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A Dialogue about Sunstone  June 26, 2005

Miranda PJ — June 26 @ 6:21pm

When I was growing up on the east coast, the label “intellectual” was an insult. It applied to certain people in the ward, luckily only a few, who had decided that they were smarter than the Brethren. A few times I heard the words “Dialogue” and “Sunstone” thrown around, but never with any degree of clarity, and I was never really interested enough to ask. They might have been television shows for all I knew, but I was certain that they were bad.

When I grew up some and went to BYU, I began looking at Dialogue and Sunstone out of curiosity. I’d sit for hours reading them in the Lee library. Other library patrons often gave me dirty looks, and I was twice cautioned not to read such materials. Much of what I read excited and intrigued me, and naturally I spoke to acquaintances about it. The few who’d heard of the periodicals had very little good to say about them. Yet I continued to read Dialogue and Sunstone and found them edifying. Now, a decade later, I’m only able to read Sunstone and Dialogue sporadically. But when I do, it’s like I’m returning to old, familiar friends. And I’m happy to own more than a dozen books by Signature, many of which are the best books written on their topic.

I remember discussing the Adam-God theory with my father when I was still in college. He was adamant that Brigham Young never taught it, and he counseled me to stop reading sources that taught incorrect information. I mailed him a photocopy of D. J. Buerger’s “The Adam-God Doctrine” from Dialogue 15 (Spring, 1982). The next time we talked we had a long, serious discussion—a real person-to-person conversation—about prophets and prophecy. It was the first time we spoke like this about faith and religion, and it was wonderful. How can something that does so much good be bad?

Things seem to have changed. No matter how Mormons feel about them, Dialogue, Sunstone, and Signature Books have become part of the Mormon institutional fabric. Many Mormons still view intellectual pursuits with suspicion, as my co-blogger Aaron Cox does here and here, and they find such interests to be peculiar and dangerous. Even some of those who have active intellectual interests in the church often approach Sunstone with derision, as Nate Oman does here. But when I was a child, members attached the stigma directly to the intellectuals—they were practically apostates.

There’s no way of knowing which anti-institutional pursuits or beliefs will someday become Mormon institutions in their own right. There is a cycle, and over time it moves some things from the mainstream to the margin, like McConkie’s interpretation of the scriptures, and other things from the margins to the mainstream, like Dialogue and Sunstone.

All of this is from my point of view. It has occurred to me that maybe the change that I describe has occurred within me. Maybe when I was younger I misperceived and exaggerated the stigma associated with intellectualism. Or maybe as an adult, I minimize this stigma. There might be some of both. Clearly, there are still those like Lou Midgely who argue that Signature Books is an anti-Mormon publisher. Maybe my perceptions have changed because I have trouble seeing beyond my social circle.

So tell me: Is it me? Is Signature an anti-Mormon publisher? Are Dialogue and Sunstone still the tools of the devil? Or was I mistaken to ever believe these things in the first place?


  1. If they are tools of the devil, then I guess I am going to hell in a handbasket. I too have wonderful fond memories of when I first discovered Sustone and Dialogue. They truly feed my intellectual needs, and challenged by assumptions. In reading from these sources, they only strengthened my faith. For some, they don’t. Which is fine. We are all on different spiritual paths, and need to discover things that other don’t, and visa versa.

    I too feel that the stigma over Sunstone and such has diminished over time, not because the publications themselves have changed much, but because no one in the church really even knows they exist. There’s no stigma, if no one is doing the stigmatizing. It’s rare that I meet a regualr member of the ward who even has heard of Sunstone. And if they do, they have third-hand impressions that are usually incorrect and misleading. Some of my best talks I have given in church used sources found in Dialogue and Sunstone. There is much good to found.

    Dallas Robbins — June 26, 2005 @ 6:55pm
  2. Part of this is, I think, that the church leadership no longer sees itself and its mission as threatened by intellectual pursuits. A couple of decades of Signature publications in, and the church still exists. From my various conversations (online and in real life), I’m convinced that a certain segment of people who, in the 1960s or 1970s, would have stayed loyal members and become stalwarts in local positions have left due to Signature books and Sunstone articles. The New Approaches to the Book of Mormon book, in particular, seems to be the breaking point for some people’s faith.

