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Have you seen Greg Smith’s review of Mormon Stories?

February 24, 2013

It has arrived.

For like, a year (I have not kept up with the timeline, so that’s just a guess), the shadow of the supposed “hit piece” on John Dehlin has hovered over the Mormon Stories and FARMS/Mormon Studies Review apologetics communities.

And now, it is here in two articles…first the article that Greg Smith had originally written, and with a follow-up article to discuss the meta-events surrounding it.

I am only 8 pages into the first article, so I’m not going to comment so much on that, but I will say a few things, very disjointed as they are.

1) The site for the Mormon Interpreter is absolutely gorgeous. I wish that Greg Smith’s articles were on there, rather than being a PDF linked to from there.

2) I have to admit that I’m not 100% sure of what FARMS and Mormon Studies Review’s purpose was — since I try to stay out of apologetics stuff for the most part — but it seems to me that a lot of the meta-conversation surrounding this controversy was about why a group that is ostensibly designed around reviewing books and articles written about Mormonism and the Book of Mormon would be writing a piece about John Dehlin…who hasn’t written any scholarly books at all. Just from reading the first few pages of Greg Smith’s article, it seems that he was trying to do something pretty interesting: take the concept of a review of scholarly books and articles to the 21st century analog of reviewing Facebook statuses, podcasts, and message board posts. One Facebook commenter put it like this:

 [Smith’s article] is innovative in its use of personal Facebook posts and comments. I have never seen that in an academic study.

It is groundbreaking in possibly being the first academic article to test the proposition of whether you can trust something on the internet. Most just take that as a self-evident fact; but Smith really wants to test the theory. Soon I suppose there will be a whole cottage industry of academics investigating, e.g., the claims of Wikipedia articles.

I don’t think it’s like this. I think this is somewhat of an oversimplification — it’s not like people are saying that you can trust anything you read on the internet. But really, it’s about the boundaries – plenty of people (especially Armand Mauss) have pointed out that many online media (such as blogs) come with a lamentable lack of historical memory — people don’t do the research that they ought to by going through the archives of Dialogue and so their blog posts tend to rehash issues that have already been thoughtfully covered. But just the same, blogs and other online media don’t usually try to be academically rigorous.

…so what do you do when you have someone who is decidedly not an academic, yet who is seen as being familiar with intellectual matters and frames his discussion in terms of intellectual matters. This is where John Dehlin is, for the most part. Mormon Stories is no Dialogue. Yet, in his interview on A Thoughtful Faith, he describes that much of his Mormon Stories experience (which he is trying to move from) was in privileging the intellectual over the emotional and spiritual. In a Facebook discussion about that interview, one of my FB friends remarked that the problem he found with much of Mormon Stories is that it decidedly is not intellectual. It’s almost all emotional coverage, without enough intellectual rigor to try to put some context to the discussion.

And so…a lot of the criticism of Smith’s article that I’ve seen is that he is trying to take non-rigorous statements from Dehlin as if they can create a rigorous philosophical corpus to critique Dehlin. But maybe the case might be — why not conduct this review, since many people who listen to Dehlin are going to take his non-rigorous statements as if they were sufficiently informed, researched statements.

So, that is my second point.

3) Throughout all of this, I am glad that I am so profoundly insignificant, inconsequential, and invisible to avoid attracting any of this controversy. In my opinion, all of this leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is not an indictment of one side or the other — all sides are tainted. I guess some people might suggest that you can’t be neutral — you have to pick a side. I’m not saying I’m trying to be neutral, because I definitely have thoughts on most of these topics, but it seems to me that the goal should be not to cleanly fit into to any one category, but instead to forge a path between and around the gaps.

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10 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I’m trying to stay neutral in this as well. Kind of hard to do since I’m actually a member of FAIR and have plenty of acquaintances who’d like me to take sides (I have friends on both sides of this kerfuffle).

    Fascinating question though – can we take Facebook and message board content seriously?

    The scholarly impulse is to not take it seriously at all – in fact, to act like it doesn’t exist. But as you pointed out – that is the problem. People DO take this stuff seriously, and if you don’t address it, aren’t you just opting out of the debate in a sense?

