Grant Palmer: A Personal Review of “A Personal Review”

This morning I was drawn to Jonathan Cannon’s review of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins:

An Insider’s View — A Personal Review

I should mention that I didn’t read Palmer’s book until well after I had left the church, so it was not instrumental at all in my exit, though it obviously has affected quite a lot of people. I should also mention that I don’t know Jonathan Cannon and had never heard of him before, so I have no prejudice for or against him.

Let me start with a quote from the review:

Academic authors are generally allowed to make their own interpretations, and it isn’t considered unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to not cite relevant sources, or provide people with resources to find out more about contested topics. As far as I can tell, Palmer cites many useful secondary sources, and can be used effectively as a starting point for a new student of Mormon history.

First of all, I am probably looking at this differently than Cannon is, but I don’t consider Palmer’s book to be an academic or even remotely “objective” review of the issues. Palmer’s intent, clearly stated several times, is to present the problematic issues clearly and succinctly so that a general audience can understand them. As Cannon writes:

First, I hope to alert the reader of An Insider’s View to a fact that Palmer doesn’t hide, but that is easily overlooked because of rhetorical choices made by the author; namely, that the history presented is a popular summary and consciously removes many real ambiguities in the historical record.

It seems a little odd to criticize Palmer for providing a “popular summary” when that’s exactly what Palmer says he is providing. Apparently, however, Palmer’s “rhetorical choices” lead the reader to forget the purpose of the book. I think most readers are smarter than that, but let’s take a look at what Cannon means. We get a glimpse of the problem here, when Cannon is discussing his reaction to some podcasts Palmer recorded:

 And then he presented conclusions with great confidence, as if the evidence compelled him to arrive there.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I think this is what Cannon is talking about when he refers to “rhetorical choices.” Cannon believes–and I agree with him–that the “evidence” (church history and origins in their non-Correlated form) doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief. If it did, there would be no apologists and no “faithful historians.” Palmer, like a lot of former Mormons, likely does feel that “the evidence compelled him to arrive” at unbelief, and I think he’s been pretty clear about this in everything I have read from him. For Cannon, that Palmer is at peace with his conclusions represents an “exaggerated confidence” that affects the contents of the book so much so that it invalidates Palmer’s conclusions. Palmer, he argues, “removes ambiguities” that would undercut his conclusions.

I agree that “ambiguities” and alternative narratives are not presented, but then I wouldn’t expect a non-scholarly summary to provide that at all (it is a short read, after all). What would be “unprofessional” in a peer-reviewed book or article is not so in a book written as a summary for a general audience. Cannon seems to find fault with Palmer for writing a book for a stated purpose while at the same time calling him “unprofessional” for not following the rules that would govern a book written for a different purpose. Cannon finds this quote to be a rhetorical device to shape the reader’s bias:

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school.

It’s difficult for me to find fault with this statement: there is “near-consensus on many of the details,” and the picture these details paint is indeed quite different from what we get in Correlated lesson manuals.

That said, in my view, the evidence is more ambiguous than what Palmer presents but less ambiguous than Cannon suggests. Let’s take one example. Multiple accounts from people who were involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon or in the house at the time indicate a process that was essentially a word-for-word dictation. Of course, no one could possibly know the process except for Joseph Smith. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

I happen to have read a little about this issue, and find Palmer’s removal of ambiguities problematic. This statement appears to imply that all of these individuals each reported all of these facts: that Joseph looked in his hat with a seer stone in it, and that he saw the words to speak word for word in the stones. The quotes that follow do support the stone and face in hat picture. We can be quite confident of this fact. What Joseph saw in the stones turns out to be highly ambiguous, historically. I think ambiguities, like this one at the very beginning, ultimately make Palmer’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith as a translator/revelator much weaker than Palmer’s confident narrative would lead a reader to believe. Instead of glossing over the ambiguities, this brief article examines some ambiguities of translation and the quality of the historical evidence in greater detail, and arrives at a different picture than Palmer. Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

Cannon seems to be arguing that the evidence in support of a word-for-word “dictation” process is ambiguous, but the article he links to doesn’t help him here. Three quotes (two from people involved or in close proximity to the translation process, one secondhand and 70 years removed) are given in the FARMS/MI article, all three of which support Palmer’s “near-consensus” that the process involved the words appearing in the seer stone. The author of the article, Stephen Ricks, tells us why he thinks that method is “problematical from a linguistic point of view,” but he gives no counterevidence except to quote a non-Mormon minister, who was not involved in any aspect of the translation process. And even then, the minister’s statement isn’t at all inconsistent with the “word by word” process, saying only that “the Holy Ghost would reveal to [Joseph] the translation in the English language.” Based on this rather poorly done apologetic article, Cannon damns Palmer as not allowing for a different process, even though there is nothing beyond Stephen Ricks’ linguistic objections to suggest such a different process.

