August 12, 2008

Follow-up Thoughts on the 2008 Bushman Seminar

On Church education, apologetics, and scholarship

In my preliminary remarks on the Bushman seminar I noted that the participants included various CES and at  Church Curriculum personnel. As noted, I believe this involvement is a crucial step forward in equipping Institute and other teachers to handle issues that may cause concern among their students. Robert Lund from the Church curriculum department pointed out he was surprised to see such a large turnout at the presentation of the papers. Rather than being a presentation on new information about Joseph Smith which might grab the attention of LDS buffs, he explained, the purpose of the seminar was to explore apologetics in general and to educate the participants in methods of historical inquiry, presentation; approaching Joseph Smith on difficult issues in order to help students of the gospel better understand them in a straight-forward but positive way.[1] Participant and graduate student Stephen Fleming noted:
[The seminar] had two audiences. Those who have lost their faith and institute teachers. Our goal was to help institute teachers help those who struggle. We know Dialogue will publish such topics, but we saw The Religious Educator as more effective for our purposes.
We want to avoid all finger pointing. We are all aware that the manuals [of the LDS Church] are imperfect. We all hope for improvement. The blame game isn’t effective though. Our hope is to find a way to work together on common goals.[2]
He continued:
Our primary audience is the CES so publishing in the Religious Educator is important to us. How to reach the disaffected is a trickier question. First, we want to write so that the disaffected will feel that we are being honest.[3]
Flemming also said he believes people will find the temper of the papers "different from FAIR," the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.
Again we all admire FAIR and FARMS but felt like there were additional angles to be explored. We all wanted to empathize with those who struggle and admit that we have very challenging issues in Church history.[4]
I believe the view that FAIR and FARMS have not taken a "pastoral approach," may stem from an unfamiliarity with much of the material provided by them. As board member Kevin Barney pointed out in response to Flemming:
The basic approach [of FAIR] is to use scholarship but to try to summarize it and make it intelligible for the non-scholar members of the Church. This article tries to synthesize the key points of the scholarship, and then for people who can handle more refers them to the half-dozen or so key articles in BYU Studies.
So, using this as an example (or any other topic you prefer), how will these responses differ in tone, approach, audience, or other ways?[5]
Because FAIR has many volunteers who write different articles, (FARMS also has many different contributors) they can differ in tone and approach. As Barney said, he would "caution against characterizing either FAIR or FARMS by any one particular paper or small group of papers. Both groups are more in the nature of clearinghouses and involve contributions from literally hundreds of people." I believe it is possible that Bushman and some other participants of the seminar were fairly unfamiliar with what both FARMS and FAIR has produced. Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, visited the seminar, along with Daniel C. Peterson (editor of the FARMS Review) and spoke to the participants about their work and I believe, if they made a positive impression, the invisible mental gap in some minds that seems to separate FAIR (and even FARMS) from "good" apologetic work (or causes the label of "apologetics" to be used in a pejorative sense) will shrink. "Apologetics" is, in essence, arguing for a position. There are good and bad ways to do apologetics. 

The seminar had the goal of discovering a "pastoral approach." Bushman's introductory paper covered this very well (as did Daniel C. Peterson's FAIR conference address "Humble Apologetics," transcripts of both are forthcoming). My confusion began in hearing the papers following Bushman's; I expected something different.[6] In other words, the seminar seems to have resulted in papers that are pretty close to the tone and approach already used by FARMS and FAIR, only now, CES instructors and Curriculum personnel were working directly with historians and specialists in a symposium sponsored by the Maxwell Institute rather than the LDS Church directly, which I believe is excellent.

Finally, to answer some of my original questions posted shortly after the seminar:
Why were these specific topics covered over others? 
Among other reasons, Bushman was corresponding with a woman in Germany who mentioned these specific things as issues she believes cause disaffection among members.

What was covered that wasn't already available elsewhere?
Topically, little new material was presented, though in general the papers deserve reading as they ably approach their various topics. Again, I believe the purpose of the seminar was not particularly to provide new research or information as much as it was designed to share methods and approaches with CES instructors and other participants, and also learn from their perspectives.

The input from CES personnel essentially underscored the problems associated with my next question:

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?
The CES and Church Curriculum participants pointed to the difficulty in preparing gospel materials appropriate for a global church. (For example, a woman I know who is currently investigating the Church pointed out that much of what she had seen thus far apart from FAIR and FARMS seemed very basic. Also, earlier church curriculum materials may have been met with puzzled looks when the December lessons contained stories of snow sledding and other things unfamiliar to Saints in warmer regions away from the US. This is a small part of the reasoning behind the correlation movement which seeks to create a unified global LDS voice through lesson manuals, magazines, etc.).

