Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Canary in the Mine

Boyd J. Petersen.  Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life.  Kofford, 2002.  ISBN: 1589580206.

Martha Beck.  Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.  Crown, 2005.  ISBN: 0307335992.

Hugh Nibley.  "The Roman Games as the Survival of an Archaic Year Cult." PhD dissertation.  University of California at Berkeley, 1938.

I first encountered Hugh Nibley when I was about sixteen years old.  Making my way through my parents' library looking for something substantial to devour, I came upon An Approach to the Book of Mormon, and was immediately fascinated.  Like many of the groupies I encountered later at BYU, I too succumbed to the spell of exotic historical narratives, numerous foreign languages, and professorial tone, buttressed with crowds of dense footnotes.  My worship reached its zenith when I read Approaching Zion and Temple and Cosmos, which I still regard as some of Nibley's best work (even if it is not perfect, by any means).

The hardest thing for me to give up as a missionary was my addiction to printed matter, an addiction which Nibley fed (not just with his own material: he also pointed me towards other sources of information about the ancient world).  I missed his wide perspective in the mission field, especially when those around me (leaders and fellow missionaries) seemed much more narrowly focused, reducing the gospel to cheap kitsch that could be marketed door to door in easy soundbytes.  I knew they meant well, but it seemed to me even then that we were prostituting the kingdom of God, selling it with the same kind of tactics (and sales meetings) that other people use to sell vacuum cleaners or sleazy magazines.  One of many pleasures that came with the end of my mission was the freedom to look at the gospel from a non-sales perspective.  Eternal salvation is not something decided by how fast two young men walk, how diligently they brush their teeth or shine their shoes, or how widely they smile when you come to the door to tell them, for the umpteenth time, that you really aren't interested in another chat about baptism.  Fed up with being told that the life and death of other people depended on my personal hygiene (and their knee-jerk reaction thereto), I rushed happily back to BYU, and picked up with Nibley where I had left off (somewhere in The World and the Prophets).

Ironically, it was at BYU that the first cracks in my idol started to appear.  I encountered several professors whom I respected very much, and learned that not all of them were ardent Nibley fans.  That gave me pause.  Another wrench in the works was that I began learning more about his personal life, which I was actively assimilating as a guide for my own.  I took pride in spending no time (or hardly any) socializing, preferring to remain holed up in the library working.  I did not date (until my last year as an undergraduate).  I did not have a job.  I studied, ate, worked out, and slept.  This worked pretty well for me: I got excellent marks in all my classes, and avoided the pitfalls of dating in Provo (like having to consider marrying a girl after you have taken her out twice).  I also avoided spending money that I didn't have (and wasn't likely to get, given that my idol spent most of his life as poor as a churchmouse).  Then, as so often happens, life intervened and busted up my dream of Mormon scholarly perfection.  Things started innocently enough, with Nibley's funeral in the old Provo Tabernacle (before it burned down).  Naturally, I attended (and sat up very high in the gallery: I love those old pioneer churches in Utah; they have much more character than the modern LDS buildings).  In the midst of all the passionate eulogies, which were generally full of praise and admiration (as I would expect), there was some mention made of Nibley's wayward daughter, Martha, who was not welcome in the family.  Having read Petersen's book (above), I knew a little about her: she had accused her father of sexually molesting her, an accusation that none of her family members supported.  Of course I thought she was nuts.  Her accusation rested on memory recovery techniques that I knew to be shady (I had done my research!), and, besides, no one as perfect as Hugh Nibley would give up something as wonderful as the gospel to waste time torturing a little girl, his own little girl.  It was ridiculous.

Fast forward a little.  I am working closely with a Nibley acolyte in the BYU faculty, trying to piece together a commentary on the New Testament that will be at once an academic tour-de-force and a solid bit of Mormon apologetics.  As often happens, my mentor's discourse turns to reminiscences of the Great Man (Nibley), whose daughter went crazy at Harvard and came back with all these incomprehensible allegations.  In passing, my mentor mentions that he and other groupies used to hang out regularly at the Nibleys' little house in downtown Provo.  I have seen the house.  It is pretty tiny.  I picture it full of people, coming and going all the time, and books stacked floor to ceiling (as it has been described by witnesses like Petersen).  I think about Petersen's account of the lack of amenities in the house, how the Nibleys moved in without any furniture (literally), and how the Great Man would sometimes throw a tent in his car, pile in the kids, and go camping impromptu in the nearby canyons.  In Petersen's account, this life seemed idyllic and perfect, just the kind of thing I would do with my eight kids when I was living in a tiny house in Provo, playing the role of the Lord's Apologist.  But what if it wasn't all fun and games for everyone involved?  What if having a father who worked all the time, except when he was stuffing your tiny house full of books and strangers or taking you off into the howling wilderness, wasn't as much fun as I thought?

