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Dan vogels new book


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I know I'm a little late, but I've been reading rough stone rolling and its been a great biography so far. I wanted to ask about Dan vogels new book "Charismas under pressure" and see what peoples thoughts are about it?

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I haven't gotten very far into it. I think that it is a problematic approach. I'll provide two early examples of stuff that bothered me - here is some material from the introduction:

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One needed no longer guess as to what God wanted his children to believe and do. The veil had been parted. The only thing that remained was to be obedient and mindful of the prophet’s guidance — for one’s salvation depended upon it, both spiritually and physically. ... it may also be said that the mystery of Joseph Smith cannot be solved until we understand better the larger mystery of the attraction of the charismatic leader and the devotion of the true believer. When one understands more fully the symbiosis of leader and follower, then perhaps Smith will seem less a puzzle and more like a person fulfilling his own needs through his followers.

This is probably a good summary of the text in some ways - the lens that is used to look at history. The problem for me is that, I think, many of the early leaders of the Church - those who help move early Mormonism from a congregation to a movement to a religion weren't really "true believers" in this sense. And so I think that there is an uphill climb going on in terms of what is presented.

The second one I wanted to offer comes from the second chapter: Fixing the Bible. There is a bit of a telling note here:

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In their attempt to rescue the Book of Mormon’s historicity from evidence of anachronisms, both in its use of the KJV and in parallels to various aspects of nineteenth - century American culture, some apologetic writers have attempted to broaden the definition of “translation” to include what they speculate was Smith’s rewording and expansion of the original text, ignoring his claim to have merely read the words from his seer stone. Some apologetic writers point to Smith’s Bible revision, which he called a “translation,” as evidence that he used a non - standard definition. However, the rarefied definition comes from what the apologetic writers believe is needed to escape problems encountered in the texts, rather than from what Smith said he was doing. In 1843 he declared: “I believe the bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers.” He then gave an example of a problematic text that was resolved in his revision of the Old Testament, implying that he had corrected the text to its original reading. Apologetic writers, therefore, have things backward. Rather than redefining “translation” to accommodate the anachronisms and problems and thereby create a vicious circularity — a question - begging definition — the anachronisms should tell us that Smith was not translating as he claimed. If Smith felt inspired to correct perceived problems in the Bible and produce pseudepigraphic additions to the text, he also believed himself justified in presenting his work as a “translation,” implying that he was restoring the original text.

It is hard to take something like this all that seriously. Translation, after all, doesn't ever imply the restoration of an original text. Such an effort is the work of textual criticism trying to uncover an urtext. And I might suggest that this is something akin to the work of Skousen who works to uncover the original text of the Book of Mormon. I cannot possibly relate to the Book of Mormon - of even to early understanding of the Book of Mormon. As I have noted in my own discussion of the translation, here is something that Brigham Young said about the translation:

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When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. … Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to rewrite the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation.

I don't disagree that there are efforts in some circles to try and equate the Book of Mormon to the gold plates (and to do so on the basis that there is somehow a perfect translation that occurs) - this tendency is often strongest among those who subscribe to a tight model of translation (a translation in which Joseph Smith plays little or no role at all but instead simply reads from his stone). And I certainly offer an alternative interpretation of the use of archaic language in the text than those who insist on this tight translation. I think that LDS insistence on the what the idea of translation is (or should be) in the context of Joseph's writings that he claimed were translations comes from an early 20th century context.

The text is full of footnotes. The introduction has 118 of them. And most of them provide no context to short quotes that are used for narrative building. It is a bit much - I think that there are valid questions of interpretation here - that aren't as accessible to those who don't have broad access to research material (even those with internet access and good searching skills).

