Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Having an Appearance of Scholarship

Over a year ago I thought about those that have an appearance of scholarship but deny the power thereof. Its a variation on 1 Tim 3:5, and since that time my interactions have only reinforced that idea, so I thought it is time explain the concept in more detail. The essential point is that some people like to use footnotes, talk about thesis statements, release books, and talk a great deal about having “all of the facts and information on the table,” but when challenged about the accuracy and strength of their arguments, they cloak their assertions in revelation, common sense, special pleading and other extremely un academic defenses.

There are many variations of the theme, but it boils down to people wanting to have their cake and eat it too. In the realm of ideas, scholarship matters. Arguments are powerful because of the work done in reading, summarizing, and assessing other people’s arguments, combined with synthesis and analysis of data and primary sources to create your own. Then those arguments must be presented in cogent and logical fashion.

But its much easier to appear like a scholar than to be one. Appearing scholarly can help often help an argument, so people publish books instead of blog posts, include footnotes, talk about thesis statements, and generally try to sound and look academic. But when challenged about their interpretation of primary sources, grasp of historiography, and their generally poor and shoddy arguments, the same people who try to appear scholarly without having provided a strong foundation for their attempts, fall back on several methods. They rely on testimony (or anti testimonies as the case may be) to support their claims. They argue that they aren’t a scholar and shouldn’t be held to those standards. They make claims about academic conspiracies or elitism. Or they just attack while saying the other person is attacking. (I’ve seen this so much that arguing about who is committing the ad homenim fallacy is an immediate deal breaker for me.)

Here are several from around the Mormon world (with annotations in brackets and bold to highlight the tendencies):

Irvin Hill: Mr. Deane is a highly credentialed–as far as the state is concerned [gratuitous anti government sentiment that recalls the Bundy protest against the government, implying that I’m not credentialed in the things of God which would make me wrong and him correct without actually presenting reasons why]–teacher at BYU-I, and former Marine.

Maruice Hawker,p. 195: If you are a serious scholar [guilt trip putting the reader on the defensive and implying if you actually want sources then you aren’t a serious scholar] who would like to know where the concepts come from, please start by doing your own, thorough exploration of both scientific literature and eternal principles as taught in the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.[The “do your own research” defense would have gotten me thrown out of my PhD program, and my editor would have literally thrown a book at me.] There are hundreds if not thousands of pages of information I could include to be more convincing, [but I won’t provide one or two of them] this book is not for the scholar but for the layman who wants to learn in a language they can understand easily. [I just wrote a book on ancient Chinese history that was scholarly and accessible to the layman, they aren’t exclusive categories and certainly not an excuse to avoid showing your research.] As with all progressing in fields of science, a skilled professional will seek to improve upon the ideas of those who came before him or her. You will find ideas and concepts in this book that are beyond anything you will read in existing literature. [Then you should definitely include the sources you’ve built upon.] My findings are based on thousands of interviews and interventions along with many inspirations. [This is the key to the whole paragraph. He bases his findings on what he calls personal inspiration. That’s great, but I’m not sure revelation really needs a footnote, and it definitely doesn’t support your point like a footnote should.] Successful results have been measured in both quantitative and qualitative measurements.[I would love to see the data myself if you don’t mind. Maybe you could write a book about it?]

Rock Waterman: Deane spends more time engaging in ad hominem attacks [He never provided an example when asked, a critical review isn’t ad hominem, fallacy cop] and comparing his own academic credentials [Academic credentials often matter a great deal, see the several examples I provide below]to Anderson than he does informing the reader as to what is actually contained in Anderson’s book, as though the honors of men are pertinent in any discussion of the Lord’s rules of engagement.[Using the scriptures to condemn me and provide support for him while not specifying how any particular arguments are wrong.]
Jeremey Runnells: [I am] not a scholar. And I never claimed to be one. Mormon apologists – desperate in discrediting me and the CES Letter – have created strawmen by elevating me and the letter to academia standards [How dare apologists have standards!? I’d be more concerned if they didn’t. Apologists only hold him to a standard because his website and endorsements, like the one below, make his work sound definitive and authoritative when they are deeply flawed.] and then attacking me and the letter from there. I’m not a scholar. I’m just a regular dude…I am very knowledgeable on this topic.[In the same breath he avoids the claim of being a scholar, attacks those that have standards, but still claims to know a great deal about the topic. That is trying to have it both ways.]

