Over the past three weeks The Interpreter has published portions of Duane Boyce’s article titled “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?” Throughout 122 pages (yes, that’s not a typo) Boyce answers this question in the affirmative.
For those not inclined to read the whole thing, here’s the TL;DR: Boyce thinks several LDS scholars err in interpreting the words of the prophets, misreading them in arguing that prophets might have significant flaws. According to Boyce, these misreadings are becoming increasingly common, and commonly accepted. The article focuses on the work of Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy, although Boyce mentions a couple of others toward the end of the piece.
Boyce’s argument in and of itself is worthy of consideration. Givens, Mason, and Hardy are some of the best LDS scholars of Mormonism. If they are misunderstanding the texts they claim to explain, we ought to hear about it (Hardy’s book, after all, is titled Understanding the Book of Mormon) . Further, challenging someone’s reading of a text is common practice among scholars, and a scholar putting forth a particular reading ought to expect to be challenged.
Boyce’s article, however, is not the challenge they deserve. It’s misguided from the get-go; and moreover, is representative of the immaturity of far too much LDS scholarship.
Take the title. A shadow is lengthening, and quality is deteriorating. In order to substantiate deterioration on any given point, one would expect the author to first establish the quality of a previous state. Did earlier LDS scholars not commit the same errors or at least commit them less commonly? One would expect some kind of comparison between a previous state and the current state.
Boyce makes this claim in the beginning of the article: “the purpose of this paper is to investigate whether there is a general (and growing) deterioration of thought on the topic of prophets and revelation in LDS scholarly discourse. In other words, one wonders whether errors on this topic are becoming common, and commonly accepted, in the rhetoric of LDS scholars.”
He concludes the entire article as follows: “In any case, this constellation of data — the faulty claims I see, the errors in analysis I see that lie behind the faulty claims, and the appearance of all of them in reputable venues — seems noteworthy to me. If I am at least substantially right about all this, it is hard to see how there could not be a general loosening of thought on this topic — a contamination, to some degree, of the very intellectual landscape that LDS scholars accept and share. It seems possible, in other words, that at least some false conclusions are indeed becoming new shared assumptions. The evidence for this is at least suggestive. To me, based on all I have seen, a shadow is apparent. And to me, based on all I have seen, there is reason to believe it is lengthening.”
Yet in between page 1 and 122 Boyce neither establishes some previous state as his baseline nor provides much substantive proof of this growing contamination. The only argument he makes for this lengthening shadow appears near page 113 and runs for only a page! His “evidence” is that he was able to find lots of examples of this error among these scholars’ work and that since reputable presses publish their work, those involved in the process of publication must not have considered their ideas to be in error (Ironically, The Interpreter published Givens’ “Letter to a Doubter,” which is a part of Boyce’s critique). Boyce’s article lacks the framework to even attempt to make the argument promised in the title, the introduction, and the conclusion.
Furthermore, Boyce’s usage of a “shadow” suggests something ominous and foreboding. Boyce promises that this issue is “never about individual scholars themselves. It is only about claims.” And that, “To critique a claim… is not remotely to suggest that its author is unfaithful or unworthy.” Yet Boyce seems oblivious to the effects of his shadow imagery in that even though he feels he is not passing judgment on the worthiness of Givens and company, he still clearly finds them guilty of spreading the shadow, or in Boyce’s words quoted above, guilty of “contaminating” the LDS intellectual landscape. He uses strong language like this throughout the piece in evaluating their scholarship. If we take Boyce’s view, Givens et al. are indeed up to no good, even if unintentionally. Their errors could, of course, be due to a few reasons—they are either stupendously poor readers, are purposely misreading the texts to subvert the church, or they willfully manipulate the texts because they are self-deceived by what they take to be a righteous agenda. Either way this doesn’t bode well for these scholars.
