Some in this forum may have been following along with the Celestial Forum thread begun by "Dakotah" which asks, "How are we to take D. Michael Quinn's writings?" I argued in favor of Quinn's importance and significance, and, as is to be expected, Prof. Peterson said:
Daniel Peterson wrote:
You might find helpful the various reviews of works by Michael Quinn that have been published in the FARMS Review. They're all up, on line, at the Maxwell Institute web site.
Personally, although I think he's intelligent and interesting, I no longer trust Mike Quinn's work.
When pressed on this issue, the Good Professor has always been extremely dodgy. Rather than supplying a specific reason for "distrusting" (which, let's face it, is quite a strong word) Quinn's work, DCP tends to refer readers to a variety of articles, many of which are viewable via the FARMS website.
But where did this "distrust" come from? Here is one clue:
Daniel Peterson wrote:
I once thought that Quinn was the best and brightest of the Mormon historians. My loss of faith commenced with the first edition of his book on Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, when I wrote a review of it for Sunstone. The more I looked at his book, the more it melted away. I began to have doubts, and those doubts grew with time.
It turns out that there was something (one gathers) intrinsically "wrong" or "untrustworthy" about this book, since, as DCP states, this was the genesis of his "distrust." So, what was it about Early Mormonism and Magic World View
that led to this rather nasty issue of trust? The title of an article, co-authored with Stephen Ricks, gives us the answer: "Joseph Smith and 'Magic': Methodological Reflections on the Use of a Term". Notice that the word "magic" has been placed in scare quotes, as if there is something suspicious (or, dare I say, "untrustworthy"?) about it.
The main thrust of the criticism of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View
---and, therefore, the reason Quinn's works should not be "trusted"---lies in Quinn's use of the word "magic." In DCP's view, the word "magic" is too vague and non-specific to be accurately applied to the early activities of Joseph Smith. He elaborates:
Daniel Peterson wrote:
There's a large literature (in anthropology, classical philology, comparative religions, etc.) on how and whether to use terms like magic. I spent two months in a small NEH seminar at Princeton in 1994 (led by the Princeton New Testament scholar John Gager, but including people from classics, philosophy, religious studies, Islamic studies [me], etc.) that was entirely devoted to the question. The unanimous consensus of the group: The term magic is too vague to be useful, and cannot be salvaged.
I have bolded the above, because this turns out to be very important. Over the course of several other posts, Rollo Tomasi attempted to get DCP to list even one title among this "large literature," but the Good Professor refused again and again. (The Gager book which DCP is apparently referring to is called, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World
. I wonder: would the Good Professor and his colleagues prefer that the label of "spellcasting" be applied to Joseph Smith?) Of course, we do not have access to this group of Princeton seminar participants, and cannot verify whether or not anything resembling a "unanimous consensus" was reached.
So, where else can we look? Where is this "large literature"? Where are the many scholars who say that "the term magic is too vague to be useful"? One place we can turn is the ever-reliable John Gee, whose piece in FARMS Review
dealt with precisely this issue. After a silly epigraph from Lord of the Rings
, the article opens with a rather vicious personal attack:
Michael Quinn made a big mistake in publishing the first edition of his Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. His publisher (see p. xiii)3 and his friends4 warned him about the mistake he was making. He chose to publish the book anyway. When Quinn's first edition came out in 1987, the reviewers pointed out fundamental flaws—including a tortured thesis,5 twisted and forged evidence, and problematic and idiosyncratic use of loaded language—and it became clear that these flaws irreparably marred the entire framework of the book.
Footnote number 4 actually links to a bit of gossip which Gee apparently included for the sole reason of discrediting and smearing Quinn:
At least one of the historians whom Quinn thanks in his acknowledgments (see pp. xviii–xix) has told me that he advised Quinn before he went to print the first time that it would be a mistake to publish this particular work because of major historical flaws.
Nevermind that Gee fails to elaborate here, or provide any evidence for "major historical flaws." One wonders if the Mopologists disapprove of "cowardly anonymity" in this instance....
