“Is this an academic or an evangelistic conference?”

"Is this an academic or an evangelistic conference", asked Douglas Davies in his Welsh lilt, irritation rising in his voice. (Imagine a grumpy Tom Jones.) The end of the Joseph Smith conference was a little interesting, to say the least.

Mr. Butterfield has already posted his reaction to the conference in general. I just want to say something about the tone of the conference.

I really enjoyed myself. Kudos to everyone involved. Highlights belong to Bushman, Givens, Mouw, and Davies.

Things got a little tense at the end, however. Professor Davies had laid out what he thought a World Religion was and showed that in his opinion, no matter how big the church became, it will not qualify. He then suggested that decentralization and de-Americanization would help the church become a World Religion, if indeed that is what it wanted. (“World Religion” being a religion that is not only worldwide, but one that also adapts to a worldwide culture, e.g. Catholicism.)

Roger Keller took this as a criticism of sorts, and proceeded to, in effect, bear testimony of the uniqueness of the LDS church and its authority. In other words, we are the One True Church, and will not change our core doctrine of authoritative leadership.

Davies visibly bristled at this. "If you want World Religion status as a missionary tool, as a badge of credibility, you must play by the rules", he seemed to suggest. I think Keller misunderstood, thinking that it was being suggested that the church should change to suit some ideal model. Davies knows we won’t change and respects that; he just wishes we wouldn’t therefore talk up our World Religion status at the same time.

So Davies asked, "is this an academic or an evangelistic conference?" It was both. Of course it was both. The Church is always evangelizing. So it was brave of the organisers to invite people like Balmer and Davies who they knew, whilst respectful, would not simply tow the line. It got a little hairy there at the end. Academic approaches to Mormonism that involve Mormons are always fraught with anxiety, but all-in-all it worked pretty well.

(Will LDS.org really stream this stuff?)


  1. Rosalynde says:

    Lucky! Wish I had been there–especially at the end! Thanks for your write up. I thought Givens’ paper was quite good, but haven’t seen anything of the others.

  2. I don’t blame Davies for being a bit put off by this. The question is, are Mormons who present at these conferences interested in truly having their religion studied and taken seriously by academics outside the faith, or is this simply another way to spread the gospel?

    If we use it as another way to spread the gospel, then we shouldn’t be surprised that other in academia aren’t going to take us seriously. These conferences will simply be labeled “BYU East” and there won’t be too many more of them.

    While I have no doubt that people like Bushman, Barlow, Flake, and others, are genuinely interested in seeing Mormonism taken seriously as a religious studies topic, the behind-the-scenes politicking at other conferences (Yale comes to mind) certainly suggests that many others in Mormon circles are not. They want the attention, they want the press, they want the big scholarly names, but they want it on their terms. They want to hear about the uniqueness of LDS theology while ignoring the external influences. They want to hear about the genius of Joseph Smith while ignoring the flaws, or any naturalistic approach that might question divine influence. And so on.

  3. I thought that Givens’ paper said very little of substance, though I must admit used a lot of nice, flowery language. I’d substitute Balmer for Givens in my list of interesting presenters.

    I agree with you about Keller. He left a bad taste in my mouth. He mentioned some interesting possibilities for objections to Davies, but he never argued for them or pursued them. He opted instead to drop into fireside mode. That said, Davies’ presentation was pretty incoherent itself. He talked about the fact that Muslims killing each other was evidence that Islam is a “world religion.” Presumably, the fact that Christians have often killed each other (including protestants killing Mormons) is evidence that it is also a “world religion.” But by comparing Mormonism to Christianity as a whole or Islam, Davies is either making a category mistake or equivocating.

    Specifically, Mormonism (meaning, Utah Mormonism or the LDS church) is a religion in the sense that Catholicism is a religion, not in the sense that Islam or Christianity are religions. So either Davies is playing fast and loose with the different senses of the term religion, or he’s talking about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in terms of a class or type of religiosity, which is a category mistakes. Moreover, his rule of thumb about global dissent seemed like undocumented addition to his otherwise reasonable definition of “world religion.”

