Does FARMS Still Matter?

The latest issue of the FARMS Review offers useful insight into the past, present, and possible futures of FARMS. The issue (19/1) is a hodgepodge of topics, themes, and approaches. It addresses ancient scripture, Mormon history, debates with evangelicals, tributes to a recently deceased Mormon historian, reflections on a Joseph Smith biography, an essay on Mormon studies, book reviews, a lecture by Terryl Givens, and a BYU lecture on theology by Jim Faulconer. The FARMS Review is, indeed, a many-sided thing.

Glancing across the landscape of Mormon publications, it is easy to see where many of these contributions might have been published. In fact, almost all of them would have readily found a place within BYU Studies or Dialogue or Sunstone or the Journal of Mormon History. There are three categories of writing that wouldn’t migrate as easily to other venues, and it is these that make the FARMS Review different: (1) the editor’s (and his sidekick’s) rambling, idiosyncratic, indulgent reflections on whatever topical matters he feels like writing about; (2) reviews of Book of Mormon-related publications (which used to be the Review’s main focus); and (3) tete-a-tetes with evangelicals regarding scriptural interpretation.

Let’s consider for a moment each of these three categories, taken in reverse order, and think through what they might suggest about the future of FARMS in its institutional, scholarly, and apologetic roles.

In the area of apologetics, FARMS seems to be rapidly losing ground to FAIR, in terms of coverage, impact, and limelight. The Aug. 11 Church News had a big two-page spread on the fall FAIR conference. FAIR has an extensive website, hosts big conferences, and attracts big names.

On the second category: Book of Mormon debates have long been a specialty of FARMS publications, but here too the field is changing. Note that the Review discusses a book chapter on “automatic writing” published a full five years ago. And Bill Hamblin’s piece is devoted the long-standing question of ancient writing on metal plates. Nothing new under the sun in Book of Mormon research? Actually there is a great deal of ongoing research, but it has a journal of its own: a whole glossy magazine-journal, in fact: The “Journal of Book of Mormon Studies,” which relies in part on BYU Religion resources. In this area too, then, the relevance of FARMS (and the FARMS Review specifically) seems to be dwindling.

The first category, finally, is Dan Peterson’s always witty, well-written, wide-ranging, and sometimes penetrating introductory essay. It’s been Peterson’s personal Rameumpton for proclaiming the Truth, spitting on his critics, and sorting out the Good, the Bad, and the Pathetic. Here, too, there have been significant shifts. Peterson’s edge seems to be fading, as is his urgent tone. The barbarians at the gates are in retreat, perhaps? Could it be battle fatigue? Or maybe the well-armed FAIR troops are now shouldering the burden?

Perhaps Peterson is quietly giving in to his long-time critics, silently acknowledging that the caustic tone and steady barrage of personal insults have worn out his readers and, who knows, perhaps even him. Many are by now familiar with his long-standing reaction to criticism. Let’s call it The Peterson Three-Step. First, seek to disarm your critics, and toss in a little levity, by playing up the “nasty Dan” image. Second, deny that there’s any such thing as “FARMS” or “FARMS writers.” After all, haven’t Richard Bushman and Nate Oman both published in FARMS publications? There you have it! Infallible proof! It is inconceivable that FARMS could be promoting a particular ideology or argument. Third, wait for some old friend to come out of the woodwork in support of FARMS or its main stable of authors. Peterson’s actually a nice guy in person. Or, even Midgley can be charming at times. Honest! (To which we might add a fourth step: Carry on, carry on.)

Many of Peterson’s online essays have taken a more defensive tone lately. He seems fully aware that FARMS is losing some ground, some relevance—partly, I should emphasize, as a result of its own success. The organization of the Maxwell Institute as a broad umbrella of BYU-based centers, publications, and initiatives has re-arranged the power structures and seems to suggest a more muted, collaborative role for the future of FARMS. Put differently, it may slowly fade away, diffused into other organizations and publications.

Ten years from now, will FARMS still exist?

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    I would have said it’s the fact that you can’t find anything on that stupid website they’ve got without 20 minutes of online sleuthing.

