“Orthodox Intellectualism” and the “Anti-Contention” Tradition

The latest issue of Sunstone magazine contains the most interesting article to grace its pages in some time. Entitled “Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy,” its author, John-Charles Duffy, argues that the “orthodox intellectuals” of Mormonism, while defending the faith and sparring with its critics, are simultaneously expanding the scope of Mormon orthodoxy in beneficial ways. Duffy contrasts “orthodox intellectuals” such as Stephen Robinson and the FARMS authors with “hard-liners” (orthodox non-intellectuals?) like Joseph Fielding McConkie. Orthodox intellectuals sometimes accommodate the wisdom of the world into their religious views and strive to square LDS understandings with secular knowledge, all the while maintaining certain boundaries so as not to become “liberal” Mormons or “revisionists.” Hard-liners reject such a project, believing it to be misguided, and perhaps even harmful. Duffy concludes:

“I do not anticipate that orthodox intellectuals will persuade mainstream academics to take LDS faith claims seriously, nor do I anticiate that they will convince mainline Christians to stop challenging LDS claims to the Christian label. However, orthodox intellecuals have been remarkably successful at promoting their progressive orthodoxy within the Church.”

How have they done this? Think of the debates about hemispheric vs. limited Book of Mormon geography, greater acceptance of evolutionary biology, modified LDS understandings of Biblical mistranscription (“it’s really just about the canon”), etc. If this reminds anyone of Kaimi Wenger’s “Elite Religion and Common Religion” thread at T&S, it should. Although the theses are different, many of the same themes and specific examples are present in both.

I really liked this article. It squared with many of my own observations about Mormon apologetics. Not that I wouldn’t quibble with a few things: I don’t share Duffy’s a priori rejection of Book of Mormon historicity (not that this matters to his thesis). Also, I feel like overt psychoanalysis of academic motives belongs on Oprah Winfrey, rather than in a magazine article. Nevertheless, the broad claims of the article resonated with me. (Footnote 201 is one of my dead horses!)

This could serve as a springboard for a lot of issues, but here’s the one for today: Duffy talks about the “anti-intellectual” tradition within Mormonism (which he rejects) and the “anti-contention” tradition (with which he sympathisizes). He thinks that on balance, the effect of orthodox intellectualism on Mormonism is positive, but in its vitriolic FARMS manifestation, it has had to “develop an apologia for apologetics itself.” That is, the FARMS authors have needed to justify the scathing, sarcastic, polemical (insert lots of other adjectives here) quality of their rhetoric, in light of various scriptural, prophetic and apostolic admonitions ostensibly opposed to their project (but not universally so), and this hasn’t been an easy row for them to how. Duffy thinks the scriptural grounds for jettisoning the anti-contention tradition in Mormonism are somewhat problematic, though perhaps not insurmountable.

I must confess that I personally am not as sympathetic to the anti-contention tradition as Duffy. I like rhetorical fireworks more than most people. I really enjoy reading the FARMS Review for this reason alone. I like to pick verbal fights. I don’t necessarily wear that as a badge of honor; it is merely an empirical observation about myself (which other Bloggernaclites occasionally get to see on display). But at the same time, I think Duffy has a point; there is no denying the scriptural and prophetic injunction against “contention.”

So what should we make of this? Is “contention” a bad thing that becomes a necessary evil only in certain contexts (be that a context of “defending the faith,” or any other)? Or is “contention” sometimes bad, but sometimes an unqualified good? Or is the problem that “contention” lacks a precise definition, whose parameters haven’t been thoroughly explored, and typical rhetoric about “avoiding contention” is therefore tired and simplistic?

You tell me.

Aaron B


  1. Kristine says:

    Aaron–I think your final questions are interesting. I’m not sure there’s a bright line between argument and contention–scholarship *requires* argument, which should sometimes be impassioned. After all, most people are smarter, more articulate, etc. when they’re pursuing some truth that matters to them (even if they’re too po-mo to admit that’s what they’re doing). It seems inevitable that good scholarly rhetoric will occasionally be quite warm, or at least pointed, in that delicious, dry, academic way. It’s pretty easy to say that name-calling or insinuating that somebody’s gay are on the other side of some line, but harder to say that, for instance, Peterson’s use of “hatch” constitutes an unjustifiable ad hominem. (It does have a sort of redemptive cleverness!) I think the anti-contention tradition makes us skittish about even arguing, and precludes us from thinking well about what the rules of engagement for argument should be. (“Well, if I’m already arguing and ‘serving the devil,’ I might as well just get out the flamethrower!”)

  2. Aaron: Thanks for the shout out about the article. Frankly, I find the endless tone debates about the FRB tiresome, but I suspect that this is because like Aaron, I enjoy pugnacious writing. Also, I spent two years as a law review editor, some I am used to reading heated discussions in academic journals. That said, I think that it is unfortunate that the tone discussions make it easier for Dave et al to dismiss FARMS out of hand. Of course, I have a vested interest here since I have published in the FRB and I have an article coming out in the next issue. (Note the unsubtle self-promotion.)

