Optimism and Naiveté for LDS Religion Scholars

I just finished Sheldon Greaves, “The Education of a Bible Scholar” in Dialogue 42:2, Greaves’s spiritual autobiography recounting both his loss of place in the LDS church in the mid-nineties and his appreciation for modern critical biblical studies. It was a fascinating, if familiar, account of the disillusionment of a LDS scholar with the kinds of questions that could be asked of sacred texts, with a view of the frustration with the tendencies of many in BYU religion to discourage, avoid, and ignore critical biblical studies.

I have written on this period of Mormon studies as devistating and entire generation of scholars in my post “The Terrible 90′s.” However, I implicitly contrasted that time with our own. I’d like to further explore this comparison.

There is much to compare between Greaves’s experience in the 80′s and 90′s with that of young scholars today. I could certainly see Greaves’s enthusiasm in many of those that I know who are pursuing this line of study. I could also see the frustration with BYU shared by many today. I am also aware of the alienation that these students sometimes feel when their studies and insights are resisted or rejected by their wards, friends, and families.

At the same time, my sense is that many young LDS scholars of religion are choosing to stay, to navigate these sometimes rough waters, and to contribute, perhaps at BYU Religion, but also in new, unconventional ways. My impression may certainly be wrong, and I know lots of people who have left after even just one semester of graduate studies in religion. The disconnect is still immense for many. However, there seems to be a certain degree of optimism, even in the angst of the young religion scholar, that it is possible to reconcile their faith and their studies, and even productively contribute.

So what has changed? Has the official church moved away from the disciplining of the 1990′s that precipitated Greaves’s and others’ departures? Have congregations in these cities (Berkeley, Chicago, Cambridge, New Haven, Raleigh-Durham, etc) become habituated to these young scholars and been more accepting? Have the terms of the debate changed (no longer about BoM historicity or JST) in such a way that where one sides is less charged? Has scholarship itself changed to be more accommodating (for instance, Greaves repeatedly emphasizes the scientific nature and objectivity of modern biblical studies, which I think fewer graduate schools teach today)? Or, are young scholars simply naive, not knowing what dangers lurk in the distance as they move along in their careers, that a repeat of the past is likely inevitable?

  • Kristine

    Nice post, TT. Just a shameless plug–the Fall issue of Dialogue will have some optimistic pieces by two younger Mormon scholars, Mauro Properzi and Matt Bowman. Subscribe already!! ;)

    I think a few important things (at least) have contributed to the improved climate. One is that the patient work of dedicated scholars like Jill Derr, Claudia Bushman, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens (though he’s a youngish upstart in the crowd! :) ), Kathleen Flake, et al. has borne fruit, and people who might be made nervous by scholarship have seen that first-rate scholars can remain committed and faithful. Another thing that’s important is just the sheer volume of work going on in Mormon Studies these days–even if the hierarchy wanted to exert control, it’s so big as to be just a frustrating whack-a-mole game.

    Finally, I think one shouldn’t underappreciate the contribution of those who acted as scapegoats in the 90s. We owe a debt that is hard to understand to folks like Sheldon, and David Wright, and Linda Newell, and Lavina Anderson, and Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano. They acted in a very real way as scapegoats and have paid an extraordinary price for the privilege of younger scholars to do their work with less fear of reprisal. The spasms of fear and ignorance that contorted the community in the 90s were important (though, one hopes, not truly necessary) precursors to subsequent growth.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    From my experiences, I have the impression (and it is no more than that) that a variety of factors play in here.

    1) Less of a perception among LDS that academic training/scholarship is inherently inimical. I attribute this in some part to the publications distributed by FARMS which (apologies to Kristine!) has had more of an “orthodox” perception to more mainstream LDS than other publications.

    2) Less dogmatism among scholars and scholars-in-training, as well as among Church leaders, in other words, a willingness to occupy some less strident gray area. That is, both sides are still dogmatic, but less so and about fewer issues.

    3) I think LDS are becoming more sophisticated in their thinking and approaches to various historical/theological problems.
    4) There may also be a small degree of self-censorship, or at least, a high degree of contextual awareness among LDS scholars-in-training, that one needs to discuss a topic differently based on whom one is addressing.

    I certainly don’t shy away from difficult topics when I teach Institute. But I also recognize that LDS want to know how I reconcile this or that problem (and its academic solutions) with my own faith. That’s not something I do in more academic settings.