Ultimately, no one knows what Joseph Smith saw or didn’t see, but the issue here is that most members of the church are completely unaware of Joseph’s “seer stone,” its provenance, or its role in the translation process. In short, whether anything came word for word is irrelevant to most people I know. Inventing some sort of ambiguity that you can see only when Stephen Ricks squints at it is hardly damaging to Palmer’s claims. But Cannon seems to think readers have been misled because Palmer promised “near-consensus” (he didn’t) and hid the ambiguous:

Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

I might agree had Cannon presented something here that led to a “variety of interpretations,” but he hasn’t.

Cannon mentions alternative theories for the production of the Book of Mormon. I have to admit I’m always puzzled about the apparent belief that critics must provide a comprehensive theory for the production of the book. Why is this necessary? It’s the text of the Book of Mormon that provides clues to its origins, no matter how it was produced, and as Cannon notes, the text makes perfect sense in a 19th-century context. Insisting that Palmer and other critics provide a production process makes about as much sense as insisting that, unless I know how it happened, I must accept that Gob Bluth really did make a yacht disappear.

I appreciate the compassion with which Cannon approaches people who feel “betrayed.” I don’t believe I fit in with that category, as I was well aware of the issues in church history for some 10 years before my exit, but I completely understand why people feel betrayed by a church that presented only a sanitized, Disney-like version of its history. The contrast with the known history can be quite jarring, to say the least. That Cannon acknowledges that the church has done things that would lead people to feel betrayed is commendable. He goes on:

To those of you who feel betrayed and would like a resolution that leads you back to trust in the LDS church, I would suggest a few kinds of questions I’ve picked up from literary theory, postmodern thought, and economics. A warning, I’m not an expert in any of these and so likely to be misapplying them.

As someone who studied literary theory, including postmodernism in grad school, I always cringe when people bring this into a discussion of Mormonism, so forgive me if I don’t take that seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people misuse postmodernism, from Blake Ostler to Juliann Reynolds and a lot of others, as if it provides a more mature, nuanced approach to Mormonism. It really doesn’t. Postmodernism asserts that “truth” is irrelevant, and even if there were some truth or reality, it would be inaccessible to humans precisely because being human distorts our perception of everything. Because postmodernism is skeptical of science’s ability to approach truth, Mormon apologists have seized on that skepticism to argue that a subjective, spiritual approach to truth is superior. What they aren’t telling us is that postmodernists would say that the spiritual approach is just as worthless as science and reason for arriving at truth. So, I am not sure what to make of his brief allusion to postmodern literary theory.

These questions don’t seem particularly rooted in postmodernism or literary theory, though the notion that there’s always an agenda behind every statement sort of touches on it. (By the way, an excellent discussion of the rhetorical purpose of historical writing is found in Hayden White’s Metahistory.)

That said,  I’ll take a stab at Cannon’s questions:

“What is the purpose of the history being taught (there may be many)?”

The history taught in the church accomplishes two purposes: 1) it presents a cohesive, positive narrative of the foundational claims of the church that makes sense and inspires church members. 2) It almost always presents history to inspire moral choices, which of course are easier to present if there is little or no ambiguity. I suspect the conscious subordination of history to its rhetorical purposes explains why church history reads like something from Walt Disney.

“What are the alternatives to how it is being taught (take the time to think of more than a couple)?”

For me the best alternative wouldn’t require a huge adjustment in the content of what is taught but in how it is presented. Because the history is presented as a sort of inspirational example, it is approached with a sort of reverence and awe that is incompatible with viewing historical figures, such as Joseph Smith, as real human beings. I’m not really sure what it would look like, but I would suggest toning down the hero-worship and showing the history in more human terms. People are forgiving of prophets as humans, but not so much of prophets portrayed as saintly superheroes.

“How would each of these alternatives contribute to or detract from the purposes?”

