Symposium Links

Since M* has started posting summaries of this week’s FAIR Conference, I think we should restore balance to the Force by posting links to some of the articles on last week’s Sunstone Symposium. At DMI, I posted links to B’nacle posts discussing the symposium; here, I’ll list the SL Trib articles that discuss some of the more interesting sessions (but I don’t know how long the links will stay active.)

  • Mark Hoffman retrospective – An intense session featuring relatives of some of the bombing victims.
  • A world religion? – Jan Shipps calls Mormonism “a religious tradition,” which she explains is “in a category somewhere between a world religion and a great world religion.”
  • Another angle on the JS story – A non-LDS historian depicts Joseph “as merely an actor in a continually unfolding ecclesiastical drama,” suggesting more attention should be paid to “how rank-and-file believers related to Smith’s teachings to form their own religious understanding.” She referenced an old Arrington and Bitton book, Saints Without Halos, which I happened to have read over Christmas and found very enjoyable for just that reason.
  • LDS reincarnation doctrine – This is a must-read just to use as a “wake ’em up on the back row” Sunday School comment. The keyword is: “soul rebirth.”
  • A new look at 19th-century polygamy – This session, featuring Lowell Bennion, received a lot of media coverage around Utah. He argued that prior research has underestimated the proportion of LDS households that participated in plural marriage. His research (conducted along with Kathryn Daynes of BYU) shows that “in 1870 about 20 percent of men and 40 percent of women in Manti and Brigham City lived in plural households.”


  1. OK, this I don’t get.

    “A Jewish convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Neibaur was an ardent student of the Kabbalah, a body of mystical teachings based on an esoteric reading of Hebrew Scriptures. ”

    What???? We have one article where Neibaur quotes a few Kabbalistic texts as prooftext for the resurrection. It’s completely unclear whether he was quoting an other tract or not. Where does this idea that Neibaur was an ardent student of Kabbalah come from?

    This is a big controversial issue and there’s even less objective evidence for Neibaur as Kabbalistic than there is objective evidence for Nephites in Mexico. Now we tend to give the mesoAmerican geography proponents a break because you have to put a historic Book of Mormon somewhere. But the whole Kabbalistic thing seems overdone by parallels. (i.e. akin to Nibley at his worst) Further most of the arguments for a Joseph / Kabbalah connection (i.e. the exegesis of Gen 1:1 in the KFD) are pretty amazingly weak.

    That’s not to say that later Joseph didn’t encounter the doctrine of the transmigration of the souls. But we know *where* he heard this doctrine. (It’s in the TPJS where he encounters a wandering preacher and debates doctrine with him)

    I’m open to the doctrine of transmigration being entertained in Nauvoo. It certainly was in Utah by people like Heber C. Kimball. But the Kabbalistic bit one really need be careful with.

  2. Just to add, I’m completely open to there being more information since I last looked into this. But from what little I’ve found there is more evidence *against* it, not for it.

    This really seems controversial. I’d love a copy of the paper in question if anyone has a copy.

  3. Clark, I would agree. I attended this session, and it was such a complicated, messy presentation that I left totally unconvinced that Joseph taught anything near reincarnation. It is apparent that a few people did later on, but where they got these ideas is not clear, and cannot be historically substantiated throught the Neibur thesis. It a speculative stretch that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I also am open to more info, which maybe the presenter had, but he didn’t make the case yet.

  4. I’ve never attended a Sunstone Symposium, but my impression is they don’t (or maybe can’t) say no to any presentation, however wacky, if it offers a new dig at the Church. I’m not sure this enhances the overall reputation of the event.

  5. Dave, please tell me you’re joking. If you had any idea of how many things Sunstone turned down (and how goofy some of them are). We’d get requests from anti-Mormons all the time to present, and we routinely turned them down. But I always was able to differentiate between someone wanting to attack the Church for the purposes of helping people leave, and someone who’s life experience might make the Church seem less than flattering. Contrary to the belief of some (and I’m not saying this applies to you, Dave), anti-Mormon isn’t the same as, “you don’t agree with me.”

  6. I remember hearing that Cindy LeFevre’s paper on the Proclamation on the Family was first accepted and then rejected for presentation at the Sunstone West Symposium a few years ago. I don’t know any details.

    Did Martha Beck ask to speak at this year’s symposium and she was turned down or was she simply not invited to participate?

  7. I think what bothered me was how the Trib report just reported the whole thing mater of factly with no critical analysis. Was there no QA afterwards?