Louis C. Midgley, who met with seminar participants for a short time, noted that some outside observers seemed to believe world-wide Church members need to know various topics irrelevant to the Church's mission without explaining  "how various materials would be presented in Portugal, Mongolia, or a dozen places in Africa. If one desires church-wide materials about DNA and Kirtland Anti-Banking," he said, "such a view would essentially be very parochial if one has in mind the Saints in Malta or Vanuatu or Hong Kong." In other words, it can become easy to develop a myopic view of what the Church needs, even while believing or hoping for a more universal gospel. A sort-of "Wasatch Front Intellectualism" can develop, seeing the problems facing the Church in the intellectual arena as pandemic throughout the Church. In his recent Sunstone panel discussion on his book Shaken Faith Syndrome, Michael Ash similarly lamented that, at times, the lessons in Church may not approach the depth some members prefer. In the panel he said "I'd like to see something in the current curriculum like Nibley's An Approach to the Book of Mormon [the 1957 Melchizedek priesthood manual, now republished by FARMS] I also noted, however, that I can understand that, as a world-wide Church, [the curriculum department] has a tough balancing act in this area." Ash is trying to look beyond himself.[7]

I believe another reason (among several) Church materials have been reticent more recently to include rigorous historical investigation is that some members may take certain views as “official,” or teach them as such, when these views will likely continue to adapt over time (especially historical views which can change with the discovery of new information or further research.) Answers printed in Church publications give the imprimatur of authenticity, perhaps causing some members to hold rigidly to views likely to adapt over time. What is needed, in my mind, is a contemporary, clear, and perhaps official explanation on the role history plays in the Church; how it relates to our conception of a covenant people or dispensation, and how members can expect it to continue to adapt or change in the future in certain ways, even without tearing away the foundation of revelation from God to Joseph Smith, and the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. Method and worldview, more than the individual “historical facts” [read: interpretations], seem key to me.[8] Mitt Romney's recent presidential campaign and the resulting media coverage provided impetus for the LDS Public Affairs department, which now posts updates and information on LDS.org on news items affecting Mormonism.[9] Richard Turley's recent article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre was another example of professional scholarship directed to the mainstream Church in the Ensign.[10] The Church has increased its presence on the Internet as well, including a YouTube channel and a call for members of the Church to become active participants in blogging and other online dialog about the gospel.[11] The Joseph Smith Papers project also shows the institutional interest in rigorous scholarship as directed by the Church history department.[12]

What method of apologetics is right, or are they all wrong together? 
Obviously there are benefits and shortcomings to different approaches. There is no "catch-all" because different methods appeal to different people, at different times, in different situations, regarding different subjects! As Daniel C. Peterson recently explained,
I'm sure [apologists, scholars, teachers etc.] are not helping everybody who needs or wants help. That's one of the reasons why I give this matter on-going thought. I know that our efforts have helped more than a few; I've heard from them. But I don't believe that any one approach will help everybody. The response that allays all concerns of Worrier A may well offend Worrier B, or leave him unsatisfied, or even suggest new reasons for doubt. I've seen it happen. Ideally, the approach would be tailored to each individual. Unfortunately, that simply isn't possible in every way.[13]
A general awareness and desire among those who are to be instructed is what we need first; that is something each of us can actually work on now.[14] The Church needs less baby robins waiting to be fed. Additionally, a desire for a rigid, comprehensive answer to all theological questions can be problematic. As Benjamin Huff explained in his essay "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse":
There is a danger that someone who is more eager to have all the answers than to have the truth may cling to a theological system in resistance of the truth, whether truth that is new to the world, or merely truth that is new to that person.[15]
What exactly is a "pastoral approach" and how does it differ from what is already being provided by various organizations? 
I will be discussing this question more as the Bushman and Peterson transcripts are completed. (I believe some who complain about different approaches in LDS scholarship, or even in the Church curriculum, do less to help the situation by complaining about it than those making their own efforts to pitch in.) 

Commenting on the Juvenile Instructor blog under notes about the Bushman seminar, a poster named Kent summed it up nicely:
What I feel most individuals who struggle with “the facts” need most is not one specific narrative (ie. “what really happened”), but rather context for the events and an alternative world-view that reframes the disconnect between expectations and our best understanding of reality.