    I don’t know… I’m only 8 pages into the article and so far it smacks to me more of news reporting rather than scholarship (not to belittle the author’s significant research and effort). I’ll have to read the rest of it, but I’m really nervous about my conclusions since so many of my friends on both sides of the debate would obviously like me to arrive at their conclusions about the article.

  2. Seth,

    I guess the important thing is, whatever your conclusion happens to be, don’t put it on any online venue, lest it be endlessly quoted and psychoanalyzed against you.

    (FWIW, I think this is a lesson that people living in the 21st century are just going to have to learn to deal with. What you write on FB, on message boards, on blogs…they are forever. In the past, dumb teenagers might say/do stupid things, but it didn’t matter because it was local and impermanent…but now you have teenagers [and adults] saying/doing stupid things on venues that are cached, backed up, searchable, google-able, and it’s a huge liability.)

  3. Yes, the take-away for me (I read the first article all the way through but not the second) was that I’m glad nobody cares what I say online. Certainly I could be quote-mined into looking like a complete lunatic.

    That having been said, I do think that if, in the future, EVERYONE’S dumb comments and mistakes are online, perhaps that would be some kind of Great Equalizer for everybody. I sure hope so. I just realized that one day, we’re going to elect a POTUS who has had a Facebook account his whole life. Shudder.

  4. Syphax,

    I’m sincerely hoping that there will not be a single social networking site (much less Facebook) that will last long enough in a continuous form for a 35 year old (at least) to have had an account his whole life.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    I’ve always pretty much taken it as a given that I’ll never, EVER, be able to run for public office.

  6. I’m sure that with the ubiquity of technology, it’s not so much that people will be permanently disqualified…it’s that the “dealbreakers” won’t be dealbreakers any more.

    Like, wasn’t there a time when if you had smoked pot, then that would be a dealbreaker? Well, now, no one cares.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    Quit undermining my excuses Andrew.

  8. Yeah, it’s just that we live in such a “gaffe-unfriendly” culture right now. Like a person makes an offensive comment (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not) and within 24 hours they lose their endorsement deals and they’re suddenly the pariah of Hollywood or whatever. But people say that kind of thing online all the time. And it’s not just anonymous people. It’s just that the Internet, and comment boxes, and Facebook statuses, etc. all lend themselves towards people just saying quick things that can easily be misconstrued, or saying things just to see if they stick, or testing ideas, or saying things that they may not really mean.

    And I bring that up because John Dehlin has pretty much done that for years – when he wakes up and he’s having a bad day and spouts off some random online comments that seem incredibly inconsistent with his previous positions, people record them and publish them in an expose? It’s not that we shouldn’t be accountable for what we say online, but I just think that Smith’s articles don’t fully take into account the fact that people don’t say stuff on the Internet for the purpose of recording wisdom for posterity. Now Dehlin runs a website and is a public figure so I guess he should be more concerned with PR. But still I think it’s fair to consider that inconsistent online comments are not always really strong grounds for uncovering “sinister motives.”

    So I guess I’m just wondering out loud if society will eventually “get that,” and we’ll elect a President that can be tied to an online history that seems offensive or ridiculous. In the same way that pot-smoking is no longer a disqualifier.

  9. Syphax,

    I agree, but I think that over time, one of two things will happen…either people will get used to what people say/do on the internet (this is the route I was going to answer Seth — and to some extent, even now, we can pull up “dirt” on people, but I mean, someone’s more radical college political activism, even if it has video or whatever, doesn’t really necessarily sink their political aspirations when they are 40 or 50)…or people will become smarter with how they present themselves online.

    Like, when political correctness became a thing, people adapted by not sharing their most candid thoughts in public…instead, we have code words and dog whistles that allow for plausible deniability…the major political incorrectness faux pas these days result either from someone who is unapologetically politically incorrect…or from people who were/are unaware of the implications of what they were saying.

    I think we are starting to see the shift online…but it’s a work in process. Currently, people are trying to fight it. They want to limit who can see what they write or post so that they still can be candid and open. Like, my youngest brother has a twitter and he was saying stuff that was waaaaay too youthfully stupid. So, I called him out on it. He responded by making his account private…but you know…I already follow him, and there were others who do too.

    …Eventually, I think people will realize that you can never truly have control over privacy (e.g., Facebook will keep accidentally “opening up” people’s privacy, and even if not, the privacy settings are opaque enough that people can figure out ways around them). And then, maybe, just maybe, people will learn to be more careful about what they say.