  8. John H, your personal familiarity with Sunstone no doubt trumps my personal impression from afar.

  9. Prudence McPrude says:

    John H, your personal familiarity with Sunstone does not trump the revelations I’ve received, telling me that Sunstone and all its fellow-travelers (Dialogue, BCC, T&S, LDS-FAIR, FARMS, etc.) are a Gadianton band of wolves-in-sheeps-clothing, conspiring to import an evil, so-called intellectualism into the Gospel, in an effort to make men more like women, women more like men, and all of God’s children into haters of righteousness.

  10. No, Dave, you’re right. If you have an axe to grind with the Church, Sunstone comes looking for you. If you’ve been excommunicated they’ll beg you to speak. But if you have something to say that puts the Church in any kind of positive light, get in line.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Thank goodness we’ve got “John” here to set us straight, since what would “John H” know? He only worked there. But then, maybe “John” is a mind-reader, a la Fawn Brodie. Maybe he and Prudence will be getting the last laugh at the evil Sunstoners’ expense in the next life.

    Tell me, John, how is Elvis, and have you seen him lately?

    Aaron B

  12. Actually they did have a few more apologists this time. Of course FAIR’s conference is going on now, which is the big apologetic thrust. But Sunstone had Kerry Shirts speak on the Book of Abraham. He’s not an Egyptologist but a hobbyist. But that is a positive step.

    I think the bigger issue from some of the things I’ve seen is more about rigor and argument in speakers. Bias I can handle so long as they make compelling arguments and so forth. Hand waving and loose talk bothers me much more. I’d much rather listen to Dan Vogel, whom I have great philosophical difference with, speak than an apologist with weak arguments and unwarranted assertions.

  13. Aaron Brown says:

    Amen, Clark. My one beef with the Symposium in the past has been the abysmal quality of the presenters. I ended up developing a rule of thumb: Don’t choose which session to attend based on how much you like the topic or the write-up in the preliminary program. Choose your sessions based on the reputation of the speaker, even if the topic isn’t your favorite. You’re more likely to have a meaningful, interesting and thought-provoking experience.

    Aaron B

  14. Aaron Brown says:

    … should have said “abysmal quality of SOME of the presenters.”

  15. It’s interesting that Sunstone is putting a few “apologists” on the program — nice touch. Uh, how many “dissenters” did FAIR put on their program? Just curious.

  16. That’s not a fair comparison, Dave. FAIR clearly presents itself as an apologetic, pro-mormon organization. They have no obligation to present dissenting opinions. Sunstone, on the other hand, does claims not to be anti-mormon, and indeed seeks to appeal to believing mormons (among others). Thus it behooves Sunstone to include faithful mormon perspectives (and to their credit, they try to).

  17. Ed, there’s a difference between un-orthodox, or even non-Mormon, and anti-Mormon. That Sunstone invites pro-orthodoxy apologists in addition to the unorthodox believers that are its core constituency shows a real commitment to pluralism. FAIR, by contrast, obviously has no commitment to pluralism–and some of the reports I’ve heard from this year’s conference throw doubts on its commitment to intellectual seriousness.

  18. “My one beef with the Symposium in the past has been the abysmal quality of the presenters. I ended up developing a rule of thumb: Don’t choose which session to attend based on how much you like the topic or the write-up in the preliminary program.”

    See, here’s a criticism of Sunstone I can get on board with. I left pretty convinced of one significant flaw with the symposium: It’s too long. Trying to fill three days worth of sessions has gotten so that weaker presentations are accepted (though many are still turned away) and good ones are spread thinner. There may have been a time when three days was necessary – what with BYU professors being allowed to speak.

    I think a symposium that starts Thursday night (instead of Wednesday) and goes Friday and Saturday all day would be more than adequate. But in defense of Sunstone, it’s easy to say something like that online – the reality of doing it is enormous. First, when you cut down the days you spend at a hotel with rooms you’ve rented and banquets you’ve planned, you become a less-attractive client to the hotel. You’re no longer a priority, you won’t get the same breaks and discounts on rooms, etc. So Sunstone could theoretically cut the symposium down, thereby having to charge less for admission, but ultimately still have the same expenses – not an easy burden to overcome for a non-profit.

  19. “No, Dave, you’re right. If you have an axe to grind with the Church, Sunstone comes looking for you. If you’ve been excommunicated they’ll beg you to speak. But if you have something to say that puts the Church in any kind of positive light, get in line.”

