July 30, 2008

Preliminary Thoughts on the 2008 Bushman Seminar

See also my follow-up commentary on the seminar here. Yesterday I was pleased to attend the 2008 Bushman seminar presentation at Brigham Young University. While I greatly enjoyed the seminar, I believe it appears to have missed its mark in a few ways. The topic this year was "Joseph Smith and His Critics." Bushman described the nature of this year's conference in his invitational letter:

The theme has been chosen in response to the growing number of criticalattacks [of Joseph Smith] in books and on the web. Many Latter-day Saints have beenaffected adversely by these criticisms, and the materials supplied byour apologetic institutions have not always met their needs.[1]
Bushman and company desired to take what they call a "pastoral approach" to help Church members who experience turbulence after being exposed to unfamiliar aspects of LDS Church history. According to participant Stephen J. Fleming, a PhD. candidate in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara:
We often didn’t accept critics versions of events, but we didn’t want to fight with them either. What was the best way to help those who struggled? We all took at shot at the issue by dealing with various topics.[2]
For six weeks the seminar discussed a few specific issues which Bushman believed may cause consternation to some members of the Church. Each participant of the seminar tackled one specific issue to research and then created a paper to present. Ideally, each approached an issue with which the he was not already well familiar. I believe this decision had both positive and negative affects which I will discuss below. According to Bushman, the emphasis of the papers "will be less on providing answers to every question than on putting the adverse evidence in a new light. Our aim is to persuade readers that the facts do not compel them to discard Joseph Smith. In fact, negative information can sometimes illuminate his cultural situation and mission."[3]

Bushman's opening paper got things off on the right foot.[4] He described the path of people who are surprised to find negative information on the Internet or elsewhere seeming to call into question Joseph Smith or his divine mission. Some members of the Church- after researching, pondering, and praying about the new information- emerge from the turmoil as "revised Saints" who realize Joseph Smith was imperfect but prophetic; that he wasn't led in every single detail by specific revelation. These Saints, Bushman believes, now take a more philosophical approach to the Church, focusing on the good fruit, following the Spirit as best they can with a slightly more skeptical but faithful eye.

Others, however, begin down a path of shock, doubt, disillusionment, and mistrust. They become worried that the Church has something to hide because specific aspects of history wasn't addressed in Church meetings, seminary, or Institute. For these, Bushman emphasized, silence is not the answer. Casting off criticism as "anti-Mormon" or "of the Devil" can trouble a doubter more than simply addressing the issue. Doubters can feel lonely, castigated, or even scared of losing friends and family members over their questioning. Thus, Bushman believes "safe havens" must be established where questions may be asked and good answers provided.[5]

For a brief overview of the other presentations, see the reviews posted at Juvenile Instructor. I wish to offer some of my overall thoughts, both positive and negative. The participants included various CES personnel and a member of the Church Curriculum department. I believe getting these people involved is a crucial step forward in an effort to better equip Institute and other teachers to handle issues that may cause concern among their students.

Participant Stephen Fleming pointed out that each presenter wrote a paper on a subject with which they were not already completely familiar. If this approach was intended to help participants learn how to better use historical sources and discuss various methods, it may have been successful. If this approach was intended to develop new information, I believe it somewhat failed, or at least didn't reach the highest heights. In the question and answer period following several of the presentations it became apparent that some presenters weren't as familiar with the subjects they addressed as they would have liked to be, and they were aware of it.

In short, this is where I believe the seminar missed its own mark in seeking to promise something new; a "pastoral approach." While I generally liked each presentation, and believe for the most part they can be successful in responding to members of the Church who are unfamiliar with the various subjects, the seminar did not present any new information or even methodology. What was different about these papers that isn't already available? In addition, most of the papers seemed geared more towards Protestant or other religious criticism, overlooking the current pop-atheism and agnostic approaches to religion Church members face today. The papers by Stephen Flemming and Kerry Muhlstein, for example, interestingly discussed "magic" from a religious perspective but overlooked criticism people may encounter from those who believe all of it to be hocus pocus.

Because Bushman said "the materials supplied by our apologetic institutions [such as FARMS and FAIR] have not always met their needs," desiring a more "pastoral approach" than we've seen in the past,[6] I was left to wonder why the seminar itself didn't differ much from those materials in style, presentation, and even information.[7] I wanted to see the footnotes of each presentation to see what material they used, who they cited other than primary sources, how they arrived at their various conclusions. I got the feeling some of the presenters were not completely familiar with the scholarship that has already been done on their subjects. Thus, rather than providing something new they sometimes provided something merely similar, or perhaps even inferior, to already-published materials. This isn't to criticize the scholarly abilities of the participants but to point out, given their short amount of time to investigate and their relative unfamiliarity with their topics, these presenters were perhaps working on process rather than explicit and set conclusions.