    5) Scholars-in-training stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Most of them that I know are highly aware of the problems of the past, as well as knowing LDS who have “survived” or thrived despite or because of such problems. We all profit from the previous conversations, in print and in person, with people who have gone about these issues in different ways, with different results, so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel ourselves.

  • Kristine

    No need to apologize, Nitsav–I’m just fine with FARMS being perceived as more orthodox :) (They are!)

  • Kristine

    And, not only that, but I’m confident that work at FARMS and the JFSI and JMH has been more instrumental in opening things up than Dialogue or other independent publications. There’s an interesting and hopefully productive interplay between the fringes and the center.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com David Clark

    This may all just be a by product of long term trends which have very little to do with the academy. For example, in the early 90′s church growth was at a peak, it has slowed dramatically since then. It’s easy to boot a few people and piss off a few others when growth is really good. It’s much harder to do this when growth is much slower. I’m not arguing for some sinister calculation here. Just the observation that slower growth means more trouble staffing church units. And if you have trouble staffing a church unit you are not going to be kicking people out who are potential EQ presidents and primary teachers.

    Another thing that may be going on here is just that people have realized the futility of trying to control information with the internet. Why bother excommunicating Brother/Sister X for saying something that is well documented when you can probably access the same thing on the internet?

    I also think that church authorities and scholars have finally arrived at a demarcation line of what is acceptable and what is not. Just to pick one example, Richard Bushman published Rough Stone Rolling and Grant Palmer published his Insider’s book roughly contemporaneously. One is a member in good standing, the other is still a member but not in good standing. This suggests that the “line of faithfulness” is somewhere between the two books. If scholars are smart they will pick the side they want to be on and conduct their research and writing appropriately.

  • Kevin Barney

    I also think it’s helpful that something of a critical mass has been achieved. Witness the very existence of FPR, the fact that there are dozens of grad students who keep in touch, the grad student conference at Yale, etc. When you know lots of people in the same boat you can talk to and compare notes with and commiserate with, it’s not the lonely struggle it was for a lot of people years ago.

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    First, I want to thank TT for this post and for the comments thus far.

    Let me note that I have been “out in the wilderness” for some time and that some things may have changed of which I am unaware. While there is definitely some cause for optimism, there are still some constraints that are, shall we say, unhelpful. For instance:

    • To the best of my knowledge, BYU professors, institute instructors, and Church leaders are still proscribed from publishing or presenting at Sunstone or publishing in Dialogue.

    • The “Handbook of Instructions” still contains language discouraging participation in “unauthorized symposia”, etc.

    • Lesson materials used in Gospel Doctrine classes discourage the use out “outside materials” although some ward leaders are less concerned about this than other.

    • I also still sense (though I don’t have as much recent data) that methods of critical scholarship are still frowned upon at places like BYU, particularly in religion classes. One comment suggests that this may be changing. I hope so.

    • To my knowledge, no Conference addresses have been given that would counter the numerous negative and derogatory statements aimed at independent intellectuals, writers, activists, etc.

    That said, others have noted that there has been a surge of new scholarship and internet activity that is too large to rein in without excessive effort and PR consequences. Surely, the Church is, if anything, even more PR conscious than it was in the 90′s. It might also be that those elements within the Church leadership who were inclined to persecute independent thinkers have simply turned their attention to other things.

    Another reason for optimism, in my view, is demonstrated by the large number of Mormons in California who openly broke with the Church on Proposition 8. I know of some who were allowed to speak out by their leaders, and another whose Temple Recommend was confiscated and enjoined from any active participation in church services simply because he wore a button to church that said “All Families Matter”.

    But the willingness of so many church members to openly defy and even criticize their leaders was a pleasant shock to me. And while this concerns politics and not scholarship (to the extent one can distinguish between them), it gives me hope that members who hold eccentric ideas might do so openly instead of behind a permanent veil of self-censorship.

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/ ZD Eve

    I found both the article and the responses here fascinating. Thanks for posting this, TT.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Thanks all.

