Practical Apologetics: Help, I want to go back to church

June 28, 2012 | 50 comments
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Seismic changes at the Maxwell Institute have prompted reflective blog posts on the fate of FARMS and Mormon apologetics in general (The Rise and Fall of FARMS | The Legacy of FARMS | Explosive Tensions within MSR). My view: the FARMS approach has become outdated. Mormon apologetics will become more decentralized and more social as people (both LDS and non-LDS) turn to Google and Facebook rather than the bookstore, the library, or journals to get answers to their Mormon questions. Apologetics will therefore become more personal and more practical. People still want answers. Mormon.org, blogs, and Mormon Stories are the shape of the future for apologetics: diverse, personal, interactive. [Disclaimer: I'm not endorsing the agenda of Mormon Stories, whatever it is, just noting the popularity of the format.]

So let’s play New Mormon Apologetics. I got an email earlier this week from a Mormon living well outside the Mormon Corridor who went inactive about thirty years ago after reading Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. This inactive member (who I will call Alex just for convenience) is asking for advice in working through through those earlier issues in order to become active in the Church again. Turning to the Internet, Alex came across a wide variety of websites offering information on LDS doctrine and history. In particular, Alex asked for my opinion about the accuracy of the information posted at MormonThink.com, a website that claims to offer “an objective look at Mormons and Mormonism” (that description alone ought to set off warning bells). I will offer my advice in a few paragraphs below, and I would invite readers to add their own suggestions and perhaps their own similar experience in the comments.

First, I admire anyone who has the desire to come back into activity in the Church. This is not always as easy as it looks, especially for someone like Alex who has been away from church for many years. The social hurdles are certainly as daunting as any doctrinal or historical issues one might have. So my first piece of advice to Alex is to just show up on Sunday morning (locations and meeting times are available at this page on LDS.org). If you feel like you are “back home,” it becomes easier to work through any faith issues from the inside rather than the outside. You might find members of your ward or branch who have their own story to share that touches on some of the same issues.

Second, you will probably want to do some reading that tackles doctrinal and historical faith issues from a believing LDS perspective. There wasn’t much of this in the 80s: most LDS scholars at that time avoided the tough issues in books and articles directed to a popular LDS audience. The insistently curious LDS believer has better options today. I think Richard Bushman’s detailed biography of Joseph Smith (Rough Stone Rolling) is a good place for Alex to start, although it takes a little willpower to get clear through it. I think Robert Millet’s Bridging the Divide or Stephen Robinson’s How Wide the Divide are helpful for someone dealing with general Protestant criticism of LDS doctrine. These two books are certainly fair to both sides as they feature commentary from both LDS (BYU religion professors) and conservative Protestant coauthors. They are also very helpful for convincing LDS readers that the current focus of LDS religion has moved away from what I’ll call the McConkie Mormonism of the 1970s and 1980s. This seems particularly relevant for someone who has been away from church for many years. For questions on specific doctrinal or historical issues, the FAIR website is a fine resource.

Third, I do not recommend the MormonThink site as a primary resource for getting balanced information on LDS doctrine and history. While self-described as “objective,” the site showcases (at great length) the usual criticisms of LDS doctrine and history. LDS beliefs are summarized in short sections before each topic under a heading titled “What most LDS have been taught in church and believe as truth.” Those summaries are simplified set-ups for the criticisms that follow. They are not summaries of LDS responses to the particular issue or criticism (although there are short LDS responses at certain points in the sections). Which is not to say that some of the information given is not accurate or that the issues don’t deserve some reflection. But at MormonThink you’re really only getting one side of the issue, not a balanced discussion. The information provided on the site’s “About” page by the site’s conveniently anonymous authors does not, in my view, add to the site’s credibility. If you read that page and form the opinion that the site’s authors are (as they claim) largely church-attending, home-teaching, active Latter-day Saints who have created the site to promote “education and openness” — then let me give you a terribly important warning: those emails you get from Nigeria are fraudulent! Don’t send money. Don’t give them your credit card number. Don’t even respond.

Fourth, just a word on perspective. We’re talking about membership and participation in a congregation and a religion. Being a Christian, in whatever denomination, is not membership in a religious debating club. Attending church on Sunday, singing hymns, sharing comments in class, chatting with people you know, visiting those in need, mourning with those who mourn, feeling the spirit of God from time to time — these and similar things is what being a Christian is all about. That is certainly what being a Mormon Christian is all about. If you enjoy doing most of those things with your fellow Latter-day Saints, you will probably find ways to work through doctrinal or historical questions. All denominations and religions have such issues. If a person really cannot get past LDS issues, then go be a good Methodist or a good Catholic or a good Buddhist or even a good atheist. Sooner or later you will find issues there as well, issues as challenging as the faith issues some Mormons face. Critics who suggest you have to work out all those issues before you can be an active or believing Mormon are presenting a phony argument. Do you think they worked through any of the issues associated with their new denomination, worldview, or personal philosophy before moving on to their post-Mormon life? Or do they naively think only Mormonism presents faith issues? Working out issues is not a prerequisite to being an active, believing Mormon, it is what happens as you go through life. At least that’s the way it works for me.

I invite readers to add their own suggestions for Alex: their own experience in working through or working around faith issues, and any helpful experience of returning to participation in the Church after a long absence.

50 Responses to Practical Apologetics: Help, I want to go back to church

  1. Ben S. on June 28, 2012 at 6:33 am

    I’ve encountered several people like this, including one in my current ward.
    Also, check the FAIR Wiki.

  2. themormonbrit on June 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

    Thank you for this, Dave. As someone who has been forced to confront and work through several of Mormonism’s thorny issues and skeletons in the closet myself, I can honestly say I appreciate your advice. I think it is helpful wisdom that any person going through a faith crisis would do well to heed. I personally drew great comfort from the resources you mentioned in your first paragraph, including Mormon Stories. The FARMS approach simply doesn’t work any more for the majority of modern Mormons undergoing crises of faith.

  3. Jenn on June 28, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Love your perspective and advice. I’d agree, mormon think is not an objective source- unfortunately, objectivism is hard to find. I usually would read a wikipedia article then hop to the FAIR wiki and read the response to that particular article, to get the full picture (though apparently this wasn’t the most successful of methods, as it didn’t exactly strengthen my testimony).
    I agree, religion is not a debate club. BUT, for some people, they can’t turn off the cognitive dissonance. I’m an analyst by trade and I simