Recent weeks have been interesting for the unofficial, highly heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory cluster of so-called “LDS apologists.” I fall into that motley group. In fact, I was doing LDS apologetics online since the early 1990s — long before LDS apologetics became cool. (That’s a somewhat futuristic statement: the date of “becoming cool” is roughly March 18, 2045, based on my hopeful projections.)
First we had the Church provide a useful list of external resources for study on a page called “Gospel Topics, Essays, and Other Resources,” published in the Seminary area. Under the section, “Gospel Study Resources,” the Maxwell Institute website is listed, where one can find decades of great LDS apologetics along with their more recent emphasis on Mormon studies. The link is provided in this manner:
- Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship*: Collection of scholarly research designed to deepen understanding of religious texts and traditions.
The single asterisk means that the website is “maintained by a third party that is affiliated with the Church,” which is BYU in this case.
In the following section, “Additional Resources for Answering Doctrinal, Historical, and Social Questions,” the list of resources includes several that are of interest to LDS apologetics:
- Book of Mormon Central**:
Information that was created to explain, engage, inspire, and encourage
greater knowledge and appreciation of every aspect of the Book of
- FairMormon**: Well-reasoned and faithful responses to doctrinal, historical, and social questions.
- Mormon Scholars Testify**: Messages of faith from scholars who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- The Interpreter Foundation**:
Nonprofit, independent, educational organization that focuses on the
scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They
publish a peer-reviewed journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.
Here the double asterisk means the sites “are maintained by a third party that is unaffiliated with the Church.”
I was quite happy to see these resources listed at LDS.org. I find Book of Mormon Central. FAIRMormon, and The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com) to be extremely useful in exploring and understanding the LDS faith, even if I don’t always agree with some of their content (as demonstrated by my recent criticisms of a recent three-part series at The Interpreter). By the way, the Interpreter just published my review of Brian Stubbs’ outstanding work. See Jeff Lindsay, “The Next Big Thing in LDS Apologetics: Strong Semitic and Egyptian Elements in Uto-Aztecan Languages,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 227-267. There are some good questions already that I am trying to respond to.
Then on August 16, 2017, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve dared to show his face at an apologetics fest of sorts at BYU, the celebration of 50 years of chiasmus research in the Book of Mormon. He not only showed his face, he spoke to teeming crowd (I wasn’t there, but can only imagine the throngs of LDS folks and investigators keenly interested, as they should be, in this inspiring area of Book of Mormon scholarship — there could have been literally dozens, for all I know). Not only did he speak, but a transcript of his important remarks were quickly posted at the Church’s news site, MormonNewsroom.org. I am not kidding! And not dreaming, either. See “Transcript: Elder Holland Speaks at Book of Mormon Chiasmus Conference” at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/transcript-elder-holland-speaks-book-of-mormon-chiasmus-conference-2017.
Elder Holland had much to say about intellectual defense of the Gospel. Here are some excerpts, but please read his entire speech:
I wish to say at the outset that the presiding officers
of the Church appreciate and applaud the exceptional work being done by
so many to search and to substantiate, to defend and promulgate the
history and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
including and especially the Book of Mormon, in a way both scholarly
and spiritual. Obviously one of the influential, representative figures
in this generation of such work is our friend and colleague John W.
Welch, being honored tonight. I have known and loved Jack and other
members of the Welch family for at least 40 of the 50 years we are
commemorating. In deference to the clock I will not recount all of his
academic accomplishments (much of which has been referenced here
tonight), but suffice it to say, Jack, that the Brethren are grateful
for your faith, your loyalty, your productivity, and what is
increasingly your scholarly legacy in defending the kingdom of God. That
compliment is, of course, extended to a legion of other men and women
across the Church who are putting their shoulders to the wheel of
reasoned, determined, persuasive gospel scholarship.
I would also like to thank the many donors and other supporters who have
aided the scholarly pursuit and publication of materials important to
the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days….
He then goes on to explain why it is important to have intellectual reasons and tools to defend the Gospel, and explains that testimony involves both heart and mind, affirming the need for intellectual understanding to help support faith and overcome the obstacles to faith. In other words, there is a need for LDS apologetics. Thank you, Elder Holland!
Regarding the defense of the faith through scholarship and intellectual argument, the domain of apologetics, I’ve heard a variety of misconceptions over the years. Some LDS voices say the Church is embarrassed by apologetics and thus refuses to give credibility to those efforts. On the other hand, some say the Church relies heavily on apologetics to defend the Book of Mormon, for example, to support missionary work and keep members believing, but due to the weakness of the LDS position, the Church officially keeps a large distance publicly from apologists. That way, when apologetic efforts fail miserably, the Church can ignore the problem and avoid direct embarrassment.
Critics often ask why the Church doesn’t directly do the work of apologists and get involved in an official way in issues like Book of Mormon geography or other issues in apologetics. The answer to me seems rather simple. As in most major religions, central leadership is involved in the administrative and spiritual aspects of running a religion. Dealing with the endless arguments against faith that can be made and responding to critical works ranging from deep scholarship to lurid rumor-mongering is simply not the primary focus of headquarters, and must rely on others. Scholars, schools, and publishers may be encouraged and helped in various ways, but the secular arguments and scholarship needed to better understand or perhaps buttress the faith is not something that normally is handled directly by official efforts from headquarters. There are counterexamples, of course, but in general, it is entirely reasonable that the details of say, the defense of the Bible against the claims of “biblical minimalists” should be left to outside scholars.
The Church usually does not need to take official positions on matters of science and scholarship. It can proclaim that God created man without needing to decide how the Creation accounts can be squared with modern science. It can declare that the Book of Mormon is a genuine, ancient document delivered to us through the power of God, without taking official positions on the significance of Hebraic poetry like chiasmus or resolving the location of Zarahemla or the specific animal species that Book of Mormon writers were looking at when they described “horses,” “wild goats,” or “cureloms” in the New World.
While the Church did turn to a variety of scholars for input in responding to popular criticisms of the Book of Mormon based on DNA research and issued a helpful “Gospel Topics” paper, “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” that exceptional paper still leaves most of the thinking to us and primarily serves to remind us of how much we don’t know. Likewise, regarding chiasmus, the Church does not need to take a position on its use and significance in the Book of Mormon. But it’s cool, very cool, that Elder Holland would come to the jubilee celebrating the discovery of chiasmus and give a pro-apologetics speech while there.
It’s been an interesting month for LDS apologetics, a field on its way to one day, perhaps — who knows? — becoming cool.