I am also grateful for Brigham Young University and for the tutelage of Truman G. Madsen, Hugh Nibley, and gifted teachers and writers there and everywhere else. BYU's tradition of fine Gospel Scholarship continues today--and we all rejoice over the Church History Department--but I have a warning about the immediate future.
Hugh Nibley's articles, books, lectures, and speeches, from the 40's on, provided students with a reason for their faith in the historicity of the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. Lionized by countless readers as he was and is, it remains clear that Nibley's purpose was always to stir students to greater thought, faith, and endeavor, never to seek any laurels. And as it ever is with the best scholarship, his contributions also met, from the very beginning, a perennial backlash from some of the faculty at BYU as well as members of the local intellectual community. He was never exempt from critique, and even a few of his colleagues in Religious Education and History joined in the chorus. I doubt that many attacks surface publicly today at BYU; it's more likely he is increasingly unread, his contributions ignored or brushed aside. He's labeled an apologist, a word he never used, or would have used.
Yet because so many of the false ideas about Scripture being paraded throughout BYU and the Latter-day Saint Community today were also deftly deflected by him decades ago, I share a letter written today (found below) as a defense not so much of the man, but of his contribution to Biblical and Book of Mormon scholarship. I wrote the letter to a student who says that she was not permitted to discuss Hugh Nibley at BYU without facing what she describes as "increasingly intense" backlash from both students and faculty.
Now for the warning--or a dozen or so questions worthy of our consideration.
Many press on with high praise of the kind of Gospel Scholarship that Madsen and Nibley represent. Yet, while praising, might we somehow fail to distinguish present moments of bricolage or jejune "apologetics" from what we find in Nibley's balanced and logical prose? And if you find yourself swirling about in a pool of "suppose" or "plausible," it's time to get out and dry off. Scholarship, like poetry, takes a spot of work--and an abundance of l'esprit de finesse. Can it even be taught? It can be taught to be recognized. All who teach must face the question: Are we fostering or are we damaging that delicate unfolding?
Latter-day Saints everywhere ought periodically to reflect on the matter of Scripture and scholarship. Do we accept the historicity of the Bible or don't we? Do we receive the Book of Mormon as it was intended to be received? Or are we past all that? Have we grown up? Do new Doktorvaters command our allegiance? Do our PhD's now compel us to set things straight about just what the Bible is and what it is not? Is it time to let fellow Mormons know, in word and in blog, just how hopelessly uninformed they all are when it comes to reading and understanding Scripture? Are Leviticus and Deuteronomy just mumbo-jumbo? or of post-exilic priestly mint? Did Nephi drop the ball on Deutero-Isaiah? Do we need a revolution in Scriptural understanding to save the Church? Is the Internet about to do us in?
Or do we need to go back to the telling question: If you don't believe this, and you don't credit that, then what exactly do you hold to any longer?
Or do we need to look differently at contradictions between current scholarship, even consensus, and our own beliefs? Such contradictions should help to prod the faithful to undertake new journeys of discovery. Some of the journeys may be of lasting worth to all humankind: I think, for instance, of the recent work of Lincoln H. Blumell on Luke's account of Gethsemane. And of what worth is any scholar, writer, or artist who faints before consensus and contradiction?
The Lord has in store great opportunities for the diligent Latter-day student.
We may look at the challenge of searching for knowledge primarily as an effort to defend truth, if we wish, but the challenge certainly embraces more than that. We can help cut new paths, discover and decipher new findings, revisit and reinterpret stolid consensus. The Lord, who permits all the thorny contradictions, also gives us the accompanying challenges not only to try our faith but to test our mettle and to foster our intellects. He wishes to use us to bless all mankind with greater views on both the Holy Scriptures and also on the full history of His dispensational dealings with the children of men. Much will be required--and it won't help for any of us to sideline much that has been given.
Hugh Nibley never yielded "an inch to the Gentiles." That's what he said. That's what he asked of his students and of his university and community. "You receive no witness, until after the trial of your faith."
And now to the letter about the "cool scribe" and the art of cheerful scholarship, which speaks to the matter of whether we should occasionally appreciate the contributions of our own teachers, or just toss them into the wastebin; of whether we should listen to any contributor, or only to those who reciprocally call us Rabbi.
Thank you, Dear Sister M.,
News of gleeful attacks in BYU classrooms on the contributions of Hugh Nibley and other notable teachers comes as no surprise.
Some professors confuse lectern-thumping fatwas for expressions of truth and intelligence. Reading through the new biography of Truman Madsen, I don't see cynicism. It's all about joy and gospel service at BYU and everywhere else; it's all about the joyous quest for greater light and truth.
Mircea Eliade often writes of a phenomenon he termed "kill the teacher," a compelling Freudian wish to turn on one's Doktorvater, or even a favorite teacher. It's much more than reassessment. This drive to overturn reputations, cast doubt on the teacher's soundness, or even sanity, is a very common psychological malady at the university. Heroic in flavor, it unwittingly betrays a certain herd mentality, a lack of independent thought. Whether maturity, therapy, reading books, or plain humility is the cure, science cannot yet determine.
Moroni records how Jesus taught him "in plain humility."
Although standards remain non-negotiable, scholarship ought to be a cheerful, joyous enterprise and colloquium, an on-going effort in which (a very few) errors prove not fatal but instructive, and much collegiality and openness to the contributions of others must thrive.
John Baines, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, laments the lack of collegiality in his own discipline. He further censures the encrusted lack of openness to any contributor not belonging to the professional guild. (The article to read is "Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions," JARCE 27:1-23.)
The style of collegiality I favor follows the model put forth in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature of the kbob, or cool scribe (controlled, efficient, mannerly), versus the hot-headed scribbler (pushy, self-willed, angry). A jar overflowing with pure, cool water becomes the hieroglyphic signature of the cool scribe; the hothead explodes "like fire in hay."