Author: Ben Huff

I'm a dedicated NPR jazz listener and a philosophy teacher at a small liberal arts college in Virginia. I live in a log cabin outside of town and blog from my classic '99 G3 Mac. I did my PhD at Notre Dame with a dissertation on friendship and its role in the relationship of virtue and happiness, within a eudaimonistic virtue ethics. I was born here in Virginia, and it is becoming home again, though I spent a lot of my growing-up years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Carpinteria, CA. I was an undergraduate at BYU, and my immediate family have all ended up near there, so I visit Utah often.

Mormonism is Romantic, Love It or Hate It

Simon Critchley had a charmingly effusive piece about Mormonism on the NYT Opinionator blog a few days back, “Why I Love Mormonism.” His effusions are not always flattering, or accurate, but he gets some important things right about Mormonism. He sees that much of the appeal of Mormonism is that it is a Romantic faith. That is to say: Mormonism is a reformulation of Christianity that leaves behind many of the more unpalatable features of traditional Christianity, as it has come down to us, and responds to many of the moral and spiritual aspirations of the Romantic movement—aspirations that many of us still share. Of course, Critchley doesn’t exactly spell this out. He says that Mormonism is a heresy “from the same climate as Whitman” and “not so far from romanticism.” Those who know and love Whitman may see his point while the rest of his readers only hear that Mormonism is a “presumptive and delusional creation.” Critchley mentions that for Mormons, God is not unitary and infinite, but doesn’t say what difference that makes. He describes some unusual features of Mormonism at length, but without much explaining what he finds so lovable about them. I’m afraid the effect is mainly to reinforce what so many are already convinced of, that Mormonism is hopelessly outré, or at best, outlandishly entertaining, a bit like the recent musical. So, let me say more about what it means that Mormonism is Romantic. Many…

SMPT at Utah State: Theology of the Book of Mormon

This coming Thursday through Saturday at Utah State University, The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will be holding its 2012 conference, on the theme, “Theology of the Book of Mormon.” There will be over 30 paper and panel presentations, including: “The Promise of Book of Mormon Theology” —Grant Hardy, Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Asheville “Gratia Plena: A Catholic View of Grace in the Book of Mormon” —Peter Huff, Besl Family Chair in Ethics, Religion and Society, Xavier University “Questions at the Veil” —Philip Barlow, Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, Utah State University “The Book of Mormon on ‘The True Church’ and Religious Pluralism” —Charles Randall Paul, President, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy Panel Discussion: “Secular Norms and the Scholarship of Faith” —Terryl Givens, Bostwick Chair of English, University of Richmond —Ralph C. Hancock, Brigham Young University —Daniel C. Peterson, Brigham Young University Also this Thursday evening will be Terryl Givens’ Leonard Arrington Lecture, “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint,” at 7pm in the Logan Tabernacle. Several T&S bloggers or emeriti will be involved in the SMPT conference, including Rosalynde, chairing a panel on Adam’s book, Rube Goldberg Machines, on Saturday afternoon; Adam, giving a paper entitled, “Every Truth is a Work, Every Object is a Covenant,” as well as responding to the panel; Jim Faulconer, chairing a panel on Joe Spencer’s book An Other Testament: On Typology Thursday…

Ecology of Intellectual Culture: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part IV

Intellectual life is a social endeavor, involving both a community of participants and institutions that support their activities. In this post I discuss some of the key elements of the ecosystem that is needed for a flourishing intellectual culture. In my view, these key elements include scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs. At the moment, while Mormon Studies has some version of each of these elements, they are all quite limited and in many cases rather rudimentary. Yet in standard ecological fashion, each of these elements symbiotically depends on the others, and I’ll discuss why. It is an interesting question, then, how to get from our current situation of a few scattered sparks to one of established intellectual vitality. Perhaps the primary components of an intellectual culture are people who think, and thoughts. While thinkers are not necessarily associated with a school, I will call them scholars. While our thoughts may simply take place in our heads, to form part of the culture, they must be expressed and shared. At an informal level, they may be expressed and shared among friends, in informal discussion groups, on blogs, or, say, in Sunday School discussions. In a robust intellectual culture, however, thoughts must take a more robust form, as presentations and publications. Hence an intellectual culture needs conferences and similar fora for presentations, and it needs publishers who are interested in publishing Mormon Studies and capable of both…

