody their beliefs in the form of a distinctive society…

Establishing a Christian Nation? Tony Perkins and Military Bibles

An email I received the other day illustrates some of the most pressing questions facing our nation. How can government support individuals and voluntary associations in maintaining the strong moral underpinnings needed for a healthy society, without taking sides in a way that may ultimately be destructive? Simultaneously, how can we keep conflicts over the proper role of government (in this and other respects) from themselves destroying political community? Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently “threatened a class-action lawsuit,” after which “the Pentagon conspicuously revoked approval to use the logo of each service branch on the covers of Bibles sold in military exchange stores. Weinstein (representing MRFF) even insists that all the remaining copies be purged from the store shelves.” So, Bibles were being sold in military stores with official military logos on them. On the one hand, it seems to me dead obvious that the Bible should be available for…

Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part II: Unfolding the Expansive Message

The gospel is a recipe for world peace. The basis for a just, harmonious, and prosperous society is implicit in the gospel as we discuss and practice it today. It is implicit, but it is a long way from becoming explicit. I made this claim in Part I of this series. In this post I will say more about what I mean by “implicit” and “explicit,” as a way of filling out the expansive content and promise of Mormonism, and the expansive context in which I want to think about its fruition, including its intellectual culture. If all of us loved God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we’d be doing pretty well. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. I think it’s fair to say that everything God wants to teach us is implicit in these two commandments. Without a little more detail, though, we would probably do…

Tragedy, Sorrow, and Serenity: A Response to Rachael Givens

Rachael Givens observes that Mormon theology is full of tragedy, but Mormons themselves don’t seem to be very good at dealing with it. She draws on some of the most distinctive ideas in Mormonism to offer recommendations on how to accept and process tragedy better. I enjoyed her post a lot and offer some thoughts of my own. In part I’ll press on some issues I’m not sure she really resolved, but I also want to expand on what I see in her closing paragraph. Rachael describes tragedy as a situation in which something precious must be lost or given up in the process of securing something else precious, where there is an “irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good,” because both goods cannot be realized. I think she is right that tragedy in this sense is an essential element of Mormon cosmology, and that this role for tragedy is part of what makes Mormonism a radical departure from traditional Christianity.…

Seminar on B.H. Roberts’ Seventy’s Course in Theology

Next Wednesday, May 23rd, SMPT is hosting a mini seminar on B.H. Roberts’ Seventy’s Course in Theology, commemorating the centennial of its publication. Jim Faulconer, Blake Ostler, Kent Robson, and Grant Underwood will each lead a session on topics treated in the Seventy’s Course. The event will be held at Utah Valley University, in the Losee Center, room 243, and will run from 10am to 5pm, with a break for lunch. Please visit the SMPT website for more information, including session titles and links to suggested (optional) readings associated with each session.

Randy Bott and the Need For Peer Review

The embarrassing appearance of BYU Professor Randy Bott’s unsavory speculations about race in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago will undoubtedly have led some BYU administrators and perhaps even some members of the Board of Trustees to spend a few moments thinking carefully about the way BYU teaches church doctrine. It is disturbing to find that one of the most popular teachers at BYU has been continuing to teach ugly ideas that were denounced from the highest levels of the church decades ago. Thousands of students have listened to his lectures. This is an institutional failure, not merely a failure in one man’s judgment. There must be some way to keep this sort of thing from happening. BYU functions effectively as an arm of the LDS church. What BYU professors teach in their classrooms is seen, reasonably enough, as carrying a degree of church authority, both within the university and beyond it. It is vital that this authority…

