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Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple
by Hugh Nibley
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
8/24/2008 1:52:11 PM
Some readers may be a bit surprised at finding yet another entry into
the "Collected Works of Hugh Nibley" series. After all, the great man
passed away on February 24, 2005, at the ripe old age of 94. Even
Nibley can't keep writing beyond the grave! This volume, #17 in the
venerable series, is of course a posthumous collection of some of
Nibley's best thoughts on himself, on others, and on his perennially
favorite topic, the Temple.

The first section contains a few biographical notes written by Nibley
himself. It should come as no surprise that, at least in his written
reminiscences, he deftly combines a delightful self-abasing attitude
with a consciousness that he really was a bright and hard-working
fellow. You don't even need to read between the lines: Nibley knows
what will make people smile, and he uses that charm to make himself
accessible to every reader. His scorn for some in academia is evident;
his respect for the everyday member is likewise clear. You won't find
an exhaustive treatment of Nibley's life here: a very fine biography by
his son-in-law, Boyd Petersen, fills that role very nicely. But we are
offered a bird's-eye view of the remarkably varied life of a remarkable
man.

Next comes a collection of transcripts of interviews with Nibley. Lou
Midgley does a yeoman's job of interviewing Nibley and prying open the
lid of Nibley's brain. And there are other interviews, including one by
a member of his own staff, that further explore Nibley's thought and
scholarship. There is a marked difference in tone between, say, the
interview with Midgley and one with the editors of Dialogue. Nibley
knew his audience, and he knew how to relate at nearly every level.
(Stories are legendary about Nibley lecturing to BYU students, and
completely losing them in his intricate, nearly surgical dissection of
obscure and sometimes irrelevant ideas.)

The third section contains nearly half a dozen book reviews written by
Nibley. Except for the final review, which voiced some reservations
about the text, the others are glowing endorsements of the books. This
was a bit disappointing. Nibley knew exactly how to tell a writer that
the work falls short and needs more attention. His command of the
English language allowed him to be a creative, and often entertaining,
critic. I think this section would have been fleshed out a bit better
if a purely negative review had been included.

Part four contains two forewords written by Nibley for books written by
others. Nothing exciting here, just a nice view of Nibley's high regard
for the works of his colleagues.

Now we get to some real meat. Part five, titled "Personal," contains
eleven fascinating glimpses into Hugh Nibley, the person. Consisting of
letters and conversations with the small and the great, Nibley really
finds his stride and displays his iconoclastic brilliance. As an
example, I do love this thought from chapter 17:

"What one most misses in our Utah institutions is that air of
intellectual candor, that free and searching discussion of the
schoolmen, their ways and their foibles, which is the principal delight
and, in the end, the main justification of institutions of higher
learning. Seen in proper perspective, the doings of the learned are
high comedy, and we who profess publicly and for a fee are fair game for
any criticism..." (p. 125)

Part of the mystique, the aura, of Hugh Nibley, is his obvious contempt
for the pretensions of those who set themselves up as teachers and
leaders. We will not soon forget his "Leaders vs. Managers" speech, and
we would do well to re-read his thoughts before embarking on any
leadership role.

Other entries in this category offer a broad view of Nibley's lifework
and his ever-present attitude of cynicism and righteous judgment.

We come now to the final section, "Temples." Clearly a passion with
Nibley, these essays reflect, in a personal and passionate way, Nibley's
consuming interest in Temples and in their appearance throughout
history. His essay, "On the Sacred and the Symbolic," provides readers
with an outstanding overview of Temple symbolism (without, of course,
revealing any of the ritual held so sacred by the Latter-day Saints).
Readers will surely benefit from Nibley's vast scholarship in this area.
In "Assembly and Atonement," he fleshes out the meaning of "atonement"
from a Latter-day Saint perspective. It makes for fascinating reading.

(If you've read this far in this over-long review, I hope you'll stay by
for the rest of it.)

I am not unaware of the criticisms that have been hurled at Dr. Nibley,
both before and after his death. Well-known are the accusations by his
daughter, Martha Beck, of childhood sexual abuse. Many have read Beck's
book and, like myself, found her arguments to be less than persuasive.
And Martha's siblings have come forward to indicate that her report is
not true.

And I know that some have questioned the quality of Nibley's
scholarship. Did he tend to be sloppy in his research? We're his
footnotes a nightmare to verify? Did he make stuff up out of whole
cloth? All of these charges have been hurled at him. His defenders
ignore the charges. His detractors thrill at the thought of bringing
down this most prominent of Mormon scholars.

But this volume is not so much about scholarship, research, or any
academic concern. Yes, these are reflected here. But the thrust of
this book is to introduce to readers the man, Hugh Nibley. And in this
respect, they succeed very nicely. I can well remember a delightful
dinner at the home of Boyd and Zina Petersen (Nibley's daughter and
son-in-law) where I finally had the opportunity to meet the Nibleys.
Throughout the evening, I had a chance to ask him so many questions I'd
had on my mind. I'm only sorry this meeting didn't occur ten years
later, when I would have been able to form my questions so much better.

Love him or hate him, if you're a Latter-day Saint, you simply can't
ignore Hugh Nibley. He stands tall as a true believer who knew how to
bring down the high and mighty while strengthening those whose hearts
and minds are open to his thoughts. In many ways, Nibley was
untouchable -- no matter where he went, no matter how harsh his
criticism of the Church and its leaders, he always emerged rather
unscathed. How badly we could use another Hugh Nibley right now. I
fear those days are gone.

By all means, get this book. It's pricey, but it will serve as a worthy
investment for you and your family.