Few, if any, of the voices assessing the stakes of the “shake-up” at the Maxwell Institute (MI) issue from individuals with a vested interest in promoting serious academic study of Mormon scripture. I find this a bit baffling. The only reason to care about what’s happened at the Mormon Studies Review—except for those seriously committed to a certain style of apologetics—is because the MI, as the heir of FARMS, is ostensibly the only place in the academic study of Mormonism that at least claims to give priority to scripture. The “new direction” of the MI, if there is such a thing (and I’m skeptical), is neither to move in a secular direction (apologetics is already, by its very nature, emphatically secular) nor to cast its lot with Mormon history (the sort of apologetics that are being curtailed are, remember, those focused more on history and culture than on scripture). What’s the future of the MI? Scripture, at last.
The recent changes shouldn’t, in fact, be much of a surprise for anyone who has followed developments at the MI for the past several years. The organization expanded the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, now under the title of the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, to address all of uniquely Mormon scripture—in part to see if the work being done on the Joseph Smith Papers couldn’t be turned to profit the close study of the Doctrine and Covenants, as well as in part to encourage study of the Book of Abraham that goes beyond debates about the length of the scrolls. A new journal was launched at the same time, Studies in Antiquity, an explicitly Mormon journal dedicated to study of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Shortly thereafter, the FARMS Review became the Mormon Studies Review, and the aim was, I’ve been led to understand, to produce reviews of serious work on scripture—as much by non-Mormons (think N. T. Wright or Walter Brueggemann) as by Mormons (think Grant Hardy or Mark Lyman Staker).
Is this a new direction? I’m not sure I see how it could be. An expansion? Sure. An increase in rigor? I hope so. A tightening of focus? It appears so to me. A growing recognition that an established academic research institution can leave direct responses to facile criticisms of Mormonism to online venues that have a more immediate impact and wider accessibility? I don’t doubt it. But a new direction? I don’t see that.
You see, people in Mormon studies need to be careful about how they regard the history of FARMS. I share the concern, let’s call it, of many folks in Mormon studies that the sorts of apologetics that have appeared in the FARMS Review and, to a (slightly) lesser extent, the Mormon Studies Review are not only passé and unnecessary but even, often enough, re- rather than progressive. But we should all recognize that the Review has been only a part—and, in my eyes, a rather small part—of FARMS and now of the MI. When I think of FARMS, I don’t think of the Review, but of King Benjamin’s Speech or Isaiah in the Book of Mormon or Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem or An Ancient American Setting; I don’t think of hand-to-hand combat with anti-Mormons, but of the crucial publication of Nibley’s collected works, a dozen or two really important articles on the Book of Mormon over the years, and the efforts to produce a critical text of the dictated Book of Mormon. A hundred years from now, only historians—if anyone—will be revisiting the Review, but much of what FARMS produced will still be important for those doing serious academic work on Mormon scripture. FARMS wasn’t principally the producer of combative apologetics, although it has to be said that it took advantage of popular interest in combative apologetics to draw attention to study of the Book of Mormon. FARMS was a research institution that produced some of the first serious work on the Book of Mormon.
The MI, I can only hope, will continue to foster that sort of serious work, though on all of what Mormons embrace as scripture. I’m thrilled if recent changes mean that that sort of serious work can be expanded to include scriptural theology of the sort I do, simply because I wouldn’t mind an extra outlet or two. And I’m even more thrilled if the same changes mean that people can produce serious study of Mormon scripture without having to say anything about how that study confirms the truth of the gospel, simply because I think fewer and fewer people read about scripture in order to determine whether it’s true or not. But thrills aside, I’m happy just if there continues to be an institution that promotes serious study of scripture.
Now, of course, none of this is to say that I think the same old sort of work should be done, that the MI should just be FARMS redux. Far from it! What’s really promising about changes at the MI over the past several years is the hint that the best kinds of things FARMS produced are to be harbored, while new directions will be pursued and encouraged. There’s only a hint, but as someone fully invested in careful work on scripture, I’m happy to put a megaphone to the lips that have been whispering that hint. Perpetual optimist that I am, I think there’s reason to be rather pleased at what’s been happening for a long time now. Whether it turns into something genuinely productive will likely depend on whether serious scholars send articles (and book proposals?) of real interest to the MI for publication. What have you written on Mormon scripture? On biblical texts from a Mormon perspective? What could you write about the historical backdrop to a particular revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants? What serious work on Mormon scripture could you review in the soon-to-be-revamped Mormon Studies Review?
Of course, I haven’t any idea whether the MI will be genuinely open to the sort of work I’ve been doing—they haven’t been so in the past—nor have I any idea whether they will be genuinely open to anything you’re working on. But they should be. And I think recent developments are, much more than grist for the rumor mill, reason to get thinking about what sort of thinking we haven’t done.