FAIR Podcast, Episode 5: John Durham Peters p.1

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John Durham Peters is one of America’s leading thinkers in the subject of communications. He has been called “a master wordsmith and a wonderful brain” and his work has been described as “witty, irreverent and intellectually daring.” Peters is currently the A. Craig Baird Professor in communication studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of two books: Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication and Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. For a growing bibliography of Peters’s works directly relating to Mormonism, see here.

Peters joined me through Skype from his home in Iowa for this two-part episode on Mormonism and Communication. Media technology can be understood as issuing a call to action in the world, and Peters discusses the some of the ethical questions media can raise. We talk about the role media has played thus far in the restoration of the Church, through print, radio, and television. Peters also brings a unique perspective to the possibilities and problems of witnesses.

*By way of correction, in part one of this interview I mentioned Wilford Woodruff’s testimony as having been recorded in 1898. The correct date is March 19th 1897.

Runtime:

53:36

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12 thoughts on “FAIR Podcast, Episode 5: John Durham Peters p.1

  1. Pingback: FAIR Podcast, Episode 6: John Durham Peters p.2 | FAIR Blog

  2. JT

    I found this first part of John Durham Peters interview very interesting. I would like to share few thoughts concerning the Church leadership’s ambivalence about modern mass communication. My ideas are targeted at the role of the Internet, which was not addressed by Peters.

    There’s a lot of information that goes into being a Mormon. It‘s not hard to see why more information is better than less in establishing and maintaining any religion, or any distinct and self-sustaining group culture.

    Bu this fact immediately suggests that the management of information and its communication is critical. The information has to be managed in ways that deflect challenges from rival religions and skeptics who compete for members or threaten its stability.

    The LDS Church has always worked hard to control its message in the face of its missions of protecting its flock from the outside world and spreading the Gospel to the world. I think it’s also fair to say that the Church has sought to control, albeit by passive means, how its own members read their own history. And herein lies the basic dilemma: channels of communication flow both ways and their capacity is expanding.

    It is in this context that any new mass media will be perceived both for their positive and negative potential. And it seems to me that the Internet is the strongest source of the ambivalence this creates.

    This “message control” challenge made me think back to a portion of Richard Bushman’s interview (Episode 3) that surprised me. He seemed puzzled about the Church leadership’s recent “sea change” in attitude toward the full disclosure of historical materials. Blair Hodges suggested that Mark Hoffman played a role, and that may be. But it seems to me that the Internet is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla here. Full disclosure may be the only way the Church can achieve some measure of control of its message.

    Bushman related an anecdote that hinted at how the Church Leadership may be thinking in this regard. He described meeting a woman who said she would read Rough Stone Rolling only on the condition that she knew the author was a faithful Mormon. This suggests that most members will be able to withstand the surprises of “full disclosure” if they know that faithful LDS historians are OK with it. Indeed, the real issue in communication is trust!

    Of course, puts Mormon scholars in an interesting position. Davis Bitton addressed this issue in his essay “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church.” [8]. He wrote:

    “There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the historians who know most about our Church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the Church.”

    Bitton reinforced this when he added:

    “There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is false.”

    This all suggests to me that “full-disclosure” is the Church’s latest response to the Internet which provides makes Church history so accessible and complete anyway. As I just said, faith is more about trust than facts and too many Saints are losing that sense of trust by finding the facts elsewhere where it is not always wrapped with love and devotion.

  3. BHodges

    Hi, JT, thanks for the comments.

    It is in this context that any new mass media will be perceived both for their positive and negative potential. And it seems to me that the Internet is the strongest source of the ambivalence this creates.

    I don’t think this is the context which first and foremost grabs the attention of church leaders perceive positive and negative in new media. More likely I think the context is that of morality, that is, time spent (or wasted), relationships fostered (or damaged), etc. Genealogy v. pornography sort of thing.

    Blair Hodges suggested that Mark Hoffman played a role, and that may be. But it seems to me that the Internet is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla here.

    Undoubtedly the Internet is the largest contributor, I think. The Hoffman situation (I think) had more to do with getting more familiar with the Church’s own holdings, etc. See here for my thoughts on that:

    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/10/ripples-from-salamander-24-years-later.html

    Full disclosure may be the only way the Church can achieve some measure of control of its message.

    See the recent MMM book, for example.

