Last week, Ben highlighted the latest issue of the Mormon Studies Review. This week the Maxwell Institute gave Mormon Studies geeks even more goodness with the release of the first issue of the newly-revamped Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. You can read Carl Griffin’s overview of the entire issue here, but I wanted to take the time to highlight two of the articles included in particular. While much of what Studies in the Bible and Antiquity falls outside of the more narrow interests of JI bloggers, this issue includes a roundtable review of the BYU New Testament Commentary (BYUNTC) that features two prominent historians of Mormonism: Philip Barlow, Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, and Grant Underwood, Professor of History at Brigham Young University and coeditor of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Barlow opens the roundtable with some reflections on the aims of the BYUNTC, highlighting five particular questions that the undertaking raised for him, as a believing Mormon and a scholar of Mormonism and the Bible:
What is the primary purpose of the commentary?
Can we assemble the right team of scholars for the large task of combining “the best of ancient linguistic and historical scholarship with Latter-day Saint doctrinal perspectives”?
Have we got the right name for the series?
What will the project’s philosophy of interpretation be?
On what version of the Bible should the commentary be based?
Barlow’s thoughts on each question are good and important, and I encourage everyone to read them. But I want to emphasize here his concluding remarks, in which he reflects on the relationship between scholarship and faith:
As with many religions in the twenty-first century, there is abroad in Mormondom a crisis of faith among a growing number, spread especially by the Internet and word of mouth. Among the seeds of this discontent is a sense of betrayal when people encounter aspects of the church’s history that crack their perceptions and the faith that entwines with them: “Why was I never taught this? What else has been kept from me?” In recent years, the church has responded variously, increasingly recognizing the importance of a probing history and a membership that has access to it, as evidenced by the broadened and elevated caliber of well-educated historians it has hired in its historical department, incipient changes coming in its curricula and manuals for classes, candid and competent publications it has sponsored on once-forbidden topics, and more informed and candid statements it now posts on its websites on controversial questions of history and theology. This represents an admirable and necessary step forward, enabling the faith of its interested constituents to be more deeply rooted and organically flexible, rather than brittle and easily withered under each new challenge that may arise in the twenty-first century.
Before damage to faith broadens exponentially, the times may be nigh when a parallel competence, candor, and thoughtfulness will need to thrive among Latter-day Saints in understanding the Bible. The coming commentary on the New Testament could provide a scaffolding. Done well, such a work would allow for both spiritual and scholarly spheres, not just their outward forms. Done exceedingly well, the volumes may militate against scholarship becoming inert and faith naïve.
Next up is Grant Underwood’s contribution. It was originally offered as a response to a paper by Richard Draper entitled “Some Aspects of the Apocalypse of John from an LDS Perspective” at the 2014 SBL meeting. Underwood’s response is characteristically pointed; he pulls no punches in commenting on his colleague’s work, offering them as “a modest assist to” the goal of “more effectively bring[ing] LDS views into tough-minded conversation with biblical scholarship generally.” As with Barlow, the entire essay is worth reading. A couple of passages that stuck out to me, whose applicability extends to all students and scholars of Mormonism:
I turn now to methodological considerations and begin by interrogating Richard’s practice of speaking of and for Latter-day Saints as a uniform collectivity. Is that desirable? Have Latter-day Saints spoken univocally across time and space? Can one really talk of the LDS view as if it were monolithic? Religious thought, whether in institutions or individuals, is not a static essence that moves unchanged across time and space. It is constantly, if subtly and perhaps not altogether consciously, being shaped and reshaped in response to changing circumstances and new ideological resources. This is true of each and every individual who constitutes the collectivity known as Latter-day Saints.
After providing a very helpful overview of the ways in which Joseph Smith’s own interpretations of the book of Revelation changed over the course of his ministry (and fairly dramatically, too. Underwood notes that “we have Joseph Smith offering figurative interpretations at one point in his life and arguing against them in another”), Underwood returns to the larger implications of the point he is making:
Of course, the practice of picking a particular voice and presenting it as the LDS view is all too common in Latter-day Saint writing. Nonetheless, it is incumbent on scholars to acknowledge variety where it exists and not perpetuate the myth of a single Mormon view, especially because very few biblical interpretations have been officially, dogmatically endorsed. Presentations of LDS teachings should be richly textured, Kodachrome assessments of Mormon thought rather than monochrome portraits of perfect consistency in prophetic expression or churchwide uniformity in biblical interpretation.