by John-Charles Duffy
Originally published in Spring 2008
Writing in the mid-1990s, Mormon-watcher Massimo Introvigne made a counterintuitive observation about debates over Book of Mormon historicity among Mormon intellectuals, as compared to analogous debates between Protestant fundamentalists and liberals. Fundamentalists, despite their reputation for being anti-scientific, were “deeply committed to Enlightenment concepts of ‘objective knowledge,’ and ‘truth,’” confident that an impartial view of the data would confirm the historical authenticity of the Bible. Protestant liberals, in contrast, deployed a “post-modern, anti- Enlightenment epistemology” to undermine absolutist readings of the Bible. The opposite dynamic, however, prevailed in the Book of Mormon debates. Liberals publishing with Signature Books—such as Edward Ashment and David P. Wright—were “staunch defenders of the Enlightenment,” with its ideals of disinterested reason and the unfettered search for truth, while conservatives publishing with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) held “the late modernist and post-modernist position that knowledge is by no means objective, and that ‘true,’ universally valid, historical conclusions could never be reached.”
For observers who equate “postmodern” with relativism or use “deconstruction” as academese for “destruction” (as in “the deconstruction of traditional values”), Introvigne’s analysis must be puzzling. Why would defenders of a religious orthodoxy that claims access to absolute truth and an exclusive dispensation of divine authority align themselves with postmodern epistemologies that destabilize claims to truth and authority? Little wonder that one liberal critic, Brent Lee Metcalfe, has branded the alignment contradictory.
Whether the use of postmodern appeals by orthodox LDS scholars is philosophically consistent or contradictory is not a question I will address in this essay. Partly this is because I lack the training to engage that question with philosophical rigor; partly it is because I see more interesting, and useful, questions to ask. My project here is to provide historical perspective on the use of postmodern appeals by “faithful scholars” over the last twenty-five years, inquiring into these appeals’ rhetorical efficacy and political uses. By invoking postmodern authorities and lines of reasoning, what new discursive and institutional spaces have LDS scholars carved out for themselves? How have orthodox scholars used postmodern appeals to intimidate rivals? And how effective are those appeals likely to be at persuading non-Mormon academics to take seriously the work of faithful scholars at a time when Mormon studies is starting to be institutionalized in the academic mainstream?