“FAIR Conversations,” Episode 9: Kevin Christensen

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The FAIR Podcast is growing in order to provide episodes on a more frequent basis. The FAIR podcast will soon include episodes comprised of recordings of various FAIR Conference presentations from the past, as well as shorter apologetic vignettes for your listening enjoyment. The FAIR Podcast will thus be divided into categories including “Best of FAIR” and “FAIR Issues.”

Blair Hodges will continue hosting lengthier interviews on religious issues with a variety of scholars. His episodes will now be called “FAIR Conversations.” All of these categories will fall under the new umbrella name for the FAIR Podcast: “The FAIR-Cast.” The details are subject to change, but this is the overall gist of the direction we’re headed to provide a more frequent and diverse offering of podcast episodes.

This episode of FAIR Conversations features Kevin Christensen. Kevin, a technical writer in Pensylvania, is a good representative of what Hugh Nibley acclaimed as “the day of the amateur.” Kevin has published over twenty articles in the FARMS Review and other journals from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He’s also presented at numerous Sunstone conferences and published works in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Recently he co-authored a piece on the Book of Mormon in Oxford University Press’s book, Joseph Smith, Jr: Reappraisals After Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens.

Kevin joined host Blair Hodges via Skype to talk about his experiences with LDS apologetics.

Questions or comments about this episode can be sent to [email protected] Or, join the conversation in the comments here at fairblog.org.




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Miscellaneous References in this Interview:

Hugh W. Nibley, “Old World Ritual in the New World,” An Approach to the Book of Mormon.

Stephen D. Ricks, and John W. Welch, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom”.

Kevin Christensen, “Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets,” fairlds.org.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Anthony A. Hutchinson, “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988): 11-74.

Kevin Christensen, “New Wine and New Bottles: Scriptural Scholarship as Sacrament,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24/3 (Fall 1991): 121-29.

Kevin Christensen, “Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, A review of ‘Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon’ by Dan Vogel,FARMS Review 2/1, pp. 214-57.

Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Crossed, A review of ‘New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology’ by Brent Lee Metcalfe,FARMS Review, 7/2, pp. 144-218.

Kevin Christensen, “Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 16/1, pp. 287-354.

10 thoughts on ““FAIR Conversations,” Episode 9: Kevin Christensen

  1. Stephen Smoot


    I greatly enjoyed listening to your conversation with Kevin. Thanks to both you and Kevin for this wonderful podcast!

  2. Brian K

    I have been waiting for someone to do something like this for a long time. I am so excited to see some of the episodes that you put out.

  3. JT

    Thanks Blair and Kevin. Interesting conversation. I appreciate the references.

    The discussion of paradigms requires careful consideration. It is a term that has been applied rather loosely outside of science and has been broadly critiqued among philosophers of science since Kuhn.

    With admittedly insufficient consideration let me say that any a paradigm that allows “playing the miracle card” is problematical. The obvious reason is it cannot be constrained by evidence and potentially subverts the process of even reaching intersubjective agreement of what even constitutes evidence.

    In other words, the paradigm concept is best left to science. Elsewhere it becomes a fancy word for unconstrained analogical or metaphorical reasoning. Let me try to briefly clarify this point.

    Scientific paradigms evolve in response to empirically motivated insights and the fruitful questions and hypotheses (lines of research) these generate. But they survive based on the falsifiablity of these hypotheses – i.e. how well they hold up to experimental attack. It’s not just about the “rush” of fresh insights or the apparent cogency and coherence of the new alignments of facts they allow. An example would be chess. If one were to add a single arbitrary all kinds of creative “insights” and patterns would arise.

    The hierarchical universe paradigm of biblical and medieval cosmologies inspired a rush of imaginative speculations (and dogma). But it failed on the evidence. The deterministic Newtonian clockwork universe got us to the moon but it failed in the design of semiconductor circuits and GPS systems (“Hail to Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity!”) And now we know that these latest paradigms (statistically constrained indeterminacy and curved space time) are ultimately inadequate because they do not account for all the facts of the universe.

    Scientists still use these old paradigms, but only as pragmatic models. Nonscientists are free to use them as vehicles for creative expression. But let their be no mistake about how easy they are to misuse (abuse) when applied to the world untethered to anything but personal feelings.

    Paradigms belong in the realm of scientific methodology, not metaphysics. “The map is not the territory.”

    Perhaps Kevin was not saying more than this. Perhaps this is what Dan Vogel was getting at with his charge of “relativeism.” And then, perhaps I’m be missing the mark entirely! I better listen again, read Kevin’s paper, and brush up on Kuhn and his critics.

    The following video podcasts feature the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin from the Perimeter Institute in Canada. They seem to complement Kevin’s discussion of paradigms. The first one is less than 20 minutes. Of particular interest is the “paradigm” of science as a deeply ethical human enterprise based on collective honesty, respect, cooperation, and humility in the face of facts (theory laden as they may be).



