Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Cheryl L. Bruno

1)Tell us about your background, education, and career goals when you were just starting out? Did they change over time?

I graduated from a small liberal arts college with a B.S. in Physical Recreation and Recreation, while working as a swim coach. Upon graduation, I served an LDS mission. When I returned, I enrolled in a Master’s program at BYU in Educational Psychology. I married a few months after beginning the program, and in less than a year delivered the first of my eight children. I was happy to discontinue my studies in response to Ezra Taft Benson’s 1987 speech, “To the Mothers in Zion,” which proclaimed that “contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother’s calling is in the home, not in the market place.” Oh, and yes…that changed over time.

2) How did you decide to become an independent scholar?

After serving for many years as a Seminary teacher, I became interested in the broader world of Biblical scholarship and theology. I briefly considered entering a graduate program as my children began to leave the home. However, money was tight for our family, which had survived for many years on one income (my husband’s). Besides, I couldn’t find just the right program for my needs and interests anywhere nearby.

I reached the point in my Biblical scholarship that I needed to know Hebrew. I bought myself some introductory books and tried to pick it up on my own. Not feeling satisfied with any Old Testament translations into English, I began a “literary translation” of Isaiah, with the most rudimentary of Hebrew language skills. I am satisfied that it is at the same time a brilliant opus and a ridiculous failure. I loved the time I spent working on it, and I still return to it from time to time.

To fill some intellectual and social needs, I began to blog.

Through blogging, I met some great mentors, and my interests began to coalesce around the subject of Mormon history. I’ve written a few published articles, and I’m now co-authoring a book on Mormonism and Freemasonry.

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

I had to learn to believe in myself. When I started presenting at Mormon conferences, I didn’t know how to introduce myself, since I had virtually no qualifications for being there. When I began submitting papers for publication in professional, peer-reviewed journals, I asked myself, “What am I doing? They’ll look at my curriculum vitae and won’t even bother to read this!” But I kept trying to improve, and educating myself, and now I’m a lot more confident. I’ve started to publish, and I’m getting more confident about putting my research out there.

4) How do you balance your work as an independent scholar with your other responsibilities in life?

As an independent scholar, I don’t make any money. I have a job as a manager with an Aquatics company. I’d love to just fixate on researching and writing, but I have to drag myself away to support myself financially. I guess it is a good thing, since I get out and interact with children, teens and adults in my job. I teach swim classes, train lifeguards, and get some physical activity that I might not if I was solely immersed in academia. But it’s hard to balance what I consider my vocation with other responsibilities. Others in my life have seen it as an overblown hobby, and can’t understand why so much of my time and resources are spent on researching a four-year-period in the 1800s, in an obscure Illinois township.

5) What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to independent scholarship?

Independent scholarship gives you the freedom to produce as much or as little as you want. It’s less stressful. It’s the only way I could ever have entered the field. I don’t think we have to worry as much about having published in Sunstone, or FAIR, or what our early work looked like as those who are looking to be hired in academia. We are more free to let our proclivities develop naturally, and to publish in a wide variety of places.

However, there are many cons to doing Mormon studies this way. If you don’t have a specialized degree, you really have to work at educating yourself. Much of Mormon studies is substandard, and it’s essential to be able to recognize and produce quality work. Peer review is essential; and if you’re an independent scholar it might be difficult to find the guidance you need. It’s also challenging to strike a balance between your scholarship and where you are on the faith spectrum.

it may be difficult to access or afford certain sources if you are not connected to a trusted or respected professional organization. Many sources in Mormonism are restricted. It will be harder to pursue resources or travel where you need to go to track down your information.

6) What advice would you give to undergraduates or masters students considering independent scholarship?

Use the amazing world of the internet! I’ve participated in introductory religion courses through Yale University’s Open studies program online, I’ve listened to lectures by Bart Ehrmann, and familiarized myself with Andrei Orlov’s writings on the Enoch Pseudepigrapha to give me needed background for an article I wrote on Joseph Smith’s Enoch writings—just to name a few! The internet can take you a long way and give you direction for further readings in your field of interest.

Collaborate with your fellow scholars, especially those whose interests parallel yours. I’ve found Mormon studies scholars to be so helpful, interested, friendly. When asked, they’ve been willing to review, share and assist me in my work. I try to reciprocate, when I can. I’ve been lucky to have great experiences with this. Sure, people have used things I’ve found first, but I try to overcome my feeling of “ownership,” because it’s gone the other way just as many times.

I’d also suggest to start broad, but to keep in mind a goal of narrowing your interest as you go. To be a really successful independent scholar, you need to be an expert in a small area of study.

Finally, read, read, read!!

7) What do you think the role of the independent scholar will be in the future of Mormon Studies?

Mormon studies would not exist as it does without the independent scholar. There are far too few professional positions available in the field. Many who do this work do it for the love of research and study, or to bolster the faith, or out of plain curiosity. I’ve seen some beginning scholars attending and presenting at Mormon conferences while still in high school, and seasoned folks entering the field at retirement age. I think independent scholars will continue to be important in the world of Mormon studies.

Maimonides and a new Torah Scroll Controversy

My ears perked up when I heard the news that Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew at the University of Bologna, has found what he believes is the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll. Perani was updating the University library’s Hebrew manuscript catalogue in February, when he realized the scroll had been wrongly dated by the last cataloguer in 1889.

The 1889 cataloguer, a Jew named Leonello Modona, had described the letters in the scroll as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices.” Perani, however, recognized an elegant script whose square letters were of the oriental Babylonian tradition.

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

The scroll doesn’t follow the rabbinical rules established by Maimonides in the late 12th century that standardized how the Pentateuch should be copied. It contains many features and markings that would be forbidden under those rules. Its script and other graphic notations are far older than the 17th century date that it had been assigned.

Two separate carbon-dating tests — performed by the University of Salento in Italy and the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — confirmed that the scroll dates from 1155-1225 CE.
Giovanni Garbini, a leading expert on ancient Semitic languages, said the discovery doesn’t change much about what the world knows about Hebrew manuscripts.

“It’s an example of an ancient scroll, but from the point of view of knowledge, it doesn’t change anything,” he said in a telephone interview.

But Stephen Pfann, acting president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and an expert in ancient Jewish manuscripts, said if accurately dated, the scroll is a rare and important find. “We don’t have anything much from that period,” Pfann said.

I’ll admit that I’m not qualified or knowledgeable in this field, but I’d love to hear some of our Biblical scholars expound on Pfann and Garbini’s disagreement. I was surprised to read Garbini’s opinion that this discovery doesn’t change much. When an older scroll or manuscript is found, there are often changes to our understanding of scriptural passages. For example, just yesterday, June 2, 2013, Ha’aretz reported that a new interpretation of Genesis 9:22-24 has come to light due to a high resolution photograph of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the Dead Sea Scrolls date from an earlier period of time than the Bologna Scroll, there is not a complete Torah among them. For many passages, the newly discovered scroll is going to contain the oldest version of them which is now known.
Here are some of the questions that come to my mind:

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

What is the extent of the existing collection of Torah scrolls from before the time of Maimonides?

What specific things were forbidden by Maimonides that were included in the Bologna scroll?

What were the reasons for the Maimonides strictures?

Have the graphic features, markings and script required by Maimonides made any difference in context or meaning?

Thoughts? Enlighten us!

Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society

Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society[1]

Whenever I watch the film version of the Lord of the Rings, it strikes me that Sam, Frodo’s gardener, is the real hero of the story. Although Frodo is the protagonist, the ring-holder, the champion who saves Middle-Earth, Sam was the one who stood strong when the going was rough, filled in the gaps, supported and carried Frodo when he could no longer go on. This is how I view the history of the Relief Society. Though Joseph Smith, his wife Emma, and Eliza R. Snow are remembered as “Frodos” of the Relief Society, there were also several people who filled the vital role of “Sam.” One of these is Sarah Granger Kimball. Continue reading “Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society”

On the Malleability of Gold Plates: Mormonism and Modern Biblical Scholarship

From the time I first came to understand the nature of  pseudepigrapha, I felt comfortable with the idea that many of these extra-scriptural writings were written under assumed names. Somewhere I had picked up the idea that it was a common and accepted convention for works of antiquity to be attributed to someone famous. There are ancient books of Adam, of Enoch, of Abraham, all written by later authors under a prophetic moniker to give their writings authority and status. Even our book of Psalms in the present canon includes poems with headings “A Psalm of David”—(lᵊ dawid).  This has traditionally been understood to denote Davidic authorship, even though Biblical scholars agree that some of these were post-exilic. As Jana Riess puts it:

The Hebrew preposition “l” can, like many Hebrew words, mean a variety of different things. Often translated “of,” it can also mean “to” or “for” (a Psalm for David) or “in the manner of” (a psalm that’s like something David might have written if he were still with us; R.I.P.).

In his work, “The Book of Psalms,” UC Berkeley Hebrew professor Robert Alter taught that “it was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past.” This is what I had always heard.

