Of Mice and … Egos

Sometimes life is full of hard choices. In John Steinbeck’s classic novella from 1936 the result of one choice was George Milton putting a bullet in the back of his friend Lennie Small’s head. In the case of a recent in-house cleaning at the Maxwell Institute, (a research arm of Brigham Young University’s Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts) it was a curt e-mail from Director M. Gerald Bradford to Editor of the Mormon Studies Review (Daniel C. Peterson), informing him he was fired. In Of Mice and Men, George Milton figured he was doing Lennie a favor to save him from a far worse fate; and maybe that’s what Bradford thought about Peterson. Lennie Small’s problem ended with a bullet. Peterson’s problems may be just beginning. They both have one thing in common though – neither saw it coming.

It can’t do much for the ego to be summarily dismissed by e-mail (doubly worse in Peterson’s case – he was out of the country), after 23 years as editor with salary and some sort of standing in the Mormon community of apologists.  And there sure were a lot of egos on display since some private emails confirming the so-called “shake up” at the Maxwell Institute were leaked to the public last month.

It was confirmed that these leaked e-mails were in fact real by Daniel Peterson himself on his blog, and by a subsequent news release from the Maxwell Institute found here. The leaked emails caused a massive amount of discussion on various forums that are documented below, (which reveal a great divide among Mormon academia about the future of church apologetics that is quite revealing); which culminated with this report by the Salt Lake Tribune last week (22 June 2012),

“In 1998, FARMS was brought into BYU under the umbrella of the Maxwell Institute, and the Mormon Studies Review came with it. Review writers responded to critics’ allegations by dissecting their arguments — and motives — sometimes writing scathing and often personal attacks on those who challenged LDS origins. It was, they believed, the essence of apologetics.

The tipping point against that approach may have been a 100-page article about John Dehlin, a church member in Logan who launched Mormon Stories, which welcomes those who question aspects of LDS history, practice and theology. Dehlin’s group has published articles about reasons Mormons leave the fold and research on gay members, among other topics.

After hearing about the piece, Dehlin called an LDS general authority who was a personal friend. Eventually, Maxwell Institute Director Gerald Bradford pulled the article from the journal, leaving a giant hole and putting it behind in its publishing schedule.

“I have had enough conversations with general authorities to know,” Dehlin said this week, “that they don’t view ad hominem attacks as a constructive way to do apologetics.”

In the span of a couple of days in May, the whole sordid affair played out on the Mormon message boards, with many claiming it was all an apostate anti-Mormon conspiracy:

“This is now the second time in a year that we have seen this newly adopted approach of the apostate evangelists when they learn that an important piece of Mormon apologia is about to go to print: pull out all the stops, unloose the dogs of a full-fledged propaganda war, and do everything in their power to CENSOR the voice that they themselves cannot otherwise silence.”  ~Will Schryver

“Bingo! If you hadn’t mentioned it, I was going to. Certain critics seem to abhor being critiqued, and have virtually no tolerance for differences of opinions. This is one of their ways of trying to get their way. One of the key strategies of that propaganda war, besides judgmental and sanctimonious dog-piling, is attempting to manipulatively pit LDS against LDS. Their efforts are so wrought with irony and hypocrisy as to beggar belief.” ~ Wade Englund

“And here we see the anti-Mormon playbook in action….”  ~Michael Ash

Did “anti-Mormons” appoint Bradford or leak the e-mails? Did anti-Mormons choose Dan Peterson’s agenda that now seems at odds with the direction the Maxwell Institute is now charting? Is this really an “anti-Mormon conspiracy” or is this about egos and jealousy over the popularity of John Dehlin’s approach:

“One thing you [John Dehlin] share with those among whom your popularity has recently skyrocketed: you are a cunning propagandist who knows how to capitalize on the relative ignorance of those whose perspectives you seek to mold. Of course, regardless of its utterly mythological status, this whole ‘apologetics destroyed my faith’ meme has become virtually an article of faith among the ex-Mormon crowd.  At the very least it has become a talking point imperative.  Never mind that it is only adopted AFTER apostasy has occurred.  Why is that?  Quite simply because it is nothing more than a weapon in the arsenal of the apostate evangelists; a weapon designed to discredit LDS apologetics in the eyes and minds of those who simply aren’t in a position to know better. How better to prevent faith from being defended and strengthened than by disarming and destroying, if possible, those for whom that is the primary objective of their work? You have to hand it to people like Dehlin and his ideological cohorts: they aren’t nearly as dumb as the people who accept their propaganda uncritically.” ~Will Schryver