Finally, the text reminds me of an unpublished essay I never finished (about 10 years ago now):

 

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In November of 2005, Mark Thomas published a review of two biographies that had just been published about Joseph Smith.[1] He observed:

Even as I write this, however, I hold it to be a scandal of Mormon scholarship and an embarrassment for historians that these two biographies describe what appears to be the life of two entirely different people.[2]

I have been reflecting on this idea a bit over the past few days because of my exposure to both a new discussion about Joseph Smith, and the congruence of this quest for the “Historical Joseph Smith” with another much more celebrated quest for the historical Jesus. The discussion about Joseph Smith came in the form of a review of the recently published American Crucifixion by Alex Beam.[3] At the same time, I was working my way through an essay by Luke Johnson: “The Humanity of Jesus: What’s at Stake in the Quest for the Historical Jesus?” Certainly they deal with very different things, but in many ways, Johnson’s observations on the attempts to provide a biography of the historical Jesus help, I think, to explain the growing body of literature that is the quest for a historical Joseph Smith.

Johnson provides us with two related concerns that he feels gave rise to the quest:

The historical study of Jesus began due to Enlightenment in Europe. At the time, two related convictions became popular among those considering themselves to live in an age of reason. The first was that for religion to be true it had to be reasonable; the second was that history was the most reasonable measure of truth. The claims of Christians about Jesus must therefore also meet those standards. Not surprisingly, the quest for Jesus was driven most by those deeply dissatisfied with a Christianity that grounded its super-naturalism and sacramental-ism in the figure of Jesus, and who therefore sought in a purely rational Jesus the basis for a Christianity purged of its superstitious elements.[4]

My own fascination this past week has centered on the outcomes of these issues applied first to the historical person of Jesus Christ, and then subsequently how apparently the same kinds of issues are applied to the more recent historical person of Joseph Smith. In a statement that reminds us of Thomas cited above, Johnson writes:

This brings us to the question why so many scholars using the same methods on the same materials have ended with such wildly divergent portraits of Jesus. To list only a few that have emerged: Jesus as romantic visionary (Renan), as eschatological prophet (Schweitzer, Wright), as wicked priest from Qumran (Thiering), as husband of Mary Magdalen (Spong), as revolutionary zealot (S.F.G. Brandon), as agrarian reformer (Yoder), as revitalization movement founder and charismatic (Borg), as gay magician (Smith), as cynic sage (Downing), as peasant thaumaturge (Crossan), as peasant poet (Bailey), and as guru of oceanic bliss (Mitchell). The common element seems still to be the ideal self-image of the researcher. It is this tendency that led T.W. Manson to note sardonically, “By their lives of Jesus ye shall know them.”

This is not so different from the broad range of portraits of Joseph Smith – and while labeling them in this way doesn’t necessarily do justice to the theories, it does illustrate the variety: Joseph the prophet, the con man, the founder of a religious movement, the pious fraud, the egoist, the seer, the illiterate farm boy, the treasure hunter, the politician, and so on. So why do so many scholars find such divergence in their understandings of Joseph Smith?

It cannot be related to the lack of data that exists for Jesus. About Jesus, Johnson notes that “we have only enough to support the historicity of his place and time, mode of death, and movement.”[5] About Joseph, we have by comparison, an incredible wealth of historical data, establishing with a great deal of certainty many of the facts surrounding the events of his life. Nor can we simply write it off to a problem of disentangling reliable facts from the biased accounts of his friends and foes. While we may have disagreements over details, these disagreements don’t seem capable of creating this wide range of views on their own. What is left? Johnson describes one facet of the quest that has interesting implications:

It is surely not entirely a coincidence that the liberally inclined academics of the late twentieth century have found a Jesus who is not embarrassingly eschatological, not especially Jewish, not offensively religious, a canny crafter of countercultural aphorisms who is multicultural, egalitarian, an advocate of open commensality, and a reformer who is against the exclusive politics of holiness and for the inclusive politics of compassion. And best of all, he is all this as a charismatic peasant whose wisdom is not spoiled by literacy. What more perfect mirror of late-twentieth-century academic social values and professional self-despising could be imaged? Nor is it surprising that at the opposite end of the cultural and religious spectrum, more evangelically oriented Christians are finding a Jesus who is precisely eschatological, devoted to purity and holiness, and a champion of the politics of restoration within Judaism. Clearly, scholars’ pre-understanding of Jesus deeply affects their way of assessing the data.[6]