Showing the human side of the history would be more effective in accomplishing the two goals I mentioned above. If we want to motivate flawed humans to accomplish great things, show them flawed humans who did accomplish great things (assuming of course that Mormonism is a great accomplishment).

“Is it necessary that all of the changes come at the institutional level?”

Yes, I think it is necessary because the institution has created an unrealistic view of its leaders and its history. Individuals can change that attitude, but as long as the church promotes such a hagiographical approach to its leaders and history, those who reject that simplistic approach will be outliers who will probably be criticized by their fellow members.

“How long am I willing to wait for the institution to change?”

I couldn’t care less how long it takes. It’s their church, and they’ll adapt as they have to.

“What signs can I find that the institution is changing?”

I think the recent essays are signs they are changing. At least I hope they are.

“Does my view of Prophets match the present and historical reality?”

I view prophets as human beings with human failings, so yes, my view does reflect the reality.

“Are my unrealistic expectations one piece of my feelings of betrayal?”

This is the reason for such feelings for many people, but remember that it is the church that taught people to have those “unrealistic expectations.” Frankly, the question here seems to do what I’ve seen the church do a lot: passive-aggressively shift the focus to what the member is doing “wrong” instead of acknowledging the church’s actions and intent.

‘Is Mormonism mine, or does it belong to the General Authorities?”

It’s a nice thought to believe that a Mormon can have a Mormonism that is “yours,” but we all understand that “your” Mormonism is still constrained by the acceptable boundaries set by the church and its leaders.

Finally, I’ll comment on one quote that hits the mark:

“I find Palmer’s evidence too incomplete to compel me to more than a guarded agnosticism regarding the foundational claims.”

What Palmer’s book ought to accomplish is to motivate people to learn more about the issues. His book is not the definitive work on early Mormonism any more than a political party’s “voter’s guide” is a complete and exhaustive summary of that party’s agenda. Where I think Cannon has gone wrong is to apply academic standards to a book that is decidedly not academic.

Palmer’s book is invaluable in introducing people to issues they probably have never heard of, but readers should take it as the starting point in their journey of discovery, not the end. Its value lies in summarizing the issues. Having a better and more accurate view of LDS history does not require someone to lose faith or leave the church; it may, however, require an adjustment of attitude and an acknowledgment that life doesn’t fit in a tidy little box, no matter how much we would like it to.

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5 Responses to Grant Palmer: A Personal Review of “A Personal Review”

  1. Camille Biexei says:

    I think that it will take the Church a little more time to re-rewrite their history, especially regarding Joseph Smith, jr. Afterall, Joseph Smith is now considered a God–making him “human” now for the masses will be a big challenge for the Church. It is hard to come down off Mount Olympus.
    Besides the re-rewrite, I suspect that they will have to hope that my generation forgets how many times we have sung “Praise to the Man”. The next generation of the faithful may be less invested in the heroic version of the man referred to as “THE Prophet” throughout my growing up years. Time will tell.
    PS I admire Palmer’s work and his almost naive earnestness, but I withdrew membership many years before he wrote Insider’s View.

  2. theyogre says:

    I only want to note that I did not intend to call Palmer unprofessional. My statement in that regard was to inform people unused to academic writing that an author can be academically professional and still present their own opinion or interpretation of the data. Some people are inclined to label Palmer with terms like ‘unprofessional’ or ‘bad scholar’ because he presents an opinion. The clarity with which he stated his biases and purposes was both professional and respectable.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond respectfully.

    • runtu says:

      I try to be respectful, and I hope you haven’t taken my post as anything other than what it was: a response to a review, not to you personally. As I said, I have my own issues with Palmer’s book, but I understand its purpose and intent, and it really does a good job at that–well, except for the stuff about the Golden Pot, which I would have left out.

    • robinobishop says:

      This is an opinion piece based upon anything but objective evidence. There can be no neutrality here. Declaring bias is only the beginning of scholarship. Declaring bias to the extent it exists, then demonstrating that full blown bias in the writing, may make the writing so damaged that it fails a simple test of validity. When vultures attempt to publish a research paper on the worthlessness of a Caesar salad, such a paper is irretrievably biased and completely invalid.

      Flamboyant metaphors and similes makes for entertaining lit for some it does not offend. But it abjectly fails the cursory test of scholarly writing in any case.

      Objective evidence exists of the humanness of Joseph and while acknowledging it openly, he should be valorized by us; to that degree you could make the same case for the mortal Christ and be no less biased and in error.

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