I hoped the seminar would answer some specific questions, even if intrinsically, but I was left unsatisfied. (Duly noted I probably wasn't the primary audience, though.) I have my own opinions on these questions but hoped to see them addressed:

Why were these specific topics covered over others? How did the seminar define "apologetics"? What method of apologetics is right, or are they all wrong together? What exactly is a "pastoral approach" and how does it differ from what is already being provided by various organizations? How can CES instructors, Sunday School teachers, and every-day members of the Church become more familiar with the materials; should or would they? What more can be done on an institutional level?

I believe involving CES and Church curriculum individuals, and inviting religious instructors under the employ of the Church may very well be the most important aspect of this seminar. This conference, as a stone thrown into water, may create ripples that reach important places in the Church. In a few upcoming posts I will address these questions and comments in-depth.

Finally, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the seminar for me involved the personal aspects; being able to rub shoulders with some fine members and scholars of the Church including Richard and Claudia Bushman, Steven Harper, Robert J. Woodford, Terryl Givens, Andrew Ehat, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and others. Both sessions of the program opened with an invocation to the Lord. One scholar privately expressed his concern with helping his own children develop and maintain faith in the restored gospel. When an attendee asked what the new project Claudia Bushman was knitting would be she responded "well, right now I am just creating order out of chaos" (she later informed me it was to be an afghan). After presenting his paper on the Kirtland Banking Society, a loving supporter passed Robert Lund a note scribbled on a small yellow piece of paper assuring him he is "#1." Steven Harper brought a stronger measure of the Holy Ghost to the room when relating a bit of William McClellan's emphatic 1880 testimony of the Book of Mormon, as did Spencer Fluman when reading accounts from Helen Mar Kimball Whitney.[8] John Dehlin felt that more could be said to commiserate with those who lost money in the Kirtland Anti-Banking incident. Glenn Rawson, host of KJZZ TV's Joseph Smith Papers program discussed the logistics of a future interview with Richard Bushman. When Spencer Fluman described "dynastic sealings" in Nauvoo, one audience member looked amazed as he mouthed "wow!" Camille Fronk spent some time in the audience, making me reflect on where the women presenters were (according to one presenter Bushman often expressed regret that none had participated). Another audience member assured the group that, should he ever become an artist, he'd try to depict the translation as Joseph Smith with his seer stone in a hat as best he can.

OK, that last one was me.

From Richard Bushman's invitation to participants, posted on the Neal A. Maxwell Institutes's website November, 2007. The photo depicts some members of the seminar posing for a picture following their presentations. 
See more of Fleming's thoughts on the Juvenile Instructor blog, "What Is Our Obligation: The 2008 Bushman Seminar."
Bushman, opt. cit.

Transcription here.
An article written in FARMS Review after the publication of Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling discussed the concept of inoculation in the teaching of Church history. In it Daniel C. Peterson cited various statements from Bushman on his concerns for those troubled by historical events. See Peterson, "Editor's Introduction Reflections on the Reactions to Rough Stone Rolling and Related Matters", FARMS Review, 19:1, P. xi–liv.
[6] Bushman, opt. cit. [7] As for information specifically, Stephen Fleming's paper on magic was the exception for me. I was not familiar with most of his sources regarding "magic" and the history of Christianity; thus his presentation was new to me. His style, however, was similar to many papers I have read from both FAIR and FARMS. Thus, where is the "pastoral approach?" See JI for more on Fleming's paper. According to Bushman, plans are being made to have the presentations published in the Religious Educator, a magazine for CES instructors.
For more on McLellan, see Larry Porter, "William E. McLellan's Testimony of the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Summer 1970): 485-87. Helen Mar's reminiscences were taken from "Life Incidents," Woman's Exponent 9-10 (1880-1882) and "Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo," Woman's Exponent 11 (1882-83).


J. Stapley said...

I think that you have offered some great criticism here. Thank you for keeping us posted. It is definitely appreciated.

Ben said...

Sound criticism, Blair.

I still stand by my take that it was a great seminar in a sense that it was presented to a lot of CES folk and will hopefully reach an even broader CES audience. While all of this stuff may seem new, and at times outdated, to us, I bet it was new to many in the room. Just providing the opportunity for that to happen is important in itself.