Conference: Exploring Mormon Conceptions of Apostasy

Please join us for a conference, “Exploring Mormon Conceptions of Apostasy” to be held on March 1-2, 2012 at Brigham Young University. The notion of an apostasy from the primitive gospel and the original church has been a key animating feature in Mormonism since its inception and in other “religions of the book.” However, the concept of apostasy has proven to be tremendously fluid, with individual, institutional, communal, and historical meanings and applications all proliferating in religious thought throughout the ages. Fifteen faithful Mormon scholars from many scholarly backgrounds and methodologies will explore the concept of apostasy in various historical and religious contexts as we consider how to narrate apostasy in ways that remain historically authentic and cohere with Mormon theology. The conference schedule and location information are available at the conference website. The conference is organized by Miranda Wilcox, Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University, with financial assistance from an Eliza R. Snow Faculty Grant. —posted on…

Reminder: Summer Seminar on The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact, II

The deadline is approaching for the 2012 Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture. Applications are due February 15th for this 6-week seminar for graduate students and junior faculty, continuing for a second year with the theme of “The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact.” The seminar will be led by Richard Bushman, Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University. Click here for full details and the application form, in Word (.doc) format or PDF format.

Global Harmony in Microcosms

A Japanese former ambassador to China recently offered some provocative thoughts on the global promise of America, suggesting that the American melting pot is a kind of pilot project for world peace. Could the same be true of the LDS Church?

Survey: The Impact of Blogging on Mormon Studies

Patrick Mason is studying the effect of the bloggernacle on Mormon Studies, has put together a questionnaire, and is seeking responses from graduate students. Here is a preface from Dr. Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University: At the January 2012 meeting of the American Society for Church History, I’ll be on a panel called “Teaching Mormonism in a Digital Age.” In my comments I’ll be considering the impact of the “bloggernacle” on Mormon studies, specifically in regard to the current generation of graduate students. I have designed the following questionnaire to get a better handle on why people read Mormon blogs and what they get out of them. The questionnaire is for any graduate student, full or part time, LDS or non-LDS, in any academic field. The informed consent form on the first page will explain more, or you can contact me at [email protected] with any questions. Thanks for participating. To participate in…

Black Friday

Yes! The Dow is back down to 11,232! I feel a little like Jonah sitting on the hill, waiting for the fireworks. Hearing that news on the radio brought me my biggest smile all day. Of course, Jonah was roundly rebuked, because Nineveh repented in ashes, and he still was annoyed they weren’t destroyed. He clearly had an attitude problem, and lots of people might say the same about me. The Super Committee’s lame punt is just the most recent sign of the overall trend, though: at an institutional level, we haven’t even really admitted there is a problem, let alone started repenting. What do we need to repent of? Oh, there are plenty of things seriously wrong with the way we run our economy, including many of the favorite criticisms from both the right and the left, and the economy feeds into a lot of other things that are wrong with our society. I’ll just mention debt for now.…

The Deep Subjects of the Book of Mormon, Plato, Zhuangzi, and So On . . .

My friend and co-blogger Rosalynde presents a fascinating argument about Book of Mormon historicity in her recent review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Based on my experience with various other ancient texts, I respectfully disagree. Rosalynde suggests that Grant Hardy’s literary analysis of the Book of Mormon is harder to separate from a discussion of its historical origins than he thinks. He shows us the complexity, coherence, and development of its various narrative voices, and in the process shows how much their distinctive, personal perspectives and interests shape the text. Hardy invites readers of the Book of Mormon to set aside questions of historicity, at least for the moment, and explore literary features like these which are interesting in their own right. Yet in Rosalynde’s view the literary character that Hardy finds ironically indicates something itself about the book’s historicity. If we attend to “the history of the narrative genre,” we see that even at the time…

