Home > Uncategorized > Mormon Apologetics for the Rest of Us

Mormon Apologetics for the Rest of Us

There’s been a lot of discussion on some Mormon blogs I follow about apolgetics and Mormon studies, prompted by Dan Peterson’s dismissal as editor of FARMS Review and the transformation of that journal into a venue for Mormon studies. In a recent guest post at T&S, Ralph Hancock articulates an apologetic for apologetics, urging young scholars to defend the faith instead of merely seeking academic respectability by “bracketing” truth claims in their work on Mormonism, which is the norm for religious studies. Ultimately, he says, we should not settle for merely explaining or analyzing our faith detached from the human quest for truth and the good life. Scholarship that consistently brackets truth claims might eventually bracket out the value of religious truth altogether.

Hancock’s post made me consider how I view apologetics, partly because I fit the mold of young scholars that he described: those that appreciated Hugh Nibley when they were younger but became disenchanted with his academic style, and with apologetics, as a whole as they got older. I thought a lot about apologetics around the time of my mission, crafting what I felt were brilliant defences for a slew of doubts and questions and attacks that someone might sling against the church, but I now no longer feel they serve much purpose, or I am not interested in following the debates they engage in. Why was this?

Coincidentally, I was reading Hancock’s post around the time I began reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays, When I was a Child I Read Books. Robinson is a stunning writer, and her novel Gilead is one of the most moving novels I have read in years (cannot recommend it highly enough). I knew that Robinson was a devout Christian, but I was surprised to find in her essays that she was, lo and behold, an apologist as well. Not only does she write in defense of Christianity against secularism, Darwinism (not the same as evolution), and militant atheism, but she writes in defense of the Old Testament, of John Calvin, and Puritanism, features of Christianity that leave most apologists a bit red-faced and at a loss for words.

Yet Robinson is not the type of apologist you might find between the covers of FARMS Review. What I have found in my perusal of the Review (scanty though it be) is that Mormon apologetics thrives on a scientific approach that creates a buttress of footnotes, lengthy expositions, ancient languages, and obscure references. The dense prose creates a shield of academic credibility behind which faith is protected, but their articles never have much to say about that actual faith. Book reviews will often engage in one-on-one bouts with every Mormon book that pops up on the scene as if in a game of religious Whack-a-Mole, trying to stamp down any challenges to faith those work might pose, but without deepening our understanding of Mormonism. Work on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is a prime example. Defenders of the BoM have been thrilled that this style of ancient Hebraic poetry pops up again and again in the book, and have held it up as internal evidence of the BoM’s historicity. Yet rarely, if ever, do these identifiers of chiasmus have anything to say about why chiasmus is meaningful, or what it adds to our understanding of the Book of Mormon, or what new light it sheds on its message. It is treated as a pottery fragment, as a mark of historical evidence, but as detached from its original context or setting.

Unfortunately, most apologetics of this style are unreadable or uninteresting. It often speaks of a Mormonism totally detached from what the lived religion is actually like. It builds a Great Wall of FARMS against marauding critics, but that wall is hundreds of miles from the people who live and breathe in the churches they are defending. Robinson, on the other hand, presents an apologetic that speaks not only to the critic, but to the believer to. She draws forth an inspiring message of social justice from the turgid prose of the Books of Moses, she explores the merciful side of Calvin’s writings, and she elucidates the democratic virtues of American Puritanism. She knows her stuff as well, of course, reflecting on various English translations of the Bible to demonstrate her points about our evolving relationship with the OT, but more importantly, she provides the reader with a sense of why someone might actually embrace Christianity, of what truth looks and feels like from the inside. She writes apologetics not merely as a defense, but as an invitation, as a tour through her religious worldview.