SMPT Reminder/Travel Funding/Arrington Lecture Update

The July 16th submission deadline for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2012 Annual Meeting is approaching. The conference will be held at Utah State University, September 20-22, with the theme, “Theology of The Book of Mormon.” For a fuller discussion of the theme and submission information, see the Call for Papers. Some funding is available, on a competitive basis, to defray travel costs for student presenters of up to $650 each, based on the merit of the proposal and the distance traveled. Details on travel awards also appear on the Call for Papers page. Those considering attending may also be interested in another event that weekend in Logan: Terryl L. Givens, “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint” 18th Annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Thursday, September 20th, 7pm Logan Tabernacle, 50 N. Main Street Givens will be speaking on the unique theology of the prophecy of Enoch in the Book of Moses, including its portrayal of Zion and of a God who weeps, and on the crucial role this revelation played in the early development of Joseph’s conceptions of the cosmos, of God, and of his own role as a prophet. The SMPT conference schedule will be arranged to encourage attendance at this event. Abstract and Bio from Arrington Lecture flyer (PDF, 1.8MB): “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint” The prophecy of Enoch exerted an influence on the development of early Mormonism far out of…

Are Book Reviews Scholarship? Explosive Tensions Within the Mormon Studies Review

Perhaps the main problem with the Mormon Studies Review, which led to this awful explosion in the last couple of weeks, can be crystallized by looking at the titles it has held over the years and thinking for a moment about what they mean. At first, it was the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. It then became the FARMS Review of Books, the FARMS Review, and finally, just the Mormon Studies Review, expanding out the “MS” and dropping the “FAR” at the start. That is quite a journey, and expresses a range of personalities whose conflict with one another appears to have finally produced this explosion between Jerry Bradford and Dan Peterson. The scope changed dramatically from just books dealing with the Book of Mormon at first, to all kinds of stuff related to Mormonism at the end. But those changes in scope were pretty straightforward. The complicated part is a matter of genre. The Review started as a publication that specifically did book reviews, and ended up as a publication that invites “substantial freestanding essays that make further contributions to the field of Mormon studies.” And my hunch is that Jerry Bradford would want to emphasize these freestanding essays as the core of the publication going forward, even though they are mentioned second, as an “also” in the current description of the journal on the Maxwell site. But see, book reviews are just a very…

David and Uriah: A Meditation

The most upsetting thing about the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) is not what he did with Bathsheba, bad as that was. That he was intrigued with her is unremarkable, even natural; she was totally hot, after all. Bringing her to the palace is a different story, disgraceful even if he had only sat her down for a chat, since her husband was away at war. Even as a phenomenally successful and revered king, David displayed the priorities of a ten-year-old who’s been hanging out with bad company. I would have said “of an adolescent,” except that apparently David wasn’t much past adolescence when he volunteered to risk his life for the nation of Israel, declining the sword and armor of King Saul, to take on Goliath, the decorated, feared, and enormous champion of the Philistine army, with only a leather strap and five smooth stones. He had come a long way since then. The adultery that came next is the greatest sin next to murder, though in my mind still that next step down to murder is quite a doozy. The most despicable thing is not merely that he ordered Uriah killed, but the way he did it. If you’re going to do something as appalling as murder, you can at least show some decent form. David wasn’t man enough to kill Uriah himself. He didn’t even do him the honor of hiring a hit man.…

Mormons and the American Project: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part III

Fulfilling the promise of the gospel requires embodying it in concrete and active living, in a particular time and place. Since living the gospel is a social matter, this means embodying it in institutions, with design, policies, and practices that reflect and serve gospel ideals. There are particular challenges to doing this in the conditions the church finds itself in today. In this post, I continue developing the themes from Part I and Part II, considering the situation of the church in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international, even global church. Still, its founding, much of its history, and the lives of a very large number of its members, have unfolded in or just outside of the United States. Seeing the radical social implications of the gospel, after founding the church, Joseph Smith quickly laid plans to found cities. The Saints’ efforts to embody their beliefs in the form of a distinctive society in Missouri and Illinois met with such resistance that they were ultimately expelled from the borders of the United States. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, however, they continued the project of building Zion in Deseret, located in what at the time was Mexico. The Saints thus had the opportunity to build their own institutions, not just for the church narrowly understood, but for a complete society, including government, education, and economic life. Since Deseret became part of the United…

