Changes at the Maxwell Institute, and “controlling the narrative”

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As many are no doubt aware by now, late last week Daniel C. Peterson was dismissed as editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly known as Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, FARMS Review of Books, and FARMS Review, in that order), the flagship journal of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU (formerly the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or “FARMS”).

Dr. Peterson has been the editor of the Review since its inception and first issue in 1989. At that time FARMS was a private foundation that served as a “clearinghouse” for cutting-edge research on the Book of Mormon. It also published works of an apologetic nature, typically reviews of books and other materials that were critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 1998 FARMS became part of Brigham Young University, gaining some “official” status as part of the Church’s university. Although editorial freedom was promised in this arrangement, over the years there has been increasing tension at the organization between Peterson and others who believed it should defend the Church in print, and university-appointed administrators who did not agree with this approach.

Last week Dr. M. Gerald Bradford, executive director of the Maxwell Institute, fired Peterson as editor of the Review via email while Peterson was out of the country. (As far as I can tell, Peterson retains his position at the Institute as editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative.)

The other editors of the Review have also been let go, although none of them have (as of the time I write this) been personally notified of their dismissal by Bradford or the Institute staff. Bradford has not replied to email messages by the (now former) editors concerning their status.

According to a brief notice on the Institute’s web site, the Review is going to take a new direction under a new editorial team, to be appointed by Bradford himself.

Naturally, critics of the restored gospel have been dancing in the streets over this news. Dan Peterson is arguably the most prominent LDS apologist, and their delight at seeing him professionally dismembered has been boundless. In their glee, they have created a narrative to explain, supposedly, how this change at the Maxwell Institute came about. The narrative goes something like this:

The general authorities of the Church are opposed to apologetics in general, and the apologetic publications at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute in particular. They believe Dan Peterson and his coauthors have been mean-spirited and resorted to ad hominem attacks, and so they decided to put their foot down.

Specifically the rumor has been that this action was taken over a lengthy, critical essay written by Gregory Smith about John Dehlin that was to be published in the Review. Dehlin is the founder and director of Mormon Stories, an online community that is centered on a podcast series of interviews conducted by Dehlin and and a few others.

Dehlin learned about the essay from a supporter within the Institute and, without having read it, Dehlin acted to suppress its publication. He sent an email to a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy — CC:ing a number of people at the Institute — telling the Seventy that the article was not appropriate, and threatening to involve a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

In other words, without having read the essay or even knowing anything of its content, rather than contact Smith or Peterson directly to ask about it, Dehlin immediately contacted a member of the Seventy, and basically threatened to take it higher unless its publication was censored.

(There is a great deal of irony in this: Dehlin himself charges the Church with “suppressing” uncomfortable facts about its history, and yet Dehlin suppresses anything that might criticize his own activities.)

And so the rumor has spread that Dehlin’s General Authority contact ordered Peterson’s dismissal due to disapproval of an essay that neither Dehlin nor the General Authority has read.

The truth is less exciting: The Dehlin essay wasn’t the cause of Peterson’s firing, although the essay was part of the larger apologetic effort that Bradford disliked — as it turns out, the last in a line of reviews to which he objected. There is no evidence that Peterson’s firing was ordered or orchestrated by general authorities of the Church, as Bill Hamblin (professor at BYU and former FARMS board member) has pointed out.

Dehlin and his supporters are trying to spin Peterson’s firing as a great rebuke by the leaders of the Church. In politics this is known as “controlling the narrative.” Professor Lane Crothers at Illinois State University explains:

At some level, the only thing that actually matters in modern politics is controlling the narrative in which events are explained. Frame this narrative to your benefit, and the battle is at least half won. Lose the framing war, and you face long odds.

***

It’s about shaping what we haven’t even thought about thinking yet.

Very soon these events at the Maxwell Institute will be spoken of in the past tense. The Institute and the Mormon Studies Review will go forward in their new direction. Daniel Peterson and others who agree with his editorial style will possibly (perhaps likely) create a new organization and publication through which they can disseminate their views.

It is vitally important to John Dehlin and his supporters that they “write the history” of these events. Inter-departmental disagreement at BYU? Or word from On High that apologetics is mean and nasty and that Mormon Stories should be beyond criticism (after all, look what happened to Dan Peterson)?

Until the whole story can be told — and I’m sure it will — it would be best not to believe a narrative that is told by self-interested parties, without evidence and in denial of the facts which are known.

__________

(Update: Ralph Hancock has some additional important thoughts on this subject, here.)

This entry was posted in Apologetics, News stories, Uncategorized on by .

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker has been involved in LDS apologetics since the mid-1980s, and on the Internet since 1997. He joined the team of FairMormon volunteers in 2002, and has been involved in the creation of the FairMormon wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org) and running the annual FairMormon conference. He is the recipient of FairMormon’s 2006 John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award. He resides with his gorgeous wife and two wonderful children in Utah's Dixie region.

22 thoughts on “Changes at the Maxwell Institute, and “controlling the narrative”

  1. Guy Murray

    Mike, will FAIR publish Dehlin’s emails threatening FAIR if they published the Smith paper? Thanks for this write up–quite informative and well done.

  2. Pingback: FARMS Fires Peterson et al . . . « Messenger and Advocate

  3. Mike Parker Post author

    I think “threatening” overstates his correspondence with FAIR. Certainly very concerned that Greg’s paper might come to light.

    I don’t know if we’ll publish them. That decision is above my pay grade. I hope so.

  4. iamse7en

    Really great summary of this drama. I hope this paper gets eventually published. I would love to read it. It’s kinda lame that a semi-active (depending on the month), agnostic NOM who wants to change Church policy and doctrine has so much influence. Even beyond the politics of this squabble, Dehlin is a very influential voice for the non-believing, attending Mormons. I actually enjoy quite a few of his interviews, but I am well aware of his agenda and destructive influence.

  5. Guy Murray

    I hope FAIR publishes them as well. I used “threatened” or “threatening” based on your own language in the post. Frankly, I think that’s an accurate characterization given the fact Dehlin attempted to influence FAIR’s editorial process, and did so by invoking an appeal to the very “brethren” he has so many times publicly characterized as unenlightened and/or uninformed based on current Church doctrines and practices . . .

  6. Ms. Jack

    In other words, without having read the essay or even knowing anything of its content, rather than contact Smith or Peterson directly to ask about it, Dehlin immediately contacted a member of the Seventy, and basically threatened to take it higher unless its publication was censored.

    According to Dehlin, this is not accurate. Dehlin did attempt to contact Dan about the article directly before contacting a GA. His side of the story can be read here.

  7. Mike Parker Post author

    Ms. Jack:

    Yes, that is Dehlin’s claim, but it is not true. He emailed a member of the First Quorum of Seventy and CC:ed the message to Daniel Peterson (and a few other non-BYU LDS scholars) in his first e-mail on the matter. The general authority friend was contacted in the same first email received by Peterson.

  8. mightycw

    Even if Hamblin’s telling is the correct one, why get involved so soon? Clearly at this point a lot of the facts are unknown, and it’s just possible that Dehlin’s reaction to the article was a partial catalyst for Peterson’s firing amidst the machinations of department politics. The truth is, I have no idea — and if I’m correct that you’re sourcing your opinions primarily from Hamblin, then I’m not sure you do either.

    Setting aside who is right, the way you wrote the post is unnecessarily confrontational: before even introducing Dehlin, and without the briefest attempt to deal with him on his own terms, you label him a “critic of the restored gospel.” When I read that I thought you might be talking about the Tanners. Then you use loaded words like “threatened” and “censored” and broadly assert that Dehlin “suppresses anything” that criticizes him. Your language is of attack, not examination; obviously Dehlin is the only one trying to control the narrative. I don’t intend this to be a defense of Dehlin; he can do that himself (I actually find his podcasts longwinded and tedious, though this mini-controversy is obviously interesting enough for me to comment!), but I think it might help to consider your own tone and style and see if your approach is a Christlike as you intend.

  9. mightycw

    That previous comment should have said that Dehlin is NOT the only one trying to control the narrative, as this post is obviously trying to do the same. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s disingenuous to accuse your opponent of doing something nefarious when it’s exactly what you’re trying to do!

  10. Mike Parker Post author

    mightycw:

    • My sources are much more extensive than Bill Hamblin. I cited him as one public source, but there are others. I hope those will be available to be published soon.
    • My intent with the original post was to set a few facts straight, as the narrative of this matter is quickly getting out of control, founded on half-truths and rumors. You are free to reject my correction to the narrative, naturally.
    • If you believe that I’m being “unnecessarily confrontational,” then that is your right to hold that opinion. Compared to the tone and content of many of the message board and blog posts from Peterson’s critics on this matter, I think I’ve shown unusual restraint.
    • It is not my intention to “attack” John Dehlin, but rather to correct the record. I did not “label him a ‘critic of the restored gospel’” (I had other people in mind when I used that phrase, above). And I used the terms “threatened” and “censored” in a way that fits what Dehlin clearly was doing in his communications.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate comment, though.

  11. Ms. Jack

    Mike – So, just to be clear, when John Dehlin says:

    I immediately emailed Daniel Peterson, and cc’d a few people I consider to be friends, to find out if this was true — telling him that if, indeed, the story was true, that I would appreciate knowing about it, and that I would be contacting my GA friends to ask for their involvement.