    For this reason, I’d leave Davies off of my list of interesting presenters. I liked McDermott’s demographic analysis better. Even so, I’m glad that you liked my Tom Jones joke about Davies—it’s not unusual.

    At any rate, I thought that the conference had its moments, but mostly it served to underscore the profound lack of communications skills among academics. Heaven forbid that anyone actually adopt a style of presentation that engages an audience.

  4. Also, Ronan, I should add that a conference highlight for me was getting to meet and talk to you and your BCC associate Karen Hall. It was a real pleasure. Heck, it was even fun meeting a few of the people over at Times and Seasons.

  5. pdmallamo says:

    The Deseret News article listed on the sidebar gives no hint of the dispute between Keller and Davies (beyond the words “tough test” in the headline). Why would Spangler ignore this?

  6. Arturo: if people could gaze for five minutes upon your cheerful, friendly countenance they would learn more about DKL than by reading all the blog comments in the worlds.

    Pd: The Keller-Davies incident was not a full-on fight, so I wouldn’t want to overblow it. Also, it happened right at the end and the DesNews piece is from yesterday (I think?)

    John: “evangelizing” was a minor part of the conference, to be fair. And by inviting Balmer, Davies et. al. they knew they would have dissenters, albeit friendly, respectful ones. So I would look on the positive. It was a great conference.

  7. ronan: if people could gaze for five minutes upon your cheerful, friendly countenance they would learn more about DKL than by reading all the blog comments in the worlds.

    ROTFLMAO. I can tell when I’m being made fun of. Besides, that’s a bit of a threadjack, isn’t it?

  8. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I have to side with AT on this (dang your smiling face Arturo!) Keller’s presentation really left a bad taste in my mouth as well.

    It felt like he misunderstood Davies’ paper, and would have done well to talk about Davies’ distinction between world religion and globally present religion rather than get up and almost offensively bear his testimony in a rather self-aggrandizing way. He started out saying to Davies that he was pretty good about understanding the church, (quite frankly, I really didn’t think Davies’ presentation was off at all–he really did get the church) and therefore his paper was “pretty good” and then launched into a “we’re the one true church” speech that belonged in a “why I believe” fireside, not an academic conference. Ironically, it seemed to be Keller who did not understand Davies’ paper, not Davies who didn’t understand the church.

    Further, when Keller did get around to discussing how the church might “change” to meet its global challenges, his examples were so cosmetic, that it was a bit funny (he foresaw a day when other countries would have their own hymns? newsflash, many already do…) and didn’t reflect the real efforts the church is making to train local leaders, build relationships with governments, launch humanitarian aid efforts, etc.

    All in all, I really did enjoy the conference (I was only there on Saturday) and thought that many of the LDS and non-LDS presenters were gracious and thoughtful. But to end on the note it did made the whole effort seem like we as LDS participants had begged to play with the big kids, then swung, missed, and ran around the bases backwards.

  9. Oh, and Ronan, I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye, but it was a pleasure to meet you. And I’m glad you posted on this topic. I was winding myself up for it, but you are much more diplomatic…must be that English temperment! :o)

  10. Karen: …dang your smiling face Arturo…

    LOL. The world would indeed be a simpler (and perhaps better) place if I just had horns.

    One thing occurred to me that hasn’t been mentioned. Namely, the last question in the session about Davies’ paper (and thus the last session of the conference) asked whether there is a difference between cultural and doctrinal changes in the church. Keller made a rather heavy-handed response to the effect that changes in the church are driven by the Lord and not by culture. The moderator (did anyone else find it odd that the people who moderated were referred to in the program and throughout the symposium as “presiding over” the session?) then ended the conference, saying that’s all the time they had. This end to the discussion was so abrupt and unnatural that the audience laughed—not a chuckle, but a good laugh.

  11. I don’t know Keller at all (a religion prof at BYU who teaches comparative religion), but here is a short summary of his remarks at a FAIR conference a couple of years ago, under the headline “Intellectual Defense of the Faith.” Quote: In sharing the gospel, “one has to work from a position of proclamation,” he said.

