My response to
"Shades of Darkness"
by John Tvedtnes

[Or, in other words, "MormonInformation's review of FARMS' review of MormonInformation's review of FARMS Review of Books" :-)]

Sure enough, my FARMS page has finally drawn the attention of FARMS itself.  It was reviewed by John Tvedtnes on pages 427-439 of volume 12, no. 2 of its semiannual Review of Books (and can be read online at this site [keeping in mind that my page used to be titled "Dr. Shades' Review of FARMS' Review of Books"]) under the title "Shades of Darkness" (more poisoning the well, perhaps?).  All things considered, I think my page fared extremely well under scrutiny, so much so that I see no need to change anything, in spite of his sarcastic prediction on page 435 ("But go there quickly before he reads my words and begins making changes to cover his tracks").  But be that as it may, there are several items in his review that ought not be left unchecked.  From the top:

First, I want to make it perfectly clear that, in stark contrast to the scenario he constructs in the first page of his review:

  1. I do not "deliberately misrepresent the facts about the LDS Church and its scriptures, either by outright falsehood or by faulty logic or innuendo." I simply call it as I see it.
  2. I do not have some sort of Ministry to win souls to Jesus or anything (I'm an Agnostic, so that isn't really an option).
  3. I have never made a single penny from my website or any other activity "trying to 'expose' Mormonism."
So I hope readers won't assume that Mr. Tvednes' observation applies to me personally.

Second, just before launching into the review, he reduces my analysis to a straw man by claiming that it "follows this pattern" (his words):

"(1) FARMS doesn't really produce scholarly material, so don't bother reading it, and (2) FARMS is a mere apologetics organization, so everything that comes from the organization is tainted with Mormon lies."

Now I will be the first to admit that the vast majority of FARMS' time is dedicated to projects other than its Review of Books.  It is simply the Review of Books which I chose to scrutinize, so I don't think the first part of his caricature applies to me.  Next, if the second part actually applied to me, I would not have written (as he himself quotes me as saying), "to FARMS' credit, their reviews of books published by faithful members are dealt with even-handedly . . . offering fair insights into their relative merits or lack thereof."  As a matter of fact, I think FARMS does the best (well, probably the only) job out there of reality-checking the ubiquitous fluff that lines the bookshelves of Deseret Book.  It's when reviewing material which is not destined for those bookshelves that FARMS reviewers lose their objectivity, as I clearly pointed out on my page.

Tvedtnes next launches into an inexplicable disclaimer for the nature of FARMS, as if it were somehow relevant.  He claims that ". . . FARMS is not the monolithic organization that these critics seem to think it is" and "FARMS per se has no official position on any of the research matters that it publishes."  I would remind Mr. Tvedtnes that what he termed two pages earlier as "the anti-Mormon community" itself is not the monolithic organization that FARMS seems to think it is.  It is orders of magnitude more disparate and fragmented than FARMS ever was or ever will be, but that didn't stop him from lumping them together at the beginning of the essay.

Next he expresses concern that "the academic credentials of people who publish with FARMS are questioned only by the critics, . . ."  I personally have never come across a single instance of this.  He later writes that "If the critics do not accept FARMS authors as scholars, those authors are at least so acknowledged by the world's scholarly community."  He is correct that FARMS authors are often bona fide scholars, but the scholarship published by FARMS is what's questionable.  There is a distinct difference.

Later, he writes:

"I am sure that they know that most people will read "apologetic" as the opposite of "objective" and dismiss anything produced by FARMS.  It's an old ploy, used since the early days of the church, . . ."

Mr. Tvedtnes should remember that the knife cuts both ways:  For example, I'm sure he knows that most people will read "anti-Mormon" as the opposite of "objective" and dismiss anything produced by critics.  It's an old ploy, used since the early days of the church.  Even so, that didn't stop him from repeatedly referring to "anti-Mormons."  In other words, he's saying that 'it's okay if FARMS does it, but not if anyone else does it.'

As far as his comment about the annual ecclesiastical endorsement, let's face it:  If a reviewer did indeed agree that the church was wrong on one or more issues, he or she wouldn't be able to admit it for fear of it being construed as endorsement, thus jeopardizing their careers (this has indeed happened to BYU professors in the past).  If Tvedtnes' bishop does not have a clue about his [Tvedtnes'] writing right now, it most likely means that Tvedtnes is faithfully toeing the line.  If he were to admit, in print, that an anti-Mormon point has merit, I think he would be surprised how fast his bishop would be made aware of the development, as I'm sure the September Six were similarly surprised.

He next writes:

Reading the Shades article, one gets the distinct impression of a concerted effort on the part of FARMS Review of Books to obfuscate when reviewing anti-Mormon works. This again ignores the fact that the Review is not a thinking entity any more than FARMS itself is.

There may not be a "concerted effort," but that doesn't change the fact that essays published in FARMS Review of Books do indeed obfuscate when reviewing anti-Mormon works.  I ought to point out that it is not some concerted effort that I find fault with.  It is the obfuscation that I find fault with.

Moving on to the list itself, he writes:

"What I find most ironic in the Shades piece is that it employs the same "bogus arguments" he attributes to FARMS. Most notable is the fact that it provides virtually no examples to back up its claims."

Even more ironic than this is that he himself lists no examples of me using my own "bogus arguments."  For example, when did I ever assert that "we are under attack" or "Joseph Smith didn't really say that?"  At any rate, the following sentence was clearly visible on my site: "The reason I haven't directly quoted examples of these various arguments is because FARMS expressly forbids copying anything from their website."  But since he obviously overlooked that part, I'll go into more detail:

FARMS has revamped its website a number of times since I originally created my FARMS page in late 1998. Originally, they had a page titled "Guidelines for using FARMS Online" which made it clear that no part of its website was to be reproduced without express permission from FARMS.  There were no exceptions listed.  I realized that it was most likely legally safe to quote excerpts from their site when compiling my review, but since the Internet entails new legal territory I nevertheless wanted to be absolutely sure that "all my bases were covered" and hence simply adhered to their wishes.  So if he's wondering why I couldn't list specific examples, he should talk to whoever it was who typed up their website's old "Guidelines for using FARMS Online" page.  (If I were to venture a guess, I'd say it was an attempt to prevent just the type of scrutiny that I provided.)

1.  "Joseph Smith didn't really say that":  In spite of what Mr. Tvedtnes wrote, many reviewers have rejected something dictated by the prophet to one of his scribes.  The "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" and the Kinderhook Plate entry in William Clayton's diary are good examples.  And as far as the moon men are concerned, Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses 13:271 verified the teaching that men lived on the moon, and Lorenzo Snow's patriarchal blessing, received at the hands of Joseph Smith Sr., mentioned that he would preach to the inhabitants of the moon.  So this belief was more prevalent among early Mormons than just that which was published by Oliver B. Huntington.  It goes without saying that Joseph Smith Jr. was the fountainhead of Mormon doctrine and belief, not any of those other men.

2.  "We are under attack":  Referring to me, he writes:

"I suspect that he doesn't really expect them to read for themselves the reviews that deal with those issues."

On the contrary, I do encourage people to read the reviews for themselves, otherwise I wouldn't have provided links and said "Don't just take our word for it, though.  Go to FARMS Review of Books and see for yourself!"  I would ask Mr. Tvedtnes how often FARMS does the same for the books it reviews.

3.  "Blinding you with science":  Not much to say here, except to clarify that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that "only uneducated individuals should write for lay members of the church."  I was simply stating the facts as I saw them.

4.  "Demanding Godlike literary standards":  Although he and I both know that humans cannot produce something that God conceivably can, I couldn't think of any other words to adequately encapsulate what FARMS seems to require of critics.  Although the overuse of sic does indeed come across as sarcastic, I was also referring to their other habits, such as routinely criticizing authors for not using more references than they did and, conversely, complaining when there are more footnotes than FARMS can compete with (the reviews of D. Michael Quinn's work come to mind).  If it's not one thing, it's always another.

5.  "Avoiding the issue":  Mr. Tvedtnes asks "how can someone like Larson, who doesn't know Egyptian, judge Joseph's abilities on this issue?"  Interesting question, considering how FARMS doesn't have much trouble accepting Hugh Nibley's judgment of Joseph's abilities on this issue, even though Nibley doesn't know Egyptian either.  But to answer Tvedtnes' question, Larson's judgment stems from the work of a multiplicity of qualified experts--something for which he can hardly be faulted.  As it stands, Stephen E. Thompson, who is himself LDS and holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology, had (in part) these two things to say about Larson's book: "In my opinion, it's the best source to go to if you want to know what's been going on with the Book of Abraham in [the] church" and ". . . he's far more accurate than anything Hugh Nibley ever wrote on the subject, okay."  (click here to read his comments in their entirety.)

6.  "That's the same old anti-Mormon argument that's been around for years":  He labels this as an "untruth" which is "blatant," but I vehemently disagree.  He says that he knows "for a fact that the critics almost never cite earlier LDS treatments of criticisms."  I think there's a reason for this:  There's a huge difference between a "good explanation" and a "lame excuse," and methinks that in most cases the critics are a little more hip to the difference than FARMS is.

