BYU Does the BCE Thing

According to an article I was reading in Meridian magazine a couple of weeks ago touting a podcast with “noted YouTube scholar Daniel Smith,” events called “tabernacle camps are popping up — typically in Youth Conferences — in stakes all over the United States.” In fact, “there’s even one coming to BYU in the coming months, which will be used to teach students about its ancient biblical context.”

One wonders what it might take to be acknowledged as a “noted You Tube scholar” by Meridian, but that must be left for another day.  Instead, I want to ruminate a bit about a “tabernacle camp” at BYU-Provo that is to help teach students about the tabernacle’s “ancient biblical context.” According to “noted You Tube scholar” Daniel Smith, “the best way to understand something is to experience it,” so let’s run with that for a bit—we are going to provide students with a spiritual and religious experience from the ANE circa late second millennium BCE.

The mind, it boggles. Surely it does. Think of the gender issues…

Since it’s the second millennium BCE, we’ll deal with the males first – naturally. There’s gonna have to be a campus-wide email blast confirming that the policy on facial hair is suspended until further notice to permit males to grow full beards a la Joseph F. Smith. The Title IX office will be tasked with marking out the lines past which no women are permitted in order to ensure the purity of the space around the material representation of the deity; violators will be referred for honor code violations or maybe just stoning. The Semitics Department, who are acknowledged experts in these ancient temple things, will be charged with inspecting males for circumcision and unblemished testicles. Parts aren’t just parts in this era.

Continue reading “BYU Does the BCE Thing”

Some Sources for [More] Serious Study

One of the comments added to the last post asked about sources that might help someone get a start on the Bible. So, I thought I’d toss some ideas out here, and my colleagues will probably add things as questions or comments spark them.

The best part of studying the Bible is conversation with other folks who are likewise interested – Christianity is meant to be lived in and thru a community. The fastest way to get started is thru a class with a teacher who can guide you to good sources and respond to questions. If the opportunity presents itself, take a class at a local seminary, community college, public library or whatever.

In any case, the first thing you’ll need is an ecumenical study Bible. That’s a Bible that, at least in theory, doesn’t favor any confessional perspective thru its explanatory footnotes. AND YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT THOSE FOOTNOTES. Why not find one in a library and see what they look like?

Continue reading “Some Sources for [More] Serious Study”

Taylor Petrey is Tenured: What does This Mean for LDS Scholars of Religion?

We’ve been running our Tips on Applying Series for nearly a decade. We heard from Taylor Petrey back in 2010 when he offered some advice on securing an academic position in religious studies. Taylor has recently received tenure, which is a big deal not only for him, but for all Latter-day Saints involved in the study of religion. He graciously agreed to talk to us about his work and how he earned tenure.

  Continue reading “Taylor Petrey is Tenured: What does This Mean for LDS Scholars of Religion?”

Congrats Stephen Smoot

We here at FPR have learned that Mr. Stephen Smoot has been accepted into the MA program at Trinity Western in Biblical Studies. This is a significant first step for Stephen and we are very pleased to offer both our congratulations regarding his acceptance and our best wishes for his future. He has chosen a tough and complicated path but we are confident that he will also find it to be as rewarding as have we.

I might also add, personally, that there still seems to be a bit of confusion arising from a recent post here regarding the intersection of certain approaches to apologetics and acceptance into graduate programs. The point made in the original post was that some activities might make the process more difficult, but what seems to have been understood was that such things are categorically impossible. I regret the confusion and am pleased to have had the opportunity to disambiguate the message.

Again, congrats to Stephen and best wishes for success,


Academic Freedom at BYU, Part 2: The Role of the Academic Vice President

(Part 1 here; part 3 is now up).

Faculty issues at BYU are funneled through the office of the Academic Vice President. For our purposes it is important to know that the office of the AVP deals with faculty hiring and firing, promotion and “tenure” (“Continuing Faculty Status”*) and discipline. Thus when a department sends one of its own up for tenure, it will pass through the offices of the Chair, Dean, and AVP. Promotion can be vetoed at any of these levels, including the AVP. This is fairly standard procedure at universities, although in my experience the basically unappealable decision of the Dean or AVP at BYU, i.e., the way the power is wielded, is unusual and is related to the quasi-theological, top-down structure of BYU.

The AVPresidency is currently held by a prolific professor of engineering.** I mention this because when it comes to the particular and sensitive issues surrounding religious education, history, sociology, or anthropology at BYU, he possesses no formal training (either in religion or in the Humanities). Again, this is of course not required of persons in analogous positions at other universities, but it is of increased importance at BYU given the particular concern it has with religious instruction, where all power to adjudicate issues of academic freedom and hiring and firing when it pertains to religion is placed in the hands of this person with no accountability to anyone below him.*** One assumes the AVP takes advice and recommendations from approved channels and trusted sources, though s/he need not as a rule.

