Review: Mormon Scholars Testify

Mormon Scholars Testify is a new website sponsored by the folks at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). It solicits and posts the “views and feelings about the Gospel” from LDS scholars, including graduate students. The goal of the website is to “dispel the myth” that “people of education and learning can’t be religious.” Each page is devoted to the relatively brief testimony of a LDS scholar, and features their credentials at the bottom of the page.  One of the strengths is that it brings together a nice cross-section of scholars representing diverse ideological positions within Mormonism, from Armand Mauss to Jeff Lindsay.

The goals of this website are certainly laudable, and it is a pleasure to read the testimonies of so many LDS academics in one place.  I found many that were very interesting to read, and was of course extremely impressed by some of the academic careers of those featured there.  While I am familiar with a certain subset of LDS scholars, I was introduced to many more.  Yet, I was not entirely happy with my experience navigating around the site.

While admittedly this website is still in early stages, my initial take is that many of the testimonies featured do little to seriously treat the intellectual issues at stake. The premise of the site seems to rest on the assumption that if you can simply show that “smart people” happen to believe in the teachings of the Church, that the serious intellectual issues that people face don’t need to be dealt with directly. The solution offered to the intellectual issues is the “testimony” of the scholar, not the intellectual and philosophical work to address those issues. In my view, the “testimonies” could be strengthened by reference to further reading or discussion of some other scholars who have helped to shape the testimony that is being born (though C.S. Lewis is mentioned in eight of the testimonies!).

Many of the testimonies are fairly typical of what one might hear in any given Fast and Testimony Meeting. When the testimonies offered do deal directly with the difficult issues, often the discussion is buried way down in the testimony, preceded by biographical background and other narratives.  In most cases where an intellectual issue is addressed, there is a short narrative about how the scholar learned the lesson that faith cannot be captured by intellect, or something similar.  Yet, I found that I was more interested in these issues than I was in the stories of childhood conversion or even how a friend challenged their faith, and often had to wade through biographical details before getting to the heart of the matter.  Once I found that they had something to say about the challenges one might face that was interesting, then I was perhaps more inclined to go back to read the details of their past.  In a way, the “testimony” is not necessarily the best genre to address the concerns of those who might be seeking for answers.

Another weakness of the site is that there are no distinctions made among different kinds of “scholars.”   The index by specialty helps, but it also complicates the fact that someone like Nate Oman has something to say much more broadly than to those studying law.  It also miscategorizes others, like Joanna Brooks and Kristian Heal in these catch-all buckets.  Surely, the scholars working in the sciences and humanities, including evolutionary biology, astrophysics, English, history, philosophy, and of course religious studies, face different kinds of issues in reconciling their faith with their intellectual lives than those in Land Policy and Development, mathematics, geology, tabernacle organist(!), electrical engineering and business administration, as impressive of careers as these individual scholars have had in these fields. While the collection of the testimonies from this latter group certainly is a worthy enterprise, it is not clear that they offer much to those who are facing the existential questions posed by studies in fields which more directly challenge core beliefs, and when they do, it is not their credentials per se that have prepared them to address these issues.  Nor is it clear that those who are credentialed in more “relevant” fields have necessarily articulated a coherent solution to the problems.  Perhaps a user-generated ranking system might help to prioritize those testimonies that are considered most helpful for readers.

A final weakness was that some testimonies were polemical, such as one that contended that “the real ‘Mormon intellectual community’ consists of people who love their religion,” and that those who “find fault” must not be Mormon intellectuals.  Others were controversial in other ways, such as the discussion of the “treatment” of “men with gender issues.”  I found these kinds of testimonies to be counterproductive.

There are, however, testimonies from several important intellectuals in the humanities who are familiar with many of the difficult intellectual issues. Some of those that particularly interested me were Richard BushmanKristian Heal, Philip LaFleur, Armand Mauss, Adam Miller, Nathan Oman, and Joanna Brooks.  I think that this site offers something valuable, at least in theory, and I hope that as it develops, and as the scholars who contribute to it develop a more clear voice, that it will more effectively accomplish its goals.

  • Nitsav

    “The premise of the site seems to rest on the assumption that if you can simply show that “smart people” happen to believe in the teachings of the Church, that the serious intellectual issues that people face don’t need to be dealt with directly.”

    I don’t think this is the case at all.

    “many of the testimonies featured do little to seriously treat the intellectual issues at stake.”

    You assume that testimonies are *intended* to seriously treat the intellectual issues? That they are a review of books or a scholarly journal?

