Every once in a while we receive an email asking about the Maxwell Institute’s direction and mission. One such email wondered about the Institute’s “shift in strategic vision and leadership during the past few years.” The questioner had seen discussions on blogs and message boards, but couldn’t easily locate information about changes from the Institute’s perspective. One explanation for this difficulty is that the Institute elected not to publicly comment on internal personnel matters given the high stakes, deep feelings, and wide differences of opinion about the circumstances. It is a delicate matter and we wish to err on the side of caution. At the same time, we want to offer a response that speaks to the heart of the matter going forward, namely:
What exactly is the Maxwell Institute? What is it for? What does it do?
In the near future we plan to provide detailed and interesting answers to these questions in a new short film. In the meantime, the Institute’s actual scholarship continues apace so we believe a written response will also be useful.
One of the biggest problems the Institute has faced from the time of its organization in 2006 to the present is that few people have fully understood our mission. All organizations change and we are no exception. The bringing together of separate research projects under one roof inevitably impacted each of them. But our most recent changes are both larger and smaller than many people have assumed. Larger because we’re making more efforts than ever to make significant contributions in the academy by publishing timely and relevant scholarship in line with Brigham Young University’s professional expectations. Smaller because we still produce books, articles, and other things that can be of great interest to a Latter-day Saint audience.
Past confusion about our overall mission is understandable. The Maxwell Institute consists of a number of distinct scholarly projects (referred to as “centers” and “initiatives”—now eyes are beginning to glaze over! Stay with us—), thus making it difficult to succinctly describe the vision that binds it all together. In the past, when thinking about the Institute, most interested outsiders would have one or two of our journals in mind, or maybe Hugh Nibley’s work, or perhaps FARMS, the entity which has since been absorbed into our Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Most people didn’t realize that the Institute, all along, has always included more than those things. Too few people knew that the Institute also includes the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, and other components still in development. Too many still don’t. We’re working to change that. We want to make it increasingly clear that these initiatives are just as important to us as our work on the Book of Mormon, or our Mormon Studies Review.
We hope you will get a clearer picture of the Institute as a whole as we continue to improve our new website. In the meantime, here’s a primer on our mission and make-up:
The Institute’s overall composition is laid out on our “About” page. Our brief mission statement is followed by a description of our centers and initiatives and our publications program. Each has its own homepage where you can learn more about some of our most important work. The About page also links to a recent letter (“Moving Forward“) in which executive director M. Gerald Bradford discusses the Institute’s vision and direction.
Those who want more specifics about how our vision and direction plays out on the ground can read our Annual Report for 2013. (We know, reports don’t make for the most stimulating reading material, but we tried to keep it concise given the many things we had to discuss!)
Perhaps one of our biggest changes is manifested in the updated Mormon Studies Review which seeks greater scholarly rigor, responsibility, and relevance to the study of our religion. The Review‘s new editor, Spencer Fluhman, set the tone in volume 1’s editor’s introduction: the Review combines critical analysis with a collegial spirit in order to follow developments in the academic study of Mormonism. A blog post called “Seven Questions for Spencer Fluhman” goes into greater detail about his editorial vision. We made four pieces from volume 1 available to non-subscribers to give everyone a sense for what to expect. The rest of volume 1 will be made available when volume 2 is released later this year.
How about the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies? Brian Hauglid, new director of the Institute’s Willes Center, recently described the Journal‘s “expanded scope” in his blog post “Looking Ahead,” which he says “will include research of the highest quality reflecting on the text’s various meanings, internal structure, literary features, reception history, documentary sources, historical provenance, theological implications, and comparative significance. We also plan to increase outreach to Mormon and non-Mormon scholars in the fields of religious studies, Mormon studies, and other relevant fields.” Hauglid’s first volume will appear before the end of the year.
As you might sense by now, we’re making greater efforts to contribute to the academic study of Mormonism similar to efforts we’ve already been making through our other initiatives to contribute to scholarly understanding of Judaism, Islam, and ancient and medieval Christianity. You might wonder if this means we’re leaving our fellow Church members behind. It is true that our bread and butter consists of speaking as an academic group to wider academic groups. Under BYU’s direction that’s our primary audience. However, we do not take such a low view of LDS Church members to assume such work cannot be of interest to them. For example, the new Maxwell Institute Podcast is geared more toward a Mormon audience while also addressing a wider audience. Over a dozen episodes featuring top-tier scholars from a variety of disciplines and a number of religious (or areligious) backgrounds are currently available online, in iTunes, and in other podcasting programs, with more on the way. The MIPodcast is a good representative of what we strive to do: study religious texts and the traditions in which they are situated—including Mormonism— but doing so in a way that breaks out of the old echo chamber. We also continue to foster excellent scholarship beyond the Institute through our Nibley Fellowship program, our hosting of the annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture, and our partnership with the Mormon Theology Seminar.
Our namesake Elder Neal A. Maxwell coined the term “disciple-scholar” to describe academic scholars who also seek to be led by the expectations of Christian discipleship. Such manifestations of faith do not usually overtly appear in academic work, although the study of religious texts and traditions can be motivated by—and can certainly generate—the sort of fellow-feeling and charity enjoined upon disciples. Even our work which appears to be the most “secular” is undergirded by a desire to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths, as our mission statement suggests. Nevertheless, at times it is appropriate—even crucial—for people to reflect explicitly on how the life of the mind intersects with the life of the spirit. This is the impetus behind the Institute’s Living Faith book series, which features the voices of scholars who have cultivated a believing heart while engaging in the disciplines of the academy. The first title in the series, Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon, has received much critical acclaim (see reviews here). Samuel M. Brown’s contribution to the series, First Principles and Ordinances, is scheduled for release in November, with more books to follow.
Is all of this a complete departure from the Institute’s past work and guiding mission?
No. In addition to the significant continuity described above, we’re working hard to preserve our legacy in other ways. Our new website was designed to include our past publications, including all our past journals, most of our past books, and a forthcoming new section including classic FARMS material never before published online. That new section should be completed before the end of the year. This release is being offered in recognition of the 35th anniversary of the founding of FARMS. We’re also designing a Nibley Library webpage to feature an archive of Hugh Nibley material—some never before publicly released—as well as digital editions of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. We will continue to improve the user-friendliness of our website so people can continue to benefit from our past work. Although FARMS has been absorbed by our Willes Center, we invite current and future scholars, women and men, to consider, revisit, and engage with our extensive archive. Our new YouTube channel continues to upload videos both old and new. There are a few more exciting developments we’re not ready to announce just yet as well.
In short: much of our work will still be of great interest to Latter-day Saints. “Commending and defending the faith,” as our mission statement’s description notes, is still of great importance to us. The precise ways in which we do so adjust as we seek to better exemplify the characteristics of the “disciple-scholar.”
Above all, the Institute’s primary mission is “to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.” This means that CPART, METI, and our other work is as important to us as the Review, the Journal, and our other publications. (Speaking of which, we’ll be announcing a new subscription rate for all our periodicals and a new digital subscription option in the coming weeks.)
We hope this response is helpful but we recognize not everyone will be satisfied. As the Institute continues to move through changes we express our desire for scholars of all perspectives to exercise mutual respect and goodwill as we engage in critical dialogue to further the study of and critical appreciation for religious texts and traditions, including Mormonism, together.
The best way to keep up with the Maxwell Institute’s developments and publications is to follow our Blog and the News & Events section featured on our homepage, “Like” us on Facebook, or subscribe to our Twitter feed. You can send questions to us through our Contact page or directly to our public communications specialist at blairhodges [at] byu [dot] edu.