Trouble in Zion: Mormon Antibodies Against LDS Apologetics

One of the most significant accidents in my life was ending up in the same ward as Hugh Nibley, the brilliant and iconoclastic LDS scholar who helped Latter-day Saints around the world realize that scholarship coupled with faith can provide robust answers to the taunts of the world and strengthen us in our own journeys. That mixture, though, can lead to discomfort as faithful scholarship can often challenge lazy assumptions and old prejudices. The legacy of Nibley, though, has been remarkable, and led to the founding of FARMS, the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, a group of scholars boldly exploring the LDS-related insights we could get from the ancient world where our scriptures and many elements of the Gospel are rooted, in spite of the modernity of the Restoration. Not just the ancient world, though: FARMS staff and friends would explore many modern advances in knowledge to help us understand our faith and to effectively respond to our critics. FARMS would soon be brought under BYU administration and then recently renamed as the Neal Maxwell Institute.

The results of Mormon scholars exploring and defending our faith through the work of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute has been remarkable. Take a look at the online books page at the Maxwell Institute.  Wow, what a treasure trove of scholarship. There’s an entire book, for example, just on scholarly insights related to Jacob 5 and its allegory of the olive tree in the Book of Mormon, including non-LDS contributions, which help us better appreciate the profound description in that chapter and, yes, the implausibility of Joseph Smith apparently knowing a good deal about ancient olive culture. Or check out the entire book on King Benjamin’s Speech which explores the profound nature of this brief section of the Book of Mormon, including ancient Semitic elements that cannot be easily explained if the book is a modern forgery (for example, scholarly knowledge of the ancient covenant formulary would not come until over a century after the Book of Mormon was written).

In addition to these many valuable books, there are many treasures in the publications of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute, including vigorous rebuttals of many modern anti-Mormon works. Check out the first two links there, the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture and the FARMS Review. These publications have inspired many, have strengthened testimonies, and have helped new converts overcome objections and move forward with their faith into the waters of baptism, while also helping many of us old members. The defense of the faith through vigorous, thoughtful, and scholarly  LDS apologetics has been one of the best things about BYU and one of the most exciting things in the Church, building greatly on the inspiring legacy of Hugh Nibley. Kudos to Daniel C. Peterson,  the LDS scholar who founded the FARMS Review 23 years ago and has faithfully continued editing that valuable resource. Kudos also to his associate editors, Louis C. Midgley, George L. Mitton, Gregory L. Smith and Robert White. Unfortunately, Bother Peterson and his associate editors have all just been fired by the new director of the Maxwell Institute in a very roughshod way. My interpretation is that familiar Mormon antibodies to apologetics have infected BYU. It’s an incredible shame, a tragic loss, and one that I hope you can help correct.

Apologetics in the Church is not well understood. There are some with faith who are uncomfortable with scholarship (“we just need faith–who cares what scientists and scholars say?”), and there are some with scholarship who are uncomfortable with faith. The latter group includes cultural Mormons and some Mormon intellectuals who are embarrassed by Mormons with education still treating angels and gold plates as literal reality. Sadly, I find in many of this camp a desire to suppress the apologetic voice (see my post on intolerance over at the NauvooTimes).  They have often listened to what critics say about the scholars at FARMS rather than study their works carefully, for these intellectuals frequently allege that LDS apologetics is all about name calling and ad hominem attacks. Show me the irrelevant ad hominem arguments in the books or publications at the Maxwell Institute. If there is such content, it is rare and unusual.

Recently, though, some influential LDS folks were convinced that all this apologetics from Daniel Peterson and his team is just too controversial or embarrassing, and we need to abandon that course. Leave defense of the faith it to others, and let’s concentrate on nice peer-reviewed publications that nobody will read. This may decrease pain as it decreases the taunting of BYU scholars by those over at the great and spacious website, but will the cause of Zion be prospered?