Robinson convinced me that apologetics can be valuable, but that they cannot be the sterile academic legalesee that tends to pass for Mormon apologetics. We cannot let an abundance of references and an endless bibliography do the heavy lifting for us. Faith, after all, does not live or die according to academic judgments, and filling the scales with footnotes will not tip the balance in our favor any time soon. Rather, faith lives and dies by how its members apply and live its truths and precepts, and how these precepts shine light on life’s most belligerent questions. It cannot be merely scientific, argumentative, or thesis-driven. It has to account for Mormonism from the inside out, sharing its essence with the world (meaning both believers and non-believers) without fretting over concerns on the fringes, like which patch of land did Lehi land on or what biblical quotations might “prove” the doctrine of pre-mortal existence. That is why I think the finest Mormon apologist of the last few decades has not been Dan Peterson or Hugh Nibley, but Eugene England. England’s essays turned to the core of the Mormon message and culture for its inspiration, and his works pulsed with a sense of what Mormonism feels like from the inside, both in its best but also in its ugliest forms. The fact is, the materials for a Mormon apologetics are all around us, not buried in ancient manuscripts or under a Central American hill-top, if we are willing to admit that the most powerful evidence for religion is never in its academic posture, but in its lived vitality.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Liz
    July 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. THANK YOU! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking, but with better grammar and less sidetracked thoughts about poop interrupting my stream of consciousness. Fabulous. I’m going to show this to some people who I think would love it.

  2. Will
    July 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for this. Eugene England was a gem. Its too bad he came under so much fire for his work.

  3. Cody
    July 25, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Which is better: Philosophy, History, or English? I think some of your post may boil down to discipline wars, with their accompanying epistemological and ontological baggage. Some people find a poem more compelling than a controlled experiment. I doubt the pragmatic value of pitting them head to head as if there were a neutral ground to stand on (though academic careers can be built on this type of exercise.)

    I think it’s true that for LDS apologetics, the humanities crowd has let England do all the heavy lifting for some time now. Where you at, humanities people?

  4. Seth R.
    July 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    How can you characterize what FARMS Review is if you haven’t read extensively in it?

  5. DLewis
    July 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Cody: I don’t really feel it’s a matter of disciplinary wars. Robinson’s not trying to defend Christianity with a poem, but through the essay format, which dips in and out of personal experience, scholarship, critique, wit, etc. The point is that it disengages with academic disciplines as they are currently practiced and tries to speak more directly. Perhaps my beef with academic apologetics is that it wants to defend the faith through the secular means of academic rigor. Don’t get me wrong: academic work on Mormonism, including that which makes a case for, say, the brilliance of JS’s religious thought or for historical precedent of vicarious ordinances, is important and has a role to play in explaining Mormonism. But I think we rely too much on academic apologetics to “prove” something about the Book of Mormon or doctrine which then knocks down a chain of dominoes leading to “and the Church is true.” FARMS has its place (or it did, until it was dismantled), but it’s not model apologetics to me.

    Seth: I read FARMS more in years past, though I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a careful follower. I was trying to describe more of a style of apologetics than to bash on them per se. If you feel I’ve mischaracterized their approach, I’d be open to counter-examples.

  6. Henry D
    July 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    These are compelling points, points which any apologist of any religion can use. Therein lies the problem for a claim to exclusive truth. Every religion has produced true saints and true happiness, but FARMS apologists are ever caught up in “mine is better than yours” mindset that leads to some pretty mind-bending, mind-numbing, and, quite frankly, silly logic. FARMS may now be able to move past that.

  7. qwerty
    July 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    what is the author’s opinion about the difference between “darwinism” and evolution?

  8. Seth R.
    July 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    No that’s fine DLewis.

    I just felt that needed to be interjected. I’m perfectly fine with your explanation.

  9. Ron Hellings
    July 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! This article doesn’t get it. The essays of Gene England, or even of Terry Givens, provide interesting insights into the significance of the gospel, but they have almost no apologetic value. If someone discovers that there were no horses in America before Columbus, and wonders whether the keystone of our religion is actually true, it is not going to help to know that the Book of Mormon supports dialogic revelation (Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon). These guys have marvelous insights, but few facts, so they can and are ignored in questions of truth.