John Dehlin on Runnells and the CES Letter: Meticulously researched [For being ‘just a regular dude’ Runnells sure likes to provide academic sounding bonafides. I would think a regular dude might want to avoid attacking more accomplished scholars as fake amateurs ], this book represents Jeremy’s sincere, heartfelt, and herculean effort to gather and discern the basic evidence regarding LDS church origins.[This makes it sound like his PhD thesis and original contribution to the field. These two quotes show how Runnells wants to sound like an academic when it helps him, such as hyping his work, but also sound like a normal guy that shouldn’t be held accountable when people point out his shoddy work. See a piece by Mary Ann example of some of that shoddy work.]
Now that you’ve seen the principles and examples of wanting it both ways, here are a few allegories that I’ve used over the years to describe this tendency along with a personal example to wrap it up.

Driver’s License:

Academic degrees are like a driver’s license. They guarantee a basic quality, experience, and training for people who are on the road. There are plenty of people, at least in theory because my insurance premiums doubled when I moved to Las Vegas, who can drive without a license. And there are plenty of bad drivers, who have hit my car three times here in Las Vegas, who aren’t very good driver’s even with a license. Degrees are a good indicator of academic merit, but only to a limited extent. People can do good academic research without a degree, but there are plenty of people who claim to be “very knowledgeable” and claim to present all of the facts and information without needing a degree, yet they commit so many mistakes and basic errors that they look like that beat up, rusted truck going 35 on the highway. One of the people I linked to above for example, misidentified a thesis statement from my argument and failed to identify basic resources that would have informed his argument. Hmmm, are you sure you might not benefit from getting a license?


Knowledge is like bullets and we are all in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (Insert gratuitous comment about the age of Trump.) There are people who are pretty good at finding bullets. They might find a ton of them but they are in limited supply. These kinds of scavengers feel powerful when using their ammunition against those armed with bows, knifed and sticks. They might even fight a good place where they can ambush unsuspecting victims and win a quick shoot out.

But there are some people who can make their own bullets. They don’t scavenge and rely on other people to load their guns for them. Because of this, they can ensure the quality and supply of their ammunition. In short, they have much more power and control over their environment because they know how bullets are made.

The people who can make bullets are those that understand how to contribute academically. As I said in my PhD applications, I wanted to become a provider of knowledge and not just a consumer. There are many people in (and out) of the church who have their bullets filled by others. For example, Hugh Nibley seems to be a go to source for many church members, with some quoting him chapter and verse. While he was great, his scholarship is fairly outdated and should be engaged, yet, few members have the skills or inclination to do so. The scholars who can read, assess, check sources, and do their own research have their own bullets to fire back at Nibley’s bullets, and recognize the duds in places like the CES Letter. There are many others that simply scavenge whatever points they find from google, reddit, and wikipedia, and then conclude that the work is done. The saunter and strut their way through discussions but are little more than poor shadows of who they claim to be.

Personal Application and Conclusion:

Many people have mistaken assumptions about Mao’s theories and leadership and I’m one of the few scholars in the world that is studying the early insurgency of Mao Zedong to help adjust that understanding. If I were arguing with people who had a form of scholarship but denied the power thereof, (or didn’t know how to drive, or scavenge for bullets) they would be really good at quoting Mao’s writings. They might even have read a few biographies of him, and they can drop quotes pretty well on discussion boards, in between their insults, posturing, and bullying of course. Somebody who knows the power of scholarship has harnessed it because they are familiar with the secondary literature, Mao’s words, studied the archived resources about his leadership, local newspapers, the journals of his associates, and have an extensive background in military thought and theory- particularly insurgencies, and so much more to produce a nuanced and fine understanding of the subject. In short, when I make an argument, I have entire cases of ammunition that I’ve made, while many opponents have little more than a scavenged six shooter.

The same principles apply to church topics. As I wrote last week, complicated subjects require discipline and dedication to master equal to the effort put forth by Olympic gymnasts. There are those out there that want the glory or influence that comes from being academic without putting in the effort or realizing its true power, and that is why they only have an appearance of scholarship.

[Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button below. Thanks again.] 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Notes on a Curious Verse- Helaman 11:33

The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Due to the narrative complexity, debates or its origins, and somewhat enigmatic narrative, many verses in the Book of Mormon can provide a multitude of ideas often in direct contrast to how short the text is. One of those is late in the Book of Helaman, and 11:33 reads: Yea, for they did visit many parts of the land, and did do great destruction unto them; yea, did kill many, and did carry away others captive into the wilderness, yea, and more especially their women and their children.

