Critical Scholarship and Faith at BYU, Brief Partial Summary and Thoughts

Critical Scholarship and Faith at BYU, Brief Partial Summary and Thoughts August 19, 2016

Jacob wrestles with critical scholarship. Gustav Doré, public domain.
Jacob wrestles with critical scholarship.
Gustav Doré, public domain.

Several weeks ago, the Maxwell Institute’s Studies in the Bible and Antiquity journal sponsored a small non-public conference  at BYU on the topic of “Critical Scholarship and Faith.” If you’re unsure why this is an issue for LDS, read Julie Smith’s post “the next generation’s faith crisis.” I largely agree with her, and was thus quite excited to see this conference happen.

“Critical scholarship,” of course, does not mean scholarship that finds fault or is nit-picky. Its use of “critical” is more along the lines of “critical thinking.” (See my post on critical thinking and BYU here.) The term is shorthand for a vague collection of modern issues, ideas, methods, and conclusions that can seem to (or actually do) undermine faith in scripture and/or God. They are largely things most LDS have never heard about, and that’s a problem.  While scholars talk about “critical scholarship” as shorthand for a variety of issues and methods, it might be better to say, “modern biblical scholarship” which is a) often strongly persuasive, b)based on close readings of the texts themselves, and c) doesn’t always cohere well with some elements of either the broader Judeo-christian tradition or narrower LDS tradition. And we haven’t dealt with it very well yet, if at all, as Mormons.

The afternoon session consisted of three LDS scholars David Seely (BYU), J. Kirby (Phd Catholic University of America), and Phillip Barlow (PhD Harvard, now at Utah State).

The morning session, which I’m focusing on, consisted of three non-LDS scholars talking personally about their own religious traditions conflict and interaction with critical scholarship and faith. Peter Enns (PhD from Harvard, now at Eastern University) represented a Protestant view, Candida Moss (Notre Dame) Catholic, and James Kugel (Harvard) Jewish.

This collection of people and speakers was fantastic. Readers may know that I’ve greatly appreciated the work of Enns and Kugel, so it was fantastic to interact with them in person. I knew Moss’s name, but as she has not written as directly on topics pertaining to Biblical interpretation or related issues of interest to me, I hadn’t read any of her books. Since my wife and I are about to celebrate 17 surprisingly childless years, I have now added Moss’ Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness to my reading list.

Each talk (morning and afternoon sessions) will be published in the MI’s journal in the coming months, so I won’t rehash too much.

Kugel recounted some of the history found in his books, especially the excellent intro material in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. He’s a little bit of a Jewish Richard Bushman, as I describe here. Someone asked him a question about his faith community (he’s an Orthodox Jew), and he replied that “I often feel that,with my views, my faith community consists solely of James Kugel.” 🙂

Moss talked about her experiences teaching at Notre Dame. This was eye-opening; many of my academic LDS friends have “Vatican II” holy envy, wherein the Vatican essentially gave a blessing to critical scholarship and approved translating the Bible into modern vernacular. Moss showed us that Catholicism has still not fully dealt with the ramifications of critical scholarship, Vatican II notwithstanding.

Enns recounted some of the American Protestant history of critical scholarship from the turn of the century, and referred to his own experiences as an Evangelical scholar who was “let go” from a prominent Seminary for publishing a book that was deemed not orthodox enough.

All of these, in some ways, evoked the BYU student and professor experience. In other ways, they differ sharply. One thing was clear. A full confrontation of critical scholarship yet awaits Mormonism. While we may have our own variations to confront, other faith traditions have walked this path before, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from the experiences of others in other faith traditions.  Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve pushed Enns and Kugel is because they offer a model of faithful interaction with critical scholarship. Their answers are not necessarily ours, but they can certainly help. This conference felt like a great first step, and I look forward to further discussions.


If the names above aren’t familiar to you from reading me, let me rehash. These are good scholars to read on the Bible.

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