I suspect that this is more likely the driving consideration for the wide range of portraits of Joseph Smith. Our search for the historical Joseph ends up giving us a mirror in which we don’t see the real historical Joseph. In his recent blog post, Steven Russel wrote:

Rooted in historic concerns over scarcity, our questions about the truthfulness of a story about a young boy in Palmyra really don’t matter that much to us, at least not as much as whether the story affirms or denies a sense of who we imagine ourselves to be.  In our search for the Historical Joseph, probably the last thing on our minds is the truth.[7]

I think that perhaps we confuse the search for the historical Joseph with the search for truth. Instead, often all we achieve is discovering that version that most closely represents what we already believe, and having found it, we decide that it must be the correct version. In doing so, we reaffirm that what we suspected all along is true because we can now ground that belief in what we perceive to be a reasonable interpretation of history.

 


[1] The biographies being reviewed were Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman (Alfred A. Knopf: 2005) and Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet by Dan Vogel (Signature Books: 2004).

[2]  Mark D. Thomas, “Where is Joseph Smith Now?: Beginning the Second Quest for the Historical Joseph”, Sunstone (November 2005), 58.

[3] Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church (Public Affairs: 2014). The review, by Barton Swaim, was published by the Wall Street Journal, and can be found at: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304512504579493383379917034.

[4] Luke Timothy Johnson, Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament (Brill: 2013), p. 5-6.

[5] Johnson, p. 6.

[6] Johnson, p. 12.

 

This is a sort of meta-discussion of the issue here. Vogel is adding to the list of historical Josephs - he wants to give us the charismatic Joseph Smith. And the model is already there (if he wants to follow it) in the modelling for the charismatic Jesus. The challenge that I see is that it is easy enough to build these historical narratives. But when we start looking at motivations, when we start the mind reading process, we are almost always moving in the wrong direction. Vogel doesn't really avoid these problems. He makes it clear that he is assessing history through an interpretive lens - and more particularly, that he comes with certain assumptions that will alter virtually everything he discusses. As he notes in the introduction:

I believe that historians are free to conclude the Book of Mormon is not historical and to revise or adjust Smith’s biography accordingly. In other words, a non - historical Book of Mormon presents scholars with a different interpretive paradigm(s) from which to consider Smith.

You can see how this fits right in with my discussion above. The problem for the historian when they write a biography and use an interpretive paradigm like this is that it becomes difficult for them to extract themselves from the interpretation. There is a certain amount of irony because right before this bit that I quote I read Vogel trying to make a case for why what he is allowed when other similar things might not be:

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This worry applies to the academy of religion, which brackets truth-claims for other reasons than "patronizing kindness - scholarship simply lacks the tools necessary to make the kinds of determinations Bushman calls for.

I am not sure that it is entirely black and white - after all, you read the Book of Mormon differently if you start from the expectation that it is revealed scripture than you would if it is fiction - and this matters - but, Vogel goes on to suggest that:

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My argument is that his motive, or, at least, his chief motive, for producing the Book of Mormon and founding a church, was pious. People generally have more than one motive for doing things, and having other motives (like the acquisition of power and wealth) would not necessarily negate pious intentions. Indeed, the acquisition of power and wealth may be necessary to better promote the intended good, especially if that good included being the leader of a communal society — of which there were many examples in the nineteenth century.

As a biographer of Joseph Smith, I eschew binary caricatures of him. My purpose is to present a more complete, holistic way of viewing Smith. I allow that Smith may have had more than one motive, and that his motives were fluid over time.

 

And I think this is a good place for me to end. This is not a history of Joseph Smith. It is a biography. To the extent that Vogel has successfully intuited what Joseph Smith was thinking, and what his motivations were, it might even be a good biography. Unfortunately, this seems as unlikely as the many varied attempts to present a biography of Jesus.

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