    Kristine,
    I look forward to reading Properzi and Bowman, as they are both excellent examples of the optimism that I see more generally among this younger generation. I think you give as good of reasons and any for why there is this optimism, but I still wonder if it is naive to some degree. While there are excellent examples now of scholars who are able to bridge both worlds, their presence serves the interest of the church as well to say that there is no tension, just as there were in the 90′s (many of the same ones you listed above) and earlier. The presence of some scholars who can navigate the waters doesn’t mean that all will be able to. As for whack-a-mole, I think that the analogy isn’t quite apt since one only need to whack a few, maybe 6 or so, and the statement has been made. Again, I might certainly be wrong, but I am not 100% confident that the church will never make the same move twice knowing the negative PR consequences (Prop 22 and Prop 8 as good examples).
    That said, you are absolutely right that we owe our predecessors a great deal for their sacrifices.

    Nitsav,
    I think that you give excellent reasons as well for describing the current situation. Do you have reason to believe that these are substantially different from how members in the post-New Mormon History era of the 70′s and 80′s might have characterized their own time?

    David Clark,
    This is an interesting suggestion about the relationship between growth and discipline, and though it is not provable, it is curious. My hesitation is that many of those disciplined lived in Utah where members are more “expendable,” and that many in the future may also live there.
    As for the “line,” I am not sure that it has been completely resolved. Perhaps with respect to JS and maybe even with respect to church history more generally, but for other disciplines such as biblical studies and theology are almost completely untested in recent years.

    Kevin Barney,
    I agree that a critical mass makes a big difference, but I am not sure that the few dozen doctoral students quite constitute that critical mass. While I think that they do offer invaluable support, though more could certainly be done, I think that the relative lack of more senior religion scholars as protective mentors is often daunting, and a cause for anxiety as much as the shared situation with other young scholars is a cause for comfort. That is not to say that great progress isn’t being made, only that I wouldn’t say that it has quite been achieved.

    Sheldon,
    Thank you for your comment, and thanks again for your wonderful article. I think that your list of concerns from manuals and other sources are certainly valid, but just as in any tradition, what actually happens on the ground and what is written in the text are not always the same thing. There are also many reasons to be optimistic, mostly because there are reasons to suspect that all of the concerns that you list are not held by young scholars today. Many teach SS lessons in the same way that you taught in your early days, but with little overt resistance. The silence from GA’s is taken as a good sign, and few young scholars are seeking permission in the form of an explicit reversal of earlier prohibitions. Even BYU Religion is showing some very positive signs by teaching historical critical methods in some classes. Again, nothing is perfect yet, and there are some reasons that a naive optimism is not warranted, but it seems to me that the period of your initial enthusiasm and willingness to bring critical scholarship into conversation with Mormonism before the episodes of the early ninetees are being repeated. What remains to be seen, I think, is whether those traumatic episodes are repeated in some form, or whether young scholars can capitalize on this detente.

  • Nitsav

    I haven’t yet read the Dialogue article.

    The structure of your comment here, however, echoes one of the traditional black-and-white comments of the past, in which Church hierarchy (black hats) exists primarily to oppress eccentric or independent thinkers (white hats), and the primary legitimate response is open defiance, often resulting in exit.

    While I’m sympathetic to you(Sheldon) and your personal experiences, I simply don’t relate to the kind of narrative or construction in your comment, and it’s not a position I’m terribly sympathetic to.

  • Nitsav

    TT- I haven’t read enough from that period to surmise how they might have seen themselves. I can only speak from my own experiences. Perhaps we are doomed for the pendulum to swing continuously from one extreme to the other.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Nitsav,
    I am not sure that is a fair reading of Sheldon’s article, though you acknowledge that you haven’t yet read it. I don’t think he advocates open defiance as the only legitimate response, nor do I think he think that the church exists primarily to oppress scholars. Rather, his story as I read it is about his initial hopes being dashed by experiences at BYU and more generally in the church at both the local and general levels that made him feel unwelcome and discouraged.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Nitsav 11,
    Perhaps you’re right, and that is what I want to explore. There was just so much from Sheldon’s article that sounded so familiar. If Mauss’ thesis in The Angel and the Beehive is right, we should expect that unfettered assimilation with outside scholarship is likely overly optimistic. If we are not blind-sided by this as many were in the 80′s and 90′s who entered the academy with good faith, perhaps the outcome may be different as well.

  • Nitsav

    It’s a response only to his comment here, not the Dialogue article. And I may well be eisegeting his comment, but it’s difficult not to get a negative vibe in a comment setting up The Church vs. Thinkers, with members who “openly defy and even criticize” Church leaders as the greatest source of our optimism. Not so?

