Keeping up with fashion in editorial matters

Scholarly controversies, like sartorial fashions, have a way of becoming quickly passe, as I am reminded by a group of articles which Dialogue has posted on the e-Papers section of Dialogue Paperless. I am thinking particularly of the three articles posted there on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, which you can view if you like by going to and following the icons. We have had zero comments on these three articles, indicative of a general indifference to the topic. I would be interested to know how readers of this blog would vote if they were on an editorial board making a decision whether to publish a piece on chiasmus.

Chiasmus, a literary device akin to rhyme, alliteration, and stanzaic structure, is thought to have been consciously used by Old Testament authors. Its appearance in the Book of Mormon is therefore seen by many as evidence that the Book of Mormon is indeed the translation of an ancient record. There is an extensive literature on intentional chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, both positive and negative, most of it decades-old.

Dedicated scholars remain interested in the subject. Mormon readers generally are not. It has had its day. I recognize that, as far as keeping up subscriptions is concerned, Dialogue should publish on issues currently in fashion. So my question is whether Dialogue is shooting itself in the foot by publishing new articles on old topics.

I will add that I have found the authors on both sides of the chiasmus controversy to be gentlemanly and fair in their approach. On the side favoring intentional chiasmus in the Book of Mormon are a pair of authors, Boyd F. and W. Farrell Edwards. They are son and father, professors of physics at public universities who have a close connection with FARMS. As such they are apologists in the best sense of the word. They write to sustain the faith, but they do so with objectivity and a uniform politeness. FARMS writers are sometimes accused of scorn and argumentum ad hominem in their rebuttals. I for one have found FARMS scholars to be entirely professional, and I am happy to avail myself of their services as referees from time to time.

From my perspective as editor of Dialogue, both apologists and critics are essential to the health of Mormonism. The apologists give an intellectual foundation to the faith. Without them, Utah Mormonism would transform into something like the Community of Christ, which has replaced the RLDS tradition with a creed having no further need of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. But the critics are essential too. Without them, the Utah church would retreat even further from an accommodation with modern science and thought.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    “I would be interested to know how readers of this blog would vote if they were on an editorial board making a decision whether to publish a piece on chiasmus.”

    If the thesis were: here is a chiasmus in the Book of Mormon therefore the BoM is what Joseph Smith claimed it was, I would vote NO. I think efforts to ‘prove’ the BoM are a waste of time–you either accept it as historical as a matter of faith, or you don’t.

    If the thesis were: here is a chiasmus in the BoM and its presence indicates that ___ is the focal point of the passage which is important because of ______. Further note that D is paralleled with D’ which is important because it helps us see a connection between the ideas of ____ and _____, then I would vote YES. I wish there were more academic discussion of the BoM that wasn’t part of the historicity slugfest.

  2. Eric Russell says:

    “We have had zero comments on these three articles, indicative of a general indifference to the topic.”

    Possibly, but not necessarily. Topics that require a greater deal of familiarity to discuss generally get less participation and highly polemical topics get more. In fact, sometimes the best articles are well enough argued that there’s really not much to say. The number of people clicking through to the actual article is probably a much better indicator of interest than the number of comments.

  3. I like quantitative analyses in general, being trained as a chemist; so, I found the Edwards’ article interesting. I think the best interest of Dialogue would not be to publish frequently on such a topic regualarly (unless there was a very significant development), but to every couple of years publish a review article summarizing the state of the Chiasmus debate.

    I’m not sure that I know what the zeitgeist of Mormon Studies is or isn’t. But, I think the debate over the date of the first vision is analogous to chiasmus. For so long you had a back and forth and people threw up there arms and stopped caring. Then Quinn throws down (in a very impressive way) and everyone is interested again.

  4. Julie,

    I agree heartily with your wish for Book of Mormon work apart from battles over historicity. Unfortunately, many interpretive frames — including chiasmus — immediately drag historicity into the mix, at least if they are considered with authorial intention in mind.

    If chiasmus is present in the text by coincidence, by modern-day overreaching on the part of literary critics, or as a consequence of awkward writing style, then the conclusions drawn by the kind of analysis you suggest will take us away from authorial intention, not toward it. If, on the other hand, chiasmus is present as a deliberate construction (either by ancient authors or by a Joseph Smith aware of 19th-century discussions of “inverted parallelism”), then discussions of meaning aided by analysis of chiasmus will indeed get us closer to authorial intention. But, I think, it’s easy to see why people focused on authorial intention can’t get to the discussion of the meaning of the text without getting sidetracked into historicity debates.

    To me, the resolution is obvious: let’s stop worrying so much about authorial intention. We have the text, and we can’t hope to recover original intentions in any case. Instead, let’s read the text, and explore its meaning in light of the various interpretive communities we can project or discover as having offered visions of its meaning. But, well, so many people see the authority of the text as lying in its authorship and not in its message. It makes discourse that closely hews to the text difficult.

    On Levi’s overall question, I can’t really speak. In my experience, a lot of Mormons at the margins of intellectual discourse continue to be strongly interested in chiasmus as evidence regarding the Book of Mormon’s origins, and perhaps by extension the authority of the church. On the other hand, it’s unclear to me how many of these people actually read the ongoing literature on the subject — the green-eggs-and-ham article in Dialogue some years ago may have been among the most popular statements on the topic…

  5. Now, Levi, remember this:

    Just because you’ve not had many comments (or zero) doesn’t mean the papers are not interesting. The best posts around here often have only a few comments; any old crap can bring in 300+.

    Also, if you want to compare like for like, you’d have to post on chiasmus over here. Dialogue Paperless isn’t (yet) part of the cut and thrust of bloggernacle-like conversation. We’re reading the stuff over there (and it’s good! and interesting! and relevant!), but mega-comment participation is a Bloggernacle phenomenon. That’s neither necessarily good or bad.

    Having said all that, I’m personally not that interested in chiasmus any more. You either believe it or you don’t. I think the battle has been fought. Get some articles on gay marriage, or why George Bush is the antichrist. Then you might get some comments. But is that really what you want?

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Levi, as others have said, let me repeat: the number of comments is not an indicator of a posts’s popularity or success. And as Ronan states, I don’t know that Dialogue’s site will be one condusive to the types of extensive debates we often see in the blog world at large — and that’s not necessarily bad.

    Sadly, however, the topic of chiasmus just doesn’t grab me the way it once did. Is there nothing new under the sun?

  7. Julie M. Smith says:


    On the one hand, I understand what you are saying. But, on the other hand, we cannot allow BoM studies to be completely pre-empted by unanswered questions. We can look to Biblical Studies for an example here–no question ever gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run with it. So while not everyone agrees with Markan priority, we can’t hold up redaction criticism for a verdict on priority that will literally never come in. We find articles on Matthew’s use of Mark in the literature even though not everyone accepts the assumptions behind it. That’s just life. I think it behooves the writer to acknowledge that they aren’t building on a 100% firm foundation (“This article assumes Markan priority.” “This article assumes chiasmus as the intention of BoM writers.”), but we shouldn’t cut off their explorations.

  8. I think chiasmus is still relevant because it keeps showing up in apologist discussion and because it has become a fixture of LDS folk doctrine. This, despite the failure of any model for explaining when we should expect any author or text to employ chiasmus. Does absence of chiasmus in a BoM text suggest that section of text is not authentic or ancient? Well, no, chiasmus is supposed to support BoM texts, not critique them. In other words, it’s not really a theory about texts and authors, is it? Then what is it, just a clever way to bear one’s testimony? I have yet to read, for example, even a proposal of a method for discriminating between intentional chiasmus, unconscious use of chiasmus, or simply a scholar’s projection of chiasmus onto text that did not receive it in some form from its author.

    It’s not like a weak theory or unsupported practice gets a free pass after it hangs around for ten years or something. If Dialogue doesn’t continue to publish articles challenging LDS scholars to flesh out the chiasmus theory with something more than anecdotal examples, who will?

  9. Is there nothing new under the sun?

    Sure there is. How about the textual structure of the Doctrine and Covenants?

    D. Lynn Johnson’s arrangements are by far the most compelling I have ever seen, and are often useful for determining the meaning of obscure passages of Scripture.

  10. In general, I don’t mind Dialogue publishing articles on old topics, if there is something fairly new to say about those topics. I did read the chiasmus stuff over the weekend, in the print edition, but frankly, I would have skipped those articles if I hadn’t been on a 7 hour car trip. I just don’t think that the statistical analysis contributed much to the chiasmus discussion. And I don’t find the discussion to be that meaningful anyway. So what if there is chiasmus in the BofM? It doesn’t prove much at all. And I’m not all sure that much that is pointed out as chiasmus was there intentional.

    The thing that I really hate, in Sunstone or Dialogue, is the long retrospectives about the journals themselves. Since both publications have been known to publish somewhat erratically, if you publish an edition that’s dedicated to the history of the publication itself every five years, and then do retrospectives about prominent people who died, it can seem as though you never publish anything new. And I’m a supporter of both publications, but got very sick of the trips down memory lane a few years ago. It’s been much better lately, and I though that this edition of Dialogue was fine, retrospectives and all.