    It seems like you’re reviewing something that’s not there and not intended to be there.

  • http://mormonphilosophyandtheology.wordpress.com Jacob B.

    Grant Hardy’s testimony is also must-read, imo.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Nitsav,
    You seem to be saying that 1) this site does intend to deal with the serious intellectual issues, not merely present the testimonies of “smart people” and 2) that this site does not intend to deal with the serious issues, but only to offer testimonies.
    Perhaps you could explain more why it is that you disagree with my evaluation rather than simply state that you disagree. I can better respond when you explain yourself. What exactly do you think is the purpose of the site and how should it be evaluated?

  • http://www.mormoninquiry.com Dave

    Well, the site is titled … Mormon Scholars Testify. I’m guessing those who want apologetics will go to the main FAIR site. Believe it or not, there are some Mormons who find the apologetic agenda misguided but would be impressed with scholarly testimonies.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed how willingly the mainstream press passes along the New Atheist line that no reasonably intelligent person can be a believer. The MST site is an effective rejoinder to that position, showing reasonably intelligent people who not only believe in God but (sit down for this one) also affirm most LDS truth claims. I think it’s a great site.

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

    TT,

    I don’t think testimonies must necessarily confront the relevant intellectual issues, although they might, depending on the individual expressing their testimony. Because I am interested in the intellectual issues at stake, I was more interested by testimonies which spoke to those issues. However, I realize that many others are not as interested in those issues and I thought there was a pretty good mix which would speak to people across a wide range of backgrounds . For some people, just knowing that smart people continue to believe is an faith-promoting point, regardless of the rationale. For others, this will be evidence that the only way to maintain faith is to divorce it from intellectual scrituny. I rather like that the site does not attempt to capture what message we should be taking from the testimonies, they stand or fall on their own.

    So my impression was tat the site intended to be different things for different people, to allow individual scholars to express their testimonies in whatever ways were meaningful and comfortable to them, and to invite people to draw their own conclusions without being steered into a particular “message.” I think it is perfectly valid for someone to read many of the testimonies and conclude that, at least for a good portion of the scholars, the intellectual issues you are interested in are not a major influence on their belief system.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Dave,
    I guess it begs the question of what a testimony is, and why we think that it is not the place to address the big issues. Who is the audience? Why should anyone care to read this? It is simply to counter the myth of the “main stream media” (frankly, I think the myth about the myth is just as pernicious), or are these testimonies supposed to actually speak to the hearts and minds of real people, people who may even come with questions about how to fit it all together?

    I don’t think the site should be about “apologetics” in the sense of why MMM doesn’t challenge their faith, or, ahem, why they think the BoA is an ancient text. You’re right that there are other sources for this. My criticism of some of the testimonies (certainly not all) is that they don’t really address the big issues. Perhaps, it is the case that a testimony is not the place to address how to fit it all together. But if not, I am left wondering why I should care about the testimony of a scholar any more than the testimony of a carpenter. If the scholar does not offer any insight into the life of the mind and the life of faith/practice of the church, why devote a website to it?

    To be clear, I don’t think that it is the case that none of the testimonies offered accomplish this goal. Quite the opposite, and I suggested many that did so. I didn’t ready every single one, so if others want to add them (thanks Jacob!), please do so. In fact, I suggested some sort of a user-generated ranking precisely so that those that are most impactful could rise to the top.)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Jacob,
    That may very well be the case, and I am open to the fact that the site may be many things to many people. As I point out in the OP, I consider this to be a weakness of the site because it makes it too hard to navigate to find the message that one needs to hear. Worse, it often offers the message that one need not hear, as you say, offering evidence that these scholars haven’t really confronted the issues at stake at all.

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

    akes it too hard to navigate to find the message that one needs to hear

    I understand what you’re saying, but in this case I fear the solution would be worse than the problem. I shudder to think of a system that tagged certain testimonies as devotional and others as intellecual. Your proposal of a user-generated ranking would be great, though it wouldn’t address this particular problem, it would at least point people to the most interesting ones.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    I think you are simply expecting too much from the website.

    It’s like going to a local footwear store at the mall and complaining that there aren’t any windshield wipers being sold (“and I needed to buy some windshield wipers!”).

    Of course it isn’t going to tackle the intellectual issues in depth. That’s what the FAIR website is for.

    You can’t be all things to all people.