    The Seventy was among the people he CC’ed, whom he considers to be “friends”?

    Thanks in advance for your clarification.

  12. Mike Parker Post author

    It’s possible that John Dehlin is splitting hairs by referring to a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy as among “a few people I consider to be friends.” But, if so, it seems odd in that, at the end of the very same sentence, he speaks of “contacting my GA friends to ask for their involvement.”

  13. mightycw

    Well I’m glad that you weren’t out to label Dehlin as one of the critics dancing in the streets, but the text goes straight from those critics to the “Dehlin narrative” to Dehlin himself, so I’m not sure the distinction would have been clear even to people inclined to agree with you. You’re absolutely correct that you’ve shown more restraint than some of the other voices on the internet. though I’m not sure you’d want to use your opponents’ behavior as the standard of judging your own.

    For what it’s worth, there are plenty of internet Dehlin supporters who seem filled with venom and vitriol, which is why I avoid that corner of the bloggernacle even though I’m fairly unorthodox myself (I suspect a lot of people mistrust Dehlin because of the company he keeps online). However, I also read Peterson’s account of their email exchange and my first thought was “This sounds like it was written by Ann Coulter…” So, yeah, overheated rhetoric abounds, and maybe part of the problem is that both sides are defining themselves against the worst excesses of the other.

  14. Ms. Jack

    It’s possible that John Dehlin is splitting hairs by referring to a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy as among “a few people I consider to be friends.” But, if so, it seems odd in that, at the end of the very same sentence, he speaks of “contacting my GA friends to ask for their involvement.”

    Right. If a Seventy was present among those CC’ed in the initial e-mail, then I think this was a misleading way of saying it.

  15. Mike Parker Post author

    mightycw: The primary group I had in mind with the “dancing” remark is “Dr. Shades” and his supporters on certain vile message board. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.

    However, it is clear that John Dehlin is using this situation to further his message and justify his approach.

  16. rameumptom

    Whether Dehlin had anything to do with the firing or not is still open to conjecture.

    What is not left to conjecture is the matter of Dan’s firing. For Bradford to fire him via email, while Dan is out of country for several weeks, clearly shows unprofessional behavior. Dan’s been editor of the MSR for over 20 years, been one of MI’s biggest fund raisers, etc. He deserved more respect. Bradford could either have fired him before his leaving, or upon his return. The only people I know who would fire someone (anyone almost) in such a manner are people with an un-Christian agenda. I hope BYU’s leaders, whether they want Dan to remain or not, look into Bradford’s poor actions, and take appropriate action in doing so.

    This shows worse on BYU than on Dan. BYU made promises to FARMS to become part of the university. They broke their promise, and are now causing a coup d’etat, by killing off FARMS while Dan is nowhere he can defend himself or FARMS.

    Bradford does not have to feel alone, however. He can keep company with Randy Botts.

  17. James Stutz

    Mightycw,

    Do you dispute that John Dehlin is a “critic of the restored gospel”? The description seems perfectly reasonable to me. Loaded? Perhaps. Accurate? Yes.

    This is the sort of thing that enemies of the Maxwell Institute do. When a critic is referred to as a “critic” they cry “ad hominem!” so they don’t have to deal with the arguments. I’m not saying you are doing this, but this seems to be the pattern.

  18. meekmildmagnificent

    It is also not open to conjecture that Dehlin himself is asserting that he somehow knows that GAs at the highest level were involved in the decision. At Bill Hamblin’s website he stated:

    “Bill – 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 church leadership is uncomfortable with your (and Dr. Peterson’s) brand of apologetics. To blame Bradford for this seems like scapegoating. It’s LDS church leadership that appears to be uncomfortable with your style of apologetics. Unfortunately you can’t criticize them….but it’s not fair to lay the blame on Bradford either. Not fair at all. Try looking in the mirror.”

    In addition to the obvious vitriol (perhaps he was angry because he felt like FARMS was attacking him) he is clearly claiming to have some kind of knowledge of the inner workings of church leadership on this issue. I don’t know if he does or if he is making it all up (I think the latter), but his claim that somehow the highest levels of the Church have passed judgment on Dan and is administrative team is clear.

  19. Pingback: Controlling the Narrative « Mormon Scripture Explorations

  20. Stephen Smoot

    I see a direct parallel in all of this with what happened back in the early 1990s concerning Signature Books and a review published by FARMS of one of Dan Vogel’s books.

    Dan Peterson laid out his side of the story here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=4&num=1&id=78

    Too bad that he doesn’t have the press at FARMS anymore to lay out his side of this most recent and ugly story. Instead we have to turn to different and scattered blogs and messages boards (some more pleasant than others) to learn more about this.

  21. Pingback: The Rise and Fall of FARMS – Temple Study - LDS Temples, Mormon Temples, Study Blog

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