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/ ZD Eve

    At the risk of threadjacking (sorry TT), I’m curious about Sheldon’s observation

    “To the best of my knowledge, BYU professors, institute instructors, and Church leaders are still proscribed from publishing or presenting at Sunstone or publishing in Dialogue.”

    which was my understanding as well. However, searching Sunstone’s recent archives I’ve noticed several current BYU professors cropping up again in the last few years. And then there’s this:

    http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/72572

    I’m particularly struck by the matter-of-fact observation,

    “Both students and professors from BYU have participated in the symposium and presented work in past years.”
    followed by a quotation from Bruce Jorgenson praising the symposium.

    Clearly some sort of shift has occurred in BYU’s attitude toward Sunstone. Anyone know more specifics?

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    I think the restriction on BYU profs in Dialogue and Sunstone might only apply to religion faculty. At least, that has been my impression. Of course, I do not think such journals would help towards tenure in my field.

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    Thank you, ZD Eve, for that information.

    Given this data I do hope that this reflects a real change. Whether BYU employees are publishing in Sunstone or Dialogue for tenure or not, it is important that anyone who is clearly part of the Mormon intelligentsia be allowed to participate in the discussion wherever they wish.

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    “Whether BYU employees are publishing in Sunstone or Dialogue for tenure or not, it is important that anyone who is clearly part of the Mormon intelligentsia be allowed to participate in the discussion wherever they wish.”

    True. My point is that the current research environment might be having a larger impact on participation in these journals than concern about being viewed as an apostate.

  • Nitsav

    It’s ironic if it only applies to Rel.Ed faculty, since many of them lack the relevant academic training to contribute to the conversation ;) ( I assume we’re talking about historical-critical theory, source theory, authorship issues, etc.)

    I had a conversation with a few BYU profs a while back, who don’t come from a CES background. I mentioned a paper I wrote, that I’d thought about submitting it to Dialogue. They responded in such a way to clearly indicate that, regardless of any supposed ban, they wouldn’t publish with Dialogue anyway. I should also point out that these profs aren’t exactly conservative echo-chambers of Elder McConkie.

    One can’t, of course, generalize about the whole department(s) they’re associated with, but some, at least, don’t feel held back at all by what venues they publish in.

  • Ann

    The Tweet: “TT notes a recent Dialogue article about the differences between the 90′s and today for LDS graduate students in religion. There are lots.”

    139 characters. Slam!

    (I won’t do this again. I know it would get really tiresome. Great article, TT.)

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    I want to address Nitsav’s comments about my discussion of defying and criticizing the Church leaders.

    A free forum of ideas must allow for open, informed disagreement with conventional wisdom. The question isn’t whether or not one is allowed to be defiant, but whether one can openly follow the evidence and state one’s conclusions without fear of reprisal. It’s not much of a stretch to deduce a threshold where one person’s civil disagreement is another one’s flaming denunciation of all that’s holy.

    Most of the articles that got scholars into trouble in the 90′s were very carefully crafted to convey their uncomfortable conclusions with as little offense. They often included expressions of faith and love for the church fit for any Fast and Testimony meeting. And so when some of these people were accused of apostasy and forced from the church, it set the bar for “defiance” rather low and incidentally made the rest of us a mite tetchy.

    Consider, too, that the “Mormon Intellectuals” expended considerable effort through any number of channels to attempt to create a bridge with Church Leaders. For well over 20 years there were public and private calls by Mormon Intellectuals for discussion, reconciliation, pleas for understanding–any kind of rapprochement. And in every case that I am aware of, these efforts came to naught because the leadership refused to reach back.

    Does this boil down to a black hat-white hat scenario? There was poor judgment on both sides, as there will always be when high feelings are spiked with religious fervor. But on the whole I cannot escape the conclusion that the leadership made more and bigger mistakes that we did. When those mistakes become big enough, sometimes you have to be openly critical and, yes, even defiant.

  • http://thesundaypage.net jondh

    TT this was a very non-snobby post. Well done. ;)

  • Kristine

    There are two BYU professors and a BYU-H professor on Dialogue’s editorial board–neither has suffered any reprisals that I’m aware of. I’ve had several submissions from BYU professors in the last year, and a BYU prof./administrator cheerfully agreed to publish a tribute to Truman Madsen. I’m looking forward to an essay by a BYU Law School prof.

    I’m sure things are a little different in the Rel. Ed. department, but overall, there looks to be a thaw.