Petersen's book contained the seeds of my questions, pointing out the extremely awkward relationship between Hugh and his mother, for example, and the fact that Hugh never related well to his children once they ceased being babies.  Hugh was a loner, like I was shaping up to be, a workaholic, a war veteran who suffered from PTSD, an awkward lover (who married his much younger wife almost on a dare, according to the family legend preserved by Petersen, after his first love refused him), and basically kind of crazy.  None of this cancelled his brilliance, or made me admire his work less, but it did give me pause, especially when I accidentally found myself courting a young woman and contemplating marriage.  What if she didn't want to live in a dump with eight kids while I worked all the time, or wandered off into the wilderness?  Was it really fair of me to ask this kind of commitment?  In patterning my own life after that of the Great Man, what was I really signing on for?  I admit that I did not really know.  But I began to wonder.

Fast forward some more, to graduate school.  Here, the intellectual doubts my professors had expressed about Nibley came to a head, when I read his PhD thesis myself (listed above) in search of some ideas for what paths I might pursue.  While there was no denying that Nibley was incredibly well-read, there was also no getting around the fact that my professors' most telling criticisms stuck.  Stripped of all its baggage (fancy foreign words and dense footnotes), Nibley's thesis was pretty dodgy: there are records of many ancient peoples holding ceremonies to usher in the new year; the Romans may have had one too (though their earliest religious calendars extant don't attest a single ritual occasion with all of the events that Nibley finds characteristic of year ceremonies); all these ancient year ceremonies (the imaginary Roman one too) may descend from the earliest, most ancient year ceremony of them all.  I realized that I could use this kind of logic to write a thesis about Orlando, Florida, as the center of an ancient pilgrimage ritual (showing features similar to other pilgrimage centers like Santiago de Compostela, Mecca, or Jerusalem).  At what point do historical parallels (or imaginary historical parallels) become meaningful?  Do rituals really descend consciously from one another?  Does the same kind of behavior never spontaneously crop up in two or more different places, just because people are people?  The Nibley spell was broken.

Losing my idol was part of the faith crisis that hit me full force in graduate school (though it had really been building ever since I became academically interested in religion: you cannot bring critical thinking to something that does not bear scrutiny without asking for trouble).  Recently, I happened across Martha's book in a local library and decided to give it a read.  Having heard both sides of the story now--Martha's (as told by herself) and her family's (as told by Boyd Petersen)--I have some thoughts to offer.

First, I do not know what exactly to conclude about the allegations of sexual abuse.  In Nibley's defense, no one else in the family accuses him (though Martha claims that her mother was initially willing to admit his guilt).  In Martha's defense, I do not think that her memories are entirely false.  I have some personal experience with victims of sexual abuse, and the story she tells rings true enough that I cannot dismiss it as pure fabrication.  (There is the vaginal scarring to consider, as well.)  I tend to suspect that her family may be right in putting the blame for the actual assault off onto someone else, perhaps another man in the family circle (which Nibley's apologetic work extended to include a lot of interlopers).  Nibley's awkwardness as a father, and his failure to defend Martha, might then account for her "remembering" him later as the perpetrator.  Or not.  I do not presume to know either way.

Second, the Nibley family was really dysfunctional.  The idyllic picture painted by Boyd Petersen omits a lot of crap: the dirty diapers littering the floor, the mother abandoned to her fate--lying in bed and crying all day while her husband plays with Latin, Greek, and ancient Egyptian.  Martha says her mother admitted being a victim of sexual abuse, and believes that Hugh's mother abused him.  I lack the facts to come down firmly on either side, but it does seem hard not to conclude that all has not been well with the Nibleys.  This is nothing for them to be ashamed of, really.  It is just the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes.  My life hasn't been all teddy bears and rainbows, either, and others have suffered worse than I or the Nibleys.

