Alas! Here it is, my first real “Reviewing the Review.” Now, you may be confused. After all, there are already 10 “Reviewing the Review” posts up, how is this the first? Allow me to explain. You see, when I announced this back in March, I intended this to be a semi-annual series, just as the Review itself is semi-annual. It was meant to be done on the most recently released issue of the Review shortly after I received my copy. I did also mention that I would do ones on back issues as I obtained them, but these were intended to be occasional. But, as it turns out, I managed to get my hands on quite a few back issues in the last six or seven months since then (much more than the number I have “reviewed”) and so postings on the back issues have been quite frequent. This will continue to be the case for at least a few more months, as I have a number of others already prepared to post.
Ever since the first two, I have tried to post these in sequential order. I am breaking from that tradition to post on the most recent issues for a few reasons: (a) because, as explained above, it is my commentary on the most recent issue of the Review that was really the intent of this series in the first place, and (b) I thought it would be good to get this out there while it was most relevant. If I were to wait, I am sure the next issue would arrive before I got to this one, and I would probably continue to be quite a bit behind for a while. I saw no sense in that, so I thought I would go ahead with this issue.
This issue marks the beginning of the Mormon Studies Review, the new name of the Review that also brings a whole new look. There is also a “new” direction, although that direction was really evident in earlier issues, and especially in the issues from last year. But, with the name change marking the shift “officially,” I will also recognize that shift, which will require me to judge issues a little differently than I did before. As such, an issue that might be a 2/5 as the FARMS Review might be a 3/5 as the Mormon Studies Review, or even vice versa. All I’m trying to say is that since the direction and content is a little different; my judgment on its quality will also be somewhat different.
Anyhow, to explain what is different now, gone are the lengthy, in depth reviews that are really more of a response or critique (though I don’t think those are gone forever, they are not even entirely missing from this issue; I just suspect such things will be much less frequent than they once were). “Reviews” in this issue are more strictly “reviews” (with the exception of Louis Midgely’s, and the wordprint study), that is they are generally brief, they describe the contents of the book, and the reviewer notes a few qualities of the book that are either praiseworthy or lamentable, and then says whether or not they recommend the book. More frequent are the “free standing essay’s” that discuss contemporary issues within Mormonism and Mormon Studies. When I speak of “more” or “less” frequency, I am of course speaking in terms of ratio rather than amount, since the latest issues are decidedly thinner on content then those from just four, five, or six years ago. The Review is also decidedly less apologetic than it once was, though the article from Greg Smith and the wordprint study still fill the niche for those interested in such matters, and Dan Peterson assures us in the Editor’s Introduction that the Review will continue to rise to the defense of the Church and it’s teachings, history, and leaders as often as they feel there is a need.
John E.Clark, “Revisiting ‘A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies’,” pg. 13-43: The return of the Book of Mormon geography critic! Well, kind of. Clark has been inactive, probably due to the fact that all serious competitors of Book of Mormon geography have been dealt with, leaving only John Sorenson’s model standing. In recent years, however, Rod Meldrum’s “movement” has created a bit of a stir, though not quite enough to get Clark to fully reemerge from his slumber. So, instead of a new review, Clark takes us back to the beginning, with a modified and updated version of the essay that launched his career as a critic of Book of Mormon geography proposals. With references to the original book under review all removed, this essay remains a classic and a must read for all interested in Book of Mormon geography. Clark goes through the text of the book, and analyzes key details regarding the spatial and geographic relationships between cities, seas and water sources, wildernesses, etc., coming away with a fairly good map of how Book of Mormon lands were situated (Clark’s reconstruction is slightly different from John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Map, but not substantially). This is then intended to be a “key” for judging proposed Book of Mormon geographies. I think the decision to reprint this was indeed a wise and timely decision. It would be a disappointment for this classic piece to become as irrelevant as the book it was originally intended to examine. The only thing I wish they had done differently is I wish they had somewhat updated the discussion by including reference to Sorenson’s Mormon Map, and noting and discussing a few of the differences there. As it is, Clark does note where Sorenson disagrees, but points to An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon or private conversations from over twenty years ago. Anytime Sorenson’s views could have been expressed from pages in Mormon’s Map, I think this should have been done.
Brant A.Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” pg. 45-55: Gardner mines the text of 1 and 2 Nephi to build his case that Nephi was, as a younger son in a wealthy family, in training to become a scribe. Nephi’s ability to read, write – and in a foreign language (Egyptian), no less – interpret prophetic texts and symbols, and draw on scriptural themes to provide a structural framework for his own story all suggest training as a scribe.