  • http://Blakeostler.com Blake

    I think we a little more perspective on these issues may be useful. There was a real problem with Dialogue and its editors during the 1990s in my view. To say that the editors were perceived as antagonistic to the church by many church leaders and also old Dialogue subscribers would not be overstating it. There was a real issue as to whether those involved were crossing the line into not merely being critical, but actually antagonistic to church leadership and issues related to the gospel. The kinds of articles published during much of this time attacked the historicity of the Book of Mormon and other foundational scriptures and were extremely critical of church leadership from former and marginal members with a real axe to grind.

    It wasn’t just church leaders who were concerned. I had several long discussions with Eugene England and others on the Dialogue board about the direction Dialogue had taken and the apparent difficulty of the editor and co-editors to step down when their tenure was up based on the usual practices. Frankly, it was a real fight to get them to move on.

    In my experience, tone and approach account for the actions of the church more than anything else. Bushman can say what he does because he is known to be committed and faithful. The same thing said by someone who is marginal in commitment and known to be consistently antagonistic is perceived very differently.

    I went thru a lot of that kind of assessment when I wrote an article on the Book of Mormon and its historicity that was published in Dialogue. However, I know that these issues have been discussed by church leaders because I discussed it with at least three members of the 12. They were (and to my knowledge are) concerned about supporting those who have good faith doubts and who are truly exploring as opposed to those who are merely interested in creating doubt and disbelief.

    In the end, the assessment of motive I think is what matters — with the attendant problems of inherent subjectivity of that assessment. If one is truly committed and interested in working with or building up the church through a critical assessment, I believe that such work is not merely tolerated but appreciated — and can make a difference. However, work that is merely critical for the sake of criticizing, or letting us know how out of the touch or abusive the leaders of the church are, is going to get a different reception.

    I knew (and know) all of the those scholars who were disciplined during the 1990′s. Some of them were (and some continue to be) dear friends (heck, one is an editor of my books). However, I don’t believe that this issue is merely explained by the leaders somehow being less tolerant in 1990 than they are in 2009. There are a great number of factors that have changed since them — not merely the church leaders. That being said — I would love to see a real solid cadre of very competent scholars develop who are interested in and writing about Mormon related themes in terms of uplifting discourse in the Kierkegaardian sense.

  • Kristine

    Blake, do you think it’s fair to say that the leaders are generally more tolerant in 2009 than they were in 1990 AND that many scholars have benefited by having had the limits of tone and presentation (as well as substance) that could be tolerated defined in the breach thereof?

    (And, of course, that the current editorial board of Dialogue represents the best of all possible worlds ;) ?)

  • http://Blakeostler.com Blake

    Kristine: I don’t believe that the limits of tolerance have been defined. In fact, I believe that these limits cannot be defined and that is the inherent problem. What is at issue is not some outer limit of level of tolerance that is acceptable, but a sense of whether the scholar is attempting to build up or tear down, to be critically faith or just be critical, to truly search and question or just to question. If someone’s purpose is to create doubt and destroy faith and another is attempting to explore a vibrant faith, the former will simply be cut less slack.

    My sense is that the limits of tolerance and what can be discussed is far greater for someone like Bushman than for others for many of the reasons discussed here. There is also a paradoxical stance that when a member is already effectively no longer active and hasn’t been for a very long time that discipline serves no purpose.

    I believe that the negative response to the disciplinary actions has had an effect and the experience of making something that would die a quiet death if left alone become a cause celbre when discipline has been meted out by the
    church has also had an effect without doubt. I know that at least one person employed by Signature books told me that he hoped their authors would be disciplined because it would bring far more attention to their books and that they looked for ways to create controversy. Have they gone out of their way to seek and create discipline to promote their views? I believe so in many instances. I have no doubt that in polite and civil and public forae such an approach would be denied. There is often more going on here than meets the eye of public knowledge in my view.

    And yes, the current Dialogue editorial board is the best of all possible worlds — coming from someone who believes that there is no upper limit to “best” and so can always be surpassed.

  • Kristine

    “And yes, the current Dialogue editorial board is the best of all possible worlds — coming from someone who believes that there is no upper limit to “best” and so can always be surpassed.”

    I asked for that :)

    And I’m inclined to agree with your larger point.