  • Nitsav

    TT, maybe you should check out the interview here, if you haven’t.
    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Mormon-Scholars-Testify.html

    This is particularly relevant, from Dan Peterson.
    “The argument [ of this website] isn’t “Smart people believe in Mormonism, so you should, too.” I’m not that stupid, I hope. But there is an implicit argument, for those inclined to consider Mormonism with at least some minimal degree of open-mindedness, to the effect that, if you think Mormonism too simple, too shallow, too obviously false to be even worth a moment’s attention, you might want to reconsider your view: Plainly, intelligent and informed people do find it profound, rich, and convincing. ”

    TT:”You seem to be saying that 1) this site does intend to deal with the serious intellectual issues, not merely present the testimonies of “smart people” and 2) that this site does not intend to deal with the serious issues, but only to offer testimonies.”

    Not at all. It’s a question of setting. Am I obligated when asked about something to lay out everything I know about it, my whole intellectual history of wrestling with x? Or can I simply mention my end result? If I mention Hebrew poetry, am I obligated to give a lecture going back to Lowth?

    I’m saying it’s legitimate to say, particularly in a testimony, “I recognize issues x,y, and z, and they don’t trouble me.” You seem to be criticizing these testimonies because they don’t lay out in depth within the testimony itself why x,y, and z are not troubling.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Seth,
    Perhaps you are right that I am expecting too much from the website, and I should have lower expectations from Mormon scholars, but that would make me sad. I’m not sure that your analogy is right though, since I am not asking something from them that they aren’t implicitly offering already. I am asking that they explain how it is that they, as a scholar, can inhabit both the intellectual world and the world of Mormonism. Perhaps a better analogy was that I was often expecting at least Foot Locker, and more often than not got Payless. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of Footlocker-worthy entries, and even some Prada-worthy ones, only that I frequently didn’t get what I was looking for. Everyone seems to think that this is my own shortcoming, and maybe it is, but it is my review afterall!

    Nitsav,
    Thank you for the link. I think that you are right that there is a subtle distinction Peterson makes between “smart people believe and therefore you should too” and “smart people believe and therefore you should reconsider your view.” Where I think that the site at times falls short is actually in the standard that Peterson himself offers, that: “intelligent and informed people do find it profound, rich, and convincing.” I wished that I had seen more examples where the scholars offered a “profound, rich, or convincing” account of Mormonism and their experience. That is the standard that I am holding it to; the standard which I believe the site strives to attain. I don’t think it always reaches that standard.

    I think that what I am asking for has not exactly been understood. I am not asking for a formally argued “defense,” or a rehearsal of apologetic arguments and a rebuttal of concerns. I am definitely not looking for a “book review” or “scholarly journal.” I don’t think, however, that the mere statement of conclusions, as you put it, is sufficient either. If I were to say, “I know as an academic that Jesus never thought of himself as the Son of God, but that doesn’t bother me,” or even,”I know that as a scholar the idea of evolution doesn’t conflict with LDS teaching,” I think that it is perfectly fair for a reader to scratch her head and ask, “why not? Why doesn’t this scholar explain how it is that she can reconcile these ideas?”

    That is, there must be something between a simple assertion of an opinion without any argument, and a scholarly paper. Maybe the way our culture understands what it means to testify doesn’t provide that ground, but if so, I’m afraid that Peterson’s standards of providing a “profound, rich, and convincing” account of one’s Mormonism is not ever going to be found in a testimony. Personally, I do think that a testimony can accommodate such a standard, and as proof I can point to many of the excellent testimonies on MST. An excellent example is Nate Oman, http://mormonscholarstestify.org/656/nathan-b-oman, who gets immediately to the heart of the challenges one faces as a Mormon and a scholar and explains how it is that he deals with them. That is the kind of thing I am looking for, and which I hope to see more of in future testimonies on MST.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    What does expecting less from the website have to do with expecting less from “Mormon scholars?”

    Do you expect the website to provide you with good service at Denny’s too?

    I don’t think the point of the website was to provide an in-depth, blow-by-blow graduate thesis on why Mormonism is intellectually robust. I think it’s a bit odd to expect this of the site.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Seth, it is not clear to me why you think that my expectations that Mormon scholars give a serious account of their intellectual and religious lives on a website about the religious and intellectual lives of those scholars constitutes such a huge category misplacement as shoes/windshield wipers or a website/Denny’s service.

    Maybe you didn’t read down far enough, but I explicitly said: ” there must be something between a simple assertion of an opinion without any argument, and a scholarly paper.”

