Why I Laud the Maxwell Institute’s Direction

Why I Laud the Maxwell Institute’s Direction June 25, 2012

I have nothing against Daniel Peterson, and I’m not a fan of John Dehlin. I’m not interested in the so-called “hit piece” that the Mormon Studies Review was supposed to publish, nor do I really care about who leaked what Maxwell Institute emails (for a chronology of sorts, see here). However, I am quite embarrassed by this whole event, and these feelings of embarrassment bring to the fore long-standing feelings of embarrassment that I’ve had about FARMS and its association with BYU.

The Maxwell Institute is involved in things other than the Mormon Studies Review/FARMS Review of Books (although they seriously need to update their website to explain the different things they have going on). There is the Center for the Preservation for Ancient Religious Texts, the Middle Eastern Text Initiative, Richard Bushman’s Summer Seminar, and the Nibley Fellowship Program, to name a few. These initiatives are top notch programs that have raised awareness of BYU’s capabilities in the academic field of religious studies (broadly conceived).

Contrary to this, aspects of FARMS have detracted from BYU’s status. Three of the most problematic aspects are as follows:

1) Many of the “opponents” FARMS engages are irrelevant to the larger field of religious studies. They tend to be evangelicals, disaffected LDS, or others with an axe to grind. While these individuals may make relevant arguments, they are not the primary audiences an academic institution should be engaging. If the Maxwell Institute is serious about developing religious scholarship, it needs to continue to move toward broader engagement with scholars involved in other discourses.

2) The violent rhetoric. Part of this is due to the “opponents” FARMS has chosen to debate, but it’s quite clear that many involved with FARMS see themselves at “war” with the “enemies” of the Church. This isn’t to say that the Church does not have its enemies, but rather that this kind of posturing has no place in an academic institution. (Which also isn’t to say that other organizations, such as FAIR, should not engage these “enemies”.)

3) Some of those involved with FARMS have no training in religious studies (broadly conceived) or Mormon studies (more specifically). Even Peterson, who fits the first criteria, does not fit the second. While this shouldn’t exclude him from making significant contributions, I find it odd that the editor of a journal called Mormon Studies Review is a trained Islamicist.

The bottom line, at least for me, is that I support a (continued) movement toward work done at BYU that establishes BYU’s capabilities in the field of religious studies. This need not mean that BYU should not be involved in apologetics, or that the Maxwell Institute should be a place where only academics talk to other academics. Rather, the context in which these discussions take place needs to change to reflect BYU’s commitment to engage the broader scholarship on religion in a way that measures up to academic standards.

As far as Mormon Studies Review is concerned, this may entail cutting it loose since I think it will always be tied to a particular tradition of (violent) apologetics. And while this does not justify firing Peterson via email, I laud Gerald Bradford for making the difficult choices to continue to move the Maxwell Institute in a more respectable direction.

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