Not so! says Bart Ehrman in his groundbreaking treatment of the subject. In the 2011 book Forged,  Ehrman asserts that writing in the name of a famous prophet or biblical figure was just as scandalous in ancient times as any forgery would be today. Continue reading “On the Malleability of Gold Plates: Mormonism and Modern Biblical Scholarship”

LDS Correlated Lessons and the Hermeneutical model “PaRDeS”

I deeply respect the Jewish approach to the study of the scriptures. It is said that simply stating an opinion about Torah without any background or training in how to critically think about the text is Torah discussion but is not necessarily Torah study. To encourage critical thinking, rabbis from at least the third century C.E. established a simple four-level system known as PaRDeS. Each consonant in this acronym stands for a Hebrew word, and put together they mystically form the word “orchard” (פָּרְדֵּס), or paradise.

  • p’shat — “plain”
  • remez — “hints”
  • d’rash/midrash — “inquire”
  • sod — “secret”

The p’shat level of exegesis seeks to explain the “plain,” simple, or obvious meaning of the text.  This is the type of scripture study that we see so often in our Sunday School classes. Even LDS Seminary and Institute manuals are filled with this level of study. Of course, the p’shat meaning of a text is quite important. It is the keystone of scriptural understanding, and takes into account the customary meanings of the words, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. In Lesson 20 of our current Sunday School manual, the teacher is advised: Continue reading “LDS Correlated Lessons and the Hermeneutical model “PaRDeS””

A Dearth of Understanding Mormon Freemasonry in Nauvoo

A Freemason’s Critique of Sam Brown
by Guest Poster Joe Steve Swick III

Joe Swick is a longtime student of the history and dogmas of Mormonism and Freemasonry. He received his Endowment in 1982 and was raised a Master Mason in 1995. He is twice Past Master of his local lodge, and twice Past High Priest of his Royal Arch Chapter, receiving the Masonic Order of High Priesthood in 2004.

I recently attended a lecture by Samuel M. Brown on the subject of Mormon Masonry, which was a brief summary of chapters from his new book, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death,[i] particularly the chapter, “Negotiating Death and Afterlife in Nauvoo.”[ii] As a Freemason who has also received the LDS Temple Endowment, this topic is of particular interest to me. Unfortunately, there were several significant problems with the presentation of the subject of Mormonism and Freemasonry in Nauvoo, particularly as it touches the central themes of his book. Due to space constraints, I’d like to briefly look at just one of these troubling areas. Continue reading “A Dearth of Understanding Mormon Freemasonry in Nauvoo”

B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith

FPR would like to thank Christopher Carroll Smith for this guest post. Chris is an emerging Mormon Studies scholar out of Claremont Graduate University, in the tradition of Jan Shipps.

B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy, is better known for his efforts as an apologist than as a politician, but this is a man who was regarded by some of his contemporaries as the most prominent Democratic orator in the state of Utah. Roberts, in fact, was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1898, but the House refused to seat him because he was a practicing polygamist. Roberts also played an important role in shaping the state constitution when Utah was admitted to the Union.

Continue reading “B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith”

100 Years of Seminary. And BTW Gay Marriage

In 1971, Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a talk in which he stated:

The gospel might be likened to the keyboard of a piano—a full keyboard with a selection of keys on which one who is trained can play a variety without limits; a ballad to express love, a march to rally, a melody to soothe, and a hymn to inspire; an endless variety to suit every mood and satisfy every need.

How shortsighted it is, then, to choose a single key and endlessly tap out the monotony of a single note, or even two or three notes, when the full keyboard of limitless harmony can be played. (BKP, The Only True and Living Church, Ensign, Dec 1971) Continue reading “100 Years of Seminary. And BTW Gay Marriage”

Mormons and Wild Geese

The first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” seems as at odds with Mormonism as anything can be. “You do not have to be good,” she states.

What’s that? It sounds an awfully lot like sacrilege. Of course we have to be good. Jesus admonished us to become perfect, and not only do we have the 10 commandments of other Bible-believers, we have a strict health code, a tithing requirement, and obligatory church attendance. A Latter-day Saint’s entire identity can be wrapped up in the necessity of being good. From choosing baptism and choosing the right in Primary, to serving a mission and serving our fellow man as a young adult, to marrying the right person at the right time in the right place — doing good is in our genes, and necessary for our salvation. Continue reading “Mormons and Wild Geese”

Capital Punishment and LDS Doctrinal Development

This morning my facebook and twitter feeds were inundated with declarations by my Latter-day Saint friends decrying capital punishment and the execution of Troy Davis last night. “I want to take this opportunity to voice my outright and unequivocal opposition to the death penalty,” said one. “A sad day to be a Georgian,” lamented another. I wasn’t really surprised, but I am fascinated by how the tide of public support of capital punishment has ebbed among Mormons in my own lifetime. Continue reading “Capital Punishment and LDS Doctrinal Development”