    FAIRwiki, on the other hand is fabulous for pulling out quick info on any number of topics. That’s the main reason I prefer FAIR anyway…

  • http://weightermatters.blogspot.com AHLDuke

    This is sort of on-topic and a brief mention of it is made in the post, but the FAIR Conference got the two-page spread you mentioned in Church News. FAIR, if I understand correctly, is not an official organization of the Church, while FARMS is, though at some degree of distance (being affiliated with BYU, which is church-owned). That I think, is certainly a sign that other fora are taking precedence over FARMS. I also point out the hypocrisy of not giving something like Sunstone a little press time in the Church News. I know its unrealistic, but it would only be fair, right?

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    “only fair” … no “only FAIR” would be “only fair” … ok bad joke.

    What you are asking is for the Church News to give space to a publication that gives space to criticism or attacks on the Church, or at least on members of the Church, from time to time. Perhaps well intentioned, perhaps faithful, perhaps only a little one-sided, but things that enemies of the Church find comfort and joy in.

    On the other hand, FARMS biggest problem is that it is becoming part of the accepted dialog, so that other groups are making good use of the work it has done. That isn’t so much a loss of relevance as it is more of the question “Has FARMS been swallowed by the mainstream?”

    And yes, the various content control and pay for access and similar things that have been done to the FARMS’ website have pretty much ruined it. Linkrot is the enemy of any group that has a message, and the various things FARMS has done with the website have created a general rule that FARMS = linkrot.

  • http://rusch.wordpress.com/ rusch

    One reason why FAIR is on the rise and FARMS might be diminishing is the fact that FAIR encourages the common guy to get involved whereas FARMS seems to be limited to one ton academic gorillas.
    The FAIR conference is also another reason why I think that FAIR is on the rise. I have heard people comment that they enjoy that far more then BYU’s campus education week.

  • http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com Dave

    You’ve sure got a chip on your shoulder about FARMS, VRT. Reminds me of another tomato blogger I know. As to a couple of your points of criticism:

    1. I’m not sure what your beef is with Peterson’s introduction, especially when you call the current one “witty, well-written, wide-ranging, and sometimes penetrating.” You seem to accuse him of being nasty and insulting in prior writing, but then rather than compliment him for toning it down in current writing you suggest he’s fading, losing his edge, or somehow in retreat from his earlier commitments. Sounds like the guy could sell all he owns and give it to charity and you’d still rip on him.

    2. The rise of FAIR seems to be part of the rise of combative rhetoric in both political and religious discourse in Utah. Surprisingly, FARMS has moved in the opposite direction, broadening their articles and content away from that sort of thing. Again, seems like they deserve a good word for that effort, not criticism.

    Not that I’m a big FARMS Review fan. I don’t subscribe and I toss a barb their way myself from time to time. I just think you’re stretching it a little in this post. And they have gotten much better the last couple of years. (By the way, as far as I can tell all their articles, including the current issue, are now fully accessible online to any reader.)

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    I agree with Dave. This post comes off as a veiled screed to me — partially against FARMS but mostly against Dan Peterson.

    “the editor’s (and his sidekick’s) rambling, idiosyncratic, indulgent reflections on whatever topical matters he feels like writing about”

    “Peterson’s personal Rameumpton for… spitting on his critics”

    Why do I get the feeling you are one of those critics who feels you have been spat upon in the past? This post certainly has a vendetta feel to it…

  • Vine-Ripe Tomato

    Dave, Geoff, and all–

    No screed intended. I don’t have any “beef” with Peterson or his introdution. I think Peterson is probably the best stylist currently active in Mormon studies. I think you’re reading a stronger criticism than was intended. The phrase quoted–”the editor’s (and his sidekick’s) rambling, idiosyncratic, indulgent reflections on whatever topical matters he feels like writing about”–is entirely neutral in tone and intention. The second quote–”Peterson’s personal Rameumpton for… spitting on his critics” is obviously intended somewhat critically, but it’s also a description, an observation–and anyone who’s read Peterson long enough knows that there’s a good deal of intellectual “spitting” going on.

    The point of the post is to ask about the position of FARMS in the changing landscape of Mormon studies. What purpose does FARMS fill, specifically, that isn’t being filled just as competently by other publications and organizations? It seems to me that FARMS is falling victim BOTH to its own successes and its weaknesses. As Clark, Kaimi and others have pointed–correct me if I’m misrepresenting their viewpoints–FARMS used to be more urgent to many of our intellectual lives than it is today. What are the reasons? Is it tied to the aging phenomenon blamed for Sunstone’s and Dialogue’s stagnation? Or are other factors at play here?

