Religious Studies and the Church, Part II: Rabbis in the Marketplace, Celebrity-Scholars, and Firesides

In the Latter-day Saint community the renowned gospel scholar has traditionally enjoyed a lot of social esteem. Much of what I’d say here I’ve already said previously, but to summarize: our attention is being fractured into a million pieces, making it hard for any one figure to get more than a fraction of the attention space. The days of a Hugh Nibley or other figure that could command monolithic respect and acknowledgment are gone. I’m posting on the bloggernacle, which I know makes me a fogey, as the kids these days are posting on Twitter and Tik Tok (or so I hear). The “conversation,” even in such a narrow space as, say Latter-day Saint sexual minorities, is so variegated that it’s difficult to say where it actually is taking place at any given time, and public intellectual types are forced to expend more and more energy producing a constant stream of content or promotional material to capture a  drastically shrinking part of the pie of our attention. Of course, at some point you realize that your efforts are almost worthless in the grand scheme of things, require a lot of energy, and that that time would be better spent throwing a ball with your kids. (Yes I know, pot meet kettle, but for what it’s worth I’m planning on “retiring” from my own slow motion, wannabe public intellectualizing in a year or so). 

Latter-day Saint religious studies/CES types (again, here I’m including church history, biblical studies, etc.) interested in their material being read face the same issues as public intellectuals in general, but it’s all overlaid with the gospel, which makes it particularly tricky. On one hand, I think it’s great that, for example, John Bytheway and Hank Smith have a massively successful podcast (even if I haven’t listened to it); good on them. I applaud their success like I would applaud the success of somebody having a successful sitcom or any other communications or entertainment venture.

However, to achieve that level of success requires some level of self-promotion; it’s part of the game. If you don’t play the self-promotion game your content will probably be completely unnoticed, and then what’s the point of creating it? The Emily Dickinson situation where other people put in the elbow grease to force your work into the limelight is extremely rare. More common is the situation of Thoreau, who spent more time promoting Walden than actually living at Walden. Orson Scott Card talked about a professor of his who claimed he only wrote for God, but talk to any academic who’s published a piece read by a dozen people how demotivating it is to have another piece swallowed up in the aether. 

However, there is a fine line between promoting one’s ideas and a sort of priestcraft, striving for disciple’s of one’s own, and the “high places” on the stand at firesides. Furthermore, I think what was said about D&C 121 about power is relevant here; “almost all men, as soon as they get a little” attention/fame let it go to their head at least a little, for me that’s the default assumption, but maybe I’m cynical. The desire for religious or academic honors is just as crass as the desire for money (if not more so, since money is neutral and is meant to be used, religious honors is using the gospel for your own personal ends). 

So I don’t know what the answer is; I admit to feeling a visceral reaction against religion scholars promoting themselves. On the other hand, if you’re going to be in the ideas business marketing is part of the game now, and I’d rather have John Bytheway et al. holding the microphone of public attention than some other people, as long as they don’t inhale.  

Note: The title is a very specific allusion to Matthew 23:7, and is not in any way imputing anything negative about Jewish religious authorities. 


6 comments for “Religious Studies and the Church, Part II: Rabbis in the Marketplace, Celebrity-Scholars, and Firesides

  1. A timely article for me. I am soon to start a new career as a “public” minister of the Gospel. Doing the same thing publicly that I have done privately for years. I am going the route of both business and politics. My new business sells “mission garments” and, simultaneously, I am running for Utah County Commissioner. I believe both are me following Jesus. Jesus was a businessman, as he did not work for Carpenters Inc., he worked in the family business. Jesus was a politician, as the Sadducees and Pharisees were the Republican and Democrat parties of that day. But mainly, Jesus was the master teacher, and that is what I have been doing most of my life, but now will finally begin doing it publicly. As a matter of fact, I went to a modern day synagogue yesterday, on the Sabbath, and read the same words from Isaiah 61 that Jesus did at the beginning of his public ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

  2. LDS scholars have a few routes: the first route serves Deseret Book; the second route serves employment with the institution; the third route is self-promotion, and the forth route is one of actual scholarship.

    The Church Educational System is geared to incentivize all routes except the one that actually serves scholarship. This is tragic. There is a pay-grade policy in place that incentivizes CES emloyees to pursue useless online paper-certificate degrees for higher pay. So tithing subsidizes gimmicky degrees so that more tithing can pay higher salaries. In the end, we pay top dollar for our paid clergy to produce nothing in terms of scholarship. We are front-loading empty PhDs in the CES, when the CES has largely failed the congregation (in terms of doctrinal exposition and apologetics). The CES has no obligation to perform, only to show up. It’s one of our blindspots when it comes to accountability.

    The tension between academic integrity and institutional correlation contaminates LDS scholarship.

    What if we held our paid clergy of CES employees to the same academic standard Jews expect of their Rabbis?

  3. This post and the 1 comment, make my eyes roll. I dislike the LDS lite and attempts at humor of John Bytheway and Hank Smith. The fact that they are on the Church’s lucrative speaking circuit is rather depressing, as is their association with CES and BYU. They are performers not educators. They do the Church more harm than good. But I guess they make a good living.

    I thought that the first (and only) comment was a parody. But I looked it up. Tom is running for Utah County Commissioner as an independent. So maybe it’s not a parody. He really thinks of Christ was a businessman and politician. I tend to think of Christ as social rebel, not a capitalist. Campaigning on T&S seems an odd way to run for office, but whatever works. And what are “mission garments”? And I love the humility in your final statement.

  4. Yikes. Remind me to not vote for religious zealots with messianic delusions of grandur.

  5. Wow, I thought he was being sarcastic but I think you’re right. Whatever else you can say about the T&S comment section, it’s certainly not boring.

  6. If it wasn’t parody—and my first reaction was that it was a spoof—it should be. But I have been a member of the Church for 48 years, having joined at age 22, and I have heard plenty of “Elvis seen on Mars” comments from Church members, that were meant to be taken seriously. What is it about this Church that attracts so much weirdness?

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