Establishing a Christian Nation? Tony Perkins and Military Bibles

An email I received the other day illustrates some of the most pressing questions facing our nation. How can government support individuals and voluntary associations in maintaining the strong moral underpinnings needed for a healthy society, without taking sides in a way that may ultimately be destructive? Simultaneously, how can we keep conflicts over the proper role of government (in this and other respects) from themselves destroying political community? Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently “threatened a class-action lawsuit,” after which “the Pentagon conspicuously revoked approval to use the logo of each service branch on the covers of Bibles sold in military exchange stores. Weinstein (representing MRFF) even insists that all the remaining copies be purged from the store shelves.” So, Bibles were being sold in military stores with official military logos on them. On the one hand, it seems to me dead obvious that the Bible should be available for purchase at military stores, which exist precisely because members of our military are often posted where it is not easy to find things they need through local channels. Perkins makes it sound like Weinstein objects to having the Bible for sale. Whether that is true or not in Weinstein’s heart of hearts, evidently the basis of Weinstein’s objection for public purposes is that the official logos were on these Bibles, not merely that they are Bibles. Perkins continues, “Let’s be…

Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part II: Unfolding the Expansive Message

The gospel is a recipe for world peace. The basis for a just, harmonious, and prosperous society is implicit in the gospel as we discuss and practice it today. It is implicit, but it is a long way from becoming explicit. I made this claim in Part I of this series. In this post I will say more about what I mean by “implicit” and “explicit,” as a way of filling out the expansive content and promise of Mormonism, and the expansive context in which I want to think about its fruition, including its intellectual culture. If all of us loved God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we’d be doing pretty well. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. I think it’s fair to say that everything God wants to teach us is implicit in these two commandments. Without a little more detail, though, we would probably do a pretty bad job of living up to them. Luckily, Jesus keeps teaching. After the Book of Enos, Jarom writes, “what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation?” In a sense, the message was complete with the writings of Nephi, Jacob, and Enos. Yet we still are very glad to have the rest of the Book of Mormon, most of which comes after this. Again, when Christ visits the…

Tragedy, Sorrow, and Serenity: A Response to Rachael Givens

Rachael Givens observes that Mormon theology is full of tragedy, but Mormons themselves don’t seem to be very good at dealing with it. She draws on some of the most distinctive ideas in Mormonism to offer recommendations on how to accept and process tragedy better. I enjoyed her post a lot and offer some thoughts of my own. In part I’ll press on some issues I’m not sure she really resolved, but I also want to expand on what I see in her closing paragraph. Rachael describes tragedy as a situation in which something precious must be lost or given up in the process of securing something else precious, where there is an “irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good,” because both goods cannot be realized. I think she is right that tragedy in this sense is an essential element of Mormon cosmology, and that this role for tragedy is part of what makes Mormonism a radical departure from traditional Christianity. Perhaps the most important tragedy is that in order to develop spiritually and fully partake of the glory of our Father in Heaven, we have to enter a realm of spiritual uncertainty, ignorance and weakness, and exercise moral agency in a context where grave sin is possible. As a result, many of us will depart from the path of salvation, perhaps permanently. This is a deeply non-traditional view in a few ways, and perhaps what is most non-traditional about it…

Seminar on B.H. Roberts’ Seventy’s Course in Theology

Next Wednesday, May 23rd, SMPT is hosting a mini seminar on B.H. Roberts’ Seventy’s Course in Theology, commemorating the centennial of its publication. Jim Faulconer, Blake Ostler, Kent Robson, and Grant Underwood will each lead a session on topics treated in the Seventy’s Course. The event will be held at Utah Valley University, in the Losee Center, room 243, and will run from 10am to 5pm, with a break for lunch. Please visit the SMPT website for more information, including session titles and links to suggested (optional) readings associated with each session.

