Bill Hamblin is right. The old-FARMS is dead. Gerald Bradford didn’t kill it. John Dehlin certainly didn’t kill it. The ouster of Daniel Peterson is not when FARMS died. It died a long time ago, while Peterson was still there. It was absorbed into the Maxwell Institute, which we now know was the beginning of its end, at least in the form in which it appeared in the 1990’s. For various reasons, the FARMS of the 2000’s failed to capture the imagination, attract significant apologetic work, and ultimately find a relevant voice in the new landscape of Mormon Studies. It remains to be seen whether it will find that relevant voice going forward. Through an unfortunate series of mismanagement, much of which is not public information, and much of which has nothing to do with its current director, FARMS gradually fell apart. It is done. There is little hope in reviving the corpse. Instead, I’d like to reflect a bit on its legacy.
First, FARMS leaves behind an enormous wealth of published material. They broke new ground on research into LDS scripture and had a dramatic effect on the way that the Book of Mormon is understood. They successfully championed the limited geography model, chiasmus, Nephi and his Asherah, and numerous other critical ideas that will have a long, defining impact on Book of Mormon studies. Personally, I remain grateful for these exciting works, even the more problematic ones, for treading new ground and giving us something to think about.
Second, they leave behind the FARMS-Signature wars of the 1990’s. This decade was an incredibly polarizing one for LDS scholars and the result of this work was to draw stark boundaries. FARMS enforced its view of where the boundaries were by labeling those with competing views as Cultural Mormons and Apostates. I’ve argued before that the legacy of this was a chilling effect upon a generation of young LDS academics and non-LDS academics who avoided publishing on Mormonism for fear of getting caught up in this manufactured war. I think that those who were already in graduate school in the 1990’s fled Mormonism, fled Mormon Studies, or charted very safe paths to avoid controversy. This was an unfortunate effect of the vigorous defenses of the faith and in my view ended up chilling good-willed scholars.
Third, they leave behind a legacy of young LDS scholars who were undergraduates in the 1990’s. These folks were initially inspired by the exciting scholarship FARMS was pursuing, and energized by the rhetorical volleys. These young scholars headed off to graduate school optimistic about what they would learn. They studied linguistics, biblical studies, American religious history, and Mesoamerican studies. They left graduate school disillusioned of that optimism and critical of their FARMS mentors. The significant apologists today are largely part-timers, not BYU professors with professional training in relevant fields. Perhaps the worst legacy FARMS leaves behind is a younger generation of scholars who is largely unwilling to take their place. That young generation of scholars who went off to graduate school is decidedly cool about taking up either the research agendas FARMS had laid out or the siege mentality that once motivated them to study in the first place. While these scholars owe a debt of gratitude for the inspiration FARMS gave them, they often resent the expectations it set for them, as well as the expectations of their LDS friends and family that their careers follow that same trajectory of FARMS as the only faithful one.
Rather than seeing FARMS as something that could, or even should, last forever, we are starting to see that FARMS represented an important period that has largely come to an end. It introduced wide LDS audiences to academic approaches to scripture and showed that they could pay off. At the same time, these academic conversations have evolved, and new approaches are need for the new questions (and old questions) that have emerged. I am deeply grateful to Peterson, Welch, Hamblin, and others for what they produced. I am also incredibly eager to see what the next generation of Mormon scholars will produce. So far, I am not the least disappointed and don’t miss the old FARMS at all. We’ve seen a proliferation and revitalization of a number of venues for important intellectual work on Mormonism over the past decade. What will emerge from the ashes of the old FARMS is yet unseen. Let us all hope that it will be something worth paying attention to.
30 Replies to “The Legacy of FARMS”
The second to last paragraph (“Third, they leave behind a legacy of young LDS scholars…”) completely captures my sentiments over the last 13 years of my life.
Thanks for your very interesting reflections, TT.
“That young generation of scholars who went off to graduate school is decidedly cool about taking up either the research agendas FARMS had laid out or the siege mentality that once motivated them to study in the first place. While these scholars owe a debt of gratitude for the inspiration FARMS gave them, they often resent the expectations it set for them, as well as the expectations of their LDS friends and family that their careers follow that same trajectory of FARMS as the only faithful one.”