Finally, Nibley's position as LDS Apologist in Chief drove him crazier than he otherwise would have been.  The guy had an overbearing mom (who might have abused him).  He fought in a war before we knew what PTSD was, and never received any therapy.  On top of all this, chance put him in charge of defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  As a result of his heroic efforts in this impossible war of words, a war that cannot be won, he was constantly harried by fanboys (like I would have been had the situation presented itself), and suffered at least one nervous breakdown (speaking with Louis Midgely before an audience of BYU students).  A lot of his apologetic work puts the cart before the horse, assuming a theory to be true (e.g. the Mormon gospel is really ancient) and then finding evidence to back this assumption up (ancient records contain things that vaguely resemble the Mormon gospel!).  He was not always careful to allow for the fact that he might be wrong.  (Consider, for example, his overly hasty dismissal of the evidence that Joseph Smith was convicted of glass-looking in 1826.)

Today, I still enjoy reading Hugh Nibley.  His satire is great, and I think the idea he had of Mormonism is better than many (including the one I ended up serving for the greater part of my mission).  But I do not aim any more to be the person he was.  I am not an apologist.  I am not a defender of the faith.  Any faith worth trusting can look after itself.  It doesn't need me to drive myself and those around me crazy in order to preserve it.


  1. Tell me, what is the "Nibley spell"? You write: "I too succumbed to the spell of exotic historical narratives, numerous foreign languages, and professorial tone, buttressed with crowds of dense footnotes." I am curious because this to me describes quite a lot of academic writing dealing with antiquity or the middle ages, or perhaps any topic where knowledge of more than English is an essential tool of the field (M.L. West, E.R. Curtius, Calvert Watkins, Andy Orchard, Brockelmann, Richard Martin, and pretty much any German for that matter; this is almost the norm, I think. Certain hermetical, PhD students and erstwhile Argos-killers). I myself came late to the Grand Old Mormon Man in the Hat, at a point when I was functionally an atheist. I was given several of his books as part of the larger salvation efforts of my believing (I mean, ahem, knowing) parents who saw some connection between my morphology addictions and my near-nil belief (certainly not knowledge) and who hoped a dose of proper uprighteousness from some Lord of Language robed in Mormonism would do the trick. It didn't. But even if I was at that time more under the compulsions of my desire to please my parents than I was under a Nibleyanic spell, I tried to like him. I took the BYU honors course that was supposed to study his writings (it was actually hagiography centering on the personality he constructed, or had constructed, for his audience; I want to call the class saccharin schmalz but my affection for the instructor won't let me). The apologetic essays we read in there were conspiratorial in orientation (in the way that "Where's Waldo?" books are conspiratorial), when they weren't blatantly deceptive, but I will say that his essay on the Seven Sleepers was very good--it was also the only secular thing (i.e. the only thing published outside of Utah) that we read in the class. I got his dissertation--"he wrote it in only seven weeks!"--on microfiche at that time too. I quit reading around page 40 or something like that, when he quoted the Rig Veda (late 2nd millenium BC), Adam of Bremen (11th century AD), and Pindar (sixth-fifth century BC) all as evidence for the same far fetched point. Seven weeks sounded about right for that dissertation. What struck me about the course was the constant reiteration of his humility. Humble, humble, humble was the word. The mantra of the whole class shone a bright light on the non-worldly (to the point of other-worldly) nature of the man: he sought neither accolades nor acolytes--so the story ran. "But what is that camera over there?" (I had to ask myself) "Is that a biography in you pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" And over there: "Is that a festschrift (actually two), and is that a film documentary?" How hard is it for a humble man to say "no" to the documentary crew asking to tag along on his vacation? I know from experience that my neighbors are usually obliging when I ask them not to party till 3 am on a weeknight; could it be that much harder to say "no" to a photographer wanting a picture or the biographer wanting access to private papers? Does an "authorized" biographer just show up--mine should be here any minute--or do you look for the right one in the form of a fawning son-in-law? Nibley the writer is Gorgianic and bombastic, obscurantist and illogical; but Nibley the cult figure to my thinking is the engine of a calculating flim-flam machine; a big fish in a little pond, tossing out of muddied waters big words and dead languages, but saying precious little and certainly little precious, but saying it lively. This to me is the missing ingredient: it's not just that you were taken in but that there was an apparatus there to take you in.