  • JSLVB

    I have to agree with TT that the whole premise of the site seems to imply (unintentional or inaccurate as it may be) something of a “smart people believe and therefore you can too/or you should reconsider your view” mentality. If it did not, then what is the point of the site promoting the testimony of scholars? If it is enough to simply offer a testimony, why need it be a scholar rather than any other member. If we are to see some value in reading the testimony of a scholar (implied in the title), then is it misguided for someone to expect that intellectual issues should be dealt with in some sort of detail? Of course, the benefits of the site are different for each visitor, but, other arguments aside, the OP was simply stating his opinion that the site failed to meet the expectations that he saw as implied in its presentation. I happen to agree. I find value some value in the site, but it fails to meet my similar expectations.

  • JJ Rousseau

    “Of course it isn’t going to tackle the intellectual issues in depth. That’s what the FAIR website is for.”

    It is?

  • JJ Rousseau

    “Do you expect the website to provide you with good service at Denny’s too?”

    Ummm, has anyone here had good service at Denny’s? What a silly thought.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    No, it just seems that the website was obviously designed to provide a short bio and short testimony. I’m wondering where you think the room is in there to be in-depth about much of anything.

    Rosseau,

    Ideally speaking, yes. Along with FARMS, BYU Studies, etc. Whether it achieves that, you be the judge.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    I wish the site were called “Mormon Academics Testify” and that it didn’t carry the implication that only academics are smart, thoughtful, informed, educated, intellectual, or capable of reasoning. I’m genuinely pleased for those of you who have been able to earn advanced degrees. I think what I feel is envy rather than covetousness, because while I ache for not having had those opportunities, I don’t wish that I had had them and that you hadn’t. But I’m melancholy when I remember that my testimony — despite its being founded, or at least strengthened, by having had to work through specifically intellectual challenges — would not be wanted because I don’t also have the academic credentials to impress readers as seems intended by the site’s founders.

  • http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/author/steve-fleming/ Steve Fleming

    Dan asked for something autobiographical. What would yours look like TT?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Seth,
    To clarify again, I’m not looking for length, but depth. There are several examples that accomplish exactly what I’m looking for. I haven’t asked for something that can’t be done since I point to places where it was done. In many places, it wasn’t.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Ardis,
    I completely agree with you. While i think there is some value in “credentials,” I think they are overemphasized and I wish there were space for other thoughtful contributions.

  • JJ Rousseau

    Ardis,

    Those of us with grad degrees are intimidated by your awesomeness. Therefore, we try to exclude you in order to maintain and protect our pride. :)

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    TT, you and I completely agree? This is a very pleasant first! Thank you.

    JJ, you’ve been drinking from the why-men-hold-the-priesthood-and-women-don’t Kool-aid again. Tsk-tsk.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    “While i think there is some value in “credentials,” I think they are overemphasized and I wish there were space for other thoughtful contributions.”

    Isn’t that exactly what the new social-networking aspect of Mormon.org is supposed to be?

    As for the differing quality of contributions – isn’t this something you should take up with each of the individual scholars?

    “Hey Dan Petersen – I thought your testimonial page here glossed over a lot of important things, and I think you need to revise it.”

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Seth,

    As for the differing quality of contributions – isn’t this something you should take up with each of the individual scholars?

    Or…I could write a review of the website as a whole pointing out some of the things that I see as real strengths, praising the concept, and note that not all live up to the ideals that I think that the site sets forth. I have noted in my review that I found the hours I spent wading through the testimonies frustrating because of the uneven quality, which made the site less useful and hard to read. Had I not committed to read through several testimonies from scholars in all different fields and at different points in their careers, I might have given up early in not finding anything useful being said. If the editors of the site decide to do something about the quality of the entries, that is their business.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    FWIW,
    Peterson’s is an strong example of the kind of thing I’m looking for. He describes why he believes, situates his belief in a larger context of religion, secularism, Christianity, and theism, brings in interesting and relevant quotes from other scholars who have shaped his faith, explains what about the Church teaching and organization he finds compelling and moving, addresses concerns about exclusive truth claims and dry periods, discusses his own struggles and questions, and concludes optimistically. His is a good model for what I think readers will find helpful.

  • g.wesley

    tt,

    i like your new role as media critic (first a movie and then a website).

    so i have reservations about the train of thought in the first two sentences from the mst homepage:

    “One of the unique characteristics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its emphasis on education and scholarship. Studies have shown that among Latter-day Saints (Mormons), higher levels of education are strongly correlated with higher church attendance, and higher levels of devotion.”

    despite these studies and without discounting the experiences of others, i can say that higher levels of education have not had that effect on me personally. quite the opposite.

    this may have something to do with my personality and field of study, but i suspect that others, including a few on the mst site perhaps, feel the same. in which case, i think that a blanket statement on the homepage about there being no conflict between faith and scholarship (at least in the practical terms of church activity) is off putting and discouraging.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    I recognize that there are thoughtful and intelligent people who firmly believe in many other faiths (including secular faiths). So at the very least, the site gets me back to ground zero there.