    I was neither praising nor criticizing Peterson’s recent apparent change in tone, but rather seeking to describe it accurately and analyze its possible reasons.

    FARMS is an easy target to pick on, there’s no question about that. This post was somewhat provocatively worded, I agree, but had a more probing purpose. As I asked at the end, Will FARMS be around 10 years from now? If so, in what format? What will be its purpose?

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clark Clark

    Dave, I don’t think it quite fair to see FAIR as part of the rise of combative rhetoric. I’ve not had time to contribute the past year. (Heck, I haven’t even had time to post on my own blog) However when I was contributing there was a lot of discussion about tone and the like. As I had advocated they divested themselves of the forum where a lot of debate took place. So I just don’t think what you say is fair.

    Regarding FARMS and intellectual heavyweights, I think there are a lot of bloggers who’ve published via FARMS. They seem pretty open to submissions and a lot of authors aren’t quite the academics you suggest. (Look at the writeups on authors) Having said that though I think FARMS picked most of the low hanging fruit the past 20 years or so. So there’s not as much to write about as there was in the 90′s. Yes, I don’t think FARMS lived up to its potential. And I’m not at all convinced the BYU acquisition as a good thing. (Although it did lead to the rise of FAIR) But while there are some papers every year I take exception to, by and large I think FARMS does a good job.

    What FAIR wants to do (and I feel guilty about not helping as much as I’d promised) is to try and organize all the information in their wiki. It’s still very much a work in progress. It’ll probably be a few more years before it is a mature “product.” But I think it’s quite a great idea. As is having a bunch of volunteers who can answer sincere questions. And yes, volunteers are told to not be combative.

    I think its rather unfortunate that apologetics has such a bad reputation among some on blogs. I remain quite convinced that its primarily due to people reading only a few select papers that get discussed which are controversial and ignoring the majority that aren’t.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clark Clark

    Just an addition to the “low hanging fruit” point. I think that in the late 80′s and through the 90′s there were lots of obvious targets for apologists. Things like the Metatron traditions in Merkabah texts that related to our concepts of divinization, the endowment, and texts like Mosiah 15. Then there were the obvious issues of internal geography in the Book of Mormon. There were the many parallels to ancient pseudipigrapha and so forth. All of those were fairly easy in the sense of you could put together a very interesting paper in about six months. All those types of topics that I think caught the eye of many people have been done.

    There’s still a lot that can be done, but it tends to be much harder stuff. Further, a big thing that needs done is going back to all these initial studies (both by FARMS as well as by critics) and being a bit more robust in ones work.

    I don’t think this is just an issue for apologists. I think the same problem besets critics. Indeed I think one could say that LDS apologetics is only as good as the types of arguments critics make. And critics just have gone through as much of a lull as apologists.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t great apologetics out there. However most of the interesting stuff at this stage tends to be more bringing stuff together. (While not really apologetics, I think Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling fits into this category – it brings together into a coherent whole a lot of work that most well read Mormon scholars were familiar with)

    But as I said, critics have been falling down as well. Take Quinn’s Magic World View. Amazingly significant work in its first edition that arguably opened up a whole arena of work. The second edition, while having more stuff, was overall a big disappointment in that it was all Nibleyesque parallels without a lot of work on getting into the nitty gritty and finding significance. So (much like Nibley’s work) it opened up a field but didn’t really provide a satisfactory analysis of the field. I’m hoping Nick Literski’s (sp?) new book on Masonry does this as it is much more narrow in topic but appears to be much more detailed. I don’t know whether it will end up coming off as primarily apologetic or primarily as critical of the LDS position – but it’s definitely a book I’m looking forward to. If only to energize the field on both sides.

    I should add that an other huge problem with FARMS is that most of its main figures also publish in their own fields. That takes time and is arguably more important than their work for FARMS. (Consider Gee’s Egyptology publishing) Many, if not most, are BYU Bishops on top of all this. (Not exactly a calling that provides free time for apologetics) Then they teach their BYU classes plus, typically, a religion class. It’s a huge load. One should be grateful for what we’re able to get from these folks. I know, being as busy as I am this year, how much work can cut into ones research.

  • http://www.MormonMysticism.com David Littlefield

    I have and love all of Nibley’s books. But now that he is gone, where is the juice? Are they just going to rewite his books again and again? A good start would be for them to make that Dead Seas Scroll CD available for a reasonal price. I sense political problems.


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