    As I just said, faith is more about trust than facts and too many Saints are losing that sense of trust by finding the facts elsewhere where it is not always wrapped with love and devotion.

    You might check Richard Bushman’s thoughts along those lines:

    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2008/08/bushmans-introduction-to-joseph-smith.html

    Thanks again, JT. :)

  4. JT

    Blair,

    Yes, Good points all. Thanks for the links.

    Coincidentally, my ordered copy of Massacre at Mountain Meadows came in the mail yesterday.

    Thanks for your reply and the terrific start to your/FAIR’s podcast.

    Best wishes,

    JT

  5. JT

    Dear Blair,

    I just read Dr. Bushman’s ”Introduction” to the “Joseph and His Critics Seminar.” I was most impressed with his near-final comment:

    “Rather than destroy the critics, we want to loosen their grip. In the long run, we believe this approach will persuade questioners more effectively than claims to certainty where none is possible. We believe in stating our own strong convictions about the church as a whole, but we do not to pretend to perfect knowledge about complex historical questions”

    Please allow me to share a few responses. These reflect my personal experiences as a “questioner.” Perhaps they will provide perspective to this “seminarian” approach. I will quote specific passages and write my responses beneath each:

    • “They fall into doubt after going on the Internet and finding shocking information about Joseph Smith based on documents and facts they had never heard before.”

    Doubt can also arise from plainly presented church doctrine and practices, especially for converts. Questioning may have little to do with outside critics. Let me offer three examples from my own life.

    First, I personally struggled with the Temple endowment when I received it at age 25, six years after my baptism and ordination as an elder. That was 27 years ago. Coming to terms with that struggle was difficult. I found few members willing or able to discuss it. Discovering apparent connections with Masonic rituals did not help. Finally, I did not know whether to take the 1990 changes as a blessing or as problematic. I shelved the problem intermittently. I’m still working on the issue. I very recently discovered John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories podcast. In one episode he mentioned a Mormon scholar who he thought completely resolved the issue. I’ll follow-up on that.

    The second example is D&C 132. I just didn’t hear the voice of the Savior in that revelation. It was not simply the idea of polygamy. I won’t elaborate. I still find it painful to read and would be ashamed to show it to a friend, and even bringing it up in my family. But I could not, in good conscience, withhold it from an investigator.

    The final example is the historical restriction of priesthood ordination to white males. I feel ashamed for not being more disturbed by this doctrine as a 19 year-old (I joined months before President Kimball made his proclamation). I acknowledge a blinding self-centeredness in my conversion thinking. The fact that leaders have used the most problematic of Mormon scripture to justify it has exacerbated the challenge.

    • “A surprising number had not known about…Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, etc”

    I find claims to such surprise pretentious. I was surprised by many points of church history several years into my membership. This is common. I don’t think my study of prescribed church materials represented a neglect worthy of other members’ surprise.

    • “Not knowing how to respond, [church leaders, parents and friends] react defensively.

    This matches my experience and is why I applaud the spirit of this initiative. I am only left to wish that the ecclesiastical leaders of the Church were the ones taking it on. While I understand the potential difficulties of this, I am not comfortable with the work being unofficially relegated to independent organizations such as FAIR.

    This concern is related to a point I made in my response to Episode 5 regarding rank-and-file members who seem to require the imprimatur of faithful LDS historians for personal engagement in history. There I also quoted Davis Bitton as saying:

    “There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is false.”

    This strikes me as betraying a bias that I can’t abide. If I expect a questioner to respond to my interpretation of historical evidence based on its merits, I must make a good faith effort to respond to his with an open mind. For evidence to count it must be allowed to count either way without prejudgement.

    The more important point here is that it would be wrong of the Church to tacitly endorse a reliance on the secular status of professional historians to protect members from thinking for themselves. I invite debate on this point.

    • “Without their familiar Mormon God … they become atheist or agnostic. … They partly welcome the new freedom … Now they can do anything they please without fear of breaking the old Mormon rules.”

    Although there are people who fit this description, there are many ho do not. Also, I would caution church members about adopting the belief that apostasy is “really” motivated by the desire to cut oneself free of moral restrictions – or that religious belief is the only thing that stops people from spinning out of moral control.

    It is on this issue that my knowledge of and sensitivity to secular friends kicks in. I simply know too many agnostics and atheists who live honorable lives. They are wonderful husbands and parents – they devote time and resources to their communities – they donate to charities, etc. They have constructed robust moral philosophies based on reason and strong intuitive senses of fairness, empathy and compassion. The evidence does not support the belief that everybody would become depraved without religion.