  3. Correction: I do distinguish between FARMS and FRB, and of course the practices referred to vary from writer to writer. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect more of FRB than of “the competition.” No doubt the article coming out next month will set a new standard for civility.

    Speaking of editing . . . FRB has editors, oui? Why don’t they just edit out the personal stuff before publishing?

  4. Here’s my take in general:

    This article, along with a few other experiences, has really helped me appreciate FARMS in a different light. I don’t know if anyone knows, but a few years ago, before I worked for Sunstone, I gave a rather naive presentation at the symposium called, “Why I No Longer Trust FARMS Review of Books.” It was pretty juvenile on the one hand, but on the other hand I’ve always just seen it as a personal story about my faith journey. On my mission, I was huge into FARMS – I loved it. Especially the Review, with all it’s sarcasm and “slam-dunks” on “anti-Mormons.”

    I grew frustrated, however, as I read books like Todd Compton’s and then read the FARMS Review – I felt like FARMS was really off-base and so unnecessarily nasty sometimes. Since that frustration, I’ve come to realize that FARMS and Sunstone are a lot more alike than perhaps either group would care to admit. We both are helping people negotiate tough issues. I think we just appeal to different personality types. Me, the natural skeptic, is much more at home at Sunstone. Others are better off at FARMS. There’s really nothing wrong with either, and they both provide important services.

    Another parallel is that we both have stereotypes that we try and fight. I hate that Sunstone is often viewed as an entity of Church-haters and disaffected members. A few bad apples have soiled our reputation, seemingly forever. The same in many ways is true of FARMS. The phenomenal work they have done on the Book of Mormon has nothing to do with, say, a nasty review by Louis Midgley. Yet they’re all lumped together.

    My take on Dan Peterson is…I don’t know what to make of him. Clearly he isn’t the ogre many make him out to be. It’s not fair to anyone to portray them as either black or white, although I’ll confess I’ve been guilty of it. Actually, Dan Peterson has been most gracious to Dan Wotherspoon, the current editor of Sunstone. He participated in a great roundtable discussion for Sunstone magazine a couple of years ago. The man is obviously a genius. Yet I’ll confess, I’m absolutely baffled sometimes at how he can be SO ruthless online.

    I’d also add, when it comes to Dan Peterson’s so-called “nastiness,” it is a shame that people (myself included, I’m sorry to admit) seem so unwilling to look past or forgive past grievances, when I myself expect that very thing of others. I’ve had my moments online that I wish I could take back. And of course, I just expect everyone to understand and be sympathetic – yet few seem willing to extend the same thing to FARMS.

    That said, I’m still quite troubled by the tone of FARMS from time to time. Dan Peterson’s use of the word “hatch” in the Review was amusing to me. But I really don’t think some FARMers get just how painful their reviews have been to others. If they do get it, they just don’t care. It’s frankly shocking. I’ve spoken to two authors (not excommunicated anti-Mormons, but active membe

  5. I should clarify a statement above, where I say “I’ve spoken with two authors reviewed by FARMS.” I’ve actually spoken with many, many more than two, but these two were particularly hurt and shocked at the FARMS reviews of their work.

    I also agree with Dave, although I’d add that those who do what he describes are limited to a handful of people. In fact, I’d argue that those people aren’t nearly as interested in “truth” or “defending the Church,” as they might claim to be. For them, it’s all about “the game.” They enjoy scoring points against their “opponents” and they get a kick out of “winning the argument.” It has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ or anything like it, and everything to do with satisfying their own insecure needs to beat up on someone. But again, I think this is a fairly small number of people at FARMS – you never see Noel Reynolds, for example, acting like that.

  6. I think that while there are articles that are justly condemned due to tone, that this is typically overstated. Most of the articles in question are from the early 90’s as well. Even some of those perhaps aren’t nearly as bad as we think.

    I recall one thread I was in where I was condemning tone in FRB and was called to task concerning the article in question. I went back and reread it and realized that a lot of the “tone” was more something I brought to the review than what it actually said. i.e. I was assuming the most negative connotation to all analogies or parallels. Read in a different way it really lacked most (but not all) of the tone I attributed to it.

    I wonder if this isn’t true for how many of us read the articles.

    On the other hand some of the sniping does get tedious for readers. And often repetitive as well. It also does do what Dave mentioned and detract from the points being made. For instance I thought Quinn’s MMWV was massively undermined by his asides and sniping at FARMS.