One further note on hiring is necessary: BYU operates differently from most other universities of its size and reputation when it comes to the approval process for hiring. When any BYU department posts a job advert, a potential applicant will make application through BYU’s electronic jobs database, (again, not unusual in itself). What is different is what happens after the applicant submits her/his application. Before the departments are allowed even to give a conference or skype interview to an applicant, they must receive approval from the AVP, if not higher (I do not know whether it goes higher at the applicant stage; I assume not. I do not think this is standard procedure at secular schools; I think it’s even fairly unusual compared to BYU’s own recent past). The AVP regularly (and, in my experience, with greater frequency in the past few years) denies candidates, telling the departments whom they can interview. The AVP need not (and does not under normal circumstances) tell the department anything about why the candidate was denied. In some cases candidates have been denied notwithstanding the vocal protests of the dean of the college to which the person was applying. In other cases, such as in a recent unexplained denial of candidacy to a history department applicant, the AVP denied candidacy apparently because of bad personal blood between the administration and the candidate, though again the reasons are never disclosed. The AVP need not give any reason. In the last two rounds of hiring I am personally aware of about twelve excellent candidates, strongly desired by the departments, strongly desiring to teach at BYU, who were denied at the AVP level for reasons undisclosed. In some cases this obviously protects ecclesiastical information about the candidate. But it is also a most troubling shield from sunny antisepsis, especially given the room for abuse of this power.

In response to these denials, some faculty were able finally to ascertain from the AVP that one of the AVP’s criteria for denial was whether the candidate had published in the journal Dialogue, regardless of the content of the publication. Some faculty asked the AVP directly whether this was true, and the AVP confirmed that while he is AVP, no one who publishes in Dialogue would be approved for employment (or even for interview). I am not sure whether he still holds this to be the case, but the point is that it is a criterion that he chose, with no accountability even to the deans of the colleges. No appeal. No transparency. No discussion. Not even a memo informing the departments that Dialogue is anathema and so they would be advised to alert potential applicants not to apply there. Potentially excellent faculty members have unwittingly ended their BYU careers before even making it to interview.

Implications for Academic Freedom

To my knowledge this is not a direct violation of academic freedom (because the candidates are not employees of the university), although it clearly flies in the face of the spirit thereof. To be sure, I know of no instance in his term in which an employee was fired or denied tenure for having published in Dialogue or somewhere similar. But it is easy to see the effects this has on departments, and especially on Religious Education, in terms of their freedom to pursue and publish research. First of all, I know many candidates who would have made excellent faculty who simply did not apply, either to Religious Education or to History or Sociology because they have recently published in Dialogue. More important, many, if not most, existing faculty already at BYU (especially younger faculty in Religious Ed) will not even consider researching or publishing on some of the most important current topics (gay marriage, gender, women and priesthood, etc.) in this climate. This is especially salient at BYU, which already has no tenure status and so even senior faculty remain exposed (again, the thing the concept of academic freedom is supposed to prevent).

Thus not only do the recent denials of candidacy severely limit the kinds of applicants who will come and weaken BYU’s potential, they also serve as a clear and resounding shot across the bow of any BYU employee who would risk their and their family’s well being by applying themselves to the research and publish on some of the most pressing questions the Church faces. All because of the unassailable decisions made by an engineer in BYU’s administration building. It could be that he is enacting the wishes (explicit or assumed by him) of the Board, but we would never know, and he would be under no obligation to disclose that. From the current vantage point, it seems at best an unreflective and damaging zealotry, and at worst a bald-faced abuse of power. The point, however, is not to declaim such abuse, but rather to contemplate the reasons it can even exist. It is weaved into the fabric of BYU in such a way that makes one wonder whether academic freedom, especially when it concerns research on religion, is even a possibility there. The door to the very abuses academic freedom is supposed to protect (freedom from termination because of political whims or administrative offense) is therefore left wide open. Turn the eye of reason wherever you want, BYU seems to say, except inward or on the Church.

Suggestions for Remedy

My frustration in this post comes because, first, I would love BYU to lead out in important areas, especially in Religious Studies, and to be a healthier, stronger institution. I have no desire to see its demise. I think addressing some of these problems would go a long way toward the reduction of public embarrassments that were witnessed recently (Randy Bott, Alonzo Gaskill, RelEd Curriculum, illegal surveillance) and, more important, to the hiring of faculty who will enhance BYU’s reputation and better guide its students. The real shame of this structure is in the way it manifests a clear and continual antagonism and mistrust on the part of the administration toward its current faculty. In my experience the vast majority of BYU faculty members want BYU to succeed as a uniquely LDS university. They care very much about its students and their success in negotiating a transition to adulthood as faithful Latter-day Saints. They have deep experience stemming from their own negotiation of this transition, and they want to help their students do the same, to give them a better launch maybe than the professors themselves received. They want to help students in their search for truth and mastery of skills, and to deal with their doubts and questions in constructive ways.