Can you elaborate more on the research agenda that these emerging graduate students come to embrace instead of the FARMS-inspired siege mentality? That is, if these disillusioned graduate students come to chart a new career trajectory which they deem faithful, what does that trajectory look like, and do apologetics have any part of it? Do these new scholars think apologetics should be done at all, and if so, by whom?
I agree the old FARMS is dead, the institution, the house. But I don’t believe it is done, if you’re considering what FARMS did, its missions, goals, and aims, those inside the house. Apologetics isn’t done. Scholarly historical/ancient analytic high-level defense of the Church, its doctrines, its history, and scriptures isn’t done. Peterson and Hamblin and many others certainly aren’t done. I believe it will find its home again, in a new house (maybe with FAIR) or even with a new name. It isn’t done, and what it did hasn’t come to an end.
Great questions. To break this down into a few different areas:
“Can you elaborate more on the research agenda that these emerging graduate students come to embrace instead of the FARMS-inspired siege mentality?”
There is no single answer to this question. Just as there was no single FARMS approach or Mormon scholar approach in previous generations, this generation too is diverse. But to generalize, I would say that few young LDS scholars have the ambition of fighting with evangelical critics or “apostates.” Take the excellent work of Joe Spencer, for example, on the Book of Mormon, as an example of someone who is doing important work that is not “apologetic” in the polemical sense. One could even point to Grant Hardy, though not a “young” scholar, as someone who is trying to redraw the battle lines of BoM scholarship. Other young scholars have avoided it altogether, fearing the professional implications in the academy for too exuberant of scholarship. Even BYU departments are surprisingly unwilling to tolerate apologetic work by young faculty of the sort that Hamblin and Peterson are associated with. In some cases, they openly discourage any work on Mormon scripture, with BYU RE being the notable exception. Young LDS scholars’ academic research is more in line with current scholarly movements in which they are trained, though in much of their work one can sometimes detect themes that are relevant to LDS experience. Others, like Nate Oman, are seeking to found new areas of inquiry altogether, and avoid rehashing the contentious issues of the past. If we ever get to see the published version of J. Hickman’s brilliant paper on race in the Book of Mormon, we can also see some fascinating approaches that would be accepted as insightful by Mormon and non-Mormon audiences. In fact, if I could characterize on that last point, most young LDS scholars want to speak to broad audiences, in and out of the church, and have productive conversation partners.
“do apologetics have any part of it? Do these new scholars think apologetics should be done at all, and if so, by whom?”
I think that for young LDS scholars, defending the church is not coterminous with the way that previous generations of scholars saw it. In general, I think that many of these young scholars not only think that a lot of the apologetic arguments offered by earlier generations do not work, both in terms of content and tone. In many cases, they see it as ultimately counterproductive because it is indefensible intellectually and rhetorically. Just as they want to redefine the research agendas, they also want to redefine what faithful scholarship looks like, including apologetics.
I would only add that the rising generation of LDS scholars “want to speak to broad audiences, in and out of the church, and have productive conversation partners” not only because of intellectual, social, and professional reasons, but because in most cases they view the gospel and the church very differently from the previous generation of scholars that arose after Nibley and was centered at BYU.
I’ll say that this captures my sentiments as well. Really nicely put. Though no doubt the reference to little hope in reviving the corpse will be taken as an insult/challenge.
About missing the old FARMS, I actually do miss the days when I was as you say excited about FARMS scholarship and even energized by the rhetorical volleys as an undergrad. But that does not make me any less disillusioned and critical.
TT: Thanks for letting all of us old codgers know that our work is a complete failure that drives away young scholars.
That’s not my experience, and I am wondering if it is really anyone’s but yours and oudenos’s? Any other young scholars totally disillusioned with the arguments presented in FARMS and the FARMS approach as TT says?
Blake: add “disinterested” to the “disillusioned” and you’ll find a more sizable contingent. The goals/methods/relevance of apologetics is doubted by a lot of folks these days. As for me, I see the need/relevance/place for apologetics but find myself sometimes entirely disagreeing with the tone/approach/repeated questions.