  7. I thought it was a pretty good article, though I also find that he makes people sound much more shrill than they really are. He has several mischaracterizations. Mike Ash, for example, is cited for using mean names, ALL of which are on his “Humor” page, which carries a caveat. Ash never uses those in his articles, and Duffy conveniently ignores the rest of his contribution to LDS thought like his Dialogue articles, his FAIR presentations and articles, the rest of his webpage. From reading Duffy, all you get is that… Mike Ash is mean.

  8. I won’t do your homework for you, anon. There’s what I would call name-calling and misrepresenting the works reviewed in a good percentage of the FRB reviews I bother to read.

    If you avoid those practices in your writing, anon, then the criticism, such as it is, doesn’t apply to you, and you have my encouragement in avoiding that style. But it still colors my evaluation of FRB. You can hardly blame me for basing my opinion of FRB on the reviews they publish. What better source would you suggest?

  9. I’m so long-winded my message got cut-off:

    I’ve spoken to two authors (not excommunicated anti-Mormons, but active members) who have been reviewed by FARMS. One was near tears – I’m not kidding.

    The “nastiness” and sarcasm of FARMS comes because of their personality – much like Aaron, they enjoy mixing it up. I tend to enjoy it too, though I’ve grown a bit weary of the fray lately. But there are people out there who don’t enjoy it, and who aren’t interested in the debate and the polemics. What I wish some at FARMS would understand is, that many will not listen to their reviews if the tone is off-putting. A handful at FARMS always insist that the issues are important, and that they ought to be discussed, not the “tone.” But they just don’t seem to get that some people are so offended by the tone that they never will get to the issues. And that’s a real shame when we’re talking about a group that is seen as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ. If someone reads Davis Bitton’s review of Grant Palmer and sees him calling Palmer names like “obtuse” and asking, “what planet has this guy been living on,” why are we to wonder when they come away with a bad impression of FARMS instead of Grant Palmer? It’s so unnecessary – yet Palmer’s book is deeply flawed and needs a tough review. I hope FARMS tones it down a bit someday – then I think they’ll have more to offer. As it is, I think they deserve to be taken seriously right now and not dismissed as “pseudo-scholars.”

  10. John, thanks for sharing your experience and comments. There’s no question most FARMS types are scholars, the problem is when they write for FRB they feel no obligation to be scholarly. That is, they seem to feel the scholarly code of behavior (no name calling, being honest with evidence and arguments) doesn’t apply when they are reviewing the work of “anti-Mormons.” And to them, just about everyone who isn’t on their team, whether in the Church or not, is an “anti-Mormon.”

    Once you figure that out, it’s hard to give any FRB review much credence. Their rhetoric works against them.

  11. Lyle: Last week I read an article in Washington & Lee that claimed that another scholars argument was so stupid that people would think that the author was attacking a straw man if it wasn’t for the fact that the article had actually been published. (In Columbia law review no less. It is probably one of the dozen or so most important articles in the philosophy of contract law in the last 20 years.)

  12. MMWV was also undermined by its general theoretical incoherence. Lots of cool sources and stories though…

  13. Aaron Brown says:

    Nate, if you really were inclined to self-promote, you could casually drop reference to Footnote 80 in the article, which is a reference to your prior FRB publication. (But I’ll just do it for you…)

    Dave, you asked “Why don’t they just edit out the personal stuff before publishing?” This seems to imply that finding the objective dividing line between what is scholarly and what is “personal stuff” is an easy task. I’m not so sure. Again, very specific examples would be more interesting to discuss than generalities.

    Aaron B

  14. nate: when was the last time any really ‘juicy’ argument lit up the pages of a law review. those days are in your tired musty back-issues i feare.

  15. Aaron Brown says:

    P.S. I’d also be interested in hearing from John Hatch on Duffy’s take on Dan Peterson’s take on Hatch (see FN 39 of the first Sidebar) and Kaimi Wenger reaction to the article’s characterization of Peterson’s argumentative style, given Kaimi’s semi-recent sparring with Peterson over at T&S. :)

    Aaron B

  16. Yes, but he cites me as an example of orthodox anti-intellectualism… ;->

  17. Yes, I agree Nate. What made it worse was that it was a second edition and a lot on the general topic had been published since the first edition. Instead of tightening up the focus he actually did the opposite. The section on kabbalah was particularly egregious.

    What’s odd is that despite its many, many flaws it is a compelling read. Sort of like some of Nibley’s bad stuff. Its bad, you know its bad, but its so interesting nonetheless.

  18. You’re smearing Dave. I have written for the FARMS Review, and I felt the need to be scholarly. Name calling is one thing, and there has been some of that. (Incidentally, pick up Biblical Archaeology Review sometime, and watch the name calling by some other real scholars. It’s not just a FARMS thing.) However, I haven’t seen a review where “being honest to evidence and arguments” takes a back seat to “winning the game.” I’d challenge you to demonstrate that such is the case among the majority of FRB articles. Just how many of them have you read?