Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Viva Dialog! The JSP Team Responds to My Complaints About Their Volume on the Book of Abraham

A few of you may have noticed that the Joseph Smith Papers team has publicly responded to my unfortunate complaints about bias and flawed scholarship in their volume on the Book of Abraham, Volume 4 of The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations (hereafter JSPRT4). I say "unfortunate" not just because it must be annoying and frustrating to have a fellow member of the Church complain about such a beautiful and carefully crafted work, but even more unfortunate because there may be a legitimate basis for the complaints. This is one case where I would gladly be wrong, and would have welcomed a correction that clearly rebutted my objections and showed exactly where I went wrong in questioning the scholarship and finding bias in the work. The response is truly welcome, but in my opinion, does not resolve the fundamental and detailed issues I have raised both at The Interpreter ("A Precious Resource with Some Gaps") and also at Meridian Magazine.

The response is given in Matthew J. Grow and Matthew C. Godfrey, "The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham: A Response to Recent Reviews," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 97-104. Matthew J. Grow is managing director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He served as director of publications at the Church History Department from 2010 to 2019. He has a PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame. Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. It's an honor to have a response from both of these fine men. I was puzzled, though, why the response was not from the co-editors of the volume. Nevertheless, I appreciate the thoughtful comments they made and the time they took to both read my articles.

They do assure us that good methodology was followed and state that my complaint about the neglect of Nibley is an inappropriate call for "historiagraphy," the detailed history of who said what, when that is not the purpose of the JSP Project. I appreciate both of these points, but find that they do not adequately address the key issues raised. I explain this in my rejoinder that was also published the same day as their reply. See Jeff Lindsay, "A Welcome Response, but Flaws Remain," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 105-112.

John Gee's rejoinder to Brothers Grow and Godfrey is given in John Gee, "Taking Stock," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 113-118. He also feels that the many specific issues he raised have not yet been resolved, but also expresses gratitude for the response.

One thing still puzzles me in the carefully written reply of Grow and Godfrey. In their conclusion, they state:
Scholarly communities thrive when their members engage in vigorous debates of ideas rather than attacks on the character of colleagues. We reject the notion that calling into question the faith of fellow Latter-day Saints has any place in public discourse — scholarly or otherwise.
I fully agree with this, and I think most people would. So why state this? Why did they feel a need to say this in their response to what John Gee and I have written? My article expressly points out that faithful Latter-day Saints can hold a wide variety of views on the origins of the Book of Abraham, including the personal views of the editors of JSPRT4 that seem to be favored in the handling of many details. I have explicitly pointed out that I am not attacking the editors' faith nor calling them apostates. My issue is not with their faith nor their right to have differing views. It is flawed scholarship that I am objecting to. The same applies to John Gee's critiques: I see no evidence that he is questioning faithfulness, only scholarship.

In the first comment posted for Grow and Godfrey's reply, I made this query:
I believed my original article made it clear that members of the Church can, in good faith, take a variety of views on the origins of the Book of Abraham, and that I was not calling anyone’s faith into question. As I read your reply once again, that statement comes across as an undeserved rebuke. Could you explain where I went wrong? I also don’t think John Gee wrote anything that could be interpreted as denying the faithfulness of the co-editors.

My objective was to point out problems with bias and flawed scholarship, not to question anyone’s faith. Please let me know where I went wrong.
So far, over a week later, there has been no response. I hope that they were simply thinking of what other Latter-day Saints might say who are unhappy to see the unfortunate bias in JSPRT4, but it would have then been helpful to be a little more clear. As written, the statement seems to imply that at least one of us complainers is unfairly questioning somebody's faith. Or am I just being overly sensitive? Would not be the first time!