Pretty much with TT on this one. At one time, I probably read everything FARMS produced but now all of it is in boxes packed in 2008. It taught me that there was more to all this than church, but now it’s clear that there is much more to this “scholarly” life than what FARMS captured.
Also, it does not follow that because many or most young scholars are not following the FARMS agenda that the organization was a failure. It is perhaps a significant achievement to have motivated such diverse and far-reaching intellectual pursuits rather than tying them to a single (few) approaches.
Mogget: I sure hope that there is more to (scholarly) life that what FARMS did (or ever could) capture. That’s a pretty unreasonable critique of anything, isn’t it? Is there any journal that you know of that could live up to that?
Blair: Aren’t there things in virtual every publication of which you are aware with which you disagree regarding tone/approach/repeated questions?
I guess what I am saying is that the bar was set too high if FARMS was supposed to be the be all, end all of church scholarship. I don’t disagree with you at all. There are things in FARMS I thought were atrocious — but also things that were enlightening and mind expanding — and even faith promoting. Isn’t that true of just about any publication? I mean, I find myself totally non-plussed by the Harvard Theological Review often. I still subscribe and love a lot of it. My favorite publication is Faith and Philosophy — and yet I find myself rolling my eyes some times. It is a journal of the highest caliber; but there is always more to scholarly life than Faith and Philosophy.
I suppose the bottom line is that youthful expectations are often dashed on the shores of the reality of human limitations — and the purpose of a graduate program is to precisely supersede and critique all that has gone before. I just expect new Ph.D.s to be a bit arrogant about their relationship to the prior generation of scholars and to come to their senses when they are that prior generation.
“Pretty much with TT on this one.”
Not sure if everyone appreciates the monumental significance of two titans like TT and Mogget agreeing.
“Is there any journal that you know of that could live up to that?”
“Philosophy and Public Affairs” meet both my spiritual and scholarly needs.
I sure hope that there is more to (scholarly) life that what FARMS did (or ever could) capture. That’s a pretty unreasonable critique of anything, isn’t it? Is there any journal that you know of that could live up to that?
Nope. And once I discovered FARMS wasn’t it, I moved on. Happily. And reasonably.
“That’s not my experience, and I am wondering if it is really anyone’s but yours and oudenos’s? Any other young scholars totally disillusioned with the arguments presented in FARMS and the FARMS approach as TT says?”
I’ll add my voice to TT’s, Oudenos’s, BHodge’s, and Mogget’s. As an example, last summer, there was a get-together of about 25-30 LDS grad students in related disciplines (history, religious studies, literature, anthropology, etc.), and whose opinions varied across a broad spectrum. Throughout the conversations, though, it was taken for granted that none of us were interested in the type of work done by FARMS and FAIR. It seems that a majority of younger people associated with apologetics–and, importantly, those who disapprove of the new MI direction–are amateur participants outside of academia. (There are, as always, a few notable outliers.) This is fine–Mormon studies has always, of course, been comprised of at least a large contingent of non-academics–but it does speak to the legacy of FARMS in that they have not perpetuated vast academic progeny.
Speaking for myself, I’ll say that I have read and even reread (but not that recently) your Dialogue article on the expansion theory and would recommend it to anyone. I have very much enjoyed it and could only wish that the kind of open discussion of difficult issues that you demonstrated there were more common and acceptable in less heterodox venues. You make a very real attempt, and a largely successful attempt, in my opinion, at balancing faith and scholarship that is all too rare in my experience.
I confess that I have not read any of your other work, including the items I just looked up on the MI website. This is not because I am embarrassed of it. It’s just not something I have gotten to yet.
So I’ll speak to what I have read. I’ve actually been puzzled by your stance in all this, no doubt because I don’t really know anything about you other than my reading of your Dialogue article. Based on my reading of it, I would not have imagined you to be on board with the kinds of apologetics Prof Peterson represents.
I would be very interested to hear your take on the reactions to your expansion theory over the years, including your own of late. This is no online challenge. I am genuinely interested. How have fellow Mormon scholars, church leaders, family, friends reacted?
I gather that you and Prof Peterson are friends. Did he ever, does he now, entertain your expansion theory? If so, I wonder why he did not choose to send a copy of your Dialogue article to that local church leader we have been talking about on the other thread. In my opinion, that would have been far better than doing what he did.
In the copy of FR 6.1 that Prof Peterson sent to that local church leader, you are said to have “rejected the orthodox view as to historicity,” if only partially. You are said to have done so along with one of the authors of the Signature Books publication that it seems Prof Peterson sees himself as at war with.
Now you back him up, and call us out. What gives?
Based on the little that I have read of the reactions to your expansion theory, such as by Stephen Robinson, I would think that you would appreciate the tight spot that non-scriptural fundamentalists find themselves in vis-a-vis self-proclaimed orthodoxy.
So, in short, no Blake, I don’t think your Dialogue article was a failure, quite the opposite. And far from driving away young scholars, it has helped me for one stay in. But I also don’t think of you when I think of the FARMS approach.
g.wesley. You may know that when my expansion article came out I discussed it at a brown bag discussion of the religious studies department at BYU. (About 1984 — which I just realized is now Mormon history). Usually about 10 people showed up to these affairs; but word got out about a good roast about to happen and more than 100 people were there. I was roundly questioned and criticized and folks thought that I was challenging their faith. Robert Matthews, who was head of the religion department, asked me if I had a testimony about everything I had written. When I explained that the language game I was playing was no the the game of religious testimony, he stated that he could bare testimony of everything he had written. I knew then that I couldn’t match that level of knowledge!
There were a lot of people who thought that I was out to challenge their faith. Well, I was. I wasn’t the one creating the issues; but by raising arguments against BofM historicity to be addressed in the strongest form I knew how (since I really hate straw man arguments) I believe that they thought I was creating these objection of BofM historicity. I was criticized in writing by Stephen Robinson. I was cautioned by others. I probably made some of the arguments more trenchant than their purveyors had in the past.
I was roasted by some wonderful people. I am just grateful they cared enough to hear me out. Here’s the thing — I loved all of them. I understood their sense of betrayal (even if it wasn’t that at all) and I understood their concern for openly discussing the issues. I have attempted to always treat my interlocutors fairly (undoubtedly I have sometimes failed) and address their strongest arguments — and paying the best complement I kn0w by acknowledging that their arguments deserve to be addressed fairly.
You also hit it on the head. Dan Peterson is my friend. I have had long conversations with him — and I know what his dry wit is like. When others attack him for it, I am bound to see it as a lack of charity on their part because I like his humor and get it. I can hear him saying it and I know it isn’t at all malicious. I also believe that he is brilliant. Maybe the smartest person I have known – and that is saying a bit when my personal mentors (for whom I was a TA or research assistant) were Hugh Nibley, Truman Madsen, Sterling McMurrin and David Paulsen. I loved them all.
I’m not calling any of you “out” – at least that isn’t my intention. I am genuinely surprised at the anger and sense of betrayal that I sense in this discussion of FARMs and its contribution. It is like it was responsible for killing an entire generation of Mormon scholars and thoughtful belief. I guess that I just don’t see it — or at least haven’t until now. But reading this anger at FARMS is surprising to me.
I see a real need for a place for folks to go when issues are raised that genuinely challenge their faith and life in the Church. I admit that I love the gospel so much that it hurts me when folks who have searched in good faith conclude it is bunk. I love the philosophical possibilities of Mormonism and have been blessed to have a real love for the texts which LDS hold to be revealed.
I really don’t intend to disagree with your personal stories and experiences. They are yours and you are entitled to them. But I admit that it hurts to hear it. I love Dan and in his sane moments Lou Midgley. They are my friends and I know their hearts. I know others less well like Bill Hamblin but have nothing but respect for his work. So forgive me, maybe I’m too close to it all to really not feel a bit hurt by the whole affair.
Fine discussion. It’s worth noting that the origin of FARMS dates to the pre-Internet era, before blogs, before Facebook. Technology as much as concerns over tone and rhetoric will change practical apologetics. If concerned LDS need answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine or history, they don’t subscribe to the FARMS Review, now they just Google their issue and start reading, or post a question to Facebook and get comments. Practical apologetics has, for the most part, become decentralized and more personal. Some searches may lead to FAIR or blogs or archived FARMS articles. Some Facebook queries will produce links to those sites. But what is needed is not a print version of a New FARMS Review. If that group (displaced FARMS workers) is going to do something, they need to look at the First Things site, the Peculiar People blog at Patheos, Mormon Scholars Testify, and the FAIR site, then think of how to do put some of those elements together to deliver a better apologetic product.
The bottom line is that if there is a need for apologetics in 2012 and beyond, the answer to that need is not a reborn FARM Review journal or *any* print journal.
Blake, I think there are different takes on FARMS depending out what field the scholar went into. Having read FPR for the last while, I’ve gotten the sense that many were greatly inspired by Hugh Nibley and then became disillusioned with his work when they went to grad school and found out that things were quite as pristine as Nibley asserted.
The Mormon history crowd is different since we don’t study the ancient world. When I got into grad school, I wanted to get around the polemics that seemed to characterize the FARMS/Signature debates. I just didn’t want Signature to be setting my research agendas. I don’t have any sense of betrayal, but I just wanted to work on other things.
I’ll also take a break from debating this topic just to express my appreciation to you, Blake, for your expansion theory article. There are a lot of articles that have been important in my academic studies, and then there have been a few articles important to both my academic and personal background; your article is one of the latter.
Unlike Blake I do not know Dan Peterson personally. But I’ve read much of what he’s written and heard him speak. His humor and his approach speak to me on a personal level, I get him. I do not see and have never seen the violent/vitriolic/mean spiriteded attitudes that are regularly attributed to him and to his work in LDS internet venues. And like Blake I sense a huge lack of charity over this issue, an attitude of good riddance and dismissal for a man’s life work that in the end saddens me as well.
“Here’s the thing — I loved all of them. I understood their sense of betrayal (even if it wasn’t that at all) and I understood their concern for openly discussing the issues. I have attempted to always treat my interlocutors fairly (undoubtedly I have sometimes failed) and address their strongest arguments — and paying the best complement I kn0w by acknowledging that their arguments deserve to be addressed fairly.”
You are speaking the language that young scholars now feel. And I think that you have often exemplified these traits. Once again, I thank you for that.
Now, I come to Peterson’s defense quite often as a more complex figure than he is given credit for, and praised him in the OP, so my criticism here should be understood in that light. Just as an example, let us contrast your thoughtful, engaged follow up comment here with Peterson’s utter dismissal of a fair, good-willed disagreement in smallaxe’s previous post. Peterson’s comment was dismissive, factually incorrect, and associated smallaxe with more dubious critics (a strategy we have seen in the Review issue analyzed by g.wesley and Casey in that thread). His engagement with us exemplified none of the virtues you laid out that guided your research and your desire to engage with your own critics. When I say that LDS scholars don’t want to follow in his footsteps, those are the one’s I’m referring to.
I know that we are always tolerant of our friends’ bad behavior because we know them and we know their heart, as you say. If he doesn’t mind me saying so, Chris H. is in this category for me. Had we not cultivated a friendship by basically accidentally getting put on the same blog, I would probably think he was a huge jerk who is not worth seriously engaging. Because I am his friend, I cut him a lot of slack, sometimes more than he deserves :)!
At the same time, we might take criticisms of our friends more seriously than they are intended. My assessment here is not meant to hurt any feelings, to insult, or even to Monday-morning quarterback about calls FARMS has made. I am simply trying to assess the effects of what has gone before us, to account for some changes in direction, and to explain why we are where we are.
” If he doesn’t mind me saying so, Chris H. is in this category for me. Had we not cultivated a friendship by basically accidentally getting put on the same blog, I would probably think he was a huge jerk who is not worth seriously engaging. Because I am his friend, I cut him a lot of slack, sometimes more than he deserves :)!”
I am going to post this as an endorsement on my campaign site.
You mention that you expect new PhDs to be “Ph.D.s to be a bit arrogant about their relationship to the prior generation of scholars and to come to their senses when they are that prior generation.”
I would say that the PhD has been one protracted exercise in self abasing. I have no sense of cocksuredness about my own abilities, my own writing, or my own world view. I definitely don’t feel the confidence in my own knowledge or in the sources at hand to state with certainty much about anything in ancient Christianity, my field of research. In fact, to me, the arrogance I see is in many of the folks at FARMS who treat the deep past with an air of certitude, as though it is recoverable and even mappable onto modern LDS belief and practice. I lay much of the blame for this arrogance on the rhetoric and methodologies Nibley brought to the fore in his apologetic work on ancient Christianity and the vindication of modern Mormonism. I would never presume to his level of certainty or triumphalism and it irks me when folks at FARMS do. And they still do.
So yeah, I am disillusioned and I am not interested in promulgating that sort of stuff. But I don’t think I can be labeled arrogant for these reasons. Beaten down, disabused, exhausted, unsure, cautious–yes. Cocky? Not any more, the world is too big and complicated for that.
And rather than use my training to reassure people that the Apostasy is just the way they have always learned it at church, I try to show those who have interest that there are other ways to make sense of their religious world beyond parallel lines and this equaling that. I am more concerned about the people in my ward than I am about the integrity of claims to restoration of an ancient, pristine Christianity in the face of criticism from the finges or whatever. My apologetic work is how I comport myself in my faith, academic, social, and family communities. I don’t feel any compunction and I have no confidence to reconstruct what happened when the lights went out.
I will just add, that the previous exchange between g.wesley, Blake, Ben P., and TT warms my heart. It really does.
oudenos: Please don’t take my comment about new Ph.Ds being arrogant seriously. I certainly don’t know you well enough to make such an accusation — at least not justifiably. It is just that no one ever got a doctorate with a dissertation that said in essence: “those guys who went before me pretty much got it right and I don’t have anything to add that they didn’t already see better than I do.” I acknowledge the messiness of New Testament and early Christian studies (heck, philosophy has got to be at least as difficult to pin down — but we philosophers tend to have a high tolerance for ambiguity).
But it seems that there are limits. I have in mind a comment on a comment by well-known New Testament scholar at a lecture I attended: “One cannot be a scholar and believe in the resurrection. Scholarship that is acceptable within the discipline must work within the bounds of methodological naturalism. There is not and cannot be such a thing as a resurrection. People simply do not come back to life after three days of being dead after death on a Roman cross.” Now there’s an open mind for you. But does scholarship really have to assume methodological naturalism that must assume the impossibility of the stories and “myths” that are at the very foundations of religious beliefs?
Chris H. — I always think of you as a Teddy Bear with a bite and sharp wit. I liked the interaction we had and I know exactly what TT is saying.
I’m coming to this late, but appreciate your thoughts, TT.
Incidentally, I also came to Mormon studies a bit later than other folks here. That those who were undergrads in the 1990s became disillusioned with and critical of FARMS makes sense and seems right based on my own observations, while those who were undergrads in the early to mid 2000s seem, as Blair aptly put it, disinterested. I’ve followed the story of the FARMS fallout over the last couple of weeks, and my response to all of it has been “meh.”
I do very much appreciate hearing from others of earlier generations, though, including this post.
Perhaps “generation” isn’t the right word, since those a decade older than me are not really of a different generation. Anyway, I still appreciate the different perspectives.
That’s not my experience, and I am wondering if it is really anyone’s but yours and oudenos’s? Any other young scholars totally disillusioned with the arguments presented in FARMS and the FARMS approach as TT says?
I’m not sure totally disillusioned is apt because I believe it’s important to reaffirm that FARMS has done, and still does (in MI), lots of good work. But I also see lots of young scholars looking to publish (on topics related to Mormonism) in other ventures. Part of this, at least in my experience, is because much of the dialogue in FARMS comes to be seen as insular once one is exposed to the broader field of religious studies. This insularity need not be understood pejoratively, but can also be understood in terms of a realization that discussions about “religion” occur in many other places and in many other ways; and I think many young scholars are testing the water for participating in these other discourses.