  11. I would be interested in reading about chiasmus found in something OTHER than the Book of Mormon–and maybe something by a non-Mormon. Though Jack Welch has certainly done fine work on the subject, many who followed him started finding chiasmus everywhere–including in ancient Mayan texts, suggesting (surprise) that ancient Mayans were actually the remnants of the Lamanites. My dad, bless his heart, had me read a paper called “Chiasmus in the Popol Vuh” which somebody had submitted to a linguistics conference. The scholarship was so shoddy that Dad didn’t want to compromise himself by reading it, so he had his then teenaged daughter do it. _Dialogue_ has had wonderful non-LDS contributers like Michael Coe in the past. I would be very interested to read what a respected Rabbi would say about chiasmus. Maybe this says more about me than about the subject, but I find myself looking for red flags when a Mormon starts talking about it.

  12. Julie, the concern I have with your analogy is that Markan priority is a fairly widely accepted hypothesis, whereas the intentionality of chiasmus is deeply divisive (among both believers in Book of Mormon historicity and critics, by the way). A better analogy for Markan priority may be the priority of Mosiah in Joseph Smith’s dictation, which is accepted by most commentators, even if a few disagree.

    In situations in which the working hypothesis is profoundly divisive, it’s always going to be hard to get past the working hypothesis to analysis conditional on that hypothesis — unless we can let the authorial intention thing go.

  13. With fashionable stuff, there’s a risk that quantity of material will outstrip quality. Plus, there tends to be a heat surrounding fashionable disputes.

    Unfashionable disputes are, to my mind, often the best kind of disputes. The people still studying them aren’t just following the issue because it’s the latest cool thing. Plus, the passions have cooled.

  14. Julie M. Smith says:

    “I would be interested in reading about chiasmus found in something OTHER than the Book of Mormon–and maybe something by a non-Mormon.”

    Margaret, my experience is that the presence of chiasmus in the Bible is generally accepted among Biblical scholars. They might debate whether a specific text is a chiasmus, but the idea that an OT or NT text might contain one is not normally contested. As for extrabiblical literature, I don’t know.

    J. Nelson-Seawright,

    But we could pick a less-generally-accepted theory of biblical studies than Markan priority–such as anything having to do with Q–and we could find journal articles on everything from Q’s word choice to conflict within Q’s community. My point is that biblical studies does not wait for unanimous verdicts before it starts playing around with the implications of its hypotheses, and I would hope that BoM studies would do the same.

  15. Julie,

    I agree; people should work out the implications of ideas. The point I’m trying to make is that, as long as we care a lot about the author’s intent, those implications will be seen as, and usually presented as, evidence for or against the maintained hypothesis. So we can’t, as you and I would hope, escape direct debate on that point…

    One great example of a book about the Book of Mormon that does, in fact, evade debate on points of historicity is Mark Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah. But the list is very short.

  16. Actually, I wouldn’t be interested in reading about the presence of chiasmus. I already recognize it and acknowledge its existence–throughout the scriptures. I would like something a bit more insightful and intriguing. I just finished teaching a unit on sonnets. The fact that various poets wrote sonnets is one thing; their reasons for choosing the sonnet form for a particular poem is another, and could be very interesting. Unless the poet is just showing off (which usually means the poem isn’t much good), there is something about the subject itself which suggests (even demands) the form. I would like to get beyond the accepted premise that chiasmus exists in the scriptures and go at least one level deeper.

  17. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Mark Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah”

    At the risk of a threadjack, is this worth reading?

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Margaret, you might find that Jack Welch’s Chiasmus in Antiquity is what you’re looking for. Most of the contributors (other than Jack himself) are non-LDS scholars, writing about chiasmus in different ancient literatures. The book was initially published by a prestigious German press.

    On Levi’s question, of course Dialogue was right to publish these pieces. Yes, chiasmus itself is an old issue, but quantitative approaches to determining intentionality of chiasmus–and critiques of such approaches–were not part of the original scholarship and are indeed new and worth consideration.

    For my own (brief) comments on chiasmus, see my “Isaiah Interwoven,” FARMS Review 15/1 at pp. 356-60, here.

  19. Julie, at the risk of the threadjack, yes, very much so. At least some others agree, although definitely not everyone does.

  20. I was interested in the articles even though I am not overly interested in chiasmus anymore (and read them when the first appeared on the paperless side). Just to keep beating the drum, don’t put any weight on the lack of comments. I agree with DKL in #13.

  21. I don’t read articles on chiasmus anymore, unless I’m locked in a room with nothing but a chiasmus article, a box of cereal and the cat’s anti-hairball jelly, and I’ve already read the cereal box and the back of the tube. Proponents of chiasmus twist their “rules” to find examples of it absolutely everywhere — given a journal to publish their findings in, they would detect chiasmus on the back of my cereal box and in the directions for the cat’s medicine.

    Even if all their tortured findings were legitimate, so what?

