Thursday, February 4, 2016

Randall Jones (1939-2016)

A couple of weeks ago I was looking in the library for a particular sort of book to replace one that I had years ago but had lost. I finally located one on the library shelf and when I checked it out was surprised and pleased to find that Randy Jones was one of the co-authors. He had served as my bishop for a few months, although I did not know him that well since I worked mainly with one of his counselors.

I was sad to discover today that he passed away last week. My condolences to his family. We will miss him.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Same Data, Different Questions

In his recent book, Rodney Stark makes the following observation:
Contrary to stereotypes of Muslims as ardent worshippers, their numbers have been reduced almost as greatly as those for Christians when the data are limited to weekly attenders.
(Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Faith [Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015], 15.)
This comes from the way that Stark is framing his question. What he is looking at is, if you took all the people who attend religious services during the week, what percentage of them belong to which religion. If that is the question you are asking then a typical worshiper is more likely to be Christian (39%) than Muslim (31%).

But there is another way at looking at the question. Instead of asking, "What percentage of the world's weekly worshipers belong to various religions?" we could ask, "What percentage of various religions are weekly worshiper?" That is a different question and Stark provides (on pp. 14-15 of his book) the information to answer it. Here in descending order are the percentages of adherents to different religions worldwide who worship weekly:
  • Hinduism     66%
  • Muslims     64%
  • Christians     52%
  • Others     50%
  • Buddhists     28%
  • Jews     24%
  • Secular     2%
This does not invalidate Stark's argument. It is just using the same information to ask a different question. What it shows is that there is a basis for the stereotype, since on any given week almost 2 out of 3 Muslims will attend mosque, whereas just over 1 out of 2 Christians will attend church. That is a statistically significant difference.

Incidentally, I have no idea whether Latter-day Saints would be classified as Christians or Others in this study. I would be curious to know what the specific Latter-day Saint number were, but given the geographic variation that probably exists they would be no particular help to any particular congregation. And, given the magnitude of people we are talking about in the study, whatever the Latter-day Saint numbers are, they would make a negligible difference on Stark's overall numbers.

What really impresses me are the Hindu numbers. So what are Hindus doing right? (Since we do not know what Latter-day Saint numbers are, we do not know what we may or may not be doing right compared to Hindus, but clearly Hindus are doing something right, and so are Muslims.)

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Plug for BYU?

Brigham Young University gets a plug from an unlikely source on its diversity, of all things. (I do not endorse the crudeness in the title; the article itself I did not find crude.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

A New Book on the Old Kingdom

I received in the mail today the first volume of the new series, Harvard Egyptological Studies: Towards a New History for the Egyptian Old Kingdom: Perspectives on the Pyramid Age, ed. Peter Der Manuelian and Thomas Schneider (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2015). As expected from Brill publications, the book is beautifully produced.

I do have an essay in the volume ("Did the Old Kingdom Collapse? A New View of the First Intermediate Period" pp. 60-75) but I wanted to highlight two other contributions in the volume.

Miroslav Bárta ("Ancient Egyptian History as an Example of Punctuated Equilibrium: An Outline" pp. 1-17) counters the idea that the Old Kingdom was a static place. He depicts it as having times of stability punctuated by major periods of change. In other words, history actually occurred.

My late friend, Harold Hays ("The Entextualization of the Pyramid Texts and the Religious History of the Old Kingdom" pp. 200-226), takes on the theory of the democratization of the afterlife. Mark Smith, Harco Willems, and others, including myself, have pointed to major problems in the theory and it is great to have Harold's contribution to add to the growing list of refutations of it.

There are several other good essays in the collection that I might recommend another time. I am only disappointed that, for whatever reasons, Ann Roth's and Manfred Bietak's contributions to the conference did not appear in the volume.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Paying Hidden Costs

A thirty second sound bite on the radio news this morning announced that the Utah National Parks Council of the Boy Scouts of America is laying some people off as donations are down and they cannot afford to employ the people anymore. I have not been able to find confirmation for this tidbit elsewhere, but the rest of this post is based on the assumption that the information is correct.

This is sad for those laid off. I am sure that at least some (and perhaps all) of those who will be laid off sincerely worked for the good of the boys.

On the other hand, this was entirely predictable. No one wants to support an organization that abandons its principles and betrays its constituents.

Unfortunately, my observations about this sort of situation is that those who caused it are never the ones to suffer the ill effects. They will be lauded and praised for how they led the organization through difficult times and given a golden parachute instead of being sacked for their abandonment of principle or betrayal.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Apologetics for Not Doing Apologetics

Yesterday at Utah Valley University there was a panel discussion on Mormon apologetics. The panelists were Brian Hauglid, Ralph Hancock, Brian Birch, Julie Smith, and Ben Park. Each had ten minutes to make their case and then there was an hour-long discussion. Here are some brief summaries of the arguments (losing most of the detail to perhaps the point of caricature--sorry, I do not mean to be inaccurate, just brief).

Brian Hauglid summarized Stephen Cowan's classification of Evangelical apologists but did not deal with how this classification system might apply to Mormon apologetics or which Latter-day Saint scholars might fit in which classification if it did apply. He argued that apologetics should not be a full-contact sport. He said that apologetics ought to be done in such a fashion that no one got their feelings hurt.

Ralph Hancock argued that apologetics meant defending one's beliefs using arguments. Thus everyone does apologetics for their own opinions. He argued that irony and satire have a legitimate place in apologetics and that it was generally best to be straightforward in presenting one's arguments.