I did agree with your criticism that making them take a subject they were not familiar with had some disadvantages. Like you, I seemed to think they were just repeating what others had said in the past (specifically relying on Bushman's interpretations). Though it served its purpose, and lets face it, most of the people in the audience wouldn't have known any difference, people who were more experienced in the fields may have been able to put the topics in an even more understandable framework.

I look forward to your future installments.

BTW: It was great to meet you in person there, as well.

Ben said...

the second sentense should read: "while all this stuff may NOT seem new...to us..."

LifeOnaPlate said...


Indeed, it was nice meeting all you JI guys. I believe the most important aspect of the seminar itself may be the actual participants themselves, specifically those involved with Church education. I'll approach that aspect of it later in the week and see if we can kick some ideas around.

Jared said...

Thanks for the summary, BH.

Curtis Weber said...

I thought the pastoral tone was oddly absent for being so emphasized by Bushman. I heard sources cited and criticized, and theories about why something shouldn't be a problem, but no real message or outreach to the faltering or concerned member. I would love to hear John Dehlin's take on this.

LifeOnaPlate said...

From what I understand, John Dehlin was at least somewhat disappointed in the presentations (at least the first session, anyway.) He expressed such when eating lunch with myself, Stephen Flemming, Mark Ashurst-McGee, David Keller, and various other individuals. Dehlin doesn't believe that ultimate truth claims are an issue, it seems. If someone doesn't believe that JS really used the U+T to translate, or that the BoM is inspired fiction or something, he thinks that is fine etc. and that more should be done to make such people comfortable in the Church. While I can walk part of the way with Dehlin on that, there are other aspects of his approach that trouble me, which I'll be talking about in an upcoming post. I think Dehlin's point of view has some important things to say to teachers, bishops, parents, etc. but that it also contains some pretty serious flaws.

Kent said...

I was wondering who that guy with the beard was sitting opposite me on the other side of the room. Good to find your blog! You just got a new regular reader.

Steve Fleming said...

Curtis, the pastoral tone is tricky. I had lunch with John Dehlin and he felt it missing from the first papers. I told him that Spencer's was different and he seemed to endorse it. (Yes, I want to focus on the best).

My focus, as I believe was Kerry's was to go after certain notions that the orthodoxy have (ie discomfort with the seer stone). I believe that if we can gain a greater acceptance of the concept then will all be in a better place. My origianl draft was a little punchier but decided to tone it down when I realized that disaffected individuals might take the tone as directed at them.

I really do believe that with proper understanding the seer stone need not be a problem.

Blair, the point of the conference was to get the papers published in the Religious Educator believing that that act would point a way forward. The seminar was also meant to train institute teachers. I am the expert on my topic though, see my CHURCH HISTORY article.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Getting more CES etc. involved is crucial, indeed, Steve. I thoroughly enjoyed your paper, by the way.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Where can your paper on Seer stones be found?

Don Kauffman said...

Blair, it sounds like a cool event. thanks for sharing your experience. Are you going to start taking donations for Art School?

LifeOnaPlate said...

I take donations in general. I have received none, however. :(

Curtis Weber said...

I recall John's general feeling at lunch, but I'm curious to hear his overall impression (he had to leave part way through the second half).

Steve Fleming said...

Sorry Curtis, I didn't get everybodies' name down (I remember now).

Crucified with Christ said...

In so much as I feel that mormons live a moral lifestyle, there is the concern that you do not accept the Holy Bible as the infallible Word of the Living God. How than can a man or woman be saved if they reject His Holy Word? Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one gets to the Father but by Him. Critism of Joseph Smith seems to be the focus of this seminar. My question is: What exactly is the mormon focus; Joseph Smith or Jesus Christ? How can a seer of stones and a treasure hunter be a true prophet of God? I know that you may speak of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but these men were sinners and did not take lightly the words of God. Comparing Joseph Smith to any of the men is an utter shame and disgrace to the chosen people of God. This is not meant as an attack on Joe Smith, but comparing any man today to those leaders is a disgrace.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Mark: As I explained in the last e-mail I sent you, I am uninterested in continuously being proselyted by you. Please respect my request.

Bryce Haymond said...

Great comments Blair. I think the best "pastoral approach" to apologetics that I have encountered yet is a set of 2 CDs that Daniel C. Peterson recently released called "Defending the Faith: Dealing with Criticism of the Church." Something about it was much more conversational and lay than the scholarly approach many have taken, and which many cannot understand. It was communication on a completely different level that I believe connects with a different type of people. Peterson did an excellent job. I can't nail down exactly what he did to make it more "pastoral" but perhaps we could do some analysis there.

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