The latest issue of the FARMS Review offers useful insight into the past, present, and possible futures of FARMS. The issue (19/1) is a hodgepodge of topics, themes, and approaches. It addresses ancient scripture, Mormon history, debates with evangelicals, tributes to a recently deceased Mormon historian, reflections on a Joseph Smith biography, an essay on Mormon studies, book reviews, a lecture by Terryl Givens, and a BYU lecture on theology by Jim Faulconer. The FARMS Review is, indeed, a many-sided thing.
Glancing across the landscape of Mormon publications, it is easy to see where many of these contributions might have been published. In fact, almost all of them would have readily found a place within BYU Studies or Dialogue or Sunstone or the Journal of Mormon History. There are three categories of writing that wouldn’t migrate as easily to other venues, and it is these that make the FARMS Review different: (1) the editor’s (and his sidekick’s) rambling, idiosyncratic, indulgent reflections on whatever topical matters he feels like writing about; (2) reviews of Book of Mormon-related publications (which used to be the Review’s main focus); and (3) tete-a-tetes with evangelicals regarding scriptural interpretation.
Let’s consider for a moment each of these three categories, taken in reverse order, and think through what they might suggest about the future of FARMS in its institutional, scholarly, and apologetic roles.
In the area of apologetics, FARMS seems to be rapidly losing ground to FAIR, in terms of coverage, impact, and limelight. The Aug. 11 Church News had a big two-page spread on the fall FAIR conference. FAIR has an extensive website, hosts big conferences, and attracts big names.
On the second category: Book of Mormon debates have long been a specialty of FARMS publications, but here too the field is changing. Note that the Review discusses a book chapter on “automatic writing” published a full five years ago. And Bill Hamblin’s piece is devoted the long-standing question of ancient writing on metal plates. Nothing new under the sun in Book of Mormon research? Actually there is a great deal of ongoing research, but it has a journal of its own: a whole glossy magazine-journal, in fact: The “Journal of Book of Mormon Studies,” which relies in part on BYU Religion resources. In this area too, then, the relevance of FARMS (and the FARMS Review specifically) seems to be dwindling.
The first category, finally, is Dan Peterson’s always witty, well-written, wide-ranging, and sometimes penetrating introductory essay. It’s been Peterson’s personal Rameumpton for proclaiming the Truth, spitting on his critics, and sorting out the Good, the Bad, and the Pathetic. Here, too, there have been significant shifts. Peterson’s edge seems to be fading, as is his urgent tone. The barbarians at the gates are in retreat, perhaps? Could it be battle fatigue? Or maybe the well-armed FAIR troops are now shouldering the burden?
Perhaps Peterson is quietly giving in to his long-time critics, silently acknowledging that the caustic tone and steady barrage of personal insults have worn out his readers and, who knows, perhaps even him. Many are by now familiar with his long-standing reaction to criticism. Let’s call it The Peterson Three-Step. First, seek to disarm your critics, and toss in a little levity, by playing up the “nasty Dan” image. Second, deny that there’s any such thing as “FARMS” or “FARMS writers.” After all, haven’t Richard Bushman and Nate Oman both published in FARMS publications? There you have it! Infallible proof! It is inconceivable that FARMS could be promoting a particular ideology or argument. Third, wait for some old friend to come out of the woodwork in support of FARMS or its main stable of authors. Peterson’s actually a nice guy in person. Or, even Midgley can be charming at times. Honest! (To which we might add a fourth step: Carry on, carry on.)
Many of Peterson’s online essays have taken a more defensive tone lately. He seems fully aware that FARMS is losing some ground, some relevance—partly, I should emphasize, as a result of its own success. The organization of the Maxwell Institute as a broad umbrella of BYU-based centers, publications, and initiatives has re-arranged the power structures and seems to suggest a more muted, collaborative role for the future of FARMS. Put differently, it may slowly fade away, diffused into other organizations and publications.
Ten years from now, will FARMS still exist?