Much has been said in these here parts, both in times distantly past and in recent posts, about the level, quality, and state of LDS Biblical scholarship. In my mind, it is an important discussion that is vital to the advancing of our scholarship and respect in the academic community. To some degree, BYU lies at the heart of this discussion because until recently most LDS Biblical scholars were to be found at BYU. And the ones who got heard and were influential certainly were here. This seems to be about to change with all of the LDS grad students out there and this has the potential to change the dynamic of the way LDS Biblical scholarship is carried out, defined and viewed by LDS and non-LDS people alike.
BYU’s Biblical scholars and Biblical Scholarship has been under the microscope for a little while now and I fell like this is a mostly healthy exercise. Hey, real scholarship requires that we critically examine everything put forward to the group, be it academia or the LDS community in general, and that we evaluate each others work. It’s the only way to get better and it must be done honestly. However, most of the people who seem to be commenting on the issues of the level of LDS (and more specifically BYU) Biblical scholarship are in the position of not knowing all of the facts: many of them have not attended BYU (or at least not recently or not as a student). I feel it is important to say that you all need to know that if you are in this boat that you are in a position of considerable ignorance.
As a current BYU senior in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, I have a unique view of the innermost workings of the Religious Education college here. I have always tended to gravitate to those professors who take a serious and scholarly approach to studying the Bible. Now, with the introduction of the ANES major, I have had even more opportunities to experience the scholarship of an increasing number of people who teach in the broader field of Biblical scholarship. I’d like to share my insights with you in order to educate you all a bit more as we continue our discussion of LDS Biblical scholarship so that it can be a bit more informed.
Let me just add at this time a little note: I realize that this is coming across as an apology. I guess that it is. I do not pretend to know everything that goes on here at BYU and I acknowledge that I have my favorites and preferences. I shall endeavor, however, to give as objective a view as possible so that your inside peek into BYU will be as honest as possible.
First things first: more and better Biblical scholarship is done here at BYU in the classroom than most of you probably suspect. The number and types of publications coming out are in not exceptionally indicative of how these people teach. Favoring, as I do, those who use a more rigorous and academic approach to a study of the Bible, I can honestly say that we students are being better informed about current Biblical scholarship than an outsider might suspect in our religion classes. I admit that sometimes when scholarship is presented by some individuals that it is followed by an assertion that we may disagree with a certain assessment or conclusion as LDS people because of our modern revelations and scriptures, etc. This is not the case with every professor, some don’t feel the need to add that caveat at all. However you view this information I wish to emphasize that we are being exposed to outside Biblical scholarship and that much of it is portrayed in a positive light. I have never had a prof tell me that Biblical scholars and their work is out and out useless, evil, and unnecessary.
The advent of the ANES major has helped to advance Biblical scholarship on campus by an immeasurable amount in my opinion. Where there is a genuine need to be cautious in religion classes here (as some of you well know first hand), in the ANES classes the professors can be much more open in teaching about scholastic methodologies, etc because it is presumed that the class is there for exactly that kind of training. Every one of my professors I’ve had for ANES classes have expressed that they are concerned that BYU students going on to grad school need to be better prepared to live and work in the Biblical scholarship world. That does not just mean that they brace us for the godless criticism that we will experience out there, they are much more concerned that BYU’s graduates are increasingly competitive in the field. There is, of course, some concern that students don’t go out and lose their testimonies but the lion’s share of focus is on actually preparing us academically for the graduate school’s rigorous academic experience.
Now, as some of you may be saying to yourselves, BYU’s classes are not as academically rigorous as you’d find in other schools. This may be true, might even be probably true. The point is that a change is happening and things are dramatically improving all the time. The glass is half full and is still being filled. Be patient.