In any case, Gee at least supplies a bit of support for the argument that "the term 'magic' is to vague to be useful":
In 1992, the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what "magic" was.12 The plenary speaker, Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular voiced strong opinions:
I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term "magic" in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by "magic" which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled "magical" and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.13
As a result of the conference, Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki decided to jettison the term magic in favor of ritual power, whatever that term may mean.14 In 1993, Robert Ritner's doctoral dissertation was published. It contained an extensive critique and revision of notions about "magic" in ancient Egypt and a warning about and po lemic against imposing universal categories derived from studies of one culture onto studies of another culture.15 In 1994, Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith published a collection of translations of Coptic counterparts to the so-called Greek Magical Papyri.16 This collection included an introductory essay by Edmund Meltzer, which argued that because of "the loaded, evaluative connotation of 'magic' as false, deceptive, discredited, or morally tainted" in contrast with science and religion, "'magic' is relegated to the 'they' side of a 'we/they' dichotomy. This is simultaneously unfair to the materials and practices studied under the heading of 'magic,' and self-serving for the materials (mainly those we identify as 'our own') that are exempted from that label. It perpetuates a complacent double standard.
Rather than a "unanimous" opinion, it seems that the debate is still underway. Whether the term 'magic' ought to be subdivided into smaller, more specific terms, as Smith suggests, or whether the term can continue to be useful so long as one recognizes the political divisions that may arise, are still matters of debate, it seems.
The best part of Gee's article, though (imo), is this extended rant, which comes at the end of a long-winded look at the semantics of the word "magic":
I find the term magic to be a Proteus-like pejorative appellation and a worthless, vacuous, meaningless classification for phenomena. There is no agreement on what magic means. The term magic is used as a club to beat one's religious opponents over the head. In practice, defining magic becomes a shell game; whenever the definition is shown to be defective, it is abruptly changed. Furthermore, the "magic" game is always rigged so that, no matter which definition is chosen, it is never allowed to apply across the board to any religion and belief. And, since the definition is allowed to shift freely, discussions of "magic" usually become textbook examples of exercises in equivocation and fertile breeding grounds for special pleading and poisoning the well. I have found that dropping the term completely without substituting anything in its place loses nothing—and usually gains considerably—both conceptually and practically.129 The term magic is generally about as informative as a swear word, displaying only the ignorance and displeasure of the person who uses it.
Wow! I cannot recall the last time I saw such wrath directed at a word. (Has Gee not read "Offenders for a Word"?) I don't know what's stranger here, Gee's utter hatred of the word, or his bizarre claim that not "substituting anything" for the word magic is somehow plausible, let alone "conceptually and practically" productive.
Anyways, Gee's harangue continues:
The first thing that Quinn should have done to improve his book would have been to drop the term magic from the title, the introduction, and the text. This action would have gone some way toward lessening the fallacious equivocation that runs through the entire marrow of this tome. Since "magic" in Joseph Smith's day was synonymous with "deception" and "imposture" and was not thought really to exist—and this is true both of the educated and uneducated in Palmyra and elsewhere—there is no "magic world view" (Quinn admits that he cannot distinguish it from religion anyway, pp. xxi–xxii, xxiv–xxv), and Quinn has no topic about which to write a book. His entire approach to the subject is irreparably flawed.
Furthermore, since "magic" and "imposture" are synonymous in the view of Palmyra residents, Quinn, by pushing the connection between Joseph Smith and "magic," informs his readers, starting with the title of his book, where he stands on the question of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or a fraud.
Gee is at pains to point out that Palmyra residents likely viewed "magic" as a negative and deceptive thing. But, then, didn't they tend to view the coming forth of the BofM in the same way? Does Gee want to have his cake and eat it too?