    But the vast majority of members really don’t know about this material–and, more to the point, they don’t care about it. For a lot of members, historical questions simply aren’t important at all. Other adopt the position that their testimony is more reliable than intellectual discourse, therefore deciding to disregard anything that makes them uncomfortable.

    Finally, a fair number of people see intellectual discussion like that provided by Dialogue, BYU Studies, the Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone, Signature Books, the University of Illinois Press, and other sources as a central part of their faith and their worship.

    Of these groups, the church really only needs to worry about the first. I don’t really know the size of it–but, as I said, its existence has not yet brought down the church, so I suppose the leadership has decided to tolerate its existence.

    RoastedTomatoes — June 26, 2005 @ 8:12pm
  3. I don’t know about stigmas, but I did hear that Lou Midgley recently showed up unannounced at Lighthouse Ministries and rudely interrupted George Smith having fondue with the Tanners.

    DKL — June 26, 2005 @ 8:58pm
  4. DKL,

    You beat me to it!

    When some church leaders have made it clear that they aren’t interested in historical facts, but only in having a faith promoting history taught, then suddenly outside sources have more authority than the authorless materials coming from the church. You simply won’t find out about many true aspects of the church from the church. Most members aren’t interested, but some are and it is good that there are resources for them. This applies to magazines, blogs, books, etc. not just the publications in question.

    a random john — June 27, 2005 @ 10:38am

    If sunstone and dialogue is anti-Mormon then I don’t want pro-Mormon. Now as to Signature I would certainly never call them an anti-Mormon press, but I would call them an anti-traditional-Mormon press in that they spend much time and energy in denoucing much of the trash we as members try to pass off as “learning.” For example, the “faith promoting history”, our shoddy attempts at reconciliation with evolution and our immature understanding of the book of Mormon and its coming forth.

    I think that these books can become dangerous, not necessarily because of their content as much as because of the way in which we are trained to think in terms of dichotomies. “Either it happened this way, just as the prophets have said, or the church if false or the atonement never happened. Are you prepared to accept that?” Thus when these authors do call what some prophets, as well as most members, have said, suddenly they are on the wrong side of the fence, and therefore are anti-Mormon.

    Most of my best talk in sacrament meeting and lesson in Sunday School have been direct results of Dialogue and Sunstone especially. I would be sorely offended if the church came out against reading these magazines. It should also be mentioned that Elder Oaks used to be somewhat involved in Dialogue if my memory serves me correctly. It should also be noted that most of the material and sources used in putting together the Encyclopedia of Mormonism was done through Dialogue.

    Jeffrey Giliam — June 27, 2005 @ 10:48am
  6. I also appreciate Sunstone and what it tries to accomplish. There is definitely a need for such material and many of its articles are interesting and valuable. There is, indeed, much good in it.

    At the same time, there is also pervading sense of contempt for the church in many of its contents — which often makes me uncomfortable. And I think this is a factor that makes many members hesitant about it. I would like to see a Sunstone-like magazine that addressed many of the same topics, but without the negative spin.

    Eric Russell — June 27, 2005 @ 11:01am
  7. There is plenty of interesting and good stuff in these various “left wing” publications, but there is also plenty of axe grinding by smarter-than-thou mormon intelligentsia. This is the kind of smugness that repels an awful lot of people, especially when it is held up as a means of undercutting something someone else holds dear.

    Historical facts are like statistics, they can easily be made to lie. When someone, whether they be righty or lefty, has an agenda, then its very easy to selectively present historical facts in a disingenuous way in order to support your a priori conclusions. Whenever you get a large group of people together, normative views will develop, and these various publications cited above are the voice of left-leaning mormons. Some of it is edifying, and some of it is rubbish, same with anything else.

    You cite one of Buerger’s books which I havent read, as I am not interested in the subject. However, one of his books I am well acquainted with, his The Mysteries of Godliness, is a combination of well-researched otherwise obscure historical material and a priori conclusions spackled together with a lot of ungracious insinuations and bad assumptions, not to mention the flagrant ommission of the pre-LDS history of temple worship. So, its caveat emptor when it comes to this kind of stuff.

    Its like easting at a ward pot luck, some of it is tasty, and some of it is nasty. Pick through it all and put the good stuff on your plate.

    Kurt — June 27, 2005 @ 11:15am
  8. This is a great post. I was brought up to believe that Sunstone and other “intellectual” publications were evil and subversive, and I felt a bit guilty at first for reading them. Along these lines, I remember as a teenager feeling extreme frustration at not being allowed to use my “intelligence” to understand the Church - particularly Church history. I specifically remember being frustrated by trying to reconcile the Church’s policy against blacks holding the priesthood with my burgeoning understanding of civil rights as I took AP American History in high school.

    Segregation and the policy of “separate but equal” were found to be destructive forces with serious consequences to the most vulnerable members of American society, and the U.S. Supreme Court rightly interpreted the U.S. Constitution as protecting basic rights and freedoms for blacks. But our Church tolerated racial discrimination. Some of our greatest leaders were racist. Wasn’t this wrong? Why wasn’t I allowed to feel comfortable pointing out that the Church’s policy against blacks was wrong, without feeling like an apostate?

    Anyway, this is an issue I have struggled with throughout my life - trying to understand when an “intellectual” and “objective” approach to religion is productive, and when it becomes debilitating to the strength of my testimony.

    Elisabeth — June 27, 2005 @ 11:39am
  9. Eric Russel, be on the look out for Archipelago: a Mormon Studies e-Journal. The first issue will hopefully be out by the end of the year.

    J. Stapley — June 27, 2005 @ 12:02pm
  10. At the Library of Congress symposium on Joseph Smith, Dr. Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Theological Seminary) gave an answer to Dr. David Paulson’s presentation on the challenges that Joseph Smith made to traditional Christianity. Mouw noted that there are two questions relating to the authority question and Mormonism:

    1. Whether the LDS church has authority that other churches do not.
    2. Whether Joseph Smith is the appropriate person for this authority to stem from.

    Mouw correctly noted that the inquiries into Mormonism are almost entirely focused on the second question rather than the first, yet there is good reason for treating them independently.

    It seems to me that the church’s approach assumes that if the second question isn’t answered correctly, then the first question cannot be answered correctly (and other restoration churches seemed to have assumed this also, since those that have distanced themselves from the second question have also distanced themselves from the first). This leads them to be naturally distrustful of honest historical inquiry. But focusing on the first question and answering it correctly makes the answer to the second question much easier to come by, and historical information becomes important to understand how the authority come to be restored instead of whether it came to be restored.

    Understanding the “intellectual side” of Mormonism as inverting the traditional relationship between the above two question makes it much less challenging to those worried about it’s impact on faith.

    DKL — June 27, 2005 @ 12:53pm
  11. I grew up reading FARMS stuff. I loved it. There were a couple of copies of dialogue laying around the house, and returning home I’ve perused them occasionally. An intellectual approach to faith was never stigmatized, perhaps because my dad was “an intellectual.” However, I have to say that upon reading the stuff in Sunstone (also at BYU, for hours on end) I basically often found myself gagging due to the… pseudo-intellectual whininess of it (there I’ve said it.) Sunstone is just hard for me to stomach because I think it embodies all that the Others who deride intellectuals and people who think about what they’re doing think is wrong with intellectuals.

    Just a quick $0.02. Maybe I’ll write more about this later.

    A. Nonny Mouse — June 27, 2005 @ 2:43pm
  12. DKL,

    How would we go about establishing “Whether the LDS church has authority that other churches do not.”? It seems the only way to do that is to teach people how to receive personal revelation on the subject… But isn’t the best way to do that is to ease them in through your #2?

    Geoff J — June 27, 2005 @ 3:24pm
  13. Both Eric and Kurt have good points. There does tend to be a bit of a spiteful tone in some of the Sunstone symposia but not too much in the Sunstone publications. One editor once remarked that the most sure way to get published in sunstone was to submit an article defending the faith. The problem is that those who are interested and able to present the more “faith promoting” material usually do so in publication more likely to be read by the faithful, thus perpetuating the cycle. Thus, I can see why some people might be a little cautious with sunstone, but I simply can’t see how anybody can view Dialogue as being anti-Mormon at all. The tone of their publications is always very respectful, even when the content doesn’t promote the faith. This makes it much easier to be taken seriously. Signature has a couple of things which call many of the FARMS people to call it an anti publication. First of all, they publish all the works of the infamous 6 people who were excommunicated back in 1993, people such as Toscano, Quinn and Janice Allred, Of course, these people were excommunicated principally BECAUSE of their writings, writings which Signature published. While Paul Toscano certainly comes very close to being “anti” I don’t think that Quinn deserves such a title at all.

    Jeffrey Giliam — June 27, 2005 @ 3:46pm
  14. Geoff J, I agree with you that most people seem to see question #2 as key to question #1 (especially our church and other restoration churches). But what comes to my mind is Quinn’s statement to the effect that he had testimony of the church, not of church history. Early members of the church were also aware of many of Joseph’s faults. Their reaction to Joseph is instructive. Since so many of those who were personally acquainted with him became disaffected with him, we should not be surprised that such a reaction is common among members in our own day when they study history. That said, I cannot help but think that such members put their faith in the wrong thing. Either way, I don’t believe that at the bottom of it the problem is with history.

    DKL — June 27, 2005 @ 4:23pm
  15. As to RoastedTomatoes comment implying that the church has decided to tolerate Dialogue and the like since they haven’t destroyed the church, I have no idea what the church thinks, but I tend to disagree. The church, as most realize, is bent on world domination. Just kidding, of course, but obviously, the goal is to bring the gospel to everyone possible. And the church being the slick PR machine that it is, realizes that the best way to do that is to discipline only the most heretical, and involve itself only with the most threatening authors. So, I would say that the church isn’t letting the intellectuals do whatever they want because it doesn’t see them as a threat. I think the church considers them a threat but is combating them in the way it believes is most effective.

    The Brethren are too smart to employ a modern-day Inquisition; instead they put up with what they have to and pounce on the most offensive. It’s not that they are letting intellectuals off the hook; they’re just too smart to go after them overly-aggresively

    APJ — June 27, 2005 @ 5:44pm
  16. Well, Miranda, after disagreeing with almost every word you wrote on your last thread, I can agree with you here. Sunstone and Dialogue have always lived inside the pale of my Mormonism, though (although since college I’ve deliberately decided not to publish with them). I grew up with Sunstone and Dialogue next to the Ensign and the Church News in the mailbox, and when as a BYU freshman I took a class from Eugene England, the glamour of his Dialogue celebrity dazzled me every T/Th in the basement of the Maesar building.

    I do think the pressure on marginal publications like Dialogue and Sunstone has eased of late. A crucial aspect of constructing any subject position is defining what it’s not, identifying its Others; for LDSaints over the past several decades those Others have consisted, at least symbolically, of the unholy trinity of “alternate voices” from feminists, intellectuals, and homosexuals. It’s occured to me that, schematically, the LDS 1980s grappled with feminism, the 1990s with intellectuals (I took that class from Gene in the fall of 1992, just as the September Six were excommunicated), and the 2000s with homosexuals and gay marriage. As institutional focus has shifted to perceived attacks on the traditional family from gay marriage, I think the stigma on S’stone and D’gue has diminished somewhat. We’ll see.

    Rosalynde — June 27, 2005 @ 11:25pm
  17. Rosalynde, what made you decide not to publish with them?

    From a philosophical point of view, I disagree with your statement that, “A crucial aspect of constructing any subject position is defining what it’s not.…” I would say, “A crucial aspect of learning about or teaching any subject position is defining what it is not.” Tools like comparing & contrasting and defining a subject within different ranges are valuable pedagogical tools, but the object of such tools should be the understanding of the subject in its own right, not the construction of a position. Position themselves are never really “defined” in terms of other things, and assuming that they are treats them rather shabbily; a position is what it is, and we learn to understand it “as it is” by a combination of (mostly) ostensive definition and (partly) understanding what types of sentences it does and does not (and nearly) fit into in the accepted usage of our community. It is this conflation of necessary pedagogical techniques about a subject with the nature of knowledge about that subject that is one of my prime gripes with holism and notions of “the other” that rely upon it (that and the fact that holism, as such, just doesn’t make any sense).

