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Defending the Faith: 'Mormon Studies Review' is a scholarly feast

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

The FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon was launched nearly a quarter of a century ago, in 1988. Since then, it has shed that original name (and the acronym ROBOTBOM by which its editors affectionately knew it) to become first the FARMS Review of Books and then, simply, the FARMS Review.

Over the years, the Review has entered controversies with gusto and has garnered a following of readers who appreciate — and a chorus of critics who loathe — its energetic, straightforward and often humorously ironic style.

My late friend Davis Bitton, a leading Mormon historian who himself contributed several essays to the Review, once told me that it contained the best writing currently being done within the church. Another prominent Mormon historian complained to me about it at a scholarly meeting a number of years back: Every time a new issue arrived, he said, he had to set everything aside and read it from cover to cover, which interfered with his other obligations.

During the intervening years, FARMS — the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies — has also undergone name changes. Now a part of Brigham Young University, it was rechristened in 2006 as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, in honor of a great man who was deeply interested in the organization's work and who remains a role model of Latter-day Saint discipleship in academia.

Not surprisingly, in that light, with its 23rd volume the Review has again been renamed — for the last time, one hopes! — emerging now with both a new physical design and the title "Mormon Studies Review.

Like previous issues, this edition treats a wide spectrum of topics.

A substantial "Editor's Introduction," for example, covers highlights of its previous history. Literary scholar and novelist Marilyn Arnold contributes an essay titled "Book of Mormon: Passport to Discipleship." Brian Hauglid examines a massive new study featuring ancient and modern perspectives on the Book of Moses.

The distinguished Mesoamerican archaeologist John Clark provides a key for evaluating proposed models for the geography of the Book of Mormon, and Brant Gardner considers "Nephi as Scribe." Noel Reynolds reports on an important book arguing that the New Testament gospels really do rest on eyewitness testimony. Several other items look at studies of more general Christian history.

Historian Richard Bennett considers a new biography of Thomas Kane. Political scientist Louis Midgley teams up with Shirley Ricks to provide the backstory for Hugh Nibley's classic essay "Beyond Politics," which then follows. The prolific Canadian physician and polymath Gregory Smith critically reviews the public statements of certain members of the church opposed to the church's stand on same-sex marriage.

In a 2008 issue of "Literary and Linguistic Computing," a scholarly journal published at the University of Oxford, three Stanford-based scholars sought to resuscitate the tired old "Spalding theory," which claims that the Book of Mormon was actually written by a Protestant minister who died in 1816. According to committed Spalding believers, Sidney Rigdon conveyed the stolen manuscript to Joseph Smith, and the rest is history.

This year, four Mormon scholars responded with an technical article in that same journal.

In the new Review, Paul Fields, Bruce Schaalje and Matthew Roper provide an accessible summary of their technical response, accompanied by a second article summarizing some of the lethal historical problems with the Spalding theory.

My favorite part of their reply, I confess, comes when they conclude "with 99 percent probability," based upon the same sort of statistical reasoning used in the Stanford authors' original article, that Sidney Rigdon, who was born in 1793, wrote 34 of the Federalist Papers that were published in 1788; that Rigdon also wrote roughly 30 percent of the King James Bible; and, most astounding of all, that Oliver Cowdery, who died in 1850, is the real author of the 2008 "Literary and Linguistic Computing" article to which they're responding.

Hilarious stuff. Vintage Review style.

The Mormon Studies Review isn't for every member of the church. But it regularly offers a feast for those who want to read solid, believing, well-written scholarly articles forthrightly engaging serious issues. It has done so for more than two decades now.

To subscribe to the Review, call 1-800-FARMS-15. Single hard copies can be purchased through the BYU Bookstore (1-800-253-2578). All issues of the Mormon Studies Review are accessible online.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

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