In the aftermath of the release of the two hit pieces Greg L. Smith wrote about John Dehlin, I have given a lot of thought to the motivations and methods of the apologists, as well as the motivations and methods of John Dehlin himself. In the end, I have concluded that no matter how shallow John Dehlin's understanding of Church history and doctrine might be, and how unsteady his testimony was, he has effectively shown that he is twice the scholar any one of the apologists who attacked him is, and has probably done more good for the LDS Church than any single one of them.
"Wait," you say, "didn't John Dehlin have a real shaky understanding of the atonement? Didn't he openly doubt the truth claims of the gospel and gather fellow discontent and wavering saints together so they could all leave Mormonism in a mass exodus to a life of wife-swapping and pot smoking?" Well, not, not exactly, but I understand why you think that. All you have to do to arrive there is exactly what Greg Smith has done, which is cobble together a bunch of cherry-picked quotes to make John what you need him to be in order to make your point.
The trouble is, this is not what real scholarship is about. Real scholarship, even scholarship from a particular viewpoint, should take account of a fair sample of all of the evidence. What Greg Smith did was selectively pick out certain snippets of John Dehlin's oeuvre that almost anyone could have predicted would yield the kind of negative information Greg Smith went looking for in order to pursue his agenda, which was to delegitimize Dehlin's voice. Unlike a scholar, who seeks to understand and describe accurately a set of data, albeit from a certain bias, Greg Smith has not so much understood Mormon Stories and John Dehlin as found a narrative that met his preconceived bias against John Dehlin and Mormon Stories and made his John Dehlin fit that.
What drove that narrative? Interestingly, it seems that apologists are central to the story. Greg Smith opines that John Dehlin turned apologists into "folk devils" so that he would have an opponent to focus his group's anger on and thus strengthen his own ranks. In other words, if one were to read Smith uncritically, she or he could very easily come away with the impression that John Dehlin had deliberately lit upon this nifty new strategy to lead people away from Mormonism, as though the apologists themselves were central to the LDS Church.
Of course, we know that the antagonism between apologists and liberal or doubting Mormons goes back decades. At times the disagreement was expressed more civilly, as when Nibley debated Sterling McMurrin. At times it has heated up considerably, as it did when the FARMS crew over-reviewed the hell out of Michael Quinn's book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View and Quinn shot back with a terribly over-bloated second edition in which he called FARMS' scholars "polemicists." So, Dehlin did not come up with a brilliant strategy to lead members out of the Church. Rather, he a prominent member of a new generation of liberal or doubting Mormons who squared off with more conservative or fundamentalist members of the faith in a rather predictable pattern.
So, there are big questions about Greg Smith's methodology and choice of theories. Since he freely admits that he was only exposed to a small set of data that was deliberately chosen to yield the kind of evidence that would back up his preconceived ideas about Dehlin, there was no way that he could hope to understand the Mormon Stories phenomenon. There was no way he could hope to represent accurately the man who was so central to the movement's existence. Anyone with access to John Dehlin's full oeuvre can find the positive interviews and positive statements about the LDS Church that Greg Smith neglected or omitted. They didn't serve his purpose.
In the fall of 2011, John Dehlin created a survey to try to figure out why people were leaving the LDS Church. The people he surveyed were people who considered themselves disillusioned or who had left altogether. This is of course natural if you are trying to figure out why those who leave leave, rather than the speculations of others who have not gone through the experience. Let me emphasize this point again: JOHN PRODUCED A SURVEY TO GATHER DATA. As the data rolled in, one thing became apparent--a fair number of the 3000+ people surveyed said that LDS apologetics had an adverse affect on their belief and desire to stay members of the LDS Church. They even discussed this on Facebook.
Now, we can criticize John's methods, criticize his survey. We can argue that his survey was flawed, that it came from a large echo chamber of Dehlinites, etc., but such an argument only goes so far. What such an argument does not prevail against is the fact that John Dehlin, a PhD student in Psychology, surveyed 3000+ people to find out why they were leaving or why they left the LDS Church. He did so because he cared why. He did so because he wanted to do something about it. He wanted others, including the leaders of the LDS Church, to understand why and do something about it.
However accurate his results ultimately were, I think it is fair to say that he conducted exactly the kind of research that one ought to conduct in the social sciences to find out why people do what they do. In the case of Greg Smith, and other former members of the editorial staff of the Mormon Studies Review, however, we have a group that responded to John Dehlin and Mormon Stories with a methodological approach that was a caricature of the social sciences, properly speaking. We can imagine that, had these apologists really desired to do credible research on the Mormon Stories phenomenon, they might have done what John Dehlin did. They might have conducted a survey of Mormon Stories followers. Evidently, the Mormon Stories folks aren't averse to participating in such things. They might have even been flattered that someone connected with a Church institution cared enough to conduct a survey to get their perspective.
But what these apologists did instead was send out their friends and helpers to gather every negative statement by or factoid about Dehlin they could find, including one emeritus BYU professor's attempt to goad Dehlin into saying something he could then report to Greg Smith via email after a confrontation at a UVU conference on Mormonism, and various other apologists collecting damning quotes from Dehlin on Facebook. They had concluded, without any statistical research, that Mormon Stories was a bad thing, and they were determined to prove that John Dehlin was an apostate to discredit him and end that bad thing.
What prompted them to act when they did? Mormon Stories, after all, had been around for some time. Well, remember, the survey was taken beginning the middle of October of 2011. As the results started to roll in, and as people started to discuss those results, one thing started to become clear: disillusioned and former members of the LDS Church were not saying good things about the impact of LDS apologetics in their lives. Greg Smith claims that he began his research on Mormon Stories in September of 2011, over a full month before the survey. If this is accurate, then there may be no relationship between the hit piece and the growing evidence that disillusioned Mormons were negatively impacted by apologetics. Greg Smith also claims that the first draft was submitted November 9, three weeks after the Dehlin survey had begun. Is it possible that the Dehlin survey added urgency to the production of a hit piece on Dehlin, not so much to protect the LDS Church, as to protect apologetics?
John Dehlin's survey was delivered to the leaders of the LDS Church. Whether they use his study or not, Dehlin provided the Church what may be the first systematically collected data regarding the causes of disaffection from Mormonism. Simply by setting the example or blazing a new trail, he has done the LDS Church an invaluable service. Now, the LDS Church may commission similar studies, with its own scholars and statisticians. They may come to different conclusions than John did, but John's work will not have been in vain. In any case, what the LDS Church discovers through these scientific methods may save the memberships of thousands upon thousands of Mormons and their descendants. When you compare that to the legacy of Greg Smith, who can only claim to have produced the latest and most self-indulgent in a long line of apologetic hit pieces with a veneer of scholarship sloppily applied, I would rather have John Dehlin's record, with all its warts, any day.
Thus I pronounce John Dehlin the winner in a contest with no peers. His opponents never even entered the race.
When he is questioned he resorts to evasive statements and wriggles like an eel: “If you ask me whether this is another world; if I thought so, I would say there is another world. But I don’t say so. And I don’t say otherwise. And I don’t say it is not, and I don’t not say it is not." ~Brahmajala Sutta
Last edited by Kishkumen on Tue Feb 26, 2013 6:25 pm, edited 3 times in total.