    DKL — June 28, 2005 @ 8:21am
  18. I found a couple of old Dialogues among my husband’s stuff after we got married and were moving. They were his ex-wife’s. I was mesmerized, I didn’t know other people felt that way.
    I enjoyed them and didn’t realize they were a problem to the church leadership.

    annegb — June 28, 2005 @ 12:28pm
  19. Well, they can “live[] inside the pale” for me as well. I’m not too sure about FMH Lisa. Her experiences with things living inside the pail have not been very good so far.

    Kaimi — June 28, 2005 @ 1:24pm
  20. Oh. My. Heck.

    Are you people serious? Why would anyone need a church magazine other than the Ensign? So that you can read about how wrong church leaders are??!?

    There is an old storey that I think answers this question.

    There were three truck drivers. They were each asked how close they could drive to the edge of the cliff. The first truck driver said “why I can get within six inches of the edge!” The second driver said “why I can drive so close that my tire is halfway off the edge!” The third driver said “I don’t know how close I can get. I stay as far away from the edge as I can!!!!”

    And who do you think got the job!?!

    Jonathan North, D.D.S. — June 28, 2005 @ 1:30pm
  21. Riiight. Because listening to one side of the story has always been the best path to truth. But I suppose one could say the same thing about people who read blogs as well: “Why would anyone need to listen to anybody talk about Mormonism other than what comes out in the church magazine?” BTW, why are you here again?

    Jeffrey Giliam — June 28, 2005 @ 1:51pm
  22. Woah, DDS North- stay away from my teeth, if your dentistry skills are anything like your spelling.

    Scott — June 28, 2005 @ 1:55pm
  23. They are important because they bring up issues in a safe environment. Let’s face it, Sunday School isn’t a very tolerant learning environment. If you bring up real and deep questions, like “faithful history” etc… you would quickly find yourself marginalized within your ward.

    Hermey — June 28, 2005 @ 4:54pm
  24. Elisabeth, thank you for your complement. The issue that you raise is a good example of the type of thing that Sunstone an Dialogue are perfectly equipped to deal with, and that is why they deserve our respect. I find myself in the same grey area that you describe, because it is not obvious where to draw the lines.

    Rosalynde, it must have been exciting to take a class from Dr. England. You’re lucky to have grown up in such an open and inquiring environment. I agree with you that Sunstone and Dialogue have served to define Mormonism by serving as an alternate voice. Your point that family issues have eclipsed the pre-occupation with intellectualism is quite insightful.

    Dallas, Roasted Tomatoes, Jeffrey Giliam, Eric Russell, and Hermey, I am glad to see that I’m not the only one that sees that Sunstone and Dialogue and similar offerings are much needed and productive of some of the best Mormon studies material.

    Roasted Tomatoes and a random john, I think that you’re both right that a large part of the easing of anti-intellectualism has to do with the failure of intellectualism to catch on among most members. Roasted, I like your analysis in terms of those divisions.

    DKL, I know better than to write this kind of thing, but you’ve said some intelligent things. Now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’ve successfully laid the trap, and I suppose your fans are waiting for you to spring it and say something that will come as close to crossing the line as you can without getting it deleted. Be warned, thanks to the comments on Aaron’s post, we’re in a comment-deleting mood.

    Kurt, A. Nonny Mouse, Jeffrey Giliam, and Eric Russell, just as the lessons in the relief society manual, the talks in general conference, and the articles in the Ensign are not all of the same caliber, so it is also true that not everything in Dialogue and Sunstone are as good as many of the others. I also believe that as toward the late ’90s, Sunstone went through a bit of a slump, but it still had some terrific content. But there’s enough whiney pseudo-intellectualism to go around on both sides, and you’re criticism is valid insofar as we realize that not all traditional believers are ignorant and not all pro-Sunstone people are smart.

