On audience and voice in Mormon studies journal publishing (Vol. 4 of MSR now available)

11.21.2016 | Spencer Fluhman

MSRv4-COVER-1000x1500Mormon Studies Review, volume 4, is available now. Before you dive in (and don’t miss the two free sample articles linked at the bottom of this post), I thought I’d reflect for a moment on continuing questions about audience and voice. Who is writing in the Review, what are they writing about, and whom is the Review for? I saw intellectual storm clouds gathering on the horizon over my little guild of Mormon history scholars, and I told them so at an academic conference in 2015. Self-serving for the editor-in-chief of the Mormon Studies Review, yes, but I provoked them with the question of Mormon history’s relationship to the rise of academic Mormon studies. After all, a thunderclap from that morning’s conference session on Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon—featuring a packed room and stimulating presentations by two literature professors and a critical care physician—was still ringing in my ears as I spoke. Could we historians eventually be crowded out by anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and religious studies scholars? As academic religious studies continued its rowdy ascent and as the academic study of the Latter-day Saint tradition is increasingly shaped by it—I note that all the endowed chairs in Mormon studies sit in religious studies departments—I knew we should expect more discussions between scholars from varied backgrounds in the future. Publishing venues related to Mormon studies should follow these conversations carefully. I was trained in both history and religious studies, and I’m a bit of a disciplinary anarchist at heart anyway, but my reappointment as editor-in-chief of the Mormon Studies Review in 2015 has kept issues of audience, method, and tone at the forefront of my mind. My 2016 appointment as executive director of the Review’s publisher, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, has me seeing these conversations in another light still, since the Institute aspires to engage meaningfully with multiple audiences, and all within the context of both academic rigor and LDS identity and faith commitment. I can summarize the issues I consider most pressing with an observation and an assertion. The observation: Mormon studies and Mormon history share complicated relationships with Latter-day Saints. The assertion: As a result, the journals that serve the field (or is it fields?) still have more thinking to do about audience and voice. I’ll wax anecdotal. A couple of years ago, Maxwell Institute leaders asked me to advise them on the future of the Mormon Studies Review. They were interested in engaging more fully with the rising academic field of the same name, but wondered if the journal should even continue given the already crowded periodical field. My response was brief—well, brief for me—and would not have impressed any capitalists in the room. Don’t worry about the LDS audience, I said. Other journals have that covered. Speak instead to scholars, period. Who cares about subscriptions? As my brief career as a publishing consultant concluded, I wondered who in their right mind would be willing to edit it. After my somewhat ironic appointment a few months later, our first editorial advisory board meeting provided the opportunity to test my off-the-cuff instincts. I read the self-descriptions of the journals in the wide Mormon studies universe and, sure enough, several aimed to translate intellectual life for educated Latter-day Saints. Others, like the Journal of Mormon History or Element, were more discipline-specific. Yes, I reassured myself, there is space here. We’ll translate too, but in the other direction—towards scholars. The Review’s advisory board cured any lingering conflicted feelings. Drop any hybridity goals, they urged, and tilt unreservedly towards the academy. So as it stands, it’s the Institute’s humble Mormon studies endeavor that seems least interested in a broad audience—which isn’t to say educated Latter-day Saints should feel uninvited! Pressing questions remain. Perhaps most fundamentally for us: if a journal is published and tens of people subscribe, does it really exist? I joke—hundreds of you read the Review in print and many more on our website. My serious point is that the academic reading market makes questions of audience, voice, and intellectual life unavoidable and visceral. Secondly—and this has been a recurring issue for us at the Review—can Latter-day Saint scholars effectively translate their work for a mixed scholarly community? Should they? Without question, our most common editorial directive to LDS authors is to revise with a more mixed audience in mind. What might it mean for the field that getting the Saints to face away from the choir seems to be a persisting problem? Complicating these sorts of questions for me these days is the fact that much of what we do at the Maxwell Institute unapologetically faces the LDS choir. Our Living Faith book series, much of our work on LDS scripture, and to a smaller extent the Maxwell Institute Podcast—these are intended, first and foremost, for a Latter-day Saint audience. All this helps explain why the Mormon Studies Review’s tilt towards the broader scholarly community is not the sign of an insidious secularism spreading at BYU. For us, it’s primarily a question of audience, voice, and scholarly niche. Our work in the Review thus relates to a recent insight offered by LDS scholar Grant Hardy:
“It used to be that the only people who cared about Mormonism were Mormons themselves and anti-Mormons. This is no longer the case. Thanks to pluralism and postmodernism, there is more room in academia for the perspectives of believing scholars. Academics have little interest in debates about whether Mormonism is true or false, but they are increasingly interested in Mormonism as religious and social movement.” ((Grant Hardy, “More Effective Apologetics,” 2016 FairMormon Conference, August 4, 2016.))
We at the Review recognize the costs, both in terms of audience and direct influence on the rank-and-file LDS Church membership. Even so, we see our scholarly “translation,” bridge building, and academic orientation as a service of its own to the community of minds that engages the LDS tradition and, perhaps as profoundly, to the institutions that sponsor us. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship.” ((Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “The Disciple-Scholar,” in On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7.))

*

And now it’s my privilege to introduce you to volume 4 of the Mormon Studies Review. Rather than giving you a full run-down of the contents, I’ll simply point to the table of contents and say we’re thrilled about our coverage of more than twenty important books on Mormon women and feminism, the Joseph Smith Papers, politics, music, and more. Fenella Cannell’s opening essay on Mormonism and anthropology is as engaging a piece as we’ve published so far.

Free Sample Articles

To give everyone a taste, we’re offering free access to two pieces from volume 4:

Here’s Molly Worthen’s timely review of three books on Mormonism and politics in the United States.

Here’s Rosalynde Welch’s powerful engagement with LDS theologians including Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and James E. Faulconer.

Digital subscribers can access the full volume here. Print subscribers should receive their copies in the mail shortly. We invite everyone else to support and enjoy our work by subscribing here. The digital pass is just $10.