As my good friend HP pointed out to me once, the title of BYU’s religion department is telling of its purpose. <i>Religious Education</i> has the purpose of spiritually strengthening LDS students’ faith in the restored Gospel. Biblical scholarship is ancillary to this and is only meant to supplement this goal. It is not the end that the Brethren have in mind for these classes. Having said that, I have recently confessed that I am uplifted more, most of the time, by good scholarship and the insights it brings than I am by the typical Gospel Doctrine type atmosphere that permeates most professors’ classes. But I, and anyone else like me, am in the minority. That is part of the reason why the ANES classes are offered. I do think that the religion classes here ought to be more academically rigorous. This is a university after all. But rigor can be found here if that is what you want. Agree or disagree with it, professors decide how rigorous their classes will be and students have so many options that they can find rigor if they want it.
As for why most of these professors do not publish for audiences outside of the Church, there are also several issues to address. Most of the religion professors here (that I’ve spoken to anyway) came to BYU because they <i>wanted to teach the Saints!</i> Can we really fault them if they are just way more interested in addressing the LDS community than the broader academic one? And can you fault the Church in supporting this? It is also a fact that in most cases that LDS scholars face negative preconceived notions and opinions from people in academia. Breaking through is a very tough job if you are a Mormon even if you leave your LDS biases aside and focus exclusively on things that the community ought to accept. HP has written about this and I’m pretty sure he is right. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, it just means that it is very difficult and when you combine that with the desire of most of the professors here to speak to the Saints it leads to very few publications aimed at the academic Biblical world.
I have been assured that the professors here are highly encouraged to get out and publish in their academic fields all the time. It is even beginning to happen. However, it is not required and so most people don’t. And I’m not convinced that they should be required to. Again, doing so is not in keeping with the primary purpose of the Religious Education Department. And serious consideration would have to be taken about what such a requirement would result in. Clearly this is a debatable subject that needs to be had but can any of you expound the benefits that BYU and the Church would experience if this was required? And can you think of any possible negative consequences? I suspect that both would exist.
One other thing that I think merits mentioning is that there are different “schools” of thought among those “properly” educated here at BYU. It is far from a homogenous environment and occasionally students get caught in the middle of the politics this naturally engenders. I don’t mean this in a negative light either. I think that it is quite positive that there are differing opinions and views here; it is intellectually and even spiritually stimulating. It definitely helps to avoid the ruts of only knowing one way to think to a fair degree.
BYU’s atmosphere is far from perfect. Any of the professors here would tell you that. There are drawbacks and compromises all the time. But where would I go where those don’t exist? The benefits of studying under educated men of faith has so many positive effects that they practically explain themselves. What I am driving at is that attending BYU right now is not a bad trade off if you want to learn about the basics of Biblical scholarship. I feel reasonably well prepared to enter grad school (although I’ll get back to you in a year or so about whether I am right or not).
This post was not meant to be an apology of why it is good to attend BYU if you want to be a Bible scholar. I have presented this aspect of it to you so that you can understand that at least some of the professors here really do know their stuff. It has also, I hope, helped to explain why these professors have not published scholarly work at the caliber and venue that some of you would like to see.
I’d also like to add that I am discovering all the time that LDS scholarship on Biblical topics meant for an LDS audience is improving all the time too. <i>Jesus Christ in the World of the New Testament</i> has received some high reviews across the Bloggernacle, and with good reason. It’s scholarship is good, very good for being LDS. A couple of other books come to mind as probably having flown under the radar here: Thom Wayment’s <i>From Persecutor to Apostle: A Biography of Paul</i> is very good. I am currently reading <i>Early Christians in Disarray</i> edited by Noel Reynolds right now and it has been very interesting and surprisingly good on the history, etc. It is a collection of papers by different people on the apostasy, not all from BYU and not all Biblical scholars, but what I have read so far has impressed me. Maybe I’ll do a book report on it when I finish.
I hope that this has all contributed something to the discussion of LDS Biblical scholarship. You all ought to know that I am fairly pessimistic by nature and I b**** about BYU all the time, especially about the religion department, when I am in private conversation and having a bad day (read: finals). But I don’t think that BYU or some of its professors were getting a fair shake in our discussions and I’d hate to carry out a discussion without adding what I know to the equation, especially where it is a view that most of you have probably never had and never will. I’ve tried to address all of the issues I could remember but I’ve probably missed some so feel free to bring them up.