    Best wishes,


  4. JT

    I should have proof read … In the fifth paragraph I dropped a word “rule.” It should read

    “An example would be chess. If one were to add a single arbitrary RULE all kinds of creative “insights” and patterns would arise.

  5. Kevin Christensen

    Fortunately, my discussion of paradigms never involves playing the miracle card as way to circumvent falsification. My essays do discuss the practical limits of both verification and falsification.

    I’m interested in how paradigms are defined by “standard examples of scientific work”, how they set up the “methods, problem field, and standards of solution”, and especially how individuals go about deciding which paradigm to adopt. In “Truth and Method” I quote Ian Barbour on Kuhn, and the subsequent refinement in defining what a paradigm is:

    “Kuhn maintained that the thought and activity of a given scientific community are dominated by its paradigms, which he described as “standard examples of scientific work that embody a set of conceptual, methodological and metaphysical assumptions.” Newton’s work in mechanics, for instance, was the central paradigm of the community of physicists for two centuries. In the second edition (1970) of Kuhn’s book and in subsequent essays, he distinguished several features which he had previously lumped together: a research tradition, the key historical examples (“exemplars”) through which the tradition is transmitted, and the set of metaphysical assumptions implicit in its fundamental conceptual categories. Adopting these distinctions, I will use the term paradigm to refer to a tradition transmitted through historical exemplars. The concept of paradigm is thus defined sociologically and historically, and its implications for epistemology (the structure and character of knowledge) must be explored.”75 (Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 8—9.)

    We do have such paradigmatic examples in Book of Mormon studies, Nibley’s Old World approach and Sorenson’s Mesoamerican approach—which embody a problem field, a set of methods, and standards of solution for an ongoing research tradition. Because this is the same exemplary function that Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity or Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity have performed for scholars and students working in those fields, it should be clear that paradigm debates in Book of Mormon studies are exactly like paradigm debates in other fields.

    In summary, Barbour explains:

    Each of the “subjective” features of science . . . is more evident in the case of religion: (1) the influence of interpretation on data, (2) the resistance of comprehensive theories to falsification, and (3) the absence of rules for choice among paradigms. Each of the corresponding “objective” features of science is less evident in the case of religion: (1) the presence of common data on which disputants can agree, (2) the cumulative effect of evidence for or against a theory, and (3) the existence of criteria which are not paradigm-dependent. It is clear that in all three respects religion is a more “subjective” enterprise than science. But in each case there is a difference of degree—not an absolute contrast between an “objective” science and a “subjective” religion.117 Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 144—45. For suggestions for “common data” upon which differing religions ought to be able to agree, see Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 53—56, emphasis in original.

    There are different kinds of phenomena to consider in Book of Mormon study. The stories of Joseph and the Angel are one thing, Moroni 10:4-5, another, Alma 32 in comparison to Kuhn, another, and whether the story of Lehi’s journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful is accurate, another, and whether the description of the Sidon best fits the Grijalva, yet another.

    Anyone can approach anyone of these questions from whatever paradigm they prefer (that is, a view based on standard examples which for them sets out the problems, methods, and standards of solution employed). For instance, anyone can follow Sterling McMurrin, and dismiss the whole enterprise on the grounds of his childhood surmise that “You don’t get books from angels, and translate them by inspiration. It’s just that simple.” He considers falsification a done deal to the extent that he never bothered to read the Book of Mormon.

    But the question of which paradigm is better should still be based on the most relevant values: And for Kuhn, these are:

    Puzzle generation and solution
    Accuracy of key predictions
    comprehensiveness and coherence
    simplicity and aesthetics
    future promise.

    John Charles Duffy’s Sunstone survey ignores all of that, and restricts his discussion Kuhn on paradigm choice to values such as the prestige of teachers, tradition, weight of orthodoxy.

    I’ll take a look at the videos. I’m also currently taking Barry Bickmore’s suggestion, and reading Feyerband’s Against Method, which is quite interesting.


    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  6. JT


    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am interested in giving your position its due consideration. I was obviously too quick to unleash a reflexive response.

    I have downloaded the articles you referenced and will throw them up against Vogel’s. This will take a of of time, especially if I go forward and dust off Kuhn and his critics.

    I do want to say that you did a terrific job communicating your ideas – I expect to be rewarded by reading their more comprehensive expression in your articles.

    Also, I would be interested in your opinion of Lee Smolin’s discussion of how science works and if that has any bearing on your argument.

    Best wishes,


  7. Kevin Christensen

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve been busy of late, but I’ll try to get round to Lee Smolin soon.

    Regarding McMurrin, amazing but true. He never read the Book of Mormon through. Neither did Harold Bloom. From Nibley, Kangaroo Court essay in The Prophetic Book of Mormon:” Dr. O’Dea has observed, not without a touch of Irish wit, that “the Book of Mormon has not been universally considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.”


    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

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