  12. This post and discussion are great, but really amount to nothing more than a tease.

    I’d love it if some of the other attendees would post further substantive thoughts on what took place at the conference.

  13. For whatever it’s worth, Roger Keller is a former Protestant minister who joined the Church and fairly quickly thereafter went to work in the CES.

    I watched much of Friday online. I thought the first session was superb, with an insightful perspective from Richard Bushman exploring different ways of doing a history of JS and suggesting that fruitful history would have to break out of the traditonal fraud or saint molds. Two respondents were non-LDS and had interesting things to say. I was particularly struck by Richard Hughes’ comparison of JS and Alexander Campbell in which he called Campbell’s approach inspired by the Enlightenment but identified JS as a Romantic.

    I didn’t see as much of Friday afternoon, although my overall impression was that Davies could have asked that question about that session as well. The noticeable exception was Margaret Barker as respondent. Briefly, she is an independent OT researcher and lay Methodist minister from England, who has produced a huge amount of work trying to adduce what the real religion of ancient Israel was and suggesting that Christianity had connections with this more ancient tradition that was erased from the Bible by the Deuteronomist and post-exilic rabbis. Mormons are fascinated by her work because it parallels LDS teaching in many fascinating points. However, her research also presupposes the most liberal documentary hypothesis reading of the OT so she made for a very strange combination with the other three presenters, all LDS men whose presentations were fairly orthodox and quite apologist.

  14. FWIW, Keller has an M.Div from Princeton and a PhD from Duke. That, more than anything, makes him much less of a CES guy regardless of how long he taught in it.

  15. Keller’s history in the Church is interesting. His bio, as I remember him telling it in one of his classes about 10 years ago, had him initially joining the Church as a young man, I believe while in the military. He then drifted away, at some point formally leaving the Church. Later, he had a sort of spiritual awakening, though outside of the Church, at which time he became a minister in a Protestant church. He did much ecumenical outreach as a Protestant minister, and was friendly to his former co-religionists the Mormons. In that capacity, he re-examined his old Church and gained a testimony, and was re-baptised.

  16. I’m sure Dr. Keller is an excellent teacher and a good man, and his talk would have been very inspiring at an LDS audience fireside type event. However, I just don’t think the tone was appropriate for the venue. I think we can engage in academic discussions without compromising our religious values. There is nothing sinful about diplomacy.

  17. My guess is that Dr. Keller was invited to the conference because of his work in interfaith relations. He’s a member of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable and has done a lot for the Church by keeping up an open dialogue with leaders of other religions present in Utah. He’s usually pretty tactful, but open. Don’t know what happened at the conference. Maybe he just had a bad day or Davies rubbed him wrong for some reason.

  18. danithew says:

    First, let me say that I think BCC: is a great blog. Second, I just want to say that I’m surprised that BCC: (as a group blog) can go for days without a new post. Whasupwiddat?

  19. dan, it’s tough out there. Be prepared for new posts soon that will shock and amazed.

  20. er, amaze.

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve, I think danithew should be forever banned from BCC for insulting the esteemed permabloggers! Off with his head!

    Aaron B

  22. Not to gang up on bcc, but I am more offended by the wedding invitations in the sidebar than the lack of posting. Who cares?

  23. Greg, again I must explain: the sidebar is automatically generated by scanning new articles with mormons.

  24. Steve: yeah, I’m saying that’s a bad thing.

  25. Mark B. says:

    I don’t know if it’s a “bad” thing–it’s almost as interesting as reading the obituaries. On the other hand, it does detract from the general level of high-mindedness that permeates this blog.

  26. “high-mindedness that permeates this blog”


  27. I assume that Thursday evening everyone will log on to lds.org to watch the video of the entire LoC conference (including the above-mentioned exchange between Bros. Davies and Keller) which will be followed by profound, insightful, and totally high-minded comments on the substance of the LoC conference presentations, in contrast to say, I don’t know, the BCC sidebar!?!

  28. That really takes the cake, Greg, complaining about the occasional LDS temple wedding announcement on BCC’s syndicated news sideblog when T&S continues to post links to the most inane and irrelevant stories in its own “Notes From All Over” sideblog.