What follows is a summary and explanation of ideas and implications of this verse. I see four interconnected ideas possible in the verse that come from a critical historical perspective.[1]

Captive Brides:

Bride kidnapping is common among many ancient cultures across the world. The Book of Mosiah already described a clearer example of this practice (Mosiah 20:1-5). It is in line with many norms of ancient war. The winner of a conflict had jurisdiction over its inhabitants, and usually slew the men while taking the women and children captive.[2]

The capture of women and children could represent the need for labor of an arms industry (mining metal), additional soldiers for their army, or increased agricultural production.[3] But the practice of captive brides also has several economic implications. According to sources, sometimes the practice of stealing brides was simply a cover for a couple’s elopement in order to satisfy cultural expectations. Many more times, the practice occurred because “the men who resort to capturing a wife are often of lower social status [see below], because of poverty, disease, poor character or criminality. They are sometimes deterred from legitimately seeking a wife because of the payment the woman’s family expects, the bride price [emphasis added]…”[4]

People Over Land:

During periods of massive economic and social turmoil, a decline in population means that people become more valuable than land. The most famous instance is probably Europe after the Black Death. The population decline by as much as a third, meaning the law of supply and demand made existing workers more valuable.

The Chinese period of disunion faced a similar challenge. During the fourth century AD as I write in my book: [A]s a consequence of the partial depopulation of North China, the various regimes that arose…placed greater value on the control of persons than control of territory…. During [this period,] empty cultivable land could be found in abundance…while the labor power to make that land productive was often in short supply. Human populations, therefore, were prominent among the spoils of victory.[5]

The resulting power of the people necessitated compromises between the emperor and various local power holders ranging from former officials of dynasty, towns that mobilized their own militia under a magnate, and robbers that gained unofficial and (eventually,) official power. The compromise between the emperor and submitting warlords or Confucian officials allowed the emperor to strengthen his position, reduce the threats against him, and gain greater legitimacy as an emperor. It also allowed the warlord, bandit chief, or army leader to keep power, have his position legitimized, and have a chance to amass greater wealth and power. The wins of the emperor produced a positive feedback loop. The initial winner received the submission of various warlords and leaders. This increased the ruler’s tax base and the number of farmers he could call on to supply his army, and it made him look like a mandated ruler in the eyes of the Confucian officials who helped him govern and the people over whom he governed. But there were significant limits to this power. A single defeat would break the success loop. The rival generals still held their armies, so they could easily sense which way the wind was blowing and rebel, and because of the ideology surrounding the Mandate of Heaven, they could claim a powerful justification for their actions by arguing that the ruler had lost the mandate.[6]

State Formation:

The first two points suggest the attempted creation of a rival state. The stealing of Lamanite women by the priests of Noah started a new “ite” in competition with the Nephites. And the power of the Gadianton Robbers to take women and children suggests they had the basics of a state apparatus. Again, Giddianhi was educated; there were many “waste places” in Nephite lands (Helaman 11:20), and it appears as though Nephites traded land for peace with the Gadianton Robbers (3 Nephi 6:3). Even later in Nephite history the record mentions a treaty with them but provides little about their state (Mormon 2:28).

The fragility of both states might again take a cue from Chinese history. Both the Nephites and Gadianton Robbers had trouble consolidating their rule and protecting the people. As I’ve discussed previously, the rise of Robbers represented competing centers of power fighting for control. The conquest dynasties such as those from the period of disunion were even more fragile than Gadianton Robbers. Tribes like the Di didn’t have skilled bureaucrats who could collect taxes, administer rituals of leadership, conduct a census that taxes households, and raise their armies. On top of this, the Di tribe had only gained power within recent memory. There were still many gaps to their rule, which might specifically apply to weakening Nephite power. The various hilltop fortresses were only nominally loyal to the government. They still provided potential centers of opposition should the ruler falter and they shield peasants from taxes and the imposition of corvee labor. This weakened the government, as it couldn’t pay its army and didn’t have enough labor to build its own fortresses. Again, recalling Helaman 11:33, the most potentially damaging effect on a would-be emperor’s power was the tendency to relocate the population of defeated enemy states to areas around the capital. In times of severe chaos when central authority was weak or nonexistent, people often became more important than empty territory. By the time of the Battle of Fei River (383), there were over one hundred forty thousand households from the Xianbei and Qiang tribes stationed around the capital. They were easier to tax and control there, but they became a large sea of hostile people if the strength of the capital faltered, which it did in defeat at Fei River.