Boyce’s readings of these scholars and of the scriptures are sometimes incisive, but more often facile, and he constantly fails to reflect on the limitations of his own arguments. Yet this is where the immaturity of Mormon intellectual discourse comes into play. The Interpreter recently announced that it is listed on LDS.org as a “resource for answering doctrinal, historical, and social questions.” The editors of The Interpreter clearly see it as a scholarly and faithful endeavor. Yet apologetic pieces such as Boyce’s are blind to these goals. Pieces such as these work hard to avoid charges of ad hominem attacks yet they fail to recognize that they are engaging in another kind of attack—they are doing what I previously called wheat and tares apologetics. They are sifting the wheat from the tares for other Mormons; identifying the good from the bad; showing which scholars are contaminated and which are pure. IMHO, these attacks do more harm than good. It’s all the more confusing since Givens and Mason are largely trying to keep people in the Church. We don’t need these kinds of wedges driven into our community, and we don’t need self-appointed guardians telling us which scholars are safe and which are dangerous. How did Boyce and the Interpreter’s editors think some Mormons would read his article?
Boyce might object that smearing Givens, Mason, and Hardy isn’t his intention; however, intentionality is not always directly correlated with causality. In other words, even if Boyce doesn’t intend to pass judgment on these scholars, his scholarship leads others to.
Case in point.
“The point is that certain named scholars are erroneously drifting from unquestioned belief and faith in prophets and revelation toward less than that–very true. This is done to apease doubters, but also diminishes faith in all who may buy their falacious arguments. Duane’s piece is highly commendable for its forthright expose of error in these modern scholars’ weak and watered down explanations. Compare their works with the declarations of truth from special witnesses and the differences, as boyce points ot, are startling. I am so pleased to see this posted.”
In another comment he adds: “I would suggest that contributing to a lengthening shadow over LDS scholarship isn’t building much of anything but doubt.”
Even if those involved in publishing this article did not intend these kinds of responses, they are responsible for paving the way for them (and they certainly should have noticed that Boyce’s article lacks the necessary framing and arguments to support his accusations).
The truth of the matter is that The Interpreter is to scholarship what McDonalds is to fine dining. Both create fast and tasty items for consumption, and if consumed in moderation both have a few decent things to offer. But anyone expecting quality scholarship from The Interpreter is more likely to see a Mc Filet Mignon in a drive thru near them.
Not even at BYU, where professors must publish research to be promoted (and gain BYU’s version of tenure), does publishing with The Interpreter count toward their research requirements. And even the College of Religious Education’s new Continuing Faculty Status guidelines rule out places like The Interpreter as an academic publishing outlet. The Interpreter might be run by faithful men who on occasion publish decent scholarship, but “scholarship” such as Boyce’s serve as a reminder why The Interpreter is not considered scholarship by the larger community of scholars. Bad scholarship is not, indeed cannot be, faithful scholarship.
The irony of all of this is that I think there actually are several places where scholars such as Givens play fast and loose with the texts to provide a reading of more human-like prophets. Yet Boyce is driven by a different agenda. In the conclusion of Boyce’s article he explains that he wrote the piece because “the topic strikes [him] as vitally important.” He goes on to say that “when Aaron and Miriam thought to criticize Moses, the Lord responded very simply. He rehearsed his intimate association with that great prophet and then, based on that association, asked: ‘Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’ (Numbers 12:8).” Boyce’s motivation seems to be a perceived slight against the Lord’s anointed. He cannot tolerate what he deems as disrespect for the leadership of the Church (early or latter-day). The authority of the prophets ought not only inform our lives, but lead our lives. To question them is to question their authority, and there is no authority beyond a prophet’s (I write more about this here).
Scholars such as Givens step within this mindset to argue against it. They use the words of the prophets to argue for more fallible prophets because the mentality of prophetic authority is the dominant mentality in LDS culture. In making this move though, they have to use what little resources there are available, and ignore other trends. What this means, however, is that when push comes to shove arguments such as Boyce’s are right. They are right not because they offer more correct interpretations of texts, but because they represent the dominant mentality of LDS culture, and until scholars such as Givens have unequivocal statements from the living prophets about their own significant fallibility they are doomed to lose these arguments.
And this leads me to the title of my post. Our discourse on authority produces people such as Boyce. We’ve sown the seeds, and now we are reaping the fruit. His 122 page attack on the views of other LDS scholars is almost heroic, yet it’s heroic only in the ways we deserve, not in the ways we need it to be.