From my perspective, to engender vigorous debate and dialog, scholars should not respond to challenges about their scholarship by suggesting that a critic is unfairly questioning their faith. That's not a properly played card in this case. The objections John Gee and I have raised are, as far as I can tell, directed to the scholarship (is it accurate? is it biased? is it misleading?) and not the faithfulness of any of the JSP team. That some positions I disagree with are used by critics to undermine faith does not mean that the position or theory is "apostate," no more than modern science is inherently apostate, though it can be used (misused, rather) to undermine faith. The various positions I find in JSPRT4 that I disagree with are expressly stated to be within the realm of what faithful members can believe.

There are good members who see the Book of Abraham as Joseph's inspired fiction, a vehicle to convey some inspiring big ideas. I disagree with that position, but one can believe it and still sincerely accept the divinity of the Restoration, Christ as our Savior,  etc. Our faith does not depend on exactly what the Book of Abraham is or how it came to be, but I do think we need to treat the Book of Abraham with care and sensitivity given how its many puzzles are often exploited to undermine faith, which is part of why I hope the JSP Team will recognize that there are valid reasons for being concerned about the subtle put pervasive bias shown in their volume. But if I have been questioning the faith of others in my criticisms, please let me know where I acted improperly so I can make a retraction, issue an apology, or do whatever is needed to fix the problem. Hopefully, though, I'm just over-reacting. In any case, viva dialog and discussion!

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There are good members who see the Book of Abraham as Joseph's inspired fiction"

The mere fact members can say that proves the LDS Church is no longer the same. When we hear "the Church is the one true Church", we have to ask which one, the 1970, 2000, 2020, or 2050 Church. Maybe the LDS Church of tomorrow that de-canonizes the BoA is the actual one true Church. That Church may come sooner than we think.

The most fascinating part of the LDS evolution is each iteration brings it closer and closer to mainstream Christianity, which proves the LDS agree: "What is good about the Church is not unique, and what is unique about the Church is not good"

Their current phony outrage over the use of the word Mormon is just a desperate attempt to reject the pre-2020 LDS Church and what used to make them unique. In this sense the Jevohah Witness did a much better job. JW was slightly pejorative, but they embraced it, emphasizing their uniqueness. That and they also shun all politics and so no one cares while their real numbers leap beyond the strike Mormons /strike LDS.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Anonymous, recognize that "inspired fiction" is my rather pejorative term. One can also see the story of Job as fictional but inspired, a story to teach us of God's mercy and our need for patience in affliction. The era of the patriarchs is murky. All accounts about that have questionable and puzzling elements. Some good Jewish and Christian scholars aren't sure there was a historical Abraham. If not, a Jewish account that became an Egyptian text of interest to some Egyptian priests in ancient Thebes could have been translated in 1835 by the gift and power of God to give us a pseudepigraphical text (a text falsely ascribed to a source) that may have religious value, even scriptural value, and may be a true miracle in spite of some murkiness.

If there are stories in the Old Testament that didn't really happen the way they are recorded, it doesn't mean we have to abandon the Bible. If Abraham's account, even though translated by an authorized prophet using prophetic gifts, didn't happen exactly as that text relates, it does not mean we need to abandon the Book of Abraham. A pseudepigraphical text can still be ancient, authentic, and contain precious and revealed truth, or can be a vehicle for a prophet to teach revealed truth. So it can be "inspired fiction" or, better said, a divinely provided tool to teach us inspired truths, even if Abraham didn't actually teach astronomy in the Egyptian court.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. This what Biblical skeptics have been saying for centuries. This radical idea of Judeo-Christian followers that it is all or nothing, no middle ground, is insulting to skeptics who find tremendous value learning about the human condition in the Bible and other works. You have essentially restated a position that was previously the realm of religious skeptics.

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

You have been told this multiple times in multiple posts:

“They do assure us that good methodology was followed and state that my complaint about the neglect of Nibley is an inappropriate call for ‘historiagraphy,’ the detailed history of who said what, when that is not the purpose of the JSP Project.”

I’m not sure why you are still insisting that the scope of the project be broadened to include your pet points about what people may have said about the content of the English translation. The JSP project’s treatment of the BoA is about the process of what brought us to the document, not the doctrinal validity of the contents of the document.