The bottom line is that the Mopologists simply dislike the word "magic." They cannot find a legitimate reason to get rid of it, and they struggle mightily to find support in the real, actual academic world. In fact, the greatest "magic" trick of all may lie in the fact that DCP & Co. have gone so long without having their exaggeration of this "large literature" (and their distortion of the literature's actual arguments) challenged. On an old ZLMB thread, this subject was discussed at length. Here's our beloved Dr Shades:
Dr Shades wrote:
"It happens that DCP is quite right. The word "magic" doesn't have any useful meaning; and when used to bash someone else's religion it is a mere pejorative."
Au contraire, my beloved brother! Let's be brutally honest for a moment: If Joseph Smiths senior & junior had not been involved with folk magic and the occult in any way, shape, or form, the Mopologists wouldn't have any problem with the word "magic" whatsoever.
Unfortunately, they both were heavily involved with such things, so the Mopologists have no defense but to eliminate the word "magic" from their vocabulary.
And here's DCP's reply, via his sockpuppet "FreeThinker":
Dr Shades is correct. Mormons are the only people who have any problem with the term "magic" or its definition. Nobody else does. There have been whole thick scholarly volumes and entire academic symposia entirely devoted to celebrating the universal non-Mormon consensus on this matter.
Dr Shades has nailed you on this one, Pahoran. Sorry
Just wondering, but out of all those academicans who believe the word "magic" has no functional definition, what exactly would they say Joseph Smiths Senior & Junior were involved in?
And the reply:
Probably "folk religion," or some such thing. There is no universally agreed upon term.
(I can see how that might seem unfortunate to some. The lack of a convenient label means that one has to pay attention to the specific details and nuances, and makes it harder to categorize [and dismiss].)
Aha. The dismissal of the term "magic" is really just a fun lil' Mopologetic, postmodernist trick: get rid of the term, since, despite its accuracy, it doesn't connote the whitewashed image one wants.
Here is another pointed posting from Shades:
I posit that the nuances between the words "religion" and "superstition" are even less significant than they are between the words "magic" and "religion."
It appears to be the Mopologists' point that there's no real difference between the words "magic" and "religion," therefore the word "magic" should be dropped from the dictionary in favor of the word "religion." That being the case, consistency demands that they also admit that there's no real difference between the words "religion" and "superstition," therefore the word "religion" should be dropped from the dictionary in favor of the word "superstition."
Let's face it: Some people avoid walking under a ladder so as to ward off bad luck, while others wear special undergarments in order to ward off the "fiery darts of the adversary." Some people throw salt over their shoulder in order to bring good luck, others pay their tithing regularly in order to bring about good results postmortem. 'Tis all the same, perhaps?
So, should I begin calling the seer stone the "superstitious rock?"
And here is another attempt on DCP's part to re-write the dictionary:
Why not call it a "seerstone," and pay attention to the specific details of the story in which it is involved, without attempting to find some nifty (and almost inevitably reductive) category in which to place it? One of the major problems with the English word "magic," of course, is its inescapably pejorative connotations. Which, from another perspective (abundantly represented by at least one participant on this very thread) is precisely its beauty. That problem, and the manner of its use here, illustrate very nicely why many scholars have abandoned the term, or, if they use it at all, use it only in the most carefully restricted and historically focused and specific sense. When asked for such careful use in this context, however, most of those who are most eager to deploy the term are unwilling even to try to define it in any acceptable way. Which speaks volumes, I think.
Perhaps the best post on the thread, though, comes from "Addictio":
Apparently FT and sr1030 agree that the use of a particular descriptive label does not change any of the underlying facts, a point that shouldn't be lost in all this discussion of the term "magic."
As I said above, insofar as it is not purely a verbal dispute, what drives this disagreement about labels are the underlying facts about Joseph Smith's behavior. If Joseph Smith had never used a stone both to translate the Book of Mormon and in treasure-seeking, use of one term (whether it's "magic" or "folk magic" or "folk religion") to label and characterize both uses would not be a live issue. Because, insofar as the stone is concerned, the behaviors are so similar, the question arises whether one term or two different terms should be used to refer to both.
Reasonable people deal with this issue in different ways. Richard Bushman does it by using the word "magic" or "magical" to describe the treasure-seeking enterprise, but not the translation effort. For example, here are some excerpts from his article "Joseph Smith as Translator."
Exploring the background of the word "seer" in the biblical and "magical" traditions Bushman writes that "The word had another life in the culture of seventeenth century magic." He continues, explaining that the very word "seerstone" as used by the early LDS, conjoined the religious and magical traditions:
: Mormons first applied the word seer to Joseph and combined the words "seer" and "stone." Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt described Joseph using a seerstone to translate and receive revelations. In making the connection, they joined two traditions -- the holy calling of seer and the magical practice of divining with a stone. .... The word seer elevated the stones, symboliizing the redirection of the Smith family's interest in magic toward a more serious religious end. .... Although treasure-seeking was left behind, the magical culture of the stones played an important part in the development of Joseph's identity as seer and translator. .... In fact, as work on the Book of Mormon went on, a seerstone took the place of the Urim and Thummim, blending the culture of magic with with divine culture of translation.
The article appears in The Prophet Puzzle , (Signature Books 1999) at pages 69-85; the quotes are from pp. 78-79.
My guess is that Bushman has read and published more on early American history than anyone posting on this thread. That doesn't mean, of course, that people can't disagree with his use of the words "magic" or "magical." His use of them does clearly show, however, that historians with acknowledged skill and expertise can and do use the terms "magic" and "magical" to draw distinctions between and to characterize the underlying behaviors of Joseph Smith. Quinn does the same thing, at much greater length.
My reading of this and other threads suggests to me that the more fundamental and interesting issue is what the historical record actually says about Joseph Smith's behavior in connection with treasure seeking and translation. That can be explored and discussed without getting into disputes about the best single word or term for labelling or characterizing the behaviors.
Well said, although I, for one, find the debate over which word can be used to be quite interesting indeed. I would imagine that the Mopologists would prefer, above all, that no
word be allowed. It is rather like the Brethren's refusal to apologize for *anything* negative thing the Church has ever done: if they don't apologize, then perhaps people will be lulled into thinking that such-and-such bad thing never really happened. Likewise, if no concrete term is ever applied to Joseph Smith's occult activities, then maybe they never happened!
A bit further on in the thread, DCP comments further (and note his schizophrenic references to himself):
What I think Quinn is failing to grasp is that Hamblin and Peterson and Ricks are dealing with historical bodies of texts and practices that have been termed "magic" for a hundred years or more, and with regard to which the term has simply become an accepted designator. That does not, however, mean that scholars writing on such topics as "the Greek magical papyri" and "Egyptian magical papyri" have not discussed the problematic nature of the term in the very prefaces to anthologies of such texts that they themselves have both edited and titled. In fact, it is in connection precisely with those two bodies of texts that some of the major attacks on the concept of "magic" as a separate and distinct category have been formulated.
I notice that Hamblin speaks of "divine or magical protection" in 1990, perhaps indicating some uncertainty about how or whether to distinguish between the two.
I would have to look at Hamblin's 1994 article to have an opinion on that one.
In the case of Peterson, I seriously doubt that he really regards Jesus and the early Christians as "magicians." Isn't it more likely that he's making the point that the very same term that critics use in their zeal to "catch" Joseph Smith has also been used to "catch" Jesus? Isn't that, in fact, an illustration of the vagueness and unusefulness of the word? (I suspect, in fact, that that was the very point he was making.)
I don't much trust Quinn to represent his sources accurately, and I confess that I don't trust him on this particular matter, either.
The real point, obviously, is that DCP and his ilk want to be able to completely and totally control not only the way the term "magic" is used, but also the way it is read and interpreted. Nowhere, in any of the "large literature", has a "unanimous consensus" been reached; that was little more than a very gross exaggeration on the part of the Good Professor. A fascinating debate on the whole, imho. What this shows is that the Good Professor, just like juliann, is every bit as willing to distort evidence in order to support the Mopologetic cause.