    I feel it is crucial is that Mormons do not perpetuate this prejudice. I hope church leaders will steer clear from demonizing “secular humanists” as many sects do. My experience is that church leaders generally do steer clear of this. But such attitudes can be found among the saints.

    • With regard to Bushman’s list of “characteristics of people who have passed through this ordeal but managed to revive most of their old beliefs,” let me play the devil’s advocate on the four aspects Bushman outlines.

    1. “They often say they learned the Prophet was human. . .”

    This “move” to forgive church leaders of their weaknesses seems disingenuous. It works by allowing an acknowledgment of a few peccadilloes (like drinking wine) to distract people (including oneself) from more serious matters.

    The vagueness of this blanket allowance leads to confirmation bias by giving Joseph Smith’s immunity from virtually all behavior-based inferences. It fails to specify how extreme an man’s behavior must be to legitimately call his self-proclaimed prophetic status into serious question.

    Kids commonly make his move on their own behalf. They admit to minor infractions to their parents to hide worse offenses. This may not be quite the same, but it has a similar flavor.

    2. “They also don’t believe he was led by revelation in every detail . . .”

    I mentioned earlier that D&C 132 troubles me in almost every detail. There are other revelations of which the source of trouble lies in many crucial details, especially in the light of historical context.

    I understand that it is up to me to sustain sufficient hope to remain open to alternative interpretations. However, these alternative interpretations must carry the burden of plausibility and the cumulative weight of their totality.

    When a person’s faith is built on a collection of historic claims that require strained interpretations and speculations for their support, it doesn’t take long to start questioning motives for carrying them.
    My self-questioning, which has developed over a long period, has prevented me from making the simple choice to “just” believe.

    In a recent Mormon Stories podcast Dr. William Bradshaw powerfully addressed this issue. I was deeply moved by his words and respect his choice to believe. I’ve been working to toward such a choice for many years – I just can’t make an affirmative choice honestly.

    3. “They come to see … that facts can have many interpretations.”

    This is certainly true. As I have said, I have worked hard to move beyond the troubling “first blush” interpretations. However, too much of this work feels like rationalization motivated by the need to protect myself against such things as death anxiety, family separation, and ostracism from the church community. In other words, this work does not first and foremost feel like getting closer to the truth or to God.

    Millions of devout people with conflicting beliefs report comparable spiritual confirmations. The very fact that church members are so willing to affirm just about every self-reported spiritual experience should give them pause. The belief that I have special access because I am Mormon pales in view of this.

    Perhaps Dr. Bradshaw and I are much closer than we may appear to others. Could the difference between us be a simple difference in our early indoctrination? Or a difference in our innate need for affiliation? Or a difference in our innate fear of death? Or a difference in our comfort with hierarchy? Can we pretend that these factors do not make the difference?

    • “They can only trust the new knowledge they have acquired.”

    This statement is nearly the opposite of my experience, although I concede that many people uncritically favor the latest authoritative sounding sound bite. The lack of critical thinking can cut both ways.

    For the longest time I fought to NOT trust “anti-Mormon” claims. But I have not been impressed with the corresponding LDS apologetic responses.

    I’ve witnessed a profound inability of family members to confront the subject of doubt. Some cannot bring themselves to even enter into a conversation about anything that sheds the least negative light on the church. They say, “I can’t even go there.” Is it they who only trust the knowledge they have acquired continuously from childhood? I see great anxiety in their avoidance. I tread gently if I tread at all.

    • “Rather than replace the dogmatic negative attacks of the critics with our own dogmatic answers, we attempt to show that a more positive interpretation is possible.”

    I don’t think “the dogmatic negative attacks of critics” is a wise target for apologetic work. It should be developed with non-dogmatic honest questioners foremost in mind – questioners who can be moved from fully disclosed evidence to a place from which they may move forward in faith with integrity.

    Indeed, this is Dr. Bushman message! His goal of showing “a more positive interpretation” hits this mark. It’s just that his framing of this single clause feels contrary to this.

    Thanks again Blair for pointing me to this piece and your .

    Sincerely

    JT

  6. bhodges Post author

    It’s a good point that doubts need not originate in critical materials, but can happen as one simply learns aspects of Church history, practice or doctrine from any source.