One final note is geographic specific, and that is how Mesoamerican rulers often needed a quick strike to legitimize their rule and provide captives for sacrifices. If we accept the notion that the Robbers weren’t just robbers but rather a rival state, then view could hold some merit. The warfare was needed on an economic basis but also for a cultural and political basis. Victory in battle, from Constantine seeing the Cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, to the ritual ball court sacrifices of the Mayans was often the best divine diagnostic.

Ethnic Tension:

The final point would likely be the lowered social status of The Gadianton Robbers. Assuming these weren’t captive brides, economically important workers, or a need to show divine sanction of the state, their capture could just be part of the ethno history of the Nephites. The Greeks thought the Persians were weak and effeminate, the Romans thought the Greeks were duplicitous, mountain men often were perceived as brutish and darker skinned. The Nephites believed their opponents were cursed, indolent, bloodthirsty, and living in tents. Ethnic beliefs would hardly condone intermarriage with those that were considered ethnic others and mere robbers to boot.

The capture of women and children then is not a mere footnote or ambiguous verse sandwiched between speeches, but rather indicative of larger trends such as economic importance of people, but also the fragility of the states involved often in islands of power surrounded by seas of hostile people only loyal as long as they feared the military might of the leaders.

All of the factors are highly speculative and based on single verses combined with an overall picture presented in Helaman and an extensive knowledge of history. But the book of Helaman is shorter than the war chapters yet covers some 50 years. While some of the ideas in this section are extremely tenuous, they offer tantalizing clues into the nature of Nephite society, the underlying societal factors that drove prophetic warnings, and even possible sexual violence in the text.

What do you think?


[1] There are many more ways to look at the text, and those that think the text is a fiction would find this silly. But I’m not having the same debate over and over again.

[2] Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit Press, 2014), chapter 2.

[3] William Hambling, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History, (New York: Routledge Press, 2006), 113, 205.

[4] Daniel G. Bates, “Normative and Alternative Systems of Marriage among the Yörük of Southeastern Turkey,” Anthropological Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1974), 270–287. You might also examine the practices of Boko Haram and ISIS who are doing the same thing in the modern age.

[5] David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare:300-900AD,(New York: Routledge Press, 2001), 60.

[6] Morgan Deane, Decisive Battles in Chinese History,(New York, Westholme Press, 2018), 40.

Friday, March 2, 2018

From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon.

From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon is now available on Amazon. I'm a bit sheepish to admit it, but I haven't figured out how to add another box on the side of my blog, so this link will have to do for now. If you haven't had a chance, Decisive Battles in Chinese History is also available and has received glowing reviews. (Except for that two star review, but who's counting?) 

The baptism of Clovis in 496 AD. The combination of religious, political, and military power highlights the themes of the new book very well. 
As I work on how to get new boxes for the right hand of my blog, here is the book blurb:

Believers in the Book of Mormon contend it is an account of real people that existed in history. From Joseph Smith’s plural marriage to Brigham Young’s statements on race, as we study the complexity of history we develop a deeper appreciation for struggling leaders moving, sometimes imperfectly, through a tragic and fallen world. Morgan Deane, a professor of history and author of Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, uses the best of modern scholarship and military history to mine indirect traces in the text to identify the complexity and ambiguity that we would expect from the actions of historical people. Extensive historical examples, including the campaigns of the Byzantine general Belisarius, "evil gangs" of Samurai, and purposeful manipulation of records by Chinese dynastic historians, combine with detailed analysis of subtle clues to provide additional insight into the militarization of the Nephites by their spiritual leaders, the futility of their battlefield victories, the deadly machinations even righteous rulers needed to gain and keep political power, the possibly unjust actions of Nephite rulers, the reconstruction of arguments used by Amalickiah, and Captain Moroni’s innovative and winning tactics leading to rapacious taxation and insurgency to make a book that offers a unique reinterpretation of both heroes and villains.
From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon is the first of its kind to fully reassess the narrative found in the Book of Mormon. During a time of increased militancy in foreign affairs and vitriolic domestic politics, the increasing economic and social costs of war, and the spread and acceptance of fake political narratives this text will revolutionize the way readers understand the Book of Mormon and help them apply its message for our day.
Thanks for reading and I hope you get a copy!