Randy Bott and the Need For Peer Review

The embarrassing appearance of BYU Professor Randy Bott’s unsavory speculations about race in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago will undoubtedly have led some BYU administrators and perhaps even some members of the Board of Trustees to spend a few moments thinking carefully about the way BYU teaches church doctrine. It is disturbing to find that one of the most popular teachers at BYU has been continuing to teach ugly ideas that were denounced from the highest levels of the church decades ago. Thousands of students have listened to his lectures. This is an institutional failure, not merely a failure in one man’s judgment. There must be some way to keep this sort of thing from happening. BYU functions effectively as an arm of the LDS church. What BYU professors teach in their classrooms is seen, reasonably enough, as carrying a degree of church authority, both within the university and beyond it. It is vital that this authority be used in ways that lead students (and other church members) to truth rather than error. It seems to me the Bott case is strong evidence that BYU’s approach to religious education needs revamping. Obviously Bott is just one professor out of over 70 full-time Religious Education faculty. However, his case is so far out of line, and evidently has been so far out of line for so many years, that it raises serious questions about the quality control mechanisms…

Conference: Exploring Mormon Conceptions of Apostasy

Please join us for a conference, “Exploring Mormon Conceptions of Apostasy” to be held on March 1-2, 2012 at Brigham Young University. The notion of an apostasy from the primitive gospel and the original church has been a key animating feature in Mormonism since its inception and in other “religions of the book.” However, the concept of apostasy has proven to be tremendously fluid, with individual, institutional, communal, and historical meanings and applications all proliferating in religious thought throughout the ages. Fifteen faithful Mormon scholars from many scholarly backgrounds and methodologies will explore the concept of apostasy in various historical and religious contexts as we consider how to narrate apostasy in ways that remain historically authentic and cohere with Mormon theology. The conference schedule and location information are available at the conference website. The conference is organized by Miranda Wilcox, Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University, with financial assistance from an Eliza R. Snow Faculty Grant. —posted on behalf of the conference organizer, Miranda Wilcox.

Reminder: Summer Seminar on The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact, II

The deadline is approaching for the 2012 Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture. Applications are due February 15th for this 6-week seminar for graduate students and junior faculty, continuing for a second year with the theme of “The Gold Plates as Cultural Artifact.” The seminar will be led by Richard Bushman, Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University. Click here for full details and the application form, in Word (.doc) format or PDF format.

Global Harmony in Microcosms

A Japanese former ambassador to China recently offered some provocative thoughts on the global promise of America, suggesting that the American melting pot is a kind of pilot project for world peace. Could the same be true of the LDS Church?

Survey: The Impact of Blogging on Mormon Studies

Patrick Mason is studying the effect of the bloggernacle on Mormon Studies, has put together a questionnaire, and is seeking responses from graduate students. Here is a preface from Dr. Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University: At the January 2012 meeting of the American Society for Church History, I’ll be on a panel called “Teaching Mormonism in a Digital Age.” In my comments I’ll be considering the impact of the “bloggernacle” on Mormon studies, specifically in regard to the current generation of graduate students. I have designed the following questionnaire to get a better handle on why people read Mormon blogs and what they get out of them. The questionnaire is for any graduate student, full or part time, LDS or non-LDS, in any academic field. The informed consent form on the first page will explain more, or you can contact me at [email protected] with any questions. Thanks for participating. To participate in the study, follow this link to the questionnaire. The questionnaire will open in your browser as a Google Document, and is submitted automatically when you click “Submit” at the end.

Black Friday

Yes! The Dow is back down to 11,232! I feel a little like Jonah sitting on the hill, waiting for the fireworks. Hearing that news on the radio brought me my biggest smile all day. Of course, Jonah was roundly rebuked, because Nineveh repented in ashes, and he still was annoyed they weren’t destroyed. He clearly had an attitude problem, and lots of people might say the same about me. The Super Committee’s lame punt is just the most recent sign of the overall trend, though: at an institutional level, we haven’t even really admitted there is a problem, let alone started repenting. What do we need to repent of? Oh, there are plenty of things seriously wrong with the way we run our economy, including many of the favorite criticisms from both the right and the left, and the economy feeds into a lot of other things that are wrong with our society. I’ll just mention debt for now. We borrowed like mad for the past fifteen years or so, on houses, credit cards, student loans, and government programs, and called it prosperity—short-sighted materialism (among other things), masked and rationalized with convenient economic pseudo-theory. I was getting nervous about this back around 1999, but by now a lot of readers will probably grant it to me, though there are plenty of theorists and politicians who say our problem is still that we need to spend more. So if you’ll…

The Deep Subjects of the Book of Mormon, Plato, Zhuangzi, and So On . . .

