The Church has long been governed by a fundamental, basic instinct, to restrict access to sources and to control information and thought that doesn’t match its preferred self-perception as the only true and living church on the face of the earth. That instinct served the institution pretty well for much of its history when information about the faith was not so easy to come by. But we now live in the internet age. And all of that stuff the Church wanted so badly to keep under wraps is but a mouse click away. And all of a sudden that deep-seated instinct to hide the ball is not serving the institution so well anymore. To its credit, the Church has endeavored to adjust to the new reality, with the Joseph Smith Papers Project being perhaps the leading evidence and example of a new approach. But the Church still has work to do to enter fully today’s information age.
Let me give you some fairly random examples of instincts that may have seemed sound in the past but, I would argue, no longer serve the institution well:
- I’ll start with one that’s personal to me. We long have liked to pretend that the JST reflects (in English) a restoration of the original text. There are some instances where that is the case, but those are a small minority of the revisions; for the most part other things are going on. I published an article articulating some of those other considerations that drive JST emendations back in the 80s. I considered my approach completely faithful, so I was dumbfounded when some BYU professors began to consider me the devil incarnate for pointing this out. (My work is now memorialized for all time and eternity in a negative fashion in a footnote to the introduction of the critical edition of the JST manuscripts.) Well, ok. But here’s the thing; the notion that the JST is overwhelmingly a textual restoration is completely indefensible. And by painting my work as somehow anti-Mormon, you’re painting yourself into a corner. Anyone who looks at this issue seriously will discover this. And in my view this doubling down on JST revisions being restorations of original text is completely unnecessary to support a faithful approach.
- In the early 80s I was in the same married student ward as Blake Ostler (he taught Sunday School and I taught Elders Quorum). When his “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source” came out, I recall the heat he took for it. The BYU Religion Department invited him to a lion’s den of a forum to defend his thesis. I was not there, but it was a very hostile crowd. But here’s the thing; I don’t think I know of anyone today who accepts BoM historicity who doesn’t accept his thesis to at least some extent. Trying to argue for historicity without something like this thesis in your hip pocket is almost impossible. The instinct to preserve the Sunday School understanding of what the BoM is was at odds with what is actually defensible.
- For many decades you couldn’t do archival research at the LDS archives without having your notes examined and, more often than not, confiscated. Hugh Nibley and his research assistant came up with a work around: they kept their notes in Spanish written in Greek letters, and so of course their notes were never confiscated. If you’re worried about what Hugh freakin’ Nibley is going to write about the Church, you’re being overly defensive. (Fortunately the archives have been professionalized and this kind of thing has become less of a problem, although access decisions can still be a source of frustration.)
- For decades now publishing in Dialogue or Sunstone has meant an automatic rejection for employment at BYU. But guess where responsible treatments of challenging issues are? Not the Ensign. Signaling that scholarly engagement with difficult issues will not be tolerated means that people who value their employment with the church won’t touch such issues, thus limiting the responsible resources available when troubled students run into these things. I realize to some the Dialogue ban seems like it’s a way of saving and preserving faith, but in my view it accomplishes exactly the opposite.
- For many, many years you could take OT at BYU and not be exposed at all to the Documentary Hypothesis. These days you can be exposed to it in special courses with certain professors, but overall that situation hasn’t changed.
I’m sure you can multiply examples (and I encourage you to do so in the comments).
My point is that the Church’s instincts to try to protect faith by these kinds of actions and policies have turned out (in my view) to be counterproductive. And while I applaud the Church’s efforts to bring its policies into the 21st century, it hasn’t been enough, not by a long shot. We still haven’t quite figured out that these kinds of things are now only a click away, and the way to preserve faith is not to bury them in the back yard but to engage them responsibly.