    (And the people who don’t learn will usually be the ones who are unapologetic about what they are saying in the first place — see the racist/misogynist/anti-gay, etc., comments on any news site article. This doesn’t have to be so extreme of course…I recognize that this blog is most likely a professional liability, and I’ve definitely had commenters sleuth for my public identity to tell people that I’m a bigoted anti-mormon or whatever, but I’m not really going to back down.)

    I agree that Smith’s articles don’t seem to take into consideration that people don’t say stuff on the internet with a concern toward recording wisdom for posterity or anything so lofty like that…but that’s not Smith’s problem. Rather, in a world with a medium that can turn anything said on it into wisdom for posterity, the people who use that medium have to act accordingly. Smith is just keeping up with the trends in a way the John is not (which is deliciously ironic, as part of the entire conceit of the Mormon Stories project was that most other endeavors, because they stuck to things like journals or magazines, were not using modern media effectively.)

    This is not just a problem for someone who is e-famous like John (although that certainly makes it more of a problem.) That is also a problem for inconsequential, invisible people like us.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    Well, I can’t say that I feel like Dehlin didn’t have this coming. He put himself out as a public figure spearheading a new church movement. His words and actions online had real-world consequences in people leaving the church. I was utterly unimpressed with arguments that he should be exempt from public scrutiny.

    Sure, your average Joe should often be spared the experience of being cross-examined this thoroughly (though I think even then it can occasionally be appropriate in moderation). But Dehlin isn’t really the average either. And his public record does matter.

    My gripe with the article is that it’s not really timely anymore. Back when Smith first wrote it, Dehlin was at the height of his movement and his antipathy toward the church. And he showed no sign of stopping. He was becoming influential in certain sectors of anti-Mormonism, and it was widely felt that he was pulling a bait-and-switch on struggling Mormons who encountered his website. Lure them in with promises of being kind, fair, and balanced – and then simply pound them with all the same-old, same-old anti-Mormonism FAIR had been dealing with for decades.

    I was getting annoyed with him myself. And I was one of those who wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt because I recognized that my own heterodox opinions could be called into question if Dehlin’s could. I wanted the Church to be a “big tent” too – and to that extent, I sympathized with Dehlin’s vision. But I could only indulge so much.

    It quickly became apparent to me that Dehlin never met a critic he didn’t like. And any defense of Mormonism was always met by him with raised eyebrows. He saved all his skepticism, all his suspicion, and all his cross-examination for faithful voices. Critics pretty much always got a free hall pass from him in his podcasts, and he seemed to have this wide-eyed naivete that “a critic would never lie, misrepresent, or cherry pick his disclosures.”

    Over time, I got really fed up with Dehlin over this trend.

    But…

    He claims he’s turned over a new leaf and recognized a lot of the negativity and hostility toward the church he was harboring, and has claimed he wants to let it go.

    Personally, I wanted to just drop the subject and let him get on with making that change. It seemed to me that the Smith article wasn’t really addressing Dehlin’s existing agenda, and in that sense, was no longer timely. Besides, why stir up the old wounds if Dehlin is already trying to repent of them and put them behind? And if he’s not a continuing threat due to standing down, then why publish this article?

    Which is why I’m actually pretty angry with Dr. Scratch (and his NAMI informant) for reopening this matter. It’s entirely possible that Peterson, Smith, FAIR, and the whole lot of them would have just buried this article and never published it. That’s what I would have done.

    But Scratch was relentless in taunting key figures into releasing the paper. Always mocking about the non-disclosure, always making up dark hints of what horrors were lurking in the paper, always openly calling for its publication. And then he forced their hand by leaking it.

    It’s almost like he wanted to “ruin the peace talks” so to speak. Or ruin any chance of it. No, skip that. Not “almost” – I’m pretty damn sure that’s exactly what he wanted.

    Well, it’s done anyway. I can’t say I would have OK-ed an article like this in the publication. I can’t say I’m happy with it entirely. I can’t say the former Dehlin didn’t have it coming for a long time. And I can’t say I think this should have been released at all once General Authorities expressed concern over the piece and once Dehlin claimed his new direction. But what’s done is done.

    Hopefully it’s not too upsetting to Dehlin, but I acknowledge that’s a rather forlorn hope.

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