    Kurt, I reference one of Buerger’s articles. The Buerger book you talk about is an expansion of his Dialogue article, and from what I understand the expansion was performed by a ghost writer. Read his article on the temple. I believe you’ll find it more consistent.

    APJ, you have an interesting take, but I agree with Roasted Tomatoes that anti-intellectualism has become a lower priority for church authorities.

    Miranda PJ — June 28, 2005 @ 9:31pm
  25. I think every member should read “Insiders VIew of Mormon Origins” by Grant Palmer (at least so it can be a point of discussion). While I don’t agree with all of it, some areas covered are undeniably accurate in LDS history. The biggest problem facing the faithful is when they find out that history is more his-STORY than actual history.

    Sara — June 29, 2005 @ 1:59pm
  26. Over the course of my life I’ve had personal knowledge about some news event that appears in the newspaper or on TV. Almost all stories get some portion of it wrong. Sometimes the wrong is small, sometimes large. I therefore expect all news reporting to be less than 100% accurate. I take the same view of historical ‘reporting’ - including the scriptures.

    I believe the scriptures to be less than 100% accurate (BOM: Nephi and Moroni admitted to not writing well. Most of the written words were from memories 10-20+ years old. BIble - ‘as translated correctly’. D&C ‘patched’ together from journal entries etc.). HOWEVER, I also believe that the scriptures are good enough for the Lord’s purposes, and so they ought to be studied, followed, etc.

    I don’t know how to judge the accuracy of historical writings/journals/etc., so my attitude is ‘it could have happened that way, but then again maybe not’. I’m not going to get my spiritual shorts in a bunch based on someones interpretation of historical events.

    Daylan Darby — June 30, 2005 @ 10:36pm
  27. I definitely think the Church is against virtually any kind of intellectual discourse that provides anything other than a canned apologetic. Not because of malice or because the Brethren aren’t intelligent, but because Mormons seem scared of that kind of thing. I know the people here at my university ward can freak out at the intellectual discussion of a doctrine or any other perspective than the party line. APJ had it right. For the most part, they’re not going to crack down too much. How do you crack down on a blog or discussion at home anyway? Anti-intellectualism just isn’t as practical as it used to be, both because it’s too easy to be “intellectual”, too hard to crack down on it, and too easy for others to hear that you decided to crack down.

    D-Train — July 2, 2005 @ 3:04pm
  28. What? I’m not alone? Other faithful LDS know about Sunstone and Dialogue? Shhh…if we let the secret out, everyone else will join in too and ruin the fun! :)

    Back to topic: I think a major reason that the Church has backed off of intellectuals/anti-intellectualism is the advent of the Internet. Back when the September Six were ex’d, I bet you that most of the membership even in Utah had no idea who they were. Anyone else toeing the party line could either be dismissed as a crackpot or, if necessary, excommunicated, and the membership would shun/ignore them accordingly.

    But now that we have the Web and blogs and so forth, a much bigger hubbub would be raised both among LDS and non-members if inquiring minds (on soapboxes) were singled out. Political battles like the sanctity of marriage win more non-member allies than arguing over interpretations of history and, frankly, require less complex analysis.

    publicblast — July 4, 2005 @ 5:49am
  29. Sara, you’re right that much of what passes for church history in correlated teaching materials is fictional. I don’t know whether Grant Palmer’s book is a good introduction to that. I haven’t read it, and it’s been so long since I started reading real history that I don’t know what would be a good introduction. Have you read Signature’s The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past? That might be a good one to start with.

    Dylan Darby, I think you’re right that both history and the scriptures are very much like the news. That’s an interesting comparison.

    D-Train, you may be right that the multiplication of information outlets makes any effort by the church to exert tight control futile. But I think that the church leaders who tried to exert such control were chasing an illusion to begin with. And some people freak out whenever anything intellectual comes up. That’s not uniquely Mormon. Have you ever tried having an intellectual conversation about politics?

    publicblast, you most emphatically are not alone. I think that you’re right on the mark in re-iterating Rosalynde’s excellent point that the growth of other palpable evils in our world has rendered anti-intellectualism obsolete.

    Miranda PJ — July 6, 2005 @ 6:16pm

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