I’m also confused about your confusion:

“I have explicitly pointed out that I am not attacking the editors' faith nor calling them apostates. My issue is not with their faith nor their right to have differing views. It is flawed scholarship that I am objecting to.”

You have objected all along that the treatment of the documents didn’t do enough to help maintain faith in the traditional concept of how the BoA came about and its place in the canon of Mormonism. You have pointed out that the way the information has been presented could lead people away from faith in the BoA and the church. You haven’t directly called the editors apostates, but you have criticized their methods as being faith-destroying instead of faith-promoting—which is a short step away from calling the creators of the research apostate.

It seems appropriate that Dr. Grow and Dr. Godfrey responded to you since you have called into question the faith and scholarly ability of the editors. Perhaps they hoped that a response from proven, “faithful” members of the church would quell your misgivings about the project and its presentation.

I know I’ve mentioned this to you before but I’ll risk being redundant: when enough people come to the same conclusion about what you’ve written or what you’re doing, it’s time to step back and analyze your own processes and see why that is.

JoePeaceman said...
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JoePeaceman said...

Jeff, I've enjoyed your vital scholarly discussions of the JSP Abraham material. As I understand it, Bros. Hauglid and Jensen are also deeply faithful scholars. I have been very much impressed with their goodness and testimonies. I haven't known you to say anything different. As such, I believe they support questions, disagreement, and concerns.
You, and they, are helping determine the future of faithful scholarship.
It would be wonderful if Brian would post a guest blog here and respond to questions. We could call it a "fireside" or "presentation" if that helps.

It's not every day that a JSP editor finds himself in agreement with Critics and disagreeing with faithful peers. Many of us would appreciate a firsthand clarification of his stance, and an open discussion of the evidence which led an honest scholar to disagree with greats such as Nibley, Gee, Muhlestein, and Lindsay, and to (apparently) agree with Dan Vogel. I fully support disagreement with anyone, and I even agreed with Dan once or twice myself :). However, after vigorous attempts, Dan (and anonymous friends at Mormonthink, etc.) have failed to provide scholarly evidence supporting their claims.

On the other hand, solid evidence has been presented to support that:
1-the BofA was at least partially translated before the GAEL was created "to" it, and that the GAEL doesn't represent the BofA translation effort.
2- the BofA is from, or based on, ancient texts.
3- the papyri likely contained some Abraham material
(and I won't be offended if someone presents evidence showing that the "old man" was Hor and the vignettes and etc. were not gathered by a Ptolemaic Jew or Christian...but I digress :)), and so on.


I'm always open to truth and would love to hear Brian's thoughts. Maybe I will come to agree with him and even Dan... : )

Blake said...
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Blake said...

Jeff I have enjoyed your critique. The fact that a response was seen to be necessary and that the editors and authors of the commentary did not respond is also enlightening. The truth is that the Maxwell Institute has taken on a secular perspective and purpose. It is no longer in defense of faith or to even give points that would sustain faith. It is just another religious studies project from the same secular point of view.

The points you made about the lack of apologetic appraisal and defense of the Book of Abraham as anything like what Joseph Smith claimed it to be are well taken. Hauglid expressly admitted that he adopted the view of the critics of the Book of Abraham who have argued that it is essenteially a fraud. That such an approach would then be reflected in his editorial work and commentary is not surprising.

That no response was made to these concerns -- the real concerns -- is both enlightening and telling. They say that the Book of Abraham was produced in both Nauvoo and Kirtland; what they miss is that the KEP and related documents were not Nauvoo products (and that is the real issue). It is amusing that they say that the evidence is not clear enough to tell when the KEP and related documents were produced and both the Kirtland only and both Kirtland and Nauvoo production are reasonable views, but they pontificate contra Gee: "For instance, we believe the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith translated portions of the Book of Abraham in Kirtland and then later in Nauvoo, while Gee asserts that all of the translation occurred in Kirtland." They then back off and say that the that particular issue wasn't really addressed. Really? These volumes take a definite stance on the relation between the KEP and related documents and the Book of Abraham. That is where the issue really lies and they avoid it completely. I thought that this response was disgenuine.