In summary, I feel the intended audience (CES employees) were well served by the presentations offered and I am very hopeful we will see more attempts at history and apologetics from this seminar in the future.[16]

FOOTNOTES

[1]
The image is "i feel like going home" by Sam Brown, explodingdog comics, 6-16-08. In my prelimary remarks on the seminar I noted that if the approach was intended to develop new information, I believe it failed because the papers were not "new." I believe my first supposition was correct, that the approach was intended to help participants learn how to better use historical sources and discuss various methods to get CES and others involved in the process. In this regard, I believe the seminar was a very important step forward, and successful insofar as those who participated continue with what they learned. Indeed, this is an exciting development. Flemming called it "a momentous occasion" (see his comment in "What Is Our Obligation?", Juvenile Instructor blog, July 25, 2008).

[2]
Stephen Flemming, "What Is Our Obligation?", Juvenile Instructor blog, July 25, 2008. The Religious Educator is a publication geared for CES and other LDS instructors.

[3]
ibid.

[4]
ibid. It should be noted that FARMS has been renamed the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Out of convenience I have used both names in the post.

[5] 
Kevin Barney, July 25, 2008. FARMS and FAIR have suffered somewhat from "poisoning the well" by various critics of their efforts. Michael Ash discusses this phenomenon in "Anti-Mormon Disdain for LDS Scholarship and Apologetics," Shaken Faith Syndrome, p.83.

[6]
A few others noted similar feelings. At lunch, for example, John Dehlin said the paper on the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society should have commiserated more with other Church members who lost their money in the scheme, which "would have really sucked," he said. While that angle could have been further explored, the overall paper approached the issue of prophethood despite infallibility, rather than exploring all the reactions by various members.

[7]
Midgley and Ash's comments are from personal e-mail correspondence in my possession, August 11, 2008. An important essay on this subject was published in Greg Kofford Books' recent Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical & Theological Possibilities. Benjamin Huff, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, compared the Church to a one-room schoolhouse where students at various levels participate in the same class. He explores the problems inherent in such a setting, and seeks to resolve them by a sort of Hegelian synthesis of unity, diversity and progression. See "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse," p. 159.

[8]
Michael Ash approaches a more responsible view of history and doctrine in his book Shaken Faith Syndrome

[9]
Especially interesting to me has been the "Commentary" section, hinting at a blog-like method of discussion on contemporary issues, including brief statements on approaching LDS history, and discussing LDS doctrine. Top LDS leaders also participated in Helen Whitney's PBS documentary "The Mormons" in 2007. 

[10]
Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sep 2007, 14–21. Interestingly, the Church magazine Liahona, which essentially serves as the Friend, New Era, and Ensign to international Church members, did not carry the massacre article in its September 2007 issue. Turley and two other historians recently published the first of a two-volume work on the massacre. 

[11]
See the LDSPublicAffairs YouTube channel, and Elder Russell M. Ballard's recent article, “Sharing the Gospel Using the Internet,” Ensign, Jul 2008, 58–63.

[12]
See JosephSmithPapers.org for more. KJZZ channel 14 in Utah also has a weekly television special on the project.

[13]
Daniel C. Peterson on the MormonDiscussions.com message board, August 13, 208.

[14]
See my recent post "On Personal Responsibility in Education."

[15]
Huff, "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse," Discourses in Mormon Theology, p. 163. 

[16]
See "Kent's" comments under "Notes on the 2008 Bushman Seminar (part 2)," Juvenile Instructor blog, July 30, 2008.

9 comments:

Kent said...

This is probably the first and last time something I said will ever be used as a footnote. It was good to meet you at FAIR!

J. Stapley said...

Thanks for your continued excellent coverage.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Kent, you weren't footnoted, you were used as a summary quote! I met 2 Kent's at the conference; which one were you?

J.Stap: Thanks for reading.

SmallAxe said...

Thank you very much for your observations. I've read a lot about what you've had to say about the Bushman seminar. Obviously we're operating with only a few snapshots of the project, but would you say that this year's seminar was not as successful as previous years'?

It seems that in terms of research there really wasn't much new ground broken. In terms of apologetics it really wasn't that different than FARMS or FAIR. Perhaps the main "success" was involving CES personnel ?

LifeOnaPlate said...

I believe getting more CES folks on board was a very important step. There were also more behind-the-scenes goings on that made it worth while, from what I heard from some of those who participated or otherwise visited sessions. In terms of new research, this was clearly not the main reason behind this seminar. I think the net result is and will be positive.

Kent said...

I was the tall, handsome one that asked you why you didn't buy Blake's newest book and you told me you were saving up to buy the Joseph Smith Papers later this year.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Ah, yes! And here you are being quoted on my blog (out of context, probably.)

Jay said...

Thank you for this. I appreciate your thoughts. I read the article by Bushman and am grateful that he recognizes the need to change the way that the church handles those who have doubts about the church and church history. Too often people are confused and feel betrayed and they just need an understanding heart and listening ear.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks, Jay.

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