    As we speak, “Notes From All Over” includes, among others, links to stories on Darth Vader’s comments on Mother’s Day; on Jesus-rock bands touring in Islamic countries; on how to stand in line for Star Wars tickets; and on the mental health benefits of parenthood. ‘nuf said.

  29. Don’t dis the sidebar people. I was excited to see the headlines picked up a story from the BYU-Idaho scroll about a book my friend just published. Why the headlines picked up that story, I’m not sure. Just as I’m not sure why BYU-Idaho wrote a story about it in the first place. But it’s still cool.

  30. Dave,
    I am shocked at your closemindedness. If Darth can take time to ponder the role his Mom played in his life, surely we can do the same. Imagine the possible results.

  31. danithew says:

    Heh … I left my little comment here and then completely forgot about it. I come back and Aaron Brown is suggesting “off with my head.” Why that little punk! If he didn’t share such great missionary stories, well I’d … um … :)

  32. Dave: Believe me, I complain (too quietly, I guess) about the T&S sidebar too. But I think there is a difference between a link that Kaimi or Danithew think is funny, and a generated link, selected by nobody, that nobody thinks is interesting (except for maybe Mark B.)

  33. Greg you naysayer. At least our sidebar requires no input on our behalf — we can blame the newsbot. What’s T&S’s excuse?

  34. danithew says:

    OK … just how big a slam is Greg’s comment on me? Do I need to change what I post in the T&S sidebar?

  35. danithew says:

    And then I read higher to see that Dave thinks the sidebar links are “inane” … I guess I’ll need to make sure that any link I add in the future is completely profound and intellectually stimulating.

  36. Danithew: Sorry, I didn’t mean to slam you at all. I do wish our sidebar was more Mormon-centric, but I’m not criticizing your links in particular (I posted a link to the google maps beta myself!). If you find something interesting enough to post a link, there’s a good chance that a lot of other people out there will too.

  37. Kristine says:

    Danithew–please, please don’t quit posting the stuff you do. If it weren’t for you, we could just have a link to the National Review Online and be done with it. Ugh!!

  38. danithew says:

    I’ve also sometimes thought that perhaps the sidebar ought to be more Mormon-centric. At the same time I enjoy a wide variety of different links and haven’t had the discipline to keep it all LDS. As anyone who pays regular attention could tell you — I like pictures of birds, Torah portions and all kinds of other not-so-regular-or-weekly features. I’m sure it feels pretty random sometimes.

    I’m always willing to listen to guidance from the permabloggers at T&S. Sometimes I wondered if my link-posting privileges might get revoked anyway. Anyone who has thoughts on the matter — just say the word here or send me an email. I’m happy to listen to feedback (negative or positive).

    BTW, I made a little snarky crack about best-of-NR links on one of those-posts-that-disappear-at-T&S and if I might say so, I haven’t seen nearly so many as there used to be. I think there are some others who are receptive to feedback as well. And (note to Kaimi) if there is any feeling at all that I abuse my link-posting privileges, you can revoke my privileges and I won’t be offended — though I wouldn’t mind a heads up.

    Lastly, for you New Yorkers, my wife and I might have gotten news that we have our NYC apartment. We’re hoping this phone tip we got today will turn into something official in the next couple of business days.

  39. Danithew, I have no real beef with the T&S feature “Notes From All Over,” which does, after all, suggest links to posts and stories from all over. Sure, it would be nice to get a few more links to deserving posts around the Bloggernacle as a whole (the primary fan base for T&S, after all), but you go with what works for you.

    As for the LDS news feed on the BCC sidebar, I will continue to defend the fact that local news stories, including wedding announcements, appear on the wire. It is said that all politics is local. Most religion is, too, and the journalistic focus on big news stories (NYT thinking) does a good job of missing the role of religion in the life of the average citizen. So I would actually argue that including local news stories in the sidebar gives a better overall “window” into contemporary religious life than just big-issue religion stories. FWIW, the Ensign runs local pieces all the time. It’s their preferred mode of reporting, I think, allowing them to avoid any discussion of big issues while making everyone feel good about being a smiling, righteous, service-oriented Mormon.