Summer Seminar Symposium: The Cultural History of the Gold Plates

Participants in Richard Bushman’s and Terryl Givens’ Summer Seminar on the Gold Plates will be presenting papers tomorrow, Thursday, August 18th, at BYU. Here are the details: The Mormon Scholars Foundation Annual Summer Symposium on Mormon Culture The Cultural History of the Gold Plates Thursday, August 18, 2011 B037 Joseph F. Smith Building Brigham Young University, Provo, UT Morning Session 9:00 AM Welcome by Richard Bushman, Invocation TBA 9:15 AM “Worlds of Discourse, Plates of Gold: Joseph Smith’s Plates as Cultural Catalysts”—Stephen Taysom 9:45 AM “Guard the Gold: Didactic Fiction and the Mainstreaming of Moroni”—Ben Bascom 10:15 AM “Fictionalizing Faith: Popular Polemics and the Golden Plates”—Jared Halverson 10:45 AM   BREAK 11:00 AM “Artistic Depictions of the Gold Plates and the Material Cultural Inheritance”—Julie Fredericks 11:30 AM “Processing the Plates: The Presence and Absence of the Gold Plates”—Tyler Gardner 12:00 PM “”Wagonloads’: The Disappearance of the Book of Mormon’s Sealed Portion”—Rachael Givens 12:30 PM BREAK FOR LUNCH Afternoon Session 1:45 PM “Fantasy, Fraud and Freud: The Uncanny Gold Plates in 19th…

Serving God with Our Minds: SMPT Conference This Weekend

This weekend at BYU, the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 8th Annual Meeting on the theme, “Serving God with Our Minds—The Place of Philosophy, Theology, and Scholarship in a Prophetic Church.” Featured speakers include Patrick Mason, who will soon be taking the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont, Alan Wilkins, a former Academic Vice President and currently Associate Director of the Faculty Center at BYU, and Jack Welch, Robert K. Thomas University Professor in the BYU Law School. Sessions will address themes including the role of theology in devotional life, prophets and continuing revelation, spiritual dimensions of education at BYU and elsewhere, scriptural interpretation, liberation theology, and justice in a gospel society. A session on “Art and Philosophy of Art in the Restored Church” includes reflections by artists with work in the “Seek My Face” exhibit currently showing in the Church History Museum. The conference runs Thursday-Saturday, April 7-9. All sessions are free…

Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part I

There is enormous potential for intellectual life and intellectual culture within Mormonism. What can we do to bring this potential to fruition? What we see actually happening today are only tiny sprouts by comparison with what is possible, and what we must bring into being if the gospel is to fulfill its purpose as the organizing principle of a Zion society. How do we get from the minimal present state to where we need to go? This is the first of a series of posts considering the challenges Mormon intellectual culture faces, and ways these challenges might be overcome. I suggest that great things are possible, but only if we understand the challenges and patiently focus on the steps needed to move us toward our hopes. The scriptures prophesy that the gospel will go forth to fill the Earth, bringing a reign of eternal peace. While it is difficult to know exactly how to fill in the implications of images…

Reminder: Summer Seminar on The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact

This summer Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens will lead a seminar on “The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact” (applications are due February 15th). What have the gold plates meant for you? For me, one of the amazing things about the gold plates is just how powerfully they convey the transcendent value of the scriptures written on them. I am so used to the idea of the gold plates now that I don’t think much about this, but when I was a kid, it made an incredible impression to know that the Book of Mormon had been written on gold plates. The sheer value and beauty of the material of course speaks eloquently to the imagination. For a kid at least, it also silently draws on the magic of countless stories of other golden artifacts: pirate treasure, dragons’ gold, Jason’s golden fleece . . . Adding in the fact that they were hidden in a stone box in the earth, with…

“War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives” Proposal Deadline Sept. 1

I recently received an email asking “if the LDS Church has an official (or unofficial) Social Doctrine, similarly to other churches”. In this and many areas, the Church has little in the way of an official position, and this wisely allows for a rich and diverse discussion among Mormons about how the Gospel should shape our participation in society and politics. I am excited to see such a discussion of Mormon perspectives on war and peace is being planned for this spring

Faith and Reason as Moral Ideals

The sense of many today that faith is antithetical to reason grows partly out of the Reformation and Enlightenment, in which people on both sides found they could not intellectually reconcile the conclusions of faith and reason. Just as importantly, faith and reason each came to represent a different moral ideal. As I see them, though, the moral ideals of faith and reason only make sense together,