  10. Cody
    July 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I think I understand your point. My point is not that Robinson’s work is the same thing as a poem, but that based on your description she seems to have an entirely different agenda and method than someone who aspires to rigorous history or archeology. Generally, history books have bibliographies and essays and novels don’t. I would argue that both types of writing are abstractions though–lived vitality doesn’t happen on the page.

    I’ll own my bias: I’m 99% uninterested in religious apologetics of any kind, so my eye may be over-jaundiced and anxious to reduce the distinctions to methodological preference so I can comfortably dismiss it. I haven’t read her (and you’ve got me interested now), but I wonder if Robinson’s essays would even count as apologetics. I think of the trappings of rigorous history as synonymous with apologetics. I don’t think that essayist Wendell Berry’s work really fits this mold, nor England. An argument has nowhere to go, but England, Berry, and (perhaps) Robinson do go somewhere.

  11. DLewis
    July 25, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Qwerty: As I understand it, “Darwinism” is the ideology that says that Darwinian evolution provides the fullest or a complete account of life and its meaning. One can embrace scientific evolution without subscribing to the view that evolution can explain everything meaningful about human existence. Robinson often points out that the most complex thing in the entire universe is the human brain, to say nothing of the mind (which she likes to redub, a bit playfully, as “the soul”). If believe that human conciousness in all its varieties can be reduced to evolutionary forces, you’re probably a Darwinian.

    I see where you’re coming from, too, Cody, and I’ll admit that I might just be more inclined to Robinson’s or England’s style than I am to other ones. Apologetics of all stripes, because they are inevitably speaking to outsiders, will never fully grasp the realities of religion, but I do feel some come closer than others. Robinson might not classify herself as an apologist, but if you read some of her essays, it is quite clear she is. She argues that we have misread Calvin and the Old Testament, and she defends them against the usual critiques and champions their insights. Another example, in my opinion, would be Walter Kirn’s personal essay in the New Republic (ironically, ex-Mormons sometimes make better apologists than actual members). This style cannot answer all the questions or critiques posed to Mormons, but they can reach a broader range of outsiders (and insiders) than more academic approaches, IMO.

    If all that comes of this post is that more people read Marilynne Robinson, I’ll count it as a success. She has a few different books of essays, but her masterpiece is Gilead. Again, one of the best books I have read in years. Housekeeping, her first novel, is also very very good.

  12. July 26, 2012 at 12:41 am

    “Work on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is a prime example. Defenders of the BoM have been thrilled that this style of ancient Hebraic poetry pops up again and again in the book, and have held it up as internal evidence of the BoM’s historicity. Yet rarely, if ever, do these identifiers of chiasmus have anything to say about why chiasmus is meaningful, or what it adds to our understanding of the Book of Mormon, or what new light it sheds on its message.”

    John Welch has consistently tried to show why chiasmus is meaningful, or how it can help us understand the message of the Book of Mormon, in addition to how it is evidence for its ancient origins. For example, see these lengthy treatments here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=41&chapid=188

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=111&chapid=1292

    And, as Ron Hellings pointed out, there is a specific need for the kind of apologetics that FARMS and FAIR does. I love both Eugene England and Terryl Givens, and truly appreciate their insights and scholarship, but their material is not going to do anything to address direct criticisms of the Book of Abraham, for example. Who do we have to go to for that? FARMS (John Gee, Michael Rhodes) or FAIR (Michael Ash, Kevin Barney).

    And, FWIW, Eugene England has published an essay with FARMS that is pretty much the type of apologetic writing that you criticize in your post.

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=110&chapid=1280

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I suppose.

  13. July 26, 2012 at 12:59 am

    One last thing. In addition to the two John Welch articles, I also recommend this:

    http://www.fairblog.org/2012/07/25/mormon-fair-cast-98-john-welch-on-chiasmus-in-the-book-of-mormon/

    Anyone can see how Welch’s work on chiasmus, as published by FARMS and elsewhere, is a lot deeper than just, “Oh look, chiasmus proves the Book of Mormon is ancient!”

    And don’t forget that Welch will be talking about chiasmus at the FAIR Conference next week.

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