    Man, when people decide they don’t like something, there’s no getting them to be rational or reasonable, is there. Ah well, it’s to be expected.

  20. fiorentino says:

    Roasted Tomatoes–

    If Sunstone has uneven presentation quality (admitted by several on this thread), it’s no surprise that FAIR does as well. Bad presentations are the fault of the presenter, not of the organization; nor do they reveal an organization-wide lack of commitment to “intellectual seriousness.” Personally, I’m glad Sunstone offers (or at least tries to offer) a variety of perspectives. Since FAIR doesn’t claim to, I don’t hold that against them.

  21. I spoke to Kerry at the FAIR conference, and the many personal reactions he received are quite interesting. He had around 50 people attend his presentation, and many commented to him that they were shocked that ANYONE still defends the Book of Abraham, let alone at the Sunstone symposium.

    From his comments to me (we spoke for 15-20 minutes on the topic), it seems that regardless of the intent of the organizers (which John H. can attest to), Sunstone *tends* to attract those who are disbelieving and looking to reinforce their disbelief or looking for reasons to disbelieve. (Though please remember, all generalizations are false)

    One man spent 10 minutes talking to Kerry about the facsimiles and at the end of the conversation said to him, quite frustrated, “You are making it very hard for me to maintain my disbelief.”

    The FAIR conference has, perhaps ironically, had several presenters who have done nearly identical presentations or articles in Dialogue or Sunstone. The difference is that FAIR is looking to address hard issues with the goal of informing AND, very explicitly, building up, and thus attracts a different crowd.

    I have been informed directly on several occasions that Sunstone is trying to change it’s image, and that their intent is *not* to tear down (ie. from John H. here, from Dan Wotherspoon whom I met at SBL last November, and from a letter to M* from someone involved with Sunstone.) They are limited to publishing and presenting what people bring to them, and I wish them luck in changing how Sunstone is perceived. I know, for example, that Martha Beck was deliberately not invited to present at Sunstone, and I applaud that decision.

  22. danithew says:

    Dave, thanks for posting the links. I haven’t previously had too much interest in Sunstone (or FAIR for that matter) but these posts in BCC and M* have made me realize they have something to offer and are worth paying attention to. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to attending them but I’ll be making sure to read similar reviews and articles about them afterwards.

  23. It might be good to keep in mind that a generation of CES scholars and BYU professors has now been locked out of participation in Sunstone Symposia. How many people would willingly risk their livelihoods in order to participate in a conference anywhere? If the more orthodox practicing scholars simply aren’t allowed to speak, it makes recruiting folks representing their point of view difficult.

    As some of those CES and BYU personnel have retired they’ve come to do presentations at Sunstone, however, and everyone is benefitting from their experience.

    Perhaps the lack of professors/ teachers doing presentations has some influence on the lack of younger scholars attending as well – college kids don’t get to go see their favorite prof speak on her favorite subject very often these days, so they don’t get the exposure their older peers had in the past. And if their professors’ livelihoods are threatened by attendance at symposia, are they likely to speak out if they want to be able to get jobs at BYU or CES? Not likely, so they attend “safe” conferences instead.

  24. If LRC is right, then perhaps it will be difficult for Sunstone Symposium to ever get the cross section they want? There are pretty strong obstacles.

    I’d love there to be a symposium on various LDS topics. But I think that the Sunstone Symposium, by it’s various nature of having diverse topics is problematic. When you have social and political critiques in the same arena as historical or more technical analysis, then the historical become politicized. And that simply becomes problematic for some people. Add in the greying of the Sunstone crowd, the problem of the main audience of Sunstone including people perhaps more critical than average of the church, and those leading Sunstone face an uphill battle.

    I can appreciate their attempt to mainstream it a bit. But I wonder if, on a certain level, it isn’t a lost cause? Perhaps what is needed is simply a new conference?

  25. Clark,

    I think that people should just recognize the power of blogs and start publishing full papers alongside posts here in the Bloggernacle. The audience is built in, intelligent, and hungry for good research and thought in Mormon studies. There are thousands of such people reading around ‘Nacle already. If CES and BYU scholars are nervous (because of their careers) about putting out new stuff then they could put it out under a pen name. It won’t get you a resume stuffer for “getting published” in an offline journal but it will get the work out in the public for consideration.

    I know a scholar that has just such a paper (one that he is nervous about taking credit for but that he thinks is worthy of publishing and consideration by a larger audience). I think I will be able to talk him into anonymously publishing it at my the Thang soon.

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