JOHN DEHLIN, DAN PETERSON, THE MAXWELL INSTITUTE, AND “OLD-SCHOOL” APOLOGETICS: SOME COMMENTS ON A RECENT CONTROVERSY – PART 1
I used to read about the old FARMS/Signature Book controversies and wish that I had been old enough (and involved enough) to follow the controversies when they were happening. Recent events, however, have given my “generation” of apologists (if you will) its own controversy to eagerly follow as it unfolds.
For those who are unaware, let me briefly sketch some recent events. First, a couple of months ago John Dehlin emailed a General Authority friend (while cc’ing Dan Peterson) essentially asking him to put a stop to the publication of an article critical of Dehlin and his Mormon Stories project, along with his Open Stories Foundation (of which Mormon Stories is just a part) in the Mormon Studies Review (formerly the FARMS Review), which Peterson was then editor of. The paper was said to be a “hit piece” or an ad hominem attack simply not appropriate for an academic journal, though all those making such claims have not actually seen or read the paper. Dehlin’s efforts were apparently successful, and the whole forthcoming issue of the MSR was sacked. As far as I am concerned, this is about as far as the facts go – everything else is nothing but rumor and hearsay. The second event followed about a month later. An email exchange between M. Gerald Bradford and Dan Peterson was leaked out wherein Bradford indicated that he wanted to move the MSR in a new direction, and in order to do so he was removing Peterson from his position and installing a new editor. Once again, rumors have multiplied, but basically what is stated above is the extent of the facts.
The subject of this post will be the first of these events. As I explained, the article, written by Greg Smith, was rumored to be a “hit piece.” Dehlin’s consistent justification for attempting to stop its publication has been that he felt a need to stand-up against the “old-school” apologetic bullies. (From where I stand, it’s the one who gets an article critical of themselves censored by threatening to get high-level Church officers involved who’s the bully, but that is just me.) Problem is, neither Dehlin nor anyone else who insisted the paper was ad hominem have actually seen and read the contents of the paper. All those who have read it insist it is nothing of the sort, so some are changing their tune. Now it is being said that Dehlin and his activities are not “worthy” of such notice from an academic journal, even if that journal is on “Mormon Studies.” For example, one observer has said “It’s kind of embarrassing how many of the apologists seem to think it’s appropriate for an academic journal, sponsored by a major university, to publish a 100+ page, ‘footnoted’ exposé of the religious views of the host of an Internet podcast. The tone of the article could be all hugs and kisses, and it would still be cringe-worthy.”
Such sentiment strikes me as extremely odd. Dehlin and his organization claim to be providing “online and in-person environments that allow for authentic self-expression and the open discussion of Mormonism.” Particularly, Dehlin’s podcasts often feature individuals in some way associated with Mormonism sharing their personal experience, or “journey”, with the faith and Church commonly branded as “Mormonism.” Are such personal narratives really not of interest to Mormon Studies? Furthermore, is a paper examining an online “Mormon” community of sorts, attempting to understand the “latent text” (more on this below) of the group’s founder really out of bounds for the “academic” study of Mormonism? I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons.
Mormon Studies and Mormon Cultural Studies
Last semester I took a Mormon Cultural Studies class at UVU. Among the readings for the class were papers (published in academic journals) on Mormonism (and religion) as portrayed on the cover Time magazine, South Park episodes that talk about the Church, the TV show Big Love, and the Book of Mormon musical. The object in each of these cases was to uncover the “latent text” – cultural studies lingo, which basically means uncovering the underlying message – of the show/magazine covers. The “latent text” is often juxtaposed with the “preferred text”, which is the intended (or explicit) message and the two can often contradict each other. Now, I have it on good authority that the paper on Dehlin set out to examine his explicit claims (the preferred text) to being “objective” and not trying lead people out of the Church, but shows that Dehlin does have a bias against the Church and is in fact subtly leading people out of the Church (the “latent text”). Now Smith may not use that terminology, but that is ultimately what the paper is – a study of the latent text versus the preferred text.
Now, if the latent text (on Mormonism) of South Park and Big Love episodes is worthy of publication in academic journals, can you seriously argue that the episodes of an online podcast are not? I would argue that if one is acceptable, then so is the other.
But perhaps this is beyond the pale of “Mormon Studies.” After all, none of the papers on South Park or Big Love, etc. were in “Mormon Studies” journals. But neither are several “Mormon Studies” articles (since, after all, very few such journals exist).The said articles are in journals dedicated to the study of religion and media, which would seem to fall within the broader category of “Religious Studies” (and “Media Studies,” for that matter). When the “religion” being studied, then, is Mormonism, wouldn’t that constitute “Mormon Studies”? Furthermore, let’s not forget the class I was reading these for – a Mormon Cultural Studies class. It does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that Mormon Studies includes Mormon Cultural Studies.
Mormonism and the Internet: A Mormon Studies Conference
The problem is people seem to think that “Mormon Studies” is restricted to the study of LDS history, theology, and scripture. So, since the Dehlin paper is not primarily on one of those topics, it shouldn’t be published in a Mormon Studies Review. But this narrow view is not sustained by the significant movements within the young and undefined field of Mormon Studies. Claremont Graduate University Mormon Studies program – probably the most prestigious of such study programs at present – had a conference this year on “Mormons in the Marketplace,” a topic that at least falls somewhat outside the history, theology, and scripture of Latter-day Saints. And UVU’s Mormon Studies Conference this year was on “Mormonism and the Internet.”
The Conference at UVU is of particular interest for a couple of reasons. First, John Dehlin not only operates online activities (such as his podcasts), but has created an online community. Such online “Mormon” communities were the subject of at least one presentation given at the conference. Rosemary Avance presented on the exit narratives of ex-Mormons from online forums, arguing that while they claim to have made their decision on the basis of rational inquiry and insist that their narratives are not “testimonies” (she didn’t use this terminology, but this would be the “preferred text”) they are in actually basing their decision, at least in part, on emotional responses to the “discoveries” they make, and their narrative is a type of testimony (again she didn’t use this terminology, but this could be called the “latent text”). This sounds just like the type of analysis Greg Smith is supposed to have made on John Dehlin and Mormon Stories.
Second, John Dehlin himself presented at this conference on his “research” (an extremely flawed survey) on why Mormons leave the Church, a projected connected to his Mormon Stories podcast and Open Stories Foundation. It only seems fair that if Dehlin’s idea’s are worthy of presentation in an academic venue on Mormon Studies, then Dehlin’s idea’s are also worthy of critique in an academic venue on Mormon Studies, such as the Mormon Studies Review.
My intent here has been to address one small part of the unfolding controversy. I do not purport to have settled whether stopping the paper’s publication was the right thing to do, and I certainly don’t pretend to know all that went into that decision or who all was involved. I have simply sought to address this simple question: Is a paper on John Dehlin and his work with Mormon Stories the type of study that should be included in an academic journal on Mormon Studies? I think the answer is yes. There is clearly precedent for such studies elsewhere in the academic field of Religious Studies, and even in the more narrow field of Mormon Studies. While I believe some questions might be able to be raised about the tone of Smith’s paper – but such questions could only reasonably be raised by those who have read it, and they as of yet have not expressed such concerns – the nature of his topic is unquestionably appropriate for an academic journal such as the Mormon Studies Review.