Blog Update: December 2020

A nice Christmas picture,
which has nothing to do with anything I talk about in this post. 

To anyone who was actually following and enjoying the content I was publishing earlier this year, I do apologize for completely falling off the radar for the last 6 months or so. The last several months have been a hectic blur, and like so many others, I am looking forward to 2020 coming to an end. There are few recent(ish) events and developments that I wish to briefly comment on.

10th Anniversary of this Blog

One, May of this year marked the 10-year anniversary of when I started blogging. I’ve spent a lot of time this last year (probably the last 2 years, actually) reflecting on how much my life, the online LDS apologetic/Mormon studies scene, and world as a whole has changed in those 10 years. I meant to write a post commemorating and reflecting on this last decade, but as you may have already noticed, that was about the time I just stopped blogging altogether this year. I wish had done the anniversary a bit more justice. Even now, despite, as I said, lots of time reflecting, I don’t have much more to comment on the matter. I just haven’t had much chance to sit down and organize my thoughts and emotions. But I did not want to let 2020 pass without making any comment on the milestone. So, that is that. Perhaps next May I’ll offer an oddly-timed 11th anniversary reflection, but I make no promises.

New Publication on Chiasmus

Next, I would like to note the publication this last summer of Chiasmus: The State of the Art, edited by John W. Welch and Donald W. Parry. These are the proceedings of the 2017 conference by the same name, held in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of John W. Welch’s discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. I both presented at the conference, and—after further vetting and revision—contributed a paper to the volume, “Chiasmus Criteria in Review.” Contributors to the volume not only include some of the very best Latter-day Saint scholars of poetic parallelism, such Donald W. Parry, John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Kerry M. Hull, but also several top-tier non-LDS scholars, such as Gary A. Rendsburg, Jonathan Burnside, and Bernard Levinson.

During the conference, and even still today reading all their papers, I have felt both honored, and frankly a little embarrassed, to be included in such august company. My paper is a product of probably about a 6 month deep-dive (well, as deep as one can get in so short a time, anyhow) into the last 75-years worth of literature on chiasmus in order to determine how the assessments and criteria for identifying chiasms have evolved over the time, and identify points of agreement amongst most scholars. It was a great learning experience. Yet it is painfully evident to me that all the other contributors know much more than I do about chiasmus and any one of them could have written a better paper than I did on the criteria used to assess proposed chiastic structures. Nonetheless, I feel the final product is sufficiently adequate to make a real contribution not only within Latter-day Saint circles, but to chiastic scholarship more broadly. In that respect, I am proud of this paper.

Anyone interested in reading the volume can find it online as a supplemental volume of BYU Studies, or can purchase the hard copy, jointly published by BYU Studies and Book of Mormon Central, on Amazon.

Radical Orthodoxy

Lastly, a few weeks ago (almost a month, actually) a statement was published called “Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy: A Manifesto,” by Nathaniel Givens, Jeffrey Thayne, and J. Max Wilson. In addition to authors, there are a handful of signatories—people who were willing to affix their name to the statement—of which, I happen to be one. I’ve been a bit surprised at some of the commentary the manifesto has generated. Some have branded it as heretical and apostate, despite that fact it unabashedly affirms support for the Brethren and the basic doctrines of the Church. Others have called it hateful and bigoted, mainly for “unabashedly embracing the counsel and teachings of prophets and apostles regarding chastity and morality” (it is hard for me to imagine a meaningful definition of orthodoxy, within a Latter-day Saint context that does not include embracing current prophetic teaching on morality and chasitiy).  Others have reacted by saying it is boring or “banal” or “unnecessary boundary maintenance.”

Of course, much of the discussion has revolved around how to define orthodoxy in a Latter-day Saint context. I will grant that exact borders will naturally be at least a little bit fuzzy, but I think first and foremost, any responsible definition of orthodoxy must ultimately come from First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. As such, I have always felt there were three different ways to look at how the Brethren themselves have drawn the lines:

  • ·    The Articles of Faith. These 13 simple statements, originally written by Joseph Smith (and subsequently edited and canonized), were intended to define the basic beliefs of Latter-day Saints. As such, they make sense as a basic standard of orthodoxy. The main drawback to these statements is that they were made near the beginning of the Restoration, and since they embrace prophets and apostles (AoF 6), prophecy and revelation (AoF 7), and specifically ongoing, future revelation (AoF 9), it stands to reason statements made nearly 200 years ago may not quite be adequate for defining current orthodoxy. At least, not without further elucidation/interpretation via the more contemporary prophetic tradition. That said, I think the Articles of Faith generally hold up well as a basic, and essentially comprehensive statement of orthodoxy.
  • ·        The 42 doctrines and principles taught in the Preach My Gospel missionary lessons. This has usually been my go-to standard. These are the things the Brethren determined were necessary to make sure were taught to prospective members and recent converts. As such, it stands to reason that the Brethren see these teachings as the essentials of orthodoxy.
  • ·        The baptismal/temple recommend interview questions. These questions stake out the beliefs and practices a person is expected to embrace and live by in order to join the Church and make covenants with God. They are determined and (as recently illustrated in the October 2019 Conference) revised by the Brethren. As such, they represent what I think is the most important and meaningful definition of orthodoxy within the Latter-day Saint tradition. The drawback, however, is that how one answers these questions is a private matter between an individual, their Bishop/Stake President, and the Lord. So for the purposes of public discussion, they are not quite as helpful. Hence, my typical use of the Preach My Gospel lessons as my go-to.

The authors of the Radical Orthodoxy statement came up with another way, one that I did not know of at the time but which I am glad to say I find reasonable. They use the three most recent unanimous statements from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve: (1) The Family Proclamation, (2) The Living Christ, and (3) The Restoration Proclamation.

There may be additional ways to reasonably define orthodoxy within the Latter-day Saint tradition, but I think each of these is a reasonable approach. I think it is worth pointing out that all of these ways of defining orthodoxy are (1) grounded in standards the prophets and apostles have established, and (2) relatively minimal, leaving a lot of room for disagreement and discussion. The purpose of Radical Orthodoxy is not to merely maintain these boundaries—which, again, I think are relatively minimal, all things considered—but to get out into some of that open space where disagreement and discussion can happen and start exploring.

In my 2017 contribution to the volume Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, I gave several examples of apologetics that seek to defend and maintain certain boundaries by pushing the boundaries in other ways. To me, that is when apologetics is at its best—when it does not merely engage in pure, reflexive boundary maintenance, but helps propel the faith forward whilst ensuring the preservation of the central tenets, as defined by the Brethren. This is, I think, the spirit of “radical orthodoxy.” It is not meant to be a mere exercise in “boundary maintenance,” but rather a dialogic process in which boundaries are explored, with some being preserved and maintained while others are reconsidered and revised. The willingness to reconsider and revise some boundaries is what makes the process radical. The willingness to submit to, maintain, and defend certain boundaries established unanimously by the Brethren is what makes it orthodox.

All of this is of course just my own musings, and should not be projected on to the authors or other signers of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto. If you have not already, you should check the manifesto itself and some of the supplementary material written by the principle authors and supporters to learn more. 

In any case, I hope everyone enjoys the holiday season and has a Merry Christmas. At some point next year, I hope to once again to be blogging semi-regularly and providing content that is, hopefully, interesting and useful to my fellow Latter-day Saints.