“I Know It When I See It:” The Puzzle of Faithful Scholarship


Recently, Elder M. Russell Ballard urged Church educators to “consult the works of recognized, thoughtful, and faithful LDS scholars to ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky.” As I have already stated, I am thrilled with this new direction and believe it’s a very positive change. I do, however, have concerns about how this new direction will be implemented. I think providing students with accurate and timely information is essential, but I also believe their parents need to be directed to that same information. Too often within Church education, the problem isn’t the students, it’s their parents, who challenge the ideas they are learning in classes and respond with angry threats and letters to General Authorities. I’d love to have these changes fully implemented into the Church curriculum with age-appropriate information beginning in Primary and continuing through Seminaries and Institutes (or BYU religion classes) and into adulthood in Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society and Priesthood meetings.

I realize that there are immense differences between the seminary system in Utah (and surrounding areas) where professional instructors do the teaching and places where Church members are called to teach. I taught early-morning seminary in Maryland for four years, and I realize it’s a very different program in terms of training and operation. This, in my opinion, only increases the need for a more integrated pedagogy so that all LDS youth get taught accurate history and doctrine.

We also need an integrated pedagogy so that bishops and stake presidents are aware of resources like the Topic Essays, the Jospeh Smith Papers Project, and the Church history pages so that we can avoid incidents where leaders might release or reprimand a Sunday school teacher for teaching from approved materials, as has already happened.

But I have another, far greater, concern: I believe there is danger lurking in the taken-for-grantedness of what exactly is “faithful scholarship.” The “I know it when I see it” approach doesn’t work very well in a church with a lay clergy. Those who supervise teachers in CES or in local wards and stakes have widely diverse—and often limited—training in LDS history and theology, let alone religious history and theology in general. CES teachers and supervisors may have degrees in anything from botany to physical education. Bishops and stake presidents, as we all know, can be a college professor or a computer programmer, a businessman or a farmer. So leaving the definition of “faithful scholarship” to individual tastes and temperaments can have and has had disastrous consequences, especially when personal faith and/or professional standing are at stake.

John-Charles Duffy traces the term “faithful scholars” to a 1986 book by Elder Neal A. Maxwell who praised “faithful Latter-day Saint scholars” for their work on the Book of Mormon. (Interestingly, the term was also used by Brigham Young but metaphorically in the sense that all church me­mbers should be faithful scholars in life’s school of learning.) Since Elder Maxwell first used the term, “faithful scholarship” and its companion “faithful scholars” have been used quite frequently in official discourse (e.g., in an article about scholarship on the Book of Mormon, in a conversation with BYU President Merrill S. Bateman and in discourses by Elders Paul Johnson and Henry B. Eyring (which was included in the Charge to Religious Educators). I have also seen and heard it in common parlance. In most of these settings, the term is employed as if everyone knows exactly what it is, as if there’s some kind of invisible but self-evident imprimatur that makes it so.

However, historically, where scholarship and faith have come head-to-head, they have often clashed, with minor skirmishes and major battles. Think Galileo and the Inquisition or the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Although, many of the details of alleged wars between science and religion are more fictional than factual.) But we Mormons have had plenty of our own scholarship-faith battles, and some have had relatively serious consequences (e.g., the 1911 controversy at BYU, the Smith-Roberts-Talmage debate, or, more recently, 1993’s September Six ). In the interest of preventing further potential wars, I want to tease out some of the possibilities for defining “faithful scholarship.”

One potential meaning of “faithful scholarship” might be scholars faithful to scholarship—that their ideological allegiance is first and foremost to scholarship. While I am confident this is not what Elder Ballard means by “faithful scholarship,” there is merit to this definition. I have made covenants to give everything I have, including my mind, to “building the kingdom of God” and, I believe, I can do that best by searching for and teaching truth. Scholarship is all about discovering truth, the way things work and how we can best live in this world. While truth is subjective for mortals and in mortality we can never escape our own subjectivity—for now we see “through a glass darkly” as the apostle Paul stated—scholarship is still passionately engaged in the search. Nevertheless, I am confident that Elder Ballard and others have intended something different, something more, than being faithful to scholarship.

I think it best to break the term “faithful scholarship” into the component parts: faithful and scholarship. Elder Ballard’s talk suggests that some scholarship is faithful and some is not. Likewise, it accepts that there may be good scholarship and bad scholarship. We might think of this as a line graph where the y-axis represents a continuum between good and bad, the x-axis might represent faithful and anti-faithful. Since these exist on a continuum, we can assume most work falls somewhere in between the two poles.




I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that there has been some really bad scholarship written about Mormonism—work that is poorly researched, documented, and written. Much of it is produced by amateurs with little or no training. But some is produced by smart people who should know better. Some of this this work is antagonistic and some apologetic. I’ve read bad scholarship by authors whose hostility toward Mormonism is unrestrained, by authors who betray no prejudice whatsoever, and by authors who are earnestly seeking to defend the Church. However, it’s often in the extremes that the worst scholarship appears —that written by Committed Believers and Fanatical Skeptics, to borrow the terminology of Ramage, Bean, and Johnson. These people are either blinded by their prejudices against Mormons, or blinded by their unfaltering loyalty to the Church. Doubt and self-correction simply cannot enter into their worldviews. The nice thing about good scholarship, however, is that it tends to be open to correction from further research. So in addition to well-researched, well-documented, and well-written, good scholarship would tend to be open to self-correction and new data. It would be always tentative, forever searching for a more complete understanding.