    But to be completely honest I’m not very interested in the idea that intelligent or thoughtful people find meaning in Mormonism. I already believe that, so I don’t need reminding of that.

    As Ardis pointed out, the credential aspect brings out my leveling instinct, but I recognize the need for some boundaries for inclusion. Also, we amateur folks have plenty of blogs and other outlets to operate in, so that’s not too bad.

    All of this said, I think the site is really cool because it has so many different articulations of expressions of faith, so many different perspectives, reasons, ideas, experiences, etc. to help me see Mormonism from so many different Saints. I like!

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Steve 19,
    Apologies that you got caught up in the spam collector! That is weird.

    Anyway, I was fearing that someone would ask me this question. So scared that I am going to dodge it entirely! It was nice to read your’s though and to get to know you better through it. Thanks for posting it!

  • http://www.lds-law.org Peter

    I didn’t know about this site, and I’m rather grateful that you brought it up. I agree about the organizational shortcomings, although given the challenges, I think the site designers did a reasonable job. But I’ve been quite taken at the breadth of perspectives and topics some of the testimonies reference. Yes, some of them are pretty plain-vanilla, over-the-pulpit testimonies, but others are quite thought-provoking. Even if it needs some work, I think it’s already a very valuable resource.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Peter, that is my view exactly!

  • http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/author/steve-fleming/ Steve Fleming

    I think Dan sees those who send him the statements as doing him a favor so he’s unlikely to do much editing or weeding out. “This testimony is lame, you don’t make the cut” would be awkward in this situation.

    I wonder if FPR is a better forum to deal with the concerns you mention.

  • Kade

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more interested in voices not affiliated with BYU. I don’t know why…I assume the credentials are every bit as impressive, but I guess I expect orthodoxy there.

  • Daniel H

    Thanks for the link, TT. I have to say, this site kind of bugged me too. “How is it that I, trained in the academic profession at one of the finest graduate schools in the country, turned out to be a believer rather than a nonbeliever?” Here’s how: you never grappled with the really difficult issues. At least, it seems that way from your testimony.

    While many of the testimonies are interesting and even touching, the site conveys a sort of smugness – that feeling I get when listening to Richard Dawkins go on and on about how all smart people are atheists.

  • missingboston

    I just discovered MST so I’m a little late to this party. The most striking thing to me about the site is something that I don’t think anybody has mentioned in the comments. More than half of the testimonies are from people who are employed at BYU (i.e. they work for the church). At least for this subgroup, the fact that their religious beliefs are tied up, however indirectly, with their livelihood, has to be considered. It’s at best incomplete to try to argue that academic credentials and stated convictions are the only two criteria at play here. If your pay check comes from the church, then there are powerful incentives to put aside, if not resolve, certain tensions that might otherwise, be unbearably fraught. This particular group of people is among those who have been most rewarded by the church, those who enjoy a certain level of status in the institution and some of whom might even be considered minor celebrities in certain church circles.

    What these scholars report about what they believe and why is of interest, but there’s more to the story than what they may admit to or even consciously understand. Belief is a largely an involuntary response to perceived evidence. I would argue that the evidence that mounts in favor of the church’s truth for someone employed by the church is of a different kind and quality.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    missingboston,

    That is only somewhat insulting. Thanks. Will my testimony count more in September when I am no longer being paid by the Church?

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    Well, of course.

    If you’re starting a website about what Mormon scholars have to say, it seems like starting with a Mormon university would be kind of a no-brainer.

    And have you ever considered that maybe these guys wanted to work for BYU in the first place BECAUSE of the religious angle? This isn’t necessarily an indicator of coercion. Just that they already agreed with the agenda to begin with.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    “If you’re starting a website about what Mormon scholars have to say, it seems like starting with a Mormon university would be kind of a no-brainer.”

    Especially considering the fact that Dan Peterson works at BYU. It is obvious that he would have more people there to ask about contributing.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    I’ve been vaguely hostile to the whole Mormon Scholars Testify project … until reading what missingboston has to say in #35. Geez Louise, who’d a thunk I’d ever feel like championing Dan Peterson? missingboston drives me to that extremity.


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