  22. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Even if all their tortured findings were legitimate, so what?”

    If it is really there (and I agree with you that people s-t-r-e-t-c-h to find it where it isn’t all the time), then it gives us important information about the focal point of the passage.

  23. Julie M. Smith – 22 – You’re right. Studies of chiasmus over the years work harder to demonstrate the cleverness of the modern author than to illuminate the ancient text. It’s been so long since they moved from the structure of distinct verses or stories or sermons (where I can believe chiasmus might have been intended) to random and extended chunks of text, that I had actually forgotten that a focal point was the intention.

  24. I was reading The Cat in the Hat to my daughter today and noticed on page 11 (of the version we have at home) that Dr. Suess used a very large and long chiasm in describing some of the cat’s antics.

    So no, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of stock in chiasmus. It doesn’t prove anything.

    Just my two shekels.

  25. Chiasms aren’t proof in the least. At best they are circumstantial evidence (even ignoring modern occurrences of chiasms). But they certainly do help illuminate the text, especially Alma 36, although clearly some members have gone overboard on them.

  26. David J, You’re a scholar too! :) There was an article in Dialogue a few years ago about chiasmus in Green Eggs and Ham. “by Robert Patterson, “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus, and Other Internal Evidence for Ancient Authorship in ‘Green Eggs and Ham'”

  27. David J: [The presence of chiasmus] doesn’t prove anything.

    Quite right. The presence of chiasmus in the BoM is, at best, circumstantial evidence of antiquity. On the other hand, the absence of chiasmus as such doesn’t mean anything either.

    The debate over chiasmus is part of a larger issue; viz., whether the Book of Mormon has any of the characteristics of an ancient text. If the BoM does have chiasmus, then the answer is yes. If the BoM does not have such characteristics, than one must bark up other trees in order to argue for its antiquity.

    The presence of ancient characteristics is also circumstantial evidence (at best) for BoM antiquity, because one can mimic ancient styles. However, the absence of any ancient characteristics at all would be (in my opinion) very damning evidence against the antiquity of the BoM.

  28. Levi, I will also confess to having little interest in Mormon chiasmus. I did read the Dialogue Paperless articles (I’ve vaguely wondered intermittently how long it would be until the Doctrine and Covenants or Joseph Smith’s diary was found to have chiasmus and how the chiasmatists would respond). I didn’t post a response on the Dialogue website because it didn’t seem worth my time to carefully review the articles enough to comment in a formal way. I personally prefer thorough discussion to the high volume but sloppy interactions that are more common in less formal settings. Given your post, I thought I would offer a response.

    For me the reason I’m not interested in chiasmus is that it doesn’t stand for much except the textual historicity debate, so a) it’s hard to have much to say about chiasmus per se, and b) whatever you do say seems to require a simultaneous and associated stand on historicity. Debates that directly and painfully impinge on passionately held beliefs tend to generate little light and much blood, and though the past-life gladiator in me sometimes feels a twinge of pleasure at the prospect of a fight, these are rare moments which I try not to humor for long.

    Regarding the actual papers in question, the statistical technique is not flawed, but it is seriously misapplied, a classic example of the misuse of “scientific methods” in textual analysis–this temptation is hard to resist, as I, a guilty perpetrator, will admit. We should all develop the courage to admit that statistical methods in textual analysis at best can generate hypotheses rather than proving them.

    Following Margaret’s line, I agree I would enjoy reading a paper in which hidden poetic details shifted the meaning or illuminated an intratextual question. I would also be fascinated by a paper about secret codes using chiasmus or a more interesting poetic form. But picking at the historicity tangle I’m not sure I find particularly interesting intellectually.

    As far as chasing the vagaries of popular taste, please don’t let the high volume, high noise-to-signal ratio of the Blogdom of God have disproportionate weight in your editorial thinking. This is but one venue, one set of readers. Certainly the journal should often if not generally speak to a significant portion of its readership, but if Dialogue Print (or Paperless for that matter) were to digress into another forum for endless often sloppy debates about politics (sexual, economic, and otherwise) would be to lose the gift that Dialogue can give.

    In a similar vein, Dialogue Paperless published another paper on historicity, this time of the JSH narrative, which revisited an old topic. The paper by Michael Quinn was for me primarily interesting when it touched on the social history of charismatic religion in early New York, the flavor of revivals, the energies required to host such an event. I was significantly less interested in the portions devoted to bickering with Wesley and Marquardt over the timing of specific camp meetings, though I’m aware that for certain groups within Mormonism those issues were of vital importance.

    Overall, I think you’re doing a great job with Dialogue and despite my lack of interest in chiasmus, I think it’s still reasonable to publish occasionally papers in that vein, recognizing that they apply to one part of your readership.

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