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.