    I find claims to such surprise pretentious.

    Pretentious or not, I think Dr. Bushman was referring to the average born-in-the-church Mormons who aren’t aware of JS’s plural marriage. It seems pretty remarkable that a person who was raised in the Church, perhaps attended seminary and served a mission, would not be aware of JS’s plural marriage. If anything, it shows how little that aspect of his prophetic career has received attention within the church so long after the fact.

    There I also quoted Davis Bitton as saying: “There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is false.” This strikes me as betraying a bias that I can’t abide. If I expect a questioner to respond to my interpretation of historical evidence based on its merits, I must make a good faith effort to respond to his with an open mind. For evidence to count it must be allowed to count either way without prejudgement.

    My impression is that Bitton is making a different sort of point. I’m fairly certain he was just as soon say that the inverse of the statement is true; that is: “There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is true.” Matters of faith (in religion as in matters of relationships and other things) require faith and a decision to commit.

    Although there are people who fit this description, there are many who do not. Also, I would caution church members about adopting the belief that apostasy is “really” motivated by the desire to cut oneself free of moral restrictions – or that religious belief is the only thing that stops people from spinning out of moral control.

    I would caution against the same (and have done so in print), and I believe Bushman would as well. I don’t see him as saying “leave the church and you will become a terrible sinner.” I don’t see Bushman claiming that people lose all morals without a religious foundation. (It’s too far afield for the amount of time I have to go too far into, but I would argue people who believe they have left “religion” behind have replaced it with a new sort of religion, an adjusted set of morals, narratives, etc.)

    Kids commonly make his move on their own behalf. They admit to minor infractions to their parents to hide worse offenses. This may not be quite the same, but it has a similar flavor.

    I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Sometimes evil is in the eye of the beholder, for example.

    When a person’s faith is built on a collection of historic claims that require strained interpretations and speculations for their support, it doesn’t take long to start questioning motives for carrying them.

    I don’t think it necessarily should take long to question my own motives about why I believe what I believe. I don’t need to wait for a strained situation to take that step.

    The very fact that church members are so willing to affirm just about every self-reported spiritual experience should give them pause. The belief that I have special access because I am Mormon pales in view of this.

    We’re swerving over into blanket statement territory here.

    For the longest time I fought to NOT trust “anti-Mormon” claims. But I have not been impressed with the corresponding LDS apologetic responses.

    I think that would be a very good time to start formulating your own. I doubt you believe you have to wait for someone else to tell you how to handle every question you encounter.

    Indeed, this is Dr. Bushman message! His goal of showing “a more positive interpretation” hits this mark. It’s just that his framing of this single clause feels contrary to this.

    I think you are zooming further out on the issue of faith and doubt than Bushman and the seminar were zooming. The level of magnification clarifies at the same time it obscures. Thanks again for the conversation.

  7. JT

    Dear Blair,

    I appreciate you’re responses. I find common ground on every point. Here’s a quick follow up with regard to some of them.

    “We’re swerving over into blanket statement territory here.”

    Yes, my statement was hyperbolic. I withdraw it. It fails on three counts: (1) It reflects my limited experience, (2) it is likely colored with bias, and (3) I cannot prove that any particular self-report is not genuinely of the Holy Spirit.

    But I think I can still stand by my preceding statement. It seems reasonable to be skeptical of self-reported spiritual confirmations considering the wide spectrum of contending religious contexts running from Jainism to jihadism. There are consequences of not looking for distinctions.

    “I think that would be a very good time to start formulating your own [responses]. I doubt you believe you have to wait for someone else to tell you how to handle every question you encounter.”

    You are quite right to doubt this because I have been formulating my own responses. I’ve been formulating, testing, and refining them for many years – and the work continues. My provisional responses are informed by a growing body of both theistic and naturalistic thought and research, all of which I handle with great care as my personal experiences and intuitions throw them into new combinations.

    I want to keep listening to the ecclesiastical and apologetic messages of the LDS Church even as I engage secular history, psychology, cognitive science, etc. In this regard, I regret writing “I have not been impressed with LDS apologetic,” because that comes across as dismissive. I do not feel this way. For one thing I have not studied enough to reach that conclusion (and couldn’t). Second, and more importantly, I am open to the possibility of encountering an apologetic piece or a profession of faith that will give me a new purchase on some issue – one that could even lead me to re-embrace the LDS faith.