  • DavidH

    Things are definitely better now than in the 1990s. Those were tough times. I think it helps that four former university/college presidents are among the FP and 12, and the large number of Ph.D.s and ivy league graduates among those councils–I think there is more tolerance for open inquiry and less fear.

    I also agree that tone is very important in speaking about the Church and its teachings.

    When I teach at Church, I feel pretty free to touch difficult topics, including bringing it outside resources. But I ask people what they think, and rarely express my own opinion.

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    The question of “tone” is something I feel ambivalent about on several levels. Because we are talking about people’s deeply-held beliefs we are expected to buffer our facts and conclusions. Most other academic fields don’t share this problem, or they have it to a lesser degree.

    What bothers me about this is that “tone” is usually taken as a measure of the writer’s personal belief or motives, and I am uncomfortable with that. It feels too much like some kind of double standard; what should be at issue are the facts, not the container they come in. Criticizing a paper or book because of its tone feels too much like a way of dismissing inconvenient arguments and facts.

    At the same time, I do get that tone matters to a lot of people. I kind of wish that Mormonism, like some older more established religions, could develop an acknowledged and accepted sub-community where we can speak without these constraints. The Catholics have done this for centuries; some group of troublemakers will crop up, and the church eventually lets them go off and form their own monastic order or organization like Opus Dei or the like, where they enjoy relative freedom to cut their own path.

    It would be nice if we could express our opinions when teaching or discussing tough subjects. If this is still a problem then it argues that we still have quite a ways to go.

  • Kristine

    Sheldon, “tone” is horribly nebulous, and while Blake is right to point to the perception of loyalty as probably more important than the content of one’s scholarly work or Gospel Doctrine lessons, what he doesn’t say is that this means an individual’s experiences in voicing criticism or even just asking questions have a lot to do with the luck of the geographical draw, or with gender and temperament. If I had lived a mile down the road from where I lived when I was at my angriest with the institutional Church, or if I had not adopted the unthreatening uniform of flowered maternity dresses while teaching gospel doctrine (“Jehovah was a feminist” just sounds different coming from a pregnant stay-at-home mom!), I could very, very easily have found myself outside of church activity. I’m not sure how to deal with that problem, though, short of codifying heresies and making the CHI a multivolume tome. We might all have to learn how to be more Christian, darn it!

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    I think by “tone” we’re trying to cover a number of things, one of which is simply tone. Is it strident? Polite? Aware of the possible effects on its readers? Agenda-driven, and if clearly so, what is that agenda?

    Another is “insider/outsider status” and/or bona fides. LDS are much more tolerant or open to criticism or non-traditional thought when it is brought forward by someone with strong LDS bona fides/”credentials” and unquestionable “insider” status, Hugh Nibley being a frequently cited example of this. Nibley’s criticism was not perceived as an attack on the Church or an attempt to weaken anyone’s faith because people knew him and his publications too well to think he was an enemy.

    If no one knows you, you offer thoughtful critique in academic language without regard for context or your audience AND you have not established yourself, it’s easy to be mistaken for someone who does not have the best interests of the Church at heart, and that raises everyone’s mental shields.

    “‘tone’ is usually taken as a measure of the writer’s personal belief or motives.”

    But doesn’t “tone” often accurately reflect one’s beliefs, motives and purpose? For example, is it unreasonable of me to detect some negativity or antagonism in a comment which “set[s] up The Church vs. Thinkers, with members who “openly defy and even criticize” Church leaders as the greatest source of our optimism”?

    As a side-note, I’d point out that ignoring content and complaining about “tone” frequently takes place in certain publishers’ responses to FARMS, so the problem with tone is not solely among the “conservative.”

  • http://thesundaypage.net jondh

    It is fallacious to think of tone as something that goes on top of “facts” and “conclusions,” as if it can be removed to get at the raw, basic material. It’s like saying, “I prefer my food free from temperature” or “the sound quality on my telephone ought to be liberated from its volume.”

    Tone is an essential aspect of communication, because the author, speaker, artist, or writer is not the only one involved in the process. To be frank, it would be arrogant for her to assume so. Therefore, while Sheldon may rightly lament the unwillingness of a church audience to accept a certain type of tone, it is unreasonable to desire a climate where tone is absent or even of little importance. To do so, IMO, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of communication. Tone is inescapable, and those who wish to say or create anything can simply choose what type of tone to employ.