And,

“He [Dehlin] believes he is riding the crest of a wave; his power and influence at its all-time apex; his objectives on the verge of ultimate fulfillment.  But, in reality, the events of the past few days (and no doubt the next few as well) have sealed his fate, along with that of all those who have chosen to make common cause with him. I am a great fan of dramatic and profound ironies, and this one is almost Shakespearean in its scope and depth.  I’m loving every minute of it as it unfolds …” ~Will Schryver

Yes, Dehlin’s star appears to be rising, as FARMS falls. According to John Dehlin this is because,

“… MI/FARMS/FAIR hurt the church, its members, apologetics, and the people they target when they stoop to ad hominem attacks, so I feel justified in escalating to church leadership.  I am told that an apostle and several GA’s were involved in telling the Maxwell Institute to stop this piece.  If you support your priesthood leaders, then maybe you might consider that my escalation was a good thing — or at least a reasonable one.  In fact, I am told that several from within your own ranks who have read the piece find it to be distasteful, FWIW.” ~John Dehlin

Of course this is denied by those in Peterson’s camp,

“This is a myth concocted and perpetuated by clever apostates who recognized in this approach a way to manipulate public opinion as to what the Review is like.  There is virtually nothing in the way of ‘ad hominem attacks’ in the Review.  There never has been. Again, it is a myth whose underlying purpose was to accomplish what happened a little more than a week ago.” ~Will Schryver

The FARMS Review, has undergone many changes since its launch in 1989. In the introduction to Volume One, Daniel C. Peterson wrote,

“We undertake this enterprise with some concern that our intentions be properly understood. As Latter-day Saints, we belong to a culture which values kindness and the accentuation of the positive. This is quite proper, and entirely Christian. Criticism in the commonly used sense of the term–and the reviewing of books written by fallible mortal authors will always entail a certain amount of such criticism–is something that our culture is wary of, and with some justification. Too often, it can be unhelpful, unfair, cruel, and self-aggrandizing. Of Babylon, and not of Zion.”

Unfortunately, “kindness and the accentuation of the positive” have not always been the hallmark of The FARMS Review (now titled Mormon Studies Review).  As the Salt Lake City Messenger reported in 1994:

“[Mormon apologists] seem to be very skillful in making ad hominem attacks on those with whom they differ. Since Professor [Daniel C.] Peterson serves as editor of Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, he sets a very bad example for contributors to that publication. Anyone who examines the articles written by Daniel C. Peterson, William Hamblin, Louis Midgley, and some of the other Mormon scholars will see that they have sometimes been mean spirited in their attempt to save the church.” (Salt Lake City Messenger, “LDS Scholars Very Upset,” June 1994)

Dehlin indeed admitted that he “contacted his GA friends” when he learned of Greg Smith’s “hit piece” about him that was to be published in the Mormon Studies Review.  Dehlin e-mailed one of the Seventy in March along with Daniel C. Peterson and wrote,

“I am hoping that the Maxwell Institute will not issue a hit piece on me. I would ask you both to please not allow this to happen. If such a piece is, indeed, in the works — I would like notice so that I can contact Elder XXXXXXX as well. My guess is that he wouldn’t approve of this either….but I can’t say for sure. If my friend is mistaken in his information — I sincerely apologize for the error and annoyance.”

Peterson’s reply, “You’re threatening, blackmailing, and defaming, and I don’t appreciate it” was posted on-line by Dehlin, and the mice began to scurry as ego’s clashed. Peterson confirmed the above with a follow up post,

“Now, John Dehlin and I have never been buddies.  But we’ve always been civil.  So I was more than a little surprised when I noticed that this email hadn’t been sent only or even primarily to me.  Instead, it had been sent to a member of the Seventy, with an appeal for him to stop publication of what Dehlin characterized as a “hit piece” and a promise that Dehlin was prepared to go further up in the hierarchy if he didn’t get what he wanted.  Thereafter, it was copied to me, as well as to three influential non-BYU LDS academics (friends of mine, actually) who presumably might be able to help in squelching the unseen article, and to one other person whose name I didn’t recognize. I wasn’t in the mood, it was late, I hadn’t (I think) as yet read the article in question, and I didn’t respond. The next morning, at 8:42 AM, I was copied on another email from John Dehlin, which was principally sent to the same member of the Seventy and which was also copied to the same addressee list as the one from 10.5 hours earlier. It provided the Seventy in question with five quotations culled from Dehlin’s unscientific survey of disaffected Latter-day Saints, all of them highly critical of (and more or less insulting toward) me and my associates. They were included, Dehlin explained, ‘to aid you in your decision-making about these issues.  I hope you find them useful.  If you want more examples, I’m happy to provide.’ I confess that I didn’t find this particularly nice.  Slandering me to one of the leaders of my Church and to academic friends of mine didn’t seem a particularly charitable opening gambit.”