  2. Fair points, Sean.

    These days, I have a tendency to dismiss a lot of academic discourse as Gorgianic bombast. I agree that Nibley fell under his own spell, believing in the myth of himself as a Great Man working for the noblest of causes. I too fell for that myth for a little while, but my naive idea of my own importance was deflated pretty quickly (since, unlike Nibley, I found it impossible to crank out a dissertation of any kind in seven weeks, and my professors knew better than to treat me like some kind of inhuman genius: it might also have helped that I am not that smart).

    I still think Nibley says some useful stuff, though. His critique of plutocracy and cultural mediocrity actually sensitized me to a lot of the problems current in modern LDS Mormonism.

  3. O Argos-Slayer:

    You make a fair point here, I think. I certainly remember liking some of his social critiques (there was an essay about rhetoric we read that was indirectly very critical of the culture of the BYU administration), but it seems to me that 1) this is the sort of stuff "liberal" Mormons hold to, 2) "liberal" Mormons are a passively whining fringe--that's me at least--or an actively persecuted minority (D.M. Quin et al.), and therefore 3) no one really takes this stuff seriously. My very Republican Dad certainly dismisses a lot of Nibley's anti-capitalist mindset, and it seems to me that certain of his proteges (including our former teacher, Herr Dr. Prof. "Temples in the Ancient World" guy), are foaming-at-the-mouth right wingers. I want to think this phenomenon is very simple: humans tend to ignore what they don't like (also called in cliched techno-speak: tendency towards reduction of cognitive dissonance). That perhaps is the psychological beginning of hero worship. And so Mormon "liberals" (not sure yet what's a better term) ignore the fundamentalist bent in his scholarship, and fundamentalist Mormons (the official norm) ignore the liberal social thought. I can understand how your average Mormon literate (that is, non-professional reader of things Mormon--and there aren't that many in the church, in my experience) can dismiss the uncomfortable but well argued (in a gospel context) social views of Nibley. But not the academic band of Nibleyan retainers hovering around their venerable king: how do they do it?

    I am perhaps too cynical, because certainly his political and social views--and especially the fact that he broadcast them so loudly--demand a certain amount of moral strength that I am not sure I myself have (I shut my mouth while at BYU). But still my original question for you, which got lost in my Nestoric rambling, is not answered: why did Nibley captivate you so and not Martin West or Walter Burkert? The former is certainly a better scholar, but he is only slightly less wide ranging (because he has more shame--he needed to remain respectable at least until the mid 90s). Is it just that Nibley was a Mormon? My perhaps too cynical and preemptive answer was that there was and still is basically a Nibleyite publicity machine which swallows up young Mormon minds...but, if you can forgive the twisted CS Lewis logic, that doesn't square with the anti-capitalist, almost Hebraic morality of Nibley the social critic. And of course it doesn't explain the fact that so few of those young Mormon minds accept any of the social strain in his thought once that machine spews them out into the world (by which I mean the BYU faculty...but of course "The World is our Campus"). Or does it?

  4. I met Nibley on my own, in my home. I remember my bishop being a little nervous about him: I was quite flummoxed by this. Now I get it. I think Nibley was more of a potential disaster for the church: a guy with rhetorical skills, serious scriptural "understanding" (in the Mormon sense of the word), and a testimony of the gospel that was ideologically opposed to everything the Church Office Building seems to stand for these days. His spirited defense of the fundie caricature of Joseph Smith made it more profitable to embrace than to rebuff him: if he had been nothing but a social Jeremiah (which he was), then they would have fired (or more likely, never hired) him.

    But to your original point, it was not (as far as I can tell) a covert LDS "Nibley campaign" that took me in and made me an acolyte. That does not mean that such was not the case, only that I have yet to see enough evidence to convince me that this really happens. What I see in my own experience leads me to think that most LDS have either never heard of Nibley, or have never seriously read his material. Even some of the fanboys in Provo are more in love with Indiana Jones (if you actually talk to them) than with his less hunky Mormon avatar. But that is just my impression. You could be right.