  40. Dave: A stirring defense, but it still doesn’t justify random wedding announcements. Those aren’t even on the “news” pages of local newspapers.

  41. Greg, are you offering to help us out with this?

    If not, I have some choice acronyms to use, involving the letters S T F and U.

  42. Good point, Steve.

  43. As a commenter and reader (and NOT a blogger), I would like to state that I *like* inane, random sidebar links. They help provide important giggle breaks from work. Don’t change a thing!

  44. take that, Greg! (*razzberry*)

  45. Keep your spittle to yourself Steve! I’m with Janey, which is why I wrote “If you find something interesting enough to post a link, there’s a good chance that a lot of other people out there will too.”

  46. Miranda PJ says:

    Marriages, side bar links, and razzberies? It disappoints me that this is the best discussion we could generate about the Joseph Smith Conference. Is it because we’re out of our league here? or do we prefer to just pretend as though we’re serious? Threads that discuss Fawn Brodie rack up hundreds of comments. Everyone has an opinion about her. But a thoughtful post about the recent Joseph Smith Symposium prompts enough serious respondants to count on one hand, even if we count Arturo and his sh– eating grin just for argument’s sake.

    I have an image of the Senate Judiciary Committee opting to discuss the last episode of Desparate Housewives instead of Bush’s dreadful judicial nominees.

    What’s your next move, Steve. Are you going to accuse me of trying to threadjack again?

  47. You’re offering a “where’s the beef?” criticism, PJ, but you don’t seem to be offering any beef yourself. What substantive topic from the conference (that would be new to this forum) did you want to talk about?

    There’s a difference between talking about JS and talking about the recent JS conference. As for the conference itself, I think the biggest story really is Davies’ remark: Is this an academic or an evangelistic conference? And that’s what we’ve talked about here. That issue hovers over every one of those pseudo-academic religion-themed conferences at BYU; it is the right question to debate about this conference.

    If you simply must have JS bio talk, come read my recent post at DMI.

  48. Miranda PJ says:

    “You’re offering a “where’s the beef?” criticism, PJ, but you don’t seem to be offering any beef yourself.” I love the way you start your comment by re-characterizing my remarks to suit your own assumptions.

    My “beef” is not with discussing Davis. I followed this thread with interest, because I long to find out more about the conference. I finally spoke up after more than half the comments, all of the comments from 18 to 45 concerned nothing related to Joseph Smith, Mormonism, or the Great Basin Kingdom. But thanks for plugging your blog just the same.

  49. I watched the Joseph Smith conference from Australia an all nighter and paid for it the next few days (fell asleep everywhere). It was interesting to see and hear Barker, someone I have regularly hearing LDS sound off praises about. I was interested in hearing Mouw’s response. Here was a man, who is President of Fuller Seminary, a seminary with some clout in Evangelical circles being chummy and polite to the audience. He is in hot water over his comments about Millets book which Holding gives an interesting review of http://www.tektonics.org/books/diffjesrvw.html A Millet’s Tale

  50. noel00, I thought that Barker’s remarks were the most fascinating of the entire conference. Unfortunately, I don’t have the credentials or the background to argue for or against their legitimacy. There are many here, however, who do. I’d be quite interested in hearing them discuss her arguments.

    Miranda PJ, my dietary habits and oral hygiene are much better than you imply. Even so, I don’t know what you think of Bob Caswell, but you may be interested in knowing that, according to him, I am indeed out of my league. You needn’t show any deference to me for the sake of your “argument.”

  51. Just finished listening to the initial session of the conference, the one considering Smith in his context. First, it seemed to me that Grant Underwood was auditioning for General Authority. Note the diction, the magesterial tone, and the selective quotes from eminent historians that remind us of the imperfections of history. His invocations imply that much of this talk of positioning Smith in his 19th century context is methodologically weak, and suffers from “parallelomania.” (I wonder what people at FARMS would think of that assessment.) Also, I was struck by just how atheoretical and particularistic the discipline of history is. An anthropologist or sociologist would have been a nice addition to the panel.


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