    However, I’m also strongly inclined to give ample room for a scientific analysis to religious claims and experiences. This does not mean I am gripped by “scientism.” Naturalism is the regulative methodological assumption of science, not its dogmatic metaphysical presumption.

    August claims of transcendent reality lie all around. Those that point to empirical manifestations seem to invite rational consideration of their plausibility. Even if Joseph Smith didn’t need to have the gold plates in front of him to translate, the church needed their existence to convert people. In a sense the gold plates invited people to use their reason to move to an edge where faith could take over.

    So here I am, in the midst of rational considerations – ready to listen – ready to think – ready to argue – ready to be moved toward that edge, whether or not it exists, or whether or not I’ll get there. I can only remain honestly and self-critically engaged. I sense that being here will help me in this life affirming project. Perhaps it will help others too.

    Best wishes,

    JT

    “I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” – Walt Whitman.

  8. BHodges

    It seems reasonable to be skeptical of self-reported spiritual confirmations considering the wide spectrum of contending religious contexts running from Jainism to jihadism. There are consequences of not looking for distinctions.

    Undoubtedly, and this is a subject well worth deep consideration. The fact that wonderful acts and atrocious acts have been attributed to revelation or spiritual direction means we ought not take all such claims at face value. But that’s no different than, say, the scientific method. So far it hasn’t yielded a single sure interpretation of many things. Take the age of the earth for example. Creationists might claim to be using empirical methods to debunk evolution, etc., although we can question how they approach the data, what data they approach, how they use it, etc. And it’s likely a bit easier since you’re more likely to have more hard and fast evidence with which to work. But the differing interpretations don’t call into question the entire scientific enterprise. I see the same thing in religion and matters of the Spirit.

    I like the way you stated the intersection of empirical and spiritual (even if you don’t necessarily see them as strictly separate) in mentioning the gold plates. Well put. You mention your current views as being more naturalistic. Can you suggest some leading proponents of such a perspective, some books, articles, etc.?

    So here I am, in the midst of rational considerations – ready to listen – ready to think – ready to argue – ready to be moved toward that edge, whether or not it exists, or whether or not I’ll get there. I can only remain honestly and self-critically engaged. I sense that being here will help me in this life affirming project. Perhaps it will help others too.

    I’ve appreciated the exchange; it’s rare to participate in one that lacks the rancorous back and forth. You say you are in the midst of rational considerations but one point you failed to mention was your tone, your method of discussing, which doesn’t contain the all-too-typical sarcasm, taken-for-granted assumptions and facile dismissals I’m more accustomed to from Internet dialog.

    Your quote from Whitman reminds me of something I was thinking just earlier today. I was thinking about friends who had left the church and friends who have stayed, and I was thinking about people who seem to instinctively question and search more than other people. People who feel less of a need to ask questions might stay in the church or they might leave the church. But there’s a certain sentiment some people have to ask and ask and ask, whether they stay or go, and it can be fun, but it can be exhausting too. The trouble, I think, arises not from the asking, but arises when such a person reaches a point where they stop asking altogether. Thanks again for the discussion.

  9. BHodges

    So far it hasn’t yielded a single sure interpretation of many things.

    I think I would rephrase that: the scientific method does not always lead to complete consensus, thus the gap between the approach and the result, same as in spiritual matters.

    Anyway, thanks again. :)

  10. JT

    Dear Blair,

    A very quick few responses.

    First, in response to your comment, “the scientific method does not always lead to complete consensus, thus the gap between the approach and the result, same as in spiritual matters”

    Please, when you have about an hour and a half, lister to BYU Professor William Bradshaw’s talk “The Biological Origin of Homosexuality.” I think some of the issues of the relationship between science and spirituality will be evident and the issue of consensus will be apparent.

    Second, with regard to “…and it can be fun, but it can be exhausting too..”

    As I mentioned in the last sentence of my previous post, I find that a”… life affirming project.” That it not to say I don’t take breaks. I just don’t have deadlines – literally.

    A good place to start with the secular perspective is with Spinoza. Let me suggest Rebecca Goldstein’s book Betraying Spinoza as a good place to start.

    Best wishes,

    JT

    P.S. Might this conversation be better continued in a different venue than this podcast Episode comment page? Perhaps on you “Life onGold Plates” blog?

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