The problem gets tricky, however, when we start thinking about the x axis. First of all, how do we judge faithfulness? Are we talking about content? Are we referring to the individual author’s faith? His or her status in the Church? Are we talking about tone? Or what?

Content might be considered a deal breaker for the claim of faithful scholarship—whether or not a scholar discusses “difficult” topics or brings “difficult” evidence into her scholarship. However, Elder Ballard’s call to inoculate our youth against difficult questions means we cannot ignore difficult content. He specifically states that he wants Church educators to deal with “polygamy, seer stones, different accounts of the First Vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother.” You cannot deal with these issues without raising difficult questions and providing nuanced and complicated information. I believe we have generally shot ourselves in the foot by ignoring these issues and shoving them under the rug. Education, true education, involves confronting complex and difficult issues.

Another way of determining the faithfulness of scholarship might be to look into the status of an author. Since Mormonism is, as many have argued, more concerned about ortho-praxy (what one does) than orthodoxy (what one thinks), we might judge faithfulness by an author’s church practice—whether or not he attends church meetings, whether or not she holds a temple recommend, and whether or not he has ever served in a bishopric or on the High Council. However, scholarly journals and books typically don’t mention these details. Furthermore, we all know inactive people in our wards who are wonderful people and who would defend the Church with their lives. Can we really use that criterion to determine whether or not a work of scholarship is “faithful”?

The work of former members, whether they resigned membership or were excommunicated, is often dismissed by Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, I have learned to respect the scholarship of some former members, and have even been deeply moved by it. For example work by Lavina Fielding Anderson and D. Michael Quinn typically holds up very well. And what about scholarship by Mormons who have come back after having been shut out, like that of Maxine Hanks?

Then there’s scholarship by non-Mormons. One of the first questions many of my students will ask when I make them read a work of Mormon history or sociology is whether or not the author is Mormon. They seem to operate under the suspicion that if the authors are not part of their tribe, they cannot rely on their work. The assumption seems to be that non-Mormon authors cannot be fair or cannot really understand their subject. Yet scholars like Jan Shipps and Rodney Stark have been touted by many BYU professors and Church educators.

I will grant here that what makes Jan Shipps and Rodney Stark so well loved is their tone. Their writing betrays respect and love for Mormons. We might think of tone as falling somewhere on a spectrum between antagonistic and apologetic. Like this:

Antagonistic—Somewhat Negative—Neutral—Sympathetic—Apologetic

The work of Jan Shipps and Rodney Stark would likely stand on the sympathetic side of tone. But tone is somewhat subjective. Some of my students have perceived an anti-Mormon tone in works that I felt were either neutral or positive. (In fact, in a student evaluation, I was once accused of hating Mormons. I’m not sure what gave the student that idea, but I was saddened that he or she left my class feeling that way.)

Finally, some Church educators and Church institutions have, in recent years, worried less about the content and tone of a work of scholarship, or about the activity levels of its author, than they have about where it was published. Finding out something is published in Sunstone or Dialogue or by Signature Books has been all it takes for them to disqualify people and their work as “faithful.” Nowhere is such a rule written, and it is applied selectively, but this has had serious consequences. I know people who were denied job opportunities or rank advancement because of such a “transgression,” and, frustratingly, the scholarship in question has often defended Church history and doctrine. Ironically, the Church itself has cited articles from Dialogue and Signature Books throughout the years, most recently in some of the Topic Essays that Elder Ballard admonished teachers to know “like you know the back of your hand.” To judge something by where it has been published seems to me to be one of the least effective ways to determine whether or not scholarship is faithful. Certainly, if the work has been peer-reviewed we can make determinations about how scholarly it is, but not so much about how faithful it is.

While not all of the articles and books published by Dialogue, Sunstone, and Signature Books are of equal quality, I would likely not be a practicing member of the Church today if I hadn’t read works that appeared in these publications. Learning that there was something deeper than the stuff I found in very thin books with cursive writing is what saved my soul. It has been in these publications where I found historical context for problematic issues, ways to process facts that created cognitive dissonance, and more meaningful ways of being a practicing Mormon. This is why I applied to be and accepted the position of editor at Dialogue.

My purpose here is not to cast aspersions on Elder Ballard or other Church leaders who have used the term “faithful scholarship.” In fact, I myself am committed to being and publishing faithful scholarship. I do, however, believe that we need more reflection on what faithful scholarship means, more tolerance of differing opinions, and more good will toward each other as we negotiate this space in Mormonism.


One thought on ““I Know It When I See It:” The Puzzle of Faithful Scholarship

  1. I think an interesting place to apply Boyd’s standard might be the conference held at the Library of Congress in conjunction with Joseph Smith’s 200th birthday. Without naming names, I think it is safe to say that scholarly standards generally applied. Some of the scholarship was excellent. Some very good. Some mediocre. Some was simply proselytizing. No church can be immune from the desire of committed members to try to save the world through scholarship. The same church can also not be protected from outbursts by disaffected members trying to undermine some or all of what the church teaches. Since much of what passes as scholarship involves a good deal of posing, even in areas where religion is not addressed, we should expect that discernment will always be required. But standards of discernment will also vary. We need some space in which to work before the category of faithful scholarship should ever be applied. Withholding judgment as to faithfulness should be our first inclination

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