“You’re a plague and we are the cure.” Agent Smith, The Matrix
Benjamin Park, Ph.D. Cambridge, “teaches history at the University of Missouri,” and is “associate editor for [the new] Mormon Studies Review” (175), a publication of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/). Since the administrators of the Maxwell Institute have selected Park to serve as associate editor for their new flagship publication, his views on Mormon Studies undoubtedly reflect the “new direction” the Institute wishes to pursue in their future publications. As such, Park’s review essay, “The Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Tradition” (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 23 (2014): 167-175), can perhaps serve as a mirror reflecting some of the assumptions undergirding this “new direction.” My purpose here is not to evaluate the merits of his review, but to try to understand the presuppositions and methodological assumptions that Park brings to bear on the Book of Mormon and Mormon studies in general.
Park insists that “the Book of Mormon has mostly received a rather parochial academic framework” (167). Elsewhere he likewise pleads that “scholars of the Book of Mormon should [not] return to the parochial and exceptionalist framework that has so plagued Mormon studies in the past” (174). Alas, he does not tell us what this “parochial and exceptionalist framework” is, nor precisely how it has “plagued” Mormon studies. Equally enigmatically, he informs us that “now that the shackles of Mormon historiography’s exclusive nature have been shed, the real work of contextualization and interpretation can begin” (175). What “shackles”? Again, he does not tell us. All we know is that things have at last changed for the better. Unfortunately, Park’s comments in this vein can be taken as little more than rhetorical posturing, since he neither details what specific “parochial,” things he believes have “plagued” Mormon studies, nor does he footnote specific scholars whose ideas have spread this plague of parochialism.
Let me offer some clarification. Park is using academic code language, which, though it may seem innocuous and opaque to an ordinary reader, nonetheless transmits a set of presuppositions and scholarly agenda to the initiated who share Park’s world-view. It seems patently obvious that Park is referring, at least in part, to the traditional publications of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, and the Maxwell Institute before the regime change that took place two and a half years ago in June 2012. It remains unclear, however, how a scholar, journal or even an institute publishing an article or book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon can somehow “plague” or “shackle” all other scholars in an entire field. Did it really require the institutional dismantling of traditional historicity-based Book of Mormon studies at BYU to somehow free Park and other like-minded scholars from these invisible “shackles”? Apparently. Although again frustratingly vague, I suggest that by “exceptionalism” Park means claims that the Book of Mormon is an ancient revelation from God, rather than an ordinary human text of the early nineteenth century. Instead, Park apparently believes that we should view early Mormonism as unexceptional, in other words, just like everything else in the early nineteenth century.
Rather than studying the Book of Mormon for the “parochial” things it might teach about God, his covenants, ancient revealed religion, or the nature and mission of Jesus Christ, now that the field of Mormon Studies has been unshackled Park can, at last, ask the really important questions like “what does [the Book of Mormon] reveal concerning Joseph Smith’s religious genius?” (167). Thus, clearly, for Park, the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith’s mind, not ancient prophets. If it were an authentic ancient book, it could reveal precisely nothing about “Joseph Smith’s religious genius,” for which we would have to turn to Joseph’s personal teachings, letters, sermons, and other writings—that is, to the publications of the Joseph Smith Papers project. Only if it is a work of pious fiction authored by Joseph Smith can possibly it “reveal … Joseph Smith’s religious genius.”
This underlying assumption is reflected in numerous undocumented assertions he makes throughout his review. Park suggests that “the future for Book of Mormon studies [lies] within the early Americanist field,” (168)—something remotely plausible only if the book is product of the early nineteenth century. (What good, one might ask, would the “Americanist field” be for studying a book composed some 1500 years before the founding of America? What, for example, might Americanists contribute to the study of Beowulf?) Rather than studying the claimed ancient context of the Book of Mormon, Park believes scholars should be “using the Book of Mormon as a crucial text in their broader narrative of American intellectual and social history during the early republic” (168), which, again, is feasible only if the Book of Mormon is a product of “American intellectual and social history during the early republic.”
Here Park conflates the very important and legitimate study of the reception history of the Book of Mormon with its original contextual history. Reception history is the study of how early Mormons and non-Mormons understood and interpreted the Book of Mormon after its publication in 1830, and how those interpretations have changed through time. Despite the shackles that have plagued Mormon studies for so long, such a study has actually been writen by Terryl Givens, and published by Oxford University Press (By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, (Oxford, 2002)). Shackles should be made of sterner stuff. This reception history is indeed a part of “American intellectual and social history.” Contextual history, on the other hand, is the study of the meaning of a book in the cultural, intellectual and religious context in which it was first written. As any student of the Bible knows, reception history and contextual history are two quite different things, and must be carefully distinguished. For example, studying the reception history of the King James translation of the Bible is an important field; but no one believes that understanding how early Englishmen and Americans understood the the King James translation of the Bible can tell us anything about the original meaning of the Bible for the author and audience some 1500 or more years earlier.
Now, unless a Ph.D. from Cambridge has become a grossly debased coin of the realm, I am quite confident that Park is aware of this important distinction. For him, however, it is a distinction without a difference. If the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith in the late 1820s, its contextual history and its reception history are both set in the same “American intellectual and social history during the early republic.” Park’s approach must necessarily reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Otherwise, his numerous statements on the matter are simply incoherent. Thus, as an early nineteenth century document, the Book of Mormon is not an authentic revealed scriptural history of the visit of the risen Christ to a covenant people in America. Rather it is “just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater since the nation’s founding” (169)—a concept he admits “might chop away at Mormonism’s distinctive message” (169). Indeed.
Although often frustratingly vague, Park is never shy about affirming the nineteenth century origins of the Book of Mormon. He advocates “approaching the Book of Mormon as a way to examine an American problem” (171), something that is methodologically reasonable only if the Book of Mormon is an American book. He likewise feels we should use “the linguistic environment [of pseudobiblical literature in early America] order to contextualize the Book of Mormon” (172). Elsewhere he claims that “the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains [of pseudobiblilcal literature]” (173). He praises Shalev for asking “new questions concerning the Book of Mormon’s [early American] linguistic and political context” (173). He likewise lauds the “push to contextualize the Book of Mormon within America’s revelatory heritage” (173). None of these methodological claims make any sense whatsoever unless one assumes that the Book of Mormon is an early nineteenth century book.
Many will no doubt applaud Dr. Park for his forthright presentation of his views on the ahistoricity of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, I find it quite refreshing after the all-to-frequent public obfuscations by many scholars regarding their rather obvious private rejection of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. And, as an associate editor of the new Mormon Studies Review, Park’s approach should help illuminate the intellectual underpinnings of the “new direction” undertaken by the Maxwell Institute administration some two and a half years. I’m delighted the Institute has at last had the courage to take a stand, even if indirectly, by publishing an article that presumes—rather than demonstrates or argues for—the inauthenticity and ahistoricity of LDS scripture.
Perhaps—as BYU’s ongoing institutional acceptance and financial support for the “new direction” of the Maxwell Institute seems to indicate—now is the proper time for more LDS scholars to at last come out of the closet and publicly affirm their belief that the Book of Mormon is not the ancient scripture it claims to be, but is rather an early nineteenth century “pseudobiblical writing,” that should be studied as part of “America’s Political and Intellectual Tradition” (168). If so, I only ask that they do so clearly and unequivocally.
Dan Peterson has made some similar observations at his blog.