On Cruises, Cash, and BYU Religious Education

Guest post from a friend of the blog. I should also point out that the behavior criticized by the author is not illegal nor even necessarily disingenuous:

It is no secret that a remunerative relationship exists between BYU Religious Education faculty and various LDS publishing houses, most notably Deseret Book. This is categorically different than your average professor writing a textbook and trade book. The physics prof doesn’t make the rounds speaking at EFY, Women’s Conference, Education Week, Time Out for Women, etc. They are not invited to speak at various local church functions (ward, stake, seminary, institute). I doubt many of these Rel Ed profs are openly hawking their publications at the latter venues, but you can see how opportunity presents itself to mention one’s latest book during one’s talk. It’s a bit of a gray area when it comes to Mormon concepts of priestcraft (see 2 Ne 26:29).

This brings me to something I have only recently noticed: BYU Religious Education faculty and cruises. There is a Utah County business called Cruise Lady that offers LDS themed cruises and tours (e.g. Alaska, Europe, “The Book of Mormon Lands”) headlined by local LDS celebrities (e.g. Michael Ballam, Michael McLean, some Osmonds). But a little under half of the sixty or so headlining celebrities are or have been professors or have taught in BYU’s College of Religious Education. This feels unseemly. If it does not to you, consider this standard Headliner Bio:

“Alonzo L. Gaskill is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, where his primary teaching focus is World Religions. Brother Gaskill converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–from Greek Orthodoxy–in November of 1984. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the temple, symbolism, and world religions. He and his wife, Lori, are the parents of five children.”

It’s all there. BYU Religious Education cred? Check. Appearance of legit academic chops? Check. Interesting back story? Check. LDS cred (i.e. large family)? Check. But Gaskill is not the most egregious case of trading on one’s official and unofficial standing in the LDS community for free cruises and extra income. There are current and former deans of BYU Religious Education headlining these junkets. Current Dean Brent Top, former Dean Terry Ball, and former Dean Robert Millet all offer tours. Associate Deans (Kent Jackson), department chairs (Camille Fronk Olson), and directors of BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies program (Eric Huntsman) are also featured. It is one thing to write and profit from books for the Rel Ed/Deseret Book/Ed Week nexus. At least that has some sheen of respectability for egalitarian spreading of the good news. But cruises and cash? I’m sure they figure it’s no different than business profs doing some consulting on the side. But of course, rather than advice on strategic planning or marketing, the Rel Ed Deans and profs are providing gospel tidbits for the entertainment of wealthy Latter-day Saints. This is no longer a gray area.

But maybe you still feel OK about this. What do you say to former BYU Rel Ed professor George Durrant? Here is his Headliner Bio in full:

“Current sealer at the Mt. Timpanogos Temple; author of more than 50 books including the popular Love at Home—Starring Father and Don’t Forget the Star; has taught religion at BYU; worked in many capacities for the Church Education System; and also served as director of Priesthood Genealogy. He served as president of the Kentucky Tennessee Mission, president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT and recently in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.”

If that does not strike you as disagreeable or well past the gray area, you can reserve an Ocean View room for you and your spouse to hear Prof Durrant and Prof Susan Easton Black co-headline a cruise to Hawaii this September for $2,878.50, not including airfare, excursions, gratuities, and, of course, drinks. The Junior Suite will run you a hair under $5,000.00.

Mormons and Easter

Thoughts from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous:

I’m kind of tired of Mormons trying to take Easter all serious like. It comes off as cultural appropriation because, let’s face it, we aren’t Christians like that kind of Christian. Easter is never going to stick because a) we have no connection to Christendom’s liturgical calendar b) our very few rituals are derived not from Christianity but from masonry c) we have zero aesthetic for public religious performance (cathedrals, pilgrimages, processions, art, clerical dress, etc.) d) Easter is always going to compete with General Conference and lose e) we don’t really care about the cross because of reasons f) we are a protest movement against both Catholicism and Protestantism and so we thumb our noses at their concern over Easter g) we are just exhausted from so many other religious and cultural duties and activities that we can’t be bothered h) it’s hard to get excited for resurrection when our theology makes it just another form of damnation without the highest temple ordinances (or, you know, plural marriage according to canon) i) our music sucks.

Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.

The death of Book of Mormon antiquity research?

Book of Mormon antiquity research has changed a lot since since the late 1990s. Not so long ago, it appeared that the future looked bright for the project to authenticate the BoM. Even in 2005 Richard Bushman could write, “the proponents [of an ancient BoM] are as energetic and ingenious as the critics in mustering support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. On the whole better trained, with more technical language skills than their opponents, they are located mainly at Brigham Young University and associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). As a loosely coordinated group, they are as assiduous in demonstrating the historical authenticity of the book as the critics are in situating it in the nineteenth century” (Rough Stone Rolling, 92-93). But of course today FARMS with its university backing no longer exists, the quality of apologetic work produced through its intellectual successor The Interpreter has deteriorated, and the general sense is no longer onward and upward.

Nevertheless, in my view the most significant development that occurred during this period with long term implications for BoM apologetics is not the dissolution of FARMS and subsequent reorganization of the Maxwell Institute, but rather the failure of this earlier generation of scholars to convince people in my generation who went into biblical and ancient studies more generally to continue the struggle, not only that this was a fight worth having and sacrificing for but that it was grounded in the best available methodologies and scholarly bodies of knowledge. If you can’t build up supporters from those with the relevant professional training to say something informed about BoM historicity, then you have already lost. No matter how many articles you publish by enthusiastic layperson students of the BoM, the scholarly discourse is eventually hollowed out and devitalized and its credibility diminished. As with organic life, intellectual traditions can wither and die.

This, I would submit, is what is happening with traditional BoM antiquity research. I am aware of no one of relatively recent professional training in historical methodology or biblical or ancient studies who has attempted to give any kind of evidence-based justification for belief in a historical BoM or provided a competent response or accounting for the many ways in which our present knowledge of the Bible and its historical development militates strongly against a literal understanding of the BoM story. So either people have the requisite training but choose not to use it for this purpose or they bring their training to bear in only a very selective, limited, uncritical, and one-sided fashion.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon

I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.