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    Nitsav,
    I did indeed state that “‘tone’ is usually taken as a measure of the writer’s personal belief or motives”, and you are right; it often does reflect those beliefs, motives and purposes. I don’t dispute that. My question is the extent to which it matters. I would bet that when the Old Testament prophets were stoned, it was because of the “tone” as much as the content of their diatribes against those in power. But they were right.

    You ask, “is it unreasonable of me to detect some negativity or antagonism in a comment which “set[s] up The Church vs. Thinkers, with members who “openly defy and even criticize” Church leaders as the greatest source of our optimism”?”

    Sure it is. Absolutely. I totally cop to it, and I offer no apology for any antagonism or negativity, real or perceived. Discussion always involves some conflict, even if delivered in reasoned, stentorian tones. And conflict isn’t comfortable. The defiance and open criticism I referred to was in response to the Church’s support of Prop 8, which was due to a demonstrably faulty policies (which I will not discuss here, since it is so off-topic).

    I still believe that although open opposition to church leaders made a lot of people uncomfortable (including quite a few of the dissidents), theirs was the moral and factual high ground. Opposing the Church leadership was the right thing to do. That they felt able to do so was and remains a positive development for the greater health of the Church.

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/ Sheldon Greaves

    I must disagree with jondh on a couple of points here.

    First, I do believe that it is possible to examine the factual basis of a statement or paper apart from its tone. In fact, I would say that this is a fundamental skill for a scholar. The question for me is whether it’s worth the trouble. I tend to see a strident tone as evidence that the author has fallen to posturing for lack of facts or logic, but it still needs a careful reading to bear this out. For another example, consider that propaganda is often analyzed for intelligence content, and experts do this precisely by looking at the tone and facts (or falsehoods) separately. So I stand by my statement that factual content can and should be considered apart from tone.

    Second, I never intended to state that tone should be absent, or even that it could be. I have learned to look past it, but I realize that not everyone can or wants to. My concern is that many of the scholars who were ex’ed in the 90s couched their findings in tones that were, if anything, overly polite. They did all they could to avoid sounding strident or apostate. And yet they were disciplined and their work was frequently dismissed because of the “tone.” In other words, there was no tone that was acceptable.

    Of course, in my opinion “tone” was not the issue, but the conclusions and facts presented. But it was easier to criticize tone because, as I said, people will assume that it reflects hostility and that will be enough for most people. But even a hostile paper can contain something of value.

  • SmallAxe

    Sorry, I’m late to the game but I did want to chime in briefly over the issue of tone.

    The way I see it, and I believe I’ve mentioned this before in several places, part of being able to change one’s tone is predicated on skills that some people may be more able to cultivate than others. Those skills, and here Sheldon probably agrees, are not necessarily the same skills used in evaluating an argument. The issue here seems to be that if LDSs are seeking after “truth”, why is the former skill set valued over the latter? Furthermore, since tone is in fact predicated on a certain skill set, and some people may be more equipped to utilize those skills than others, should we not give those who are “tonally-challenged” (or “tone deaf”?) the benefit of the doubt by assuming that their motives/intentions are in fact sincere?

    That said, I do not believe that argumentation can be divorced from tone. Tone is part of context and the rules of argumentation should be context sensitive.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Sheldon: I agree with Kristine that “tone” is not merely important, but often the more powerful message. I also agree with her that it makes dealing with these issues difficult because the response varies based on the background and approach of local leaders and there is inevitably a subjective assessment that isn’t easy to verbalize.

    However, even the tone of your post #33 is strident and — dare I say it? — quite judgmental. You assert that you are morally right, the church leaders are morally wrong, and it is a good thing you get to state your morally superior position without official repercussions. It seems to me that these issues are quite a bit more complex and nuanced than your moral superiority allows. It is precisely such a judgmental tone that leads to the problem as I see it. I suspect that you wouldn’t stand for such a morally superior and judgmental stance from anyone officially aligned with “the Church.”

    I also agree with SmallAxe that some are more skilled at presenting a forgiving and amicable tone even when discussing critical issues than others. I’m good at it in person (I think), but I don’t believe that I’m particularly skilled at it in writing (especially when writing sound-bite blogs). So maybe the assumed superiority that comes across to me in your post wouldn’t be there if we talked, or if you took more time in a long article to explain, or if we had the chance to really sit down and have a great discussion even where we disagree. I’d a lot rather discuss these issues over a good plate of pasta than on a blog.