See also my follow-up commentary on the seminar here.
Yesterday I was pleased to attend the 2008 Bushman seminar presentation at Brigham Young University. While I greatly enjoyed the seminar, I believe it appears to have missed its mark in a few ways. The topic this year was "Joseph Smith and His Critics." Bushman described the nature of this year's conference in his invitational letter:
Bushman and company desired to take what they call a "pastoral approach" to help Church members who experience turbulence after being exposed to unfamiliar aspects of LDS Church history. According to participant Stephen J. Fleming, a PhD. candidate in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara:The theme has been chosen in response to the growing number of criticalattacks [of Joseph Smith] in books and on the web. Many Latter-day Saints have beenaffected adversely by these criticisms, and the materials supplied byour apologetic institutions have not always met their needs.
We often didn’t accept critics versions of events, but we didn’t want to fight with them either. What was the best way to help those who struggled? We all took at shot at the issue by dealing with various topics.For six weeks the seminar discussed a few specific issues which Bushman believed may cause consternation to some members of the Church. Each participant of the seminar tackled one specific issue to research and then created a paper to present. Ideally, each approached an issue with which the he was not already well familiar. I believe this decision had both positive and negative affects which I will discuss below. According to Bushman, the emphasis of the papers "will be less on providing answers to every question than on putting the adverse evidence in a new light. Our aim is to persuade readers that the facts do not compel them to discard Joseph Smith. In fact, negative information can sometimes illuminate his cultural situation and mission."
Bushman's opening paper got things off on the right foot. He described the path of people who are surprised to find negative information on the Internet or elsewhere seeming to call into question Joseph Smith or his divine mission. Some members of the Church- after researching, pondering, and praying about the new information- emerge from the turmoil as "revised Saints" who realize Joseph Smith was imperfect but prophetic; that he wasn't led in every single detail by specific revelation. These Saints, Bushman believes, now take a more philosophical approach to the Church, focusing on the good fruit, following the Spirit as best they can with a slightly more skeptical but faithful eye.
Others, however, begin down a path of shock, doubt, disillusionment, and mistrust. They become worried that the Church has something to hide because specific aspects of history wasn't addressed in Church meetings, seminary, or Institute. For these, Bushman emphasized, silence is not the answer. Casting off criticism as "anti-Mormon" or "of the Devil" can trouble a doubter more than simply addressing the issue. Doubters can feel lonely, castigated, or even scared of losing friends and family members over their questioning. Thus, Bushman believes "safe havens" must be established where questions may be asked and good answers provided.
For a brief overview of the other presentations, see the reviews posted at Juvenile Instructor. I wish to offer some of my overall thoughts, both positive and negative. The participants included various CES personnel and a member of the Church Curriculum department. I believe getting these people involved is a crucial step forward in an effort to better equip Institute and other teachers to handle issues that may cause concern among their students.
Participant Stephen Fleming pointed out that each presenter wrote a paper on a subject with which they were not already completely familiar. If this approach was intended to help participants learn how to better use historical sources and discuss various methods, it may have been successful. If this approach was intended to develop new information, I believe it somewhat failed, or at least didn't reach the highest heights. In the question and answer period following several of the presentations it became apparent that some presenters weren't as familiar with the subjects they addressed as they would have liked to be, and they were aware of it.
In short, this is where I believe the seminar missed its own mark in seeking to promise something new; a "pastoral approach." While I generally liked each presentation, and believe for the most part they can be successful in responding to members of the Church who are unfamiliar with the various subjects, the seminar did not present any new information or even methodology. What was different about these papers that isn't already available? In addition, most of the papers seemed geared more towards Protestant or other religious criticism, overlooking the current pop-atheism and agnostic approaches to religion Church members face today. The papers by Stephen Flemming and Kerry Muhlstein, for example, interestingly discussed "magic" from a religious perspective but overlooked criticism people may encounter from those who believe all of it to be hocus pocus.
Because Bushman said "the materials supplied by our apologetic institutions [such as FARMS and FAIR] have not always met their needs," desiring a more "pastoral approach" than we've seen in the past, I was left to wonder why the seminar itself didn't differ much from those materials in style, presentation, and even information. I wanted to see the footnotes of each presentation to see what material they used, who they cited other than primary sources, how they arrived at their various conclusions. I got the feeling some of the presenters were not completely familiar with the scholarship that has already been done on their subjects. Thus, rather than providing something new they sometimes provided something merely similar, or perhaps even inferior, to already-published materials. This isn't to criticize the scholarly abilities of the participants but to point out, given their short amount of time to investigate and their relative unfamiliarity with their topics, these presenters were perhaps working on process rather than explicit and set conclusions.
I hoped the seminar would answer some specific questions, even if intrinsically, but I was left unsatisfied. (Duly noted I probably wasn't the primary audience, though.) I have my own opinions on these questions but hoped to see them addressed:
Why were these specific topics covered over others? How did the seminar define "apologetics"? What method of apologetics is right, or are they all wrong together? What exactly is a "pastoral approach" and how does it differ from what is already being provided by various organizations? How can CES instructors, Sunday School teachers, and every-day members of the Church become more familiar with the materials; should or would they? What more can be done on an institutional level?
I believe involving CES and Church curriculum individuals, and inviting religious instructors under the employ of the Church may very well be the most important aspect of this seminar. This conference, as a stone thrown into water, may create ripples that reach important places in the Church. In a few upcoming posts I will address these questions and comments in-depth.
Finally, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the seminar for me involved the personal aspects; being able to rub shoulders with some fine members and scholars of the Church including Richard and Claudia Bushman, Steven Harper, Robert J. Woodford, Terryl Givens, Andrew Ehat, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and others. Both sessions of the program opened with an invocation to the Lord. One scholar privately expressed his concern with helping his own children develop and maintain faith in the restored gospel. When an attendee asked what the new project Claudia Bushman was knitting would be she responded "well, right now I am just creating order out of chaos" (she later informed me it was to be an afghan). After presenting his paper on the Kirtland Banking Society, a loving supporter passed Robert Lund a note scribbled on a small yellow piece of paper assuring him he is "#1." Steven Harper brought a stronger measure of the Holy Ghost to the room when relating a bit of William McClellan's emphatic 1880 testimony of the Book of Mormon, as did Spencer Fluman when reading accounts from Helen Mar Kimball Whitney. John Dehlin felt that more could be said to commiserate with those who lost money in the Kirtland Anti-Banking incident. Glenn Rawson, host of KJZZ TV's Joseph Smith Papers program discussed the logistics of a future interview with Richard Bushman. When Spencer Fluman described "dynastic sealings" in Nauvoo, one audience member looked amazed as he mouthed "wow!" Camille Fronk spent some time in the audience, making me reflect on where the women presenters were (according to one presenter Bushman often expressed regret that none had participated). Another audience member assured the group that, should he ever become an artist, he'd try to depict the translation as Joseph Smith with his seer stone in a hat as best he can.
OK, that last one was me.
See more of Fleming's thoughts on the Juvenile Instructor blog, "What Is Our Obligation: The 2008 Bushman Seminar."