It’s time for another restoration. I recommend that we restore FARMS and its mission, and quit apologizing for apologetics. Paul defended the faith boldly as he taught the Greeks, even drawing upon and quoting from their ancient poetry in Acts 17 to offer evidence for the faith in the form of interesting parallels to an ancient text, almost in a Nibley-like manner, in fact. Throughout the scriptures, the prophets, apostles, and Christ Himself reasoned with non-believers and believers, using scripture, analogies, and other resources to help people see the light and overcome common objections. Where do we see them telling people to just believe and rely on feelings alone? Evidence, logic, study, discourse, coupled with the power of the Spirit, were part of the ancient way of building Zion and are essential for us today.

We need to provide answers for some who stumble and many who doubt. We need to continue using all the tools the Lord has given us to build Zion, including the tools of scholarship and research. We have nothing to fear and much to gain and learn. Onward, Saints! Let’s rebuild FARMS.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

12 thoughts on “Trouble in Zion: Mormon Antibodies Against LDS Apologetics

  1. I have a hard time understanding why John Dehlin still has his membership in the church. Is his General Authority friend protecting him? Was it Dehlin's Gen. Auth. friend who was responsible for the shakeup at the Maxwell Inst? If that is the case, I am just going by what Dehlin has said, then a Gen. Auth. protecting an apostate is very disturbing to me. I know for a fact if I did what Dehlin is doing I would be excommunicated before I knew what happened to me. Thank you for the article. I am new to all of this and am trying to get up to speed so maybe my information and understanding is wrong. If a Gen. Auth. is protecting a friend then we are being led astray. And that is enough to shake my faith, not shake my faith in the doctrine, but shake my faith in the Divine calling of our leaders and their continued worthiness to lead. Thank You: from Chile Girl

  2. Two thoughts. First, I am thankful for the general authorities who are willing to allow those with unorthodox views to stay in the church. As long as they're not preaching their views in sunday school, and aren't committing sins worthy of excommunication, then kudos to them for staying in the church. If at some point in the future I come to the conclusion that I can no longer believe the orthodox line myself, then I think I would still want to stay in the church, simply for the good it gives me and my family. So I hope some general authority would side with me on that. Yes, Dehlin is a bit more in the lime-light because of the podcast, but still, as long as he's not preaching it in sacrament meeting or some other official church venue, is that really grounds for excommunication. Mind you the podcast has had quite a few good mormon apologetics on (although John does seem to taint the tone with his skepticism).

    Second, I myself am a bit mixed on the new direction of NAMI. I think the new goal is to move away from the Dan Peterson/Gregory Smith style of apologetics, and move more toward a Grant Hardy/Teryl Givens/Richard Bushman style, to get away from the fighting rink and trust that, as Bushman has said, Joseph Smith can stand on his own if we just take him as he really was, to get away from the "truth wars" and just start discussing topics that can engage both believing and non-believing scholars. I guess you might say that style isn't really apologetics but more scholarly discourse, but I think there's not enough of that right now. Grant Hardy's book Understanding the Book of Mormon was a great try at that, and although I think a lot of its elements could be used in apologetic argument, Hardy went out of his way to try to make it accessible to non-believers. I think more of that type of scholarship can have enormous utility in promoting the fact that we have a vibrant and strong faith tradition.

    At the same time I realize sometimes, to keep people in the fold, we have to take the skeptics head-on, to get in the rink so to say. In that case I appreciate Dan Peterson's style of apologetics. I guess the question then is, should that continue to be NAMI's role, or should there be other venues for that? That I don't know.

  3. Antho,

    Please, not Grant Hardy. Do we really need to turn our Apologetics into another left-wing arena. His articles in Meridian seem to twist logic far more leftward than it ever was right. I appreciate Bushman very much, however, and feel "Rough Stone Rolling" should be required reading among us all.

    Great article, as usual, Jeff. I do worry that we will tear ourselves, the church, apart from the inside out. So much criticizing and nitpicking, so little uplifting sometimes–and this from a person who doesn't think in Pollyanna rainbows about most things.

