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Colonization, Conformity, and Contribution, Part I

Colonization, Conformity, and Contribution, Part I February 28, 2007

Many posts at FPR of late have had to do with Kent Jackson’s description of LDS scholarship. At issue is to what extent Latter-day Saints can (or should) engage in a dialogue with the greater world of academia, and to what extent we should let our faith claims dictate our research and conclusions.

This issue has been recently exemplified in a prominent, front-page Daily Universe (BYU’s student-run newspaper) article entitled “Mysteries of Ancient Egyptian Papyri Revealed” (Feb 15, 2007), complete with imposing but poorly produced graphic. The article first describes how BYU/Maxwell Institute uses multispectral imaging to read otherwise illegible texts written on papyri and other materials. It then goes on to describe some of the contents of these texts and notes that many students are participating in the work.

Imagine my horror when the article was emailed to a major ANE mailing list with the following paragraphs included:

[Name removed], a senior from Decatur, Ind., majoring in ancient near
eastern studies, is one of the students involved with this project
and on the Oxyrhynchus collection. [Name removed] said he has learned a
lot about the gospel from his studies.

“In a funny way it has strengthened my testimony of the gospel and
the Book of Mormon especially,” [he] said. “There are over 5,600
manuscripts of the New Testament, not to mention all the apocryphal
writings we are working on now, and none of them contain the New
Testament as we have it today. This shows me personally of the
immense importance of the Book of Mormon. Without it, we would be
lost and confused.”

Put yourself in the place of a non-LDS classical scholar. What do you now think of BYU? Do you want BYU to go anywhere near that material, or anything like it, ever again? Are you going to trust what comes therefrom? Are you going to admit BYU students into your Graduate program? (Sorry, LXXLuthor.) Heck, I’m not sure if I would, even if I were LDS.

Bushman has written that when Eastern journalists started coming out to Utah and writing about Utah to their Eastern audiences, it had two effects: it introduced the outside world to the peculiarities of this landlocked island, and (perhaps more interestingly) it showed Utahns how they were perceived in the outside world. He called this second effect “colonization” of the mind. It appears that, in the context of this article and no doubt many others like it, we no longer need the Eastern journalists, we can do it ourselves, thank you very much.

Now, I realize that this was intended for an LDS audience, but I’m guessing that the only way it made it out of BYU is that someone emailed the article to the prof. in charge of the mailing list, which is standard procedure. Even still, it raises some serious questions about what we’re doing, and more importantly, teaching, at BYU. It’s one thing when our inquiry (“scholarship”) is inwardly focused, but it’s a whole n’other thing altogether when we’re publishing non-LDS materials intended for wider audiences.

Another problem raised by this article is that of BYU’s focus on undergraduate education. Are our undergrads well enough equipped to be as involved as the article makes them appear to be? (Sorry again, LXXLuthor). Isn’t this the type of research that is usually done by Grad students? (I’m not as equipped to answer this with respect to this particular instance, so jump in, NT types!)

It isn’t hard to tell that with thinking such as this BYU is alienating even its non-LDS friends. A similar episode occurred in the 2005 bicentennial conference on Joseph Smith at the Library of Congress, when BYU religion prof. Roger Keller responded to non-LDS prof. Douglas Davies’ paper and asserted that revelation would ensure the Church would grow unlike any other church before it. This response provoked Jan Shipps’ quip that one wonders if LDS scholars “know how to operate in the professional world.” (Deseret Morning News, 21 Jun 2005).

I suspect that BYU has seen this issue, or is at least concerned with it. If you haven’t already noticed, clicking on the link to this recent and once-prominent article gives the following message: “The resource you are looking for is not available. We regret this inconvenience.”

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