With the arrival of Salt Press at the Maxwell Institute, we have finally entered an era of “theory” as part of mainstream LDS scripture studies. At the same time, we LDS have not fully processed the moves made in biblical studies. There was a short spurt of LDS feminist criticism in the 1990’s, but this did not engage the scriptures as a primary point of inquiry. Poststructuralism, cultural criticism, and queer studies have had almost no impact on LDS scripture studies.
The dominant way that LDS scripture has been studied over the past few decades in academic contexts has been under the influence of historical criticism. The “Book of Mormon Wars” of the 1990’s were largely fought on well-defined turf from secular and apologetic biblical studies. The question of “historicity” was a dominant question, and the issue of truth hung on this issue.
At the same time that “historicity” came to dominate LDS discussions of scripture, biblical scholars began to seriously question these approaches. Of course, historical critics did not go away, and even in the new theoretical approaches taken over from literary theory, historical questions remained center stage. However, in the 1980’s and 1990’s biblical criticism began to encounter “theory.” This revolution had come a few decades after the theory took over literary studies, but nevertheless it came.
When “theory” hit biblical studies, it came in the form of epistemic shifts from authorial intention to the reader, such as in reader response theory. Reader response theory in biblical studies was actually quite revolutionary in its mainstream acceptance, even if the product was ultimately quite conservative in its results. Poststructuralism and deconstruction had a more minor impact during this period. In the 1990’s, theory morphed into feminist biblical criticism, postcolonialism, cultural studies, and queer studies. Just as theory was in its height in biblical studies, Mormon scholarship about scriptural texts was reflecting a prior generation of debates about historicity of the Bible.
Second, the methodological approach of finding parallels between ancient near eastern culture, the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and modern Mormon practices like the temple has not only failed to advance ground, but actually lost a lot of ground as scholarship has advanced on these questions. The method and evidences put forward have been problematic. Often these comparisons are based on a selective reading and homogenization of the ancient or modern evidence, thrive on inexact appeals to “antiquity” when often crucial centuries separate supporting evidence, or appeal to missing evidence as a condition for the possibility of actual evidence that is simply unknown.
What the future holds remains to be seen. Whether this small subfield can ever be as robust enough to sustain serious poststructuralist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, and other approaches is doubtful in the immediate future. A more up to date Maxwell Institute could regain some intellectual relevancy in the contemporary scene if it can provide support for these enterprises. At the same time, such approaches may be too difficult for the Maxwell Institute to embrace. In any case, the mainstreaming of “theory,” in the various guises such a term encompasses, is certainly a positive direction for the health of the field. Even if it is a few decades late, the blossoming of new approaches is certain to proliferate.