Gregory L. Smith, “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex MarriageAdvocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,” pg. 61-85: While Smith notes that same-sex marriage is a good example of why we need prophets today, the issues and merits of same-sex marriage and attraction (and what causes it) are left intentionally unaddressed, as Smith is focused on what he feels are the misrepresentations of same-sex marriage advocates within the Church. He then launches into his analysis of President Packers remarks in last year’s October conference and the edits that were made in the printed version. Smith argues that the changes are consistent with what Packer has taught repeatedly since 1978, and are more accurately understood as a genuine “clarification” (as the Church PR represented it to be) rather than some sort concession or backing-down (as Mormon and interested non-Mormon gay marriage advocates presented it). Smith then critiques Mormons for Marriage (M4M) and other gay marriage advocates who (or who at least present themselves as) active, believing members of the Church. He points to an inconsistency in their claims to only be opposed to the Church on political grounds, and that they do not criticize – nor tolerate criticisms – of the Church or its leaders; yet they do in fact appeal to moral grounds of opposition (rather than political) and they and various commenters (that are being moderated) do in fact criticize the Church and some of the leaders – President Packer in particular – sometimes with markedly rancorous rhetoric. He also notes the tendency of such advocates to appeal to the Priesthood ban as an analogous situation, but argues that the circumstances have more differences than similarities. He then addresses some particularly poor attempts at proof-texting by these advocates, and follows that with a call to repentance to any believing member who has associated with such groups, which is admittedly (by himself, as well as me) out-of-place in a strictly academic forum, and which he insists represents, of course, only his own view that such people are in need of repentance.
Paul J.Fields, G. Bruce Schaalje, and Matthew Roper, “Examining a Misapplication ofNearest Shrunken Centroid Classification,” and Paul J. Fields and MatthewRoper, “The Historical Case against Sidney Ridgon’s Authorship of the Book ofMormon,” both reviews of Matthew L. Jockers, Daniela M. Witten, and Craig S. Criddle, “Reassessing authorship of the Book of Mormon using delta and nearest shrunken centoid classification,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23/4 (2008):465-491, pg. 87-111; 113-125: Fields, Schaalje, and Roper discuss each of the previous efforts to conduct wordprint studies on the Book of Mormon, the last two being the one under review in this article, and their own study, published earlier this year (2011) in the periodical that published the Jockers, Witten, Criddle study. Fields et al. offer a devastating critique of the Jockers et al. study, demonstrating several errors of methodology which essentially render their findings meaningless. Mean while, the findings of Fields et. al are consistent with the findings of Larson et al. and Hilton et al., namely, that there are multiple authors of the text, and that none of the nineteenth century authors are statistically defensible. Interestingly, none of the wordprint studies (including the two studies done by critics/non-believers) support Joseph Smith as author of the text. That is particularly telling, since as Fields and Roper demonstrate in the second review, Joseph Smith is ultimately the only person for whom a case can be made, on historical grounds, to be the author the text. Roper has already devastated the Spaulding side of this theory in two previous essays. Here, he and Paul Fields show that the Rigdon side of this coin is also desperately grasping as historical straws with no firm historical evidence to latch on to. Given that Rigdon, based on the historical record, cannot be the author of the Book of Mormon, any exercise in wordprint analysis and comparison between his style and that of the Book of Mormon is meaningless.
Louis Midgely, “Telling the Larger ‘Church History’ Story,” a review of Christopher Catherwood, Church History: A Crash Course for theCurious (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), pg. 157-171: As is typically the case with Lou, this is really more of a commentary on the book under “review” and subject it covers, namely the history of Christianity. Lou harps on his usual topics, of course, discussing the nuances of “church” and “history” and “objectivity” and the importance of “telling the story.” In the process, Lou thoughtfully explains why he feels that Latter-day Saints should be interested in the history of the greater Christian tradition, and why we should view it as the “larger” part of our own history, rather than treating the “first vision” as the beginning or our story.
And with that, we see the beginning of a new era of the Review. I used to look at the thinning issues and think that perhaps the Maxwell Institute was low on funding, or perhaps there was nothing exciting going on in Mormon studies now, so there was less to talk about. Funding may still be an issue (I have no idea, really) that has led to thinner volumes, but there is still much to be excited about in terms of Mormon studies, and this issue most assuredly reflects that. The Clark reprint is still a must read, and Smith’s essay on Packer and M4M is also a must read, and nothing could be more relevant right now. The wordprint study by Fields, Scheejle, and Roper is also a must read, as it reflects the very latest research on the Book of Mormon and statistical word studies. The follow-up essay by Fields and Roper is also interesting, and marks yet another must read essay from Matt Roper for those interested in Spaulding-Rigdon theory. Roper has, at this point, completely killed that old horse (though I’ve thought that before) and we can only hope that others will finally let it die. The essays by Gardner and Midgley are also very good, and worth reading, though I don’t think they are especially important.