My friend and co-blogger Rosalynde presents a fascinating argument about Book of Mormon historicity in her recent review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Based on my experience with various other ancient texts, I respectfully disagree. Rosalynde suggests that Grant Hardy’s literary analysis of the Book of Mormon is harder to separate from a discussion of its historical origins than he thinks. He shows us the complexity, coherence, and development of its various narrative voices, and in the process shows how much their distinctive, personal perspectives and interests shape the text. Hardy invites readers of the Book of Mormon to set aside questions of historicity, at least for the moment, and explore literary features like these which are interesting in their own right. Yet in Rosalynde’s view the literary character that Hardy finds ironically indicates something itself about the book’s historicity. If we attend to “the history of the narrative genre,” we see that even at the time of a relatively modern work such as Don Quixote, “the romance had not yet become the novel, the author had not yet entirely separated from the narrator, and indeed the human being had not yet become the modern subject comfortably at home in its fully-furnished mental interior.” Hence in Rosalynde’s view, the very complexity of the narrator’s personalities, and the degree to which their voices are visible in the text, mark it as a distinctively modern book, much more modern…

Summer Seminar Symposium: The Cultural History of the Gold Plates

Participants in Richard Bushman’s and Terryl Givens’ Summer Seminar on the Gold Plates will be presenting papers tomorrow, Thursday, August 18th, at BYU. Here are the details: The Mormon Scholars Foundation Annual Summer Symposium on Mormon Culture The Cultural History of the Gold Plates Thursday, August 18, 2011 B037 Joseph F. Smith Building Brigham Young University, Provo, UT Morning Session 9:00 AM Welcome by Richard Bushman, Invocation TBA 9:15 AM “Worlds of Discourse, Plates of Gold: Joseph Smith’s Plates as Cultural Catalysts”—Stephen Taysom 9:45 AM “Guard the Gold: Didactic Fiction and the Mainstreaming of Moroni”—Ben Bascom 10:15 AM “Fictionalizing Faith: Popular Polemics and the Golden Plates”—Jared Halverson 10:45 AM   BREAK 11:00 AM “Artistic Depictions of the Gold Plates and the Material Cultural Inheritance”—Julie Fredericks 11:30 AM “Processing the Plates: The Presence and Absence of the Gold Plates”—Tyler Gardner 12:00 PM “”Wagonloads’: The Disappearance of the Book of Mormon’s Sealed Portion”—Rachael Givens 12:30 PM BREAK FOR LUNCH Afternoon Session 1:45 PM “Fantasy, Fraud and Freud: The Uncanny Gold Plates in 19th Century Newspaper Accounts”—Sarah Reed 2:15 PM “The Forbidden Gaze: The Veiling of the Gold Plates and Joseph Smith’s Redefinition of Sacred Space”—Elizabeth Mott 2:45 PM “The Notion of Ancient Metal Records in Joseph Smith’s Day”—Michael Reed 3:15 PM BREAK 3:30 PM  “The Metallurgical Plausibility of the Gold Plates”—Caroline Sorensen 4:00 PM “Rediscovering Joseph Smith’s ‘Discovery Narrative’ in Southern Utah”—Christopher Smith 4:30 PM “In Consequence of Their Wickedness: The Decline and Fall of Mormon Seership, 1838-1900”—Rachel Gostenhofer A PDF version of the program is also available.

Serving God with Our Minds: SMPT Conference This Weekend

This weekend at BYU, the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 8th Annual Meeting on the theme, “Serving God with Our Minds—The Place of Philosophy, Theology, and Scholarship in a Prophetic Church.” Featured speakers include Patrick Mason, who will soon be taking the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont, Alan Wilkins, a former Academic Vice President and currently Associate Director of the Faculty Center at BYU, and Jack Welch, Robert K. Thomas University Professor in the BYU Law School. Sessions will address themes including the role of theology in devotional life, prophets and continuing revelation, spiritual dimensions of education at BYU and elsewhere, scriptural interpretation, liberation theology, and justice in a gospel society. A session on “Art and Philosophy of Art in the Restored Church” includes reflections by artists with work in the “Seek My Face” exhibit currently showing in the Church History Museum. The conference runs Thursday-Saturday, April 7-9. All sessions are free and open to the public. For more information, see the conference schedule on the