Theological Anthropology at UVU this weekend

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology holds its 2010 conference at UVU this Thursday through Saturday (March 25-27) on the theme of theological anthropology. Invited speakers include: Terryl L. Givens (University of Richmond)—”Finding the Divine in Man: Romantic Angst and the Collapse of Transcendence”; Kevin Hart (University of Virginia)—”The Prodigal Son”; Laurence Hemming (Lancaster University)—”A Singular Humanity: The End of Anthropology”; David K. O’Connor (University of Notre Dame)—”Plato, Purity, and the Iconoclast Temptation: A Catholic Imaginarium” Other session themes include agency and grace, the natural man, human pre-existence, perfectability and theosis. The full conference schedule and abstracts of the presentations are listed on the SMPT website. All sessions are free and open to the public.

Summer Seminar 2010—The Foundations of Mormon Theology: The Nature of God and the Human

SUMMER SEMINAR ON JOSEPH SMITH “The Foundations of Mormon Theology: The Nature of God and the Human” Brigham Young University June 1-July 9, 2010 In the summer of 2010, Brigham Young University, with the generous support of the Mormon Scholars Foundation, will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and advanced undergraduates on the theme of Mormon theological foundations. The seminar will be held on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, from June 1 to July 9.  Admitted participants will receive a stipend of $3000 plus a housing subsidy if needed.  The seminar continues the series of seminars on Joseph Smith begun in the summer of 1997. The seminar will be conducted by Terryl Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, under the direction of Richard Bushman. The aim of the seminar will be to investigate the earliest elaboration of Mormon conceptions of God and Man. Topics we will investigate will include pre-mortal existence, spirit and intelligence,…

Divine Comedy, Divine Tragedy

The Bible, as we have received it, sets out the drama of salvation with its wrenching fall and crucifixion, but joyous resurrection and exaltation. Though its compilation is in many ways ad hoc, there is a satisfyingly comedic structure to the whole. As Terryl Givens puts it in his The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, just out from Oxford University Press, “There is a neat symmetry . . . Primordial creation is balanced by apocalypse and heavenly postscript . . . All tears are wiped away, and the primal fall and alienation are remedied by reunion under the beneficent reign of God the Father” (p61). The Book of Mormon is very different.

Out of the Best Books: Introducing the Mormon Review

Out of the Best Books Introducing the Mormon Review by Richard Lyman Bushman Inscribed in steel letters in the stairwell of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU is the scripture that begins: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books

SMPT at Claremont This Week

With the theme, “Upon All Nations—Religious Pluralism,” the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s Sixth Annual Meeting begins this Thursday at 9am. SMPT’s largest conference program yet includes discussions of theological pluralism and interreligious dialogue; comparisons of Mormonism with Buddhism, Catholicism, and other strands of Christianity; and

Breathing the Breath of God

Genesis (2:7) says that God breathed life into Adam’s nostrils. Is our life a portion of God’s? Jesus quoted a Psalm (82:6) that said, “Ye are gods,” when confronted about his claims to divinity. Mormons are usually not so bold, but there is certainly an element in our tradition that states that humans are children of God, like godlings, capable of developing into gods. Is this idea arrogant or humbling? It depends.

England Lecture: “The Prehistory of the Soul”

Terryl L. Givens, James A. Bostwick Professor of English at the University of Richmond will give the Eighth Annual Eugene England Lecture at 7pm next Thursday, April 2nd in the Lakeview Room of the UVU Library

Mormonism in the Public Mind at UVU

Richard and Claudia Bushman, Jana Riess, Terryl Givens, and Michael Paulson are among the speakers at Utah Valley University’s conference next Thursday and Friday (April 2-3) on “Mormonism in the Public Mind,” addressing public perceptions of Mormonism and LDS efforts to shape those public perceptions.