Anonymous's claim that Jeff has called into question the faith of the editors is absurd. Jeff was careful not to do so. What Jeff did was quote what Hauglid said and pointed out who he was in bed with. Anonymous must be taking that as an attack on his faithfulness. But it is absurd that say that Jeff called anyone's faith in question -- he just let Hauglid speak for himself. And it is clear that Hauglid was an apologist for those leaving the church over the Book of Abraham as a defensible position (not in the volume but in his comments to an audience describing his work). He was not an apologist for those who blelieve in the Book of Abraham (God forbid that the Maxwell Institute depart from its secular purpose when it comes to shoring up belief).

Blake said...

I am well aware that the JPP and the Maxwell Institute are not synonomous. They are just both secular in their purposes. We should not expect an engagement from a perspective of faith from either.

Anonymous said...

No scholarship that is true scholarship should do so. It should address the facts as they are or as the evidence supports. Shoring up faith is not scholarship.

Anonymous said...

“Anonymous's claim that Jeff has called into question the faith of the editors is absurd.”

I made no such claim. My description of the situation in fact was:

“You haven’t directly called the editors apostates, but you have criticized their methods as being faith-destroying instead of faith-promoting—which is a short step away from calling the creators of the research apostate.”

Anonymous said...

More quibbling from Blake. Yes Blake, Jeff was carefully to not directly call into question others faith. The anon was also careful to not say Jeff did not do so directly.

Jeff Lindsay said...

“You haven’t directly called the editors apostates, but you have criticized their methods as being faith-destroying instead of faith-promoting—which is a short step away from calling the creators of the research apostate.”

It's a rather long step. Arguments have consequences and a work of flawed scholarship, even from a generally competent scholar, can have adverse consequences. To point out flaws in scholarship and to also note the potential bad consequences of that scholarship is not the same as impugning the character of the scholar or to assign malicious intent to their work. For example, if sloppy methodology results in a fallacious study suggesting that eating candy daily is good for your teeth, one can rightly be concerned about the negative consequences of that study and one can criticize the poor methodology of the study, even mentioning the negative health consequences it may bring, without impugning the author's faith in the scientific method, love for science, commitment to human health, and desire to promote sound dental hygiene. Even good scholars make some big mistakes at times. We need to have vigorous debate without having those pointing out the flaws and the consequences to be treated as if they are just doing an ad hominem attack on character and faith.

The Book of Abraham is a complex and sensitive subject. There are many views faithful members can have, but some of those views, if presented as fact or if misunderstood by others as fact, can hurt the faith of some members. On the other hand, there are some real things in science and history that are going to shake up some people -- it's not the shaking that's the problem. It's the scholarship. Shaking people up unnecessarily, taking one stance and treating it as settled fact when it's a controversial position, that I object to -- not because anyone's lacking faith or is a bad member of the Church, but because the scholarship is flawed and biased, resulting in unnecessary pain.

Blake said...

Anonymous I have to conclude that you are just willingly ignorant about how bias and belief affects what one writes. It is not just theists and believers but also non-believers whose beliefs largely determine what they will be interested in, what they they will see (and be able to see) and what counts as evidence for them. The notion that no real scholarship can be expressed from a viewpoint of faithfulness is nonsense. You are apparently saying that theology is not real scholarship and that apologetics has no place among any disciplines. Your view really is just unsupportable.

Blake said...

BTW anonymous if you are so objective then tell us who you are and quit hiding behind an anonymous moniker. You have nothing to lose.

Anonymous said...

That's a weak non-argument Blake. The founding fathers you Mormons worship protected themselves with anonymity all the time. There's lots to lose, pal.