The Interpreter Stumbles over the JSPP

Since it’s inception (at Olive Garden ;>) in 2012 the Interpreter has published an article or book review every Friday. That’s over 300 pieces of “scholarship”! Among the publications are a number of high quality pieces. The vast majority of things they publish though, are mediocre at best; and far too many of their publications are just downright embarrassing for Latter-day Saints. We ran a couple of posts two years ago, for instance, on Duane Boyce’s 122 page “review” of the work of Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy. To repeat what I said on one of those posts: Givens, et. al are not above critique, but what Boyce offers is not thoughtful critique. His aim is to say what is necessary to steer others away from them—to erode confidence in them as sources of faithful scholarship; all the while denying this is what he’s doing. This is, as a matter of fact, a repeated M.O. at the Interpreter; they poison the well that other faithful scholars have dug. It’s now two years since Boyce’s earlier piece, and he is still publishing these reviews.

Their latest attempt to poison the well is to discredit the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Gee’s review of the latest volume points out hundreds of “errors.” Gee concludes, “Producing it incorrectly is arguably worse than not producing it at all.” While notably different from Boyce’s tactics, Gee is still bombastic, condemning, and aghast in his rhetoric. The problem, though, is that Gee is wrong. The vast majority of the “errors” are interpretational choices that align with the style guide detailed in the front of every volume. Gee neither understands the style guide nor leaves room for alternate readings of documents that he has no training to read. Indeed, while he is a trained Egyptologist, and the volume does deal with the Book of Abraham among other related things, he has no training in 19th century documentary history. I suspect that all of this plays a role as to why even BYU Studies refused to publish Gee’s review. Now the Interpreter has removed all original comments on the review and has added a number of significant edits to the review. See if you can guess which of these two sentences is a new addition:

“It is regrettable that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts several faithful Egyptologists among its membership, the editors deliberately chose not to involve them in any serious way. It is true that two of that number were given a month to peer review the volume and some of their suggestions were accepted, but no photographs were included in what was reviewed, nor did the Egyptologists see the appendix on the Egyptian characters.”

To my knowledge this is the first time the Interpreter has made substantive edits to a published paper. I suspect that there are authorities in either SLC or BYU that have pressured them to do this.

Articles at the Interpreter are supposedly peer reviewed, meaning that other scholars vet the quality of the work. This is usually done by removing the names of the authors so that scholars will judge the work on its merits. The names of reviewers are also usually withheld. The Interpreter, however, does not remove the names of the authors. This facilitates a system where people that are a part of the in-group have an easier time publishing their work. You can tell a lot about a journal by who they ask to do the peer review. For the Interpreter this is mostly a small group of the same folks, many of which do not have the proper training to vet quality scholarship. Imagine spending decades of your life to master a discipline, and then after submitting your work to a journal, a person who’s been interested in it as hobby (or perhaps is still a young undergraduate) peer reviews it. This would never happen at a respectable journal, but this kind of thing does happen at the Interpreter (and this is one reason why those with proper training for the most part do not submit their work there).None of this is surprising given that the founder of the Interpreter has barely published any peer-reviewed work in his field over his 40+ year career (I can’t find more than six articles and one book). This would not meet the standards at any institution that BYU sees as a peer; and it is an embarrassment for many at BYU.

As I’ve said in a previous post, 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 (where are the women?) who on occasion publish decent scholarship, but “scholarship” such as Boyce’s (and Gee’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 Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education

A guest post from Mrs. Silence Dogood

One of the most interesting books on Mormon history to appear in the last year was Thomas Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press). You can read reviews of the book here, here, here, and here, as well as interviews here and here. As a summary, Simpson argues that the Mormon tradition’s awkward, uneven, but relentless interaction with higher education drove much of the Americanization process during the Church’s transition period between 1870 and 1940. Young Latter-day Saints traveled to Harvard, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago to receive a secular education and better integrate into their surrounding society. Yet the process was complex and brought unintended consequences, especially at home. Most poignantly, not everyone in Utah, especially at the leadership levels, was excited about the new knowledge that graduates brought back with them. A resurgent populism and ever-present authoritarianism countered these modernist ideas and led to several significant clashes. This is an important narrative concerning the origins of the modern Mormon mind. Continue reading “The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education”

“That’s not how the Church Presents Itself”: An Irreverent Response

The Church is largely to blame for the faith crisis among segments of the Mormon community. It promoted a black and white worldview where Truth is self-evident, and it supported this view with “faith-promoting” narratives that ignored the messy facts of history. One of the fruits of this approach is having this very mentality reflected back on the Church—when joining the Church is an existential choice, leaving it can likewise be existential. Disillusionment with the Church oddly does not necessarily lead to disillusionment with its black-and-white positivist worldview. So, many of the disaffected are “Truth-seekers”—just following wherever the (self-evident) evidence takes them.  Continue reading ““That’s not how the Church Presents Itself”: An Irreverent Response”

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?”

On Maintaining Integrity in Difficult Circumstances

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else; if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, as one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.

Joseph Ratzinger, Gaudium et Spes, n. 16 in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Volume 5, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, New York, Herder and Herder, 1969, 134.

Authority is Our Sacred Cow, and It Must be Domesticated

I believe that there are members of our faith that would engage in acts of terrorism if asked by the leaders of our Church. For instance, in a discussion about two years ago on M*, one of the perma-bloggers said the following with regard to Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac: “Smallaxe, with the testimony I have of the living prophets, if President Monson were to call upon me to sacrifice one of my children, I would do so.”

If someone is willing to sacrifice his own child at the request of the Prophet, you can be sure that he would be willing to sacrifice the children of others (this blogger actually joked earlier in the conversation that he’d willingly sacrifice my child). While only one other person in the conversation explicitly supported his position, no one from the blog refuted him; and none were willing to come up with a position that precluded this kind of fundamentalism.

While anecdotal, I think it speaks to a more general issue—we have a problem with authority. In a more recent discussion on the same blog, I was reminded (not so gently) that Elder Oaks said, “Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As Elder George F. Richards, President of the Council of the Twelve, said in a conference address in April 1947, ‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’”  Continue reading “Authority is Our Sacred Cow, and It Must be Domesticated”

Clarifying “How the CES Letter Works”

One purpose of my previous post was to highlight the way in which the intent we ascribe to others impacts our ability to trust them. If we believe that that someone is out to get us, we ought not trust them. On the other hand, if we believe that someone has our best interest in mind, we can trust him or her provided that other conditions are met (e.g., they are capable of carrying out the task for which they are trusted, etc.).

In the case of the “Letter to a CES Director,” Jeremy Runnells attributes malintent to the leadership of the Church. This has the effect of foreclosing the possibility of rebuilding trust in the leadership. I argued that instead of seeing the Church’s construction of its history as unprincipled, we should see it as unskilled. Continue reading “Clarifying “How the CES Letter Works””