Brian Birch applauded the Maxwell Institute's abandonment of defending the Church. He reiterated a claim that he has made elsewhere that apologetics of any sort could only have a chair at the academic table if it bowed to scholarship. He claimed that no satire or irony ought to be used in academic arguments and put forward the academy as a model of being humble and charitable. He voiced his opinion that apologetics was not really ready for the rough and tumble of scholarship.

Julie Smith thought that apologetics was most appropriate for missionaries and seminary teachers. She thought apologetics was dangerous because it fossilized the status quo and made women collateral damage. She wanted more numbered lists. She voiced her opinion that the next frontier in Mormon apologetics would be the Bible.

Ben Park thought that there should be a wall between apologetics and Mormon Studies. Maintaining a wall between the two would, he claimed, make better apologetics and better scholarship. For him Leonard Arrington and Eugene England were his heroes because they used the latest scholarly fads in their work. Mormon Studies was, however, better because it sheds the insider focus in the study of Mormonism.

The panel was big on generalities and short on specifics. This was most clearly apparent when an actual apologist asked them about how they might respond to a hypothetical sister in Parowan who might be troubled by things she had read. None of the panel betrayed the least indication of ever having done such a thing. It was like witnessing a bunch of arm-chair quarterbacks who had never set foot on a football field discussing what a professional team ought to do. To extend the metaphor and grossly oversimplify the arguments: Hauglid seem to be arguing that the best way for a team to win was to play touch football. Hancock was arguing that the team should actually play football since they were engaged in a match whether they wanted to or not. Birch seemed to argue that one team should only be allowed on the field if it was not allowed to score any points. Smith seemed to think that the best strategy was for the coach to provide the players with a numbered list of all possible plays without any guidance on which ones were likely to work in a particular situation. Park seem to think that there should be a wall between the football team and the stadium to keep the team out of the stadium. Which of these would you rather have coaching your team?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On Supposed Tips for LDS Graduate Students

A recent blog post over on the ironically named "Faith Promoting Rumor" blog purports to give advice to prospective graduate students in "in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc." This has caused some concern in certain quarters, though perhaps not for the reasons someone might think. I have a few comments to make in general and some on the specific recommendations made.

In the first place, the recommendations are made by someone who writes anonymously, apparently with no qualifications whatsoever. How would she know what a graduate school is looking for? Has she even been to graduate school? Anonymous recommendations on the internet should have no credibility. If someone is not willing to sign their real name to something, why should anyone trust it?

There are some clear indications that the author of the blog post does not know what she is talking about. Thus it is the product of some ignorant ideological biases.

I write this post as someone who successfully was admitted to graduate school, successfully completed graduate school and has successfully gotten a job in academia, who advises prospective graduate students, who has sat on graduate degree committees and on committees that award graduate school funding, and who has actually talks with people who are involved in graduate school admissions.

Committees are not monolithic entities. They are composed of individuals who come to the committee with their own ideas, qualifications, and biases. All it may take is one wrong person to change the entire committee. For example, I once sat on a committee where one individual insisted that money be given to a candidate who did not even meet the minimal qualifications for it. Sometimes success or failure is simply a matter of who is sitting on the committee.
  1. The first piece of advice is to avoid Studia Antiqua. Studia Antiqua is a student journal. The papers are usually suggested by professors who thought that the paper was promising. The papers are peer reviewed and authors work with a faculty mentor and a faculty editor to get the paper ready for publication. Our anonymous author thinks that this is a bad thing, saying: "I would avoid it." After all, who needs intensive help on your writing or experience with the academic publication process? I looked through the past issues of Studia Antiqua and see that many of the students who published in its pages in the past not only made it into graduate school but now have academic jobs. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that our anonymous author wants to avoid.

  2. The second and third pieces of advice deals with being a professor's research assistant or co-authoring a paper with a professor. "Avoid this," our anonymous author advises. I have not had many research assistants but half of them made it into top graduate programs. If that is a consequence that you want to avoid, please do so.

  3. See point two.

  4. The fourth piece of advice has to do with starting a personal blog. Don't do this. If you need any reasons not to do it, look no further than our anonymous blog author. I have seen many graduate students sink their careers with blogs.

  5. The fifth point advises students against working with FAIR or Interpreter. Our anonymous author advises: "DO NOT DO THIS." Actually, FAIR prefers to work with people who already have finished their schooling, like Michael Otterson, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and so on. Surely that must be disreputable company. The last graduate student I knew of to publish with Interpreter just got a tenure-track job. If you do not want that to happen to you, then by all means avoid Interpreter and FAIR. There are publications that will seriously damage your job prospects. I have known individuals whose involvement with Sunstone and Dialogue have cost them jobs that otherwise they would have gotten.

  6. The last piece of advice has to do with accepting jobs on academic projects. Our anonymous adviser says, "DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job." Well, yes, someday you probably will need the job. I am reminded of a certain non-Mormon academic who really, really needed the job. She took a job doing research on one of these Mormon projects. Later she got a job at a certain Ivy League school and now runs one of the top graduate programs in the country. Going to "work with [Mormon apologists] on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters" certainly hurt her job prospects.
So our anonymous author advises:
Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.
There is a word for this attitude, and it is selfish. What does it profit someone if they gain their degree and lose their soul? If personal integrity and your covenants mean nothing to you, you can follow the advice of someone who not only will not even sign her own name to her opinions, but will not even take her own advice. This individual is well-meaning but not necessarily well-informed. Somehow people who don't follow her advice have managed to get into graduate school, to earn degrees, and get jobs, sometimes precisely because they did not follow her advice.