What has become clear in the last week is the great divide that appears to exist among Mormon apologists about how best to address Book of Mormon and apologetic issues. In a blog article titled “What the Maxwell Institute controversy is really about,” William J. Hamblin called the merger of FARMS with B.Y.U. “a hostile takeover,” and labeled Director M. Gerald Bradford “a less than competent administrator”; a view, states Hamblin, that is shared by “many other people.”  Calling Peterson’s approach, “classic-Farms,” Hamblin writes,

“with [Peterson’s] dismissal classic-FARMS is gone.  There is not a single voice left in the leadership of the Institute to represent the original goals of classic-FARMS.  This is why Dan’s dismissal and marginalization is seen as such a massive betrayal.  It is the removal of the last vestige of classic-FARMS.  The pretense of the MI as the heir of FARMS can no longer be maintained.  Bradford believes this is a good and necessary thing.  And we need to understand: he always has.  This does not represent a shift of policy for Bradford.  This represents a shift of power from a Board of scholars with a particular vision, to employees who never shared that vision, but who were hired to perform strictly limited and specific tasks.  By allowing BYU to absorb FARMS the Board effectively abdicated its power to guide the future direction of FARMS.”

Hamblin describes Bradford’s behavior as “shameful,” calls him “a flawed human being,” and “dead wrong” in his dismissal of Peterson.  John Dehlin commented on his Facebook page (since removed) about Hamblin’s article, writing,

“Such a fascinating article. My response to Bill Hamblin (and Daniel Peterson): ‘What if it’s as simple as this: you guys have failed at doing apologetics in a way that LDS church leadership is comfortable with. Clearly Gerald Bradford didn’t act alone. Clearly general authorities were involved. It’s clear to me that LDS church leadership is uncomfortable with your (and Dr. Peterson’s) brand of apologetics. To blame Bradford for this seems like scapegoating. Unfortunately you can’t criticize LDS church leadership and remain an apologist (ouch!)….but it’s not fair to lay the blame on Bradford either. Not fair at all. Try looking in the mirror.”

Will Schryver, who claimed to have read some of the “hit piece” in question wrote,

“I have now read about 1/3 of the article.  It is an absolutely devastating piece of work–devastating to Dehlin’s proclaimed ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance,’ that is. That said, I have yet to identify a single instance of the ad hominem logical fallacy.  Quite to the contrary, what the article does is use Dehlin’s own words, meticulously assembled and cited, to demonstrate that he (Dehlin) is what I have long claimed him to be: an apostate evangelist, whose objective is to erode the faith of the Saints. The sooner this article appears in print, the better: it will conclusively expose Dehlin for what he really is.”

Schryver then looks forward to attacking others,

“Hopefully, once this Dehlin article is finally printed and out the door, [author] Greg [Smith] can turn his sights on [Joanna] Brooks.”

Again, is this really an anti-Mormon conspiracy, or just jealousy and ego? Here is Schryver again, who has his own problems with the Maxwell Institute:

“I’ve been in a position in the last few years to observe, to a considerable extent, the ways and means by which this pressure is brought to bear.  I believe it has been able to occur almost entirely beneath the radar of the highest levels of Church leadership.  I hope the excruciatingly public nature of this final act in the dissolution of the FARMS mission will at least serve to alert the Brethren to the fact that there is a war for the soul of LDS intellectual thought that is being waged in ways it has never been waged before, and with factions formed and organized to a degree that they are able to mold, manipulate, and sway public opinion.  And now, it seems, they have proven capable of dictating the direction and agenda of the most respected scholarly publishing brand in the Church.” ~Will Schryver

How much easier to just blame it all on the anti-Mormons! In Of Mice and Men, George Milton didn’t have the resolve to look Lennie in the eye as he pulled the trigger,

 “And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger.”

Likewise, Gerald Bradford didn’t seem to be able to muster up the courage to look Dan Peterson in the eye when he pulled the trigger on his 23 year tenure as Editor of the Mormon Studies Review. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Of further interest:

Timeline of events
M. Gerald Bradford’s vision for the Maxwell Institute
Dan Peterson: A Eulogy, by Tal Bachman