Last Sunday I worshipped at the Church of Football. In my defense, I was finishing up the last leg of a long drive so I couldn’t do regular worship at an LDS chapel. By good fortune, the timing was right to listen to my favorite team play its game on Sunday morning. Satellite radio let me down (no live broadcast), but I was able to pick up the local radio broadcast on a succession of AM stations as I drove across the state. Local broadcasts, with home team announcers, are really quite different from national broadcasts. Local announcers are of course biased in favor of the home team, in contrast to nationals who to try to sound neutral and objective. On the other hand, locals are better informed as to the personnel and details of the local team. Local commentators are (1) better informed; but (2) biased. So let’s kick this around, and of course get to Mormon scholarship, which (surprise!) presents analogous difficulties. Would you rather get your commentary on LDS history and doctrine from local within-tribe scholars or from outsiders?
Better informed? Local football commentators give a lot better commentary on who makes tackles, who is out for the day and what second-string substitutes are playing a lot of snaps, and so forth. Their audience is the home-team fan who knows every player on the team and wants to know the details. Home-team fans don’t want panoramic shots of the city or interviews with tailgaters in the parking lot cooking up a local delicacy — they want to know why the outside linebacker is limping and why the coach punted on 4th and 1 at midfield.
It’s a little muddier with Mormon scholarship. Yes, LDS scholars studying Mormonism “get” a lot of little things about the history and the culture that outsiders struggle to learn and never quite master. These blips were blatantly obvious with an earlier era of Christian polemical writing on the LDS Church (one of the reasons their attacks lacked credibility for LDS readers), but they are less frequent and less obvious in the current crop of non-LDS scholars who do work on Mormonism.
On the other hand, the familiarity can lead LDS scholars to miss the significance or historical interest that clearly strikes outside scholars as important and interesting. Polygamy is an example here. For outsiders, it is just terribly intriguing and not at all obvious how a devout Christian group that was, in many other ways, exemplary in terms of Christian virtue could suddenly adopt a widespread practice of plural marriage with hardly a second thought. Then, two generations later, do an about face and abandon it just as quickly. For a lot of Mormons, taking three wives was just something great-great-grandfather did, no big deal. That’s not bias, just cultural blindness.
Biased? Home team commentators will always back the home team on a close play or a disputed call. They are just meeting the needs of their listening audience. With current Mormon scholarship, both within-tribe scholars and outsiders are much better at avoiding overt bias. That’s one of the benefits of professionalization of the field. Once upon a time it was always quite clear which side of the fence a writer on Mormonism was standing on. Now, that is no longer the case. Except for apologetics, even the newer neo-apologetics that has proven so popular. Bias is sort of built into the apologetic genre, so it isn’t really a criticism to note that it’s there.
So here’s an open question for readers. Do you prefer insider scholarship about Mormonism that is better informed (in some ways) about Mormonism and trust your own ability to detect and bracket any bias? Or do you prefer outsider scholarship that might have a claim to more objectivity but will, from time to time, miss a few details or not quite understand the Mormon way of thinking about religion?