He goes on to list just one obscure example of how the "same old anti-Mormon argument" statement is a real frustration as opposed to a mere cop-out, but that doesn't ameliorate the fact that this little mantra of theirs is utilized time and time again for nearly every issue brought up by a book which FARMS dislikes.  Be it post-Manifesto polygamy, the Adam-God doctrine, Blood Atonement, Joseph Smith's false prophecies, changes in the revelations, no revival in 1820, etc., FARMS spins the broken record ad nauseum.  You can almost set your watch by it.

7.  "That's been misquoted or taken out of context":  Let's look at the two examples he gives where this was (supposedly) indeed so.  First, although it is indeed true that Heber C. Kimball was talking about the restoration of the priesthood by Peter and the revelation of the Book of Mormon by Moroni, the metacontext is made clear on the very same page:  That God does not make visitations himself (thereby nullifying the precedent for the First Vision) "because he has agents to attend to his business."  So the Tanners were most likely correct on this issue.  Nor was this sermon by Heber C. Kimball an anomaly by any means.  Similar sermons throughout the Journal of Discourses (by Brigham Young in 2:171, John Taylor in 10:127 and 20:167, Wilford Woodruff in 2:196-197 and 13:324, George A. Smith in 12:334 and 13:78, and Orson Hyde in 6:335) show that the speakers believed that Joseph's first contact with divine beings was with an angel, not God.  In fact, no one seems to have referenced the 1842 Times and Seasons (vol. 3, pp. 728, 748) account, which is used today, until at least 30 years after Joseph's death.

Second, I can see how the context might be understood differently due to the sentence which immediately prefaced the one Tvedtnes quoted:

"And may we contemplate these things so? Yes. if we learn how to live and how to die. When we lie down we contemplate how we may rise in the morning; . . ."

So was the quote referring to "how to live" or "how to die?"  Although I seriously doubt Quinn's interpretation, I have to admit that the phrase "locked in the arms of love" is a far more bizarre metaphor for 'death' than it is for 'sleep'. . . thus producing ambiguity, whether FARMS likes it or not.

8.  "Ad hominem attacks":  Tvedtnes claims that most of my own article comprises ad hominem statements, although I am utterly at a loss as to how he drew this conclusion.  He explains that "essentially, an ad hominem is an argument directed at the individual rather than at the issues."  So is he saying that FARMS is an individual?  That's quite amazing, especially after all the effort he made on page 428 to prove that FARMS is not an individual.  He can't have it both ways.  Also, he said that he "had to laugh" when he read this, but he later states "I must admit that I have seen a few such arguments from Latter-day Saints, including some who have written for the FARMS Review of Books."  So why did he have to laugh if he admits that what I said was true?

Moving on to Chuckle's contribution, he states a second time that "FARMS publications must really be striking a nerve."  I would add that books critical of Mormonism must really be striking a nerve, or FARMS Review of Books would likely not even exist.

There isn't much to say about Mr. Tvedtnes' reaction to items one and two on Chuckle's list.  I ought to point out, however, that in item three, the words "Because if a FARMS reviewer did, they'd probably lose their ecclesiastical endorsement and thus be forced to resign from BYU" were written and inserted into brackets by me, not Chuckle.

4.  "Reviewing FARMS books":  The quality control process at FARMS is probably just as Mr. Tvedtnes described it, but let's face it:  How much would you trust a review by Steven Spielberg of a Steven Spielberg film?

5.  "Incestuous citing":  Tvedtnes writes that "In my opinion, some of the best Book of Mormon work has been published by FARMS, . . ."  As for me, I'm sure some of the best work on Scientology has been published by Scientologists, so I can't really argue with him on that point.

I don't have any comments about his reaction to items six and seven, so I'll move on to SteveR's list.  Tvedtnes claims that "Since the writer's list is accompanied by neither explanations nor examples, I shall not dignify it with a response."  Fair enough, but I note that his earlier claim that my own list "provides virtually no examples to back up its claims" didn't stop him from writing a 13-page review.

Near the end of the review, he writes that "neither Shades nor Chuckle seems to appreciate the humor in some of the reviews published by FARMS."  On the contrary, I have absolutely no problem with the humor.  It's the venom--which is far more common--that I find off-putting.  Once again, I think the critics are a little more in tune to the difference than is FARMS itself.

Back to MormonInformation's review of FARMS Review of Books