  4. There's an important difference between apologetics and scholarship. Scholarship attempts to demonstrate what is probable, while apologetics frequently seeks to demonstrate what is improbable or merely possible. Most scholars readily admit that almost anything is possible, but they're more concerned with what's probable. Claims about angels, for example, are improbable. Even believers can agree on that, right? That's why there's faith, and that's why believers in Joseph Smith's claims don't believe all of Mohammed's claims.

    This isn't to say that Mormon apologists don't employ scholarly tools, but they just aren't playing the same game as secular scholars. I don't know why the events at the Maxwell Institute occurred, but could they have something to do with this?

  5. Jeff quite sensibly argues for the practical value of both apologetics and scholarship. On the one hand, genuine scholarship has the potential to persuade people who would never be persuaded by apologetics. On the other hand, the conclusions of the scholar will inevitably be much more modest than the claims of the apologist. (In addition, those conclusions will not always be "theologically correct" and thus might serve to weaken the believer's faith, or at least their orthodoxy.)

    Apologetics works best for those who already share some or all of the fundamental assumptions of the faith; scholarship works best for those like me who don't. It only makes sense to cover all the bases and use both forms of research to address both kinds of audience. People like me often find ourselves laughing out loud when we read Mormon apologetics, but not when we read Bushman or Givens. Them we can take seriously.

    — Eveningsun

  6. One of the chief activities of Mormon apologists is to limit their apologetic liability by drawing boundaries around what is considered "doctrine" and what isn't. These boundaries often exclude things that the average members of the church regard as doctrinal. We can debate the validity of this practice and its results, but regardless, it inadvertently fosters a kind of cafeteria Mormonism frowned upon by general authorities. That's because its net effect is to cast doubt on whether individual statements by general authorities are revelatory or their own opinions.

    Once we adopt the criteria for canonicity of apologists, we've eliminated most of what general authorities have said since the publication of the standard works as being non-canonical. This practice is at least partially in conflict with that of the general authorities themselves which seeks to increase members' liability for accepting statements of general authorities as continuing revelation. The reason that this hasn't led to Mormons taking GA's statements less seriously, similarly to how American Catholics view statements by the Pope, is that most Mormons are relatively unaware of the work of apologists. I doubt whether this apologetic practice had anything to do with what happened at the Maxwell institute, but if it did, the GA's have more awareness than I expected.

  7. I've been wondering what the recent ruckus in the bloggernacle was about. Thanks for the summary. I suspect that this will probably turn out to be a change for the best in the end. I personally think that FARMS was more effective independent of BYU. Whatever else happens, I still know that the gospel and the Church are still true :-).

    On a different subject, I really enjoyed the Dan Peterson interviews on Dehlin's Mormon Stories blog, but I quickly gave up on the recent Bushman interviews. I have greatly enjoyed everything I've read from Bushman, but there was such a negative vibe coming from the interviewer (Dehlin) that it just didn't sound worth continuing.

    On yet another topic, I've been reading Grant Hardy's "Understanding the Book of Mormon" lately. It has been great and I feel that it contributes some real and useful insights into the Book of Mormon even though I don't agree with everything. As an academic in the (ill-)liberal arts, I am not surprised to hear that Hardy is rather left-wing. That is okay. So long as we recognize that everyone has their own biases one can route around chaff to lay hold of pearls.

  8. It seems to me that without Dan Peterson's expertise in fund raising, NAMI's prospects for the future are rather dim. People supported NAMI mostly because of its apologetic function. I know that I won't be donating any funds to NAMI in the future.

  9. I confess to a Tevye-like fluidity as I listen to both sides. I read some of Dehlin's things, and say "You are right!" I read Peterson's blog and say, "You are right!" I listen to someone explain how I can't believe in both at the same time, I say "You are right!"

    And yet I find them both valuable in maintaining strength in my beliefs.

    Mark Steele

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