The remedy is theoretically simple: the Board of Trustees must trust its faculty enough to invest power in them as a collective body, a power that they do not currently possess. It will make BYU a stronger, better institution, better able to deal with the rapidly changing landscape. It will allow for the rehabilitation of areas of inquiry vital to the mission of the University and Church that have atrophied because they have been denied the oxygen of accountability and appeal. It will create an ability to identify and rectify abuses of power among administration as well as faculty and create a stronger sense of commitment to the University and to its mission.

My recommendations for this will come in part 3’s Appeal to the Board of Trustees.


*CFS, practically speaking, grants the faculty member freedom from firing on professional grounds but reserves the right to terminate the professor on religious (read: worthiness/apostasy) grounds, in which there is still tremendous room for interpretation. There is no tenure, strictu senso, at BYU.

** I do not give his name, though it is readily available on the internet, first of all because I mean him no personal harm nor ill, and second of all because the current occupant is in a broad sense irrelevant to this discussion. Some of his personal decisions, as I discuss below, are relevant but only to the broader issue of the power wielded by one person with no accountability to the faculty working under him. Hints of this power exist also at secular universities, but it is particularly pronounced at religious schools, BYU included.

***As there would be, in some measure, at schools with a Faculty Senate or of course a labor union. There is no Faculty Senate at BYU; there is a Faculty Advisory Council, which is toothless in comparison.

The Value of an Outsider’s Perspective

Several years ago I was asked to accompany an investigator to church.We showed up a few minutes early and sat in the chapel. On the way to church, this investigator explained that he had never been to a Christian service before. He seemed quite eager to take in the experience.

After I briefly introduced what takes place in a sacrament meeting service, we sat quietly in the chapel. Several moments went by as he looked around, and then asked, “What does that mean?” He was pointing to the organ pipes mounted on the front wall of the chapel. I quickly explained that they in fact didn’t mean anything; they were only the pipes of the organ. He seemed not fully satisfied with the answer, but went back to sitting quietly in preparation for the service. Continue reading “The Value of an Outsider’s Perspective”

Faith, Scholarship, and Teaching at BYU Series

For the series announcement and the question to which I am replying, see here.

I believe that the dichotomy between the “intellectual” and the “spiritual” in religious education is a false one. Instead, I would prefer to appropriate for my approach to this important issue the German adjective geistlich (or Hebrew ruchi): a word that sees the spiritual and the intellectual as part of a synthetic whole that also includes an appreciation for the aesthetic. I believe that by adopting this perspective one may more fully comprehend, and so more successfully fulfill, the scriptural injunction to seek God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). Moreover, this approach attempts to eliminate the dualistic impulse that tries to separate the spirit from the material, an impulse which I believe Mormonism confronts and rejects (D&C 88:15; 131:7).

Of course, one could easily recall numerous Mormon axioms for the importance of the life of the mind, including, “The glory of is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and the divine command to obtain out of the “best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; cf. D&C 90:15; 109:7, 14). But I believe that perhaps the best argument from a Mormon perspective for the organic integration of what is sometimes artificially conceptualized as a division between the “mind/intellect” and the “spirit/soul” is the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Here Mormons have an authoritative religious example who valued and who aspired to combine truths of personal experience, divine revelation, and academic study. He was brave enough to question and to study things out in his mind (cf. D&C 9:8), while also being humble enough to seek out answers from both God and the collective wisdom and learning of other peoples, faiths, and traditions. He truly was an example of learning “by study and also by faith,” someone who fully believed that Mormonism could bravely accept all truth, whatever its source.

Although requiring methodological rigor and pedagogical sensitivity, I genuinely believe that Mormonism has nothing to fear in studying or honestly teaching the methods and results of modern academic disciplines. Indeed, I maintain that such geistliche Studien in fact are a divine obligation that will only enrich an already wealthy tradition that I deeply love and cherish. And, finally, I believe that such engagement is crucial if Mormonism wishes to retain and nourish its rising generations in this ever-increasingly globalized world, and also if it wishes to make an even greater contribution in the next century to that broader world it is called to serve.


Apologetics in the Academy

In line with Daniel Peterson’s recent comments, I see significant points of congruence between apologetics and religious studies. I also see no reason why the same institution cannot pursue both endeavors—particularly a private religious institution such as BYU. I do think, however, that much of the apologetics advocated by Peterson is better off done at another venue (congratulations to those involved with the new Interpreter project). At the same time, a more appropriate kind of apologetics can (and should) remain at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.

In this post I’d like to articulate a significant overlap between religious studies and apologetics. This overlap creates a shared space where apologetic efforts can be seen as appropriate or inappropriate for academic institutions such as NAMI. Continue reading “Apologetics in the Academy”