Today, fellow RNS blogger Jana Riess criticizes her friend (and mine) Diane Winston for criticizing Matthew Bowman for not owning up to his Mormon identity in The Mormon People, his new book on the history of the faith. I'm with Jana on the analysis, Diane on the conclusion. Bowman should have owned up.
In her review of the book back in WaPo in March, Diane complains that in recounting the story of Joseph Smith's religious journey, Bowman (Mormon that he is) "takes all events at face value." That's not quite true, however. Bowman's narrative of the most controversial events--Joseph's discovery and translation of those golden plates--does pretty much roll out as a straightforward factual account. But the author then turns to the reader:
The story to this point seems incredible to many modern Americans, who instinctively dismiss that which seems irrational or unprovable, and that it should. It belongs to a different time, an age when the intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment still stood locked in uneasy embrace with the intuitive and mystical world of the premodern age. Whether angels, the voice of God, and ancient holy plates appeared in the life of Joseph Smith or not, he and those around himfirmly believed that such events were possible, and his followers believed they were very real indeed.
I'd nitpick the sentence about the Enlightenment. Anyone who doubts that our own time (and place) also experiences that "uneasy embrace" need only consult survey data on belief in evolution and supernatural occurrences. But be that as it may, Bowman discharges his duty as an academic student of religion to address from the outside the truth claims of the tradition he's writing about.
Diane contends that the book's partiality towards Mormonism goes well beyond the allegedly miraculous events of its founding, and that it would therefore be useful for the reader to know where the author is coming from. Jana thinks Bowman's account is sufficiently sophisticated to earn him a pass on self-identification. "The larger question," she reasonaby points out, "is whether scholars of all religious traditions need to reveal their biases, not just those representing traditions that are considered controversial."
I don't think so. But Bowman's position is distinctive. As recently as 1993, his own LDS Church excommunicated or disfellowshipped six intellectuals--including the distinguished historian D. Michael Quinn--in part for what they had written about the church's past. And Bowman not only gives an account of that episode, he describes, in his introduction, how the recent "renaissance of sorts" of Mormon history has been a product of professionally trained Mormon academics, a "diligent cadre of amateur Mormon scholars," and non-Mormon academics studying the faith. Under the circumstances, he should have made clear to which group he himself belongs, and said a little something about how he has approached offering the outside world this historical overview of his people.
Addendum: Bowman dedicates his book to Richard Bushman, the great Columbia University historian, whom he calls a mentor and friend. Indeed, Bowman adopts the same narrative approach to Joseph Smith's revelations as Bushman does in his important 2007 biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The author's note at the beginning of that book ends with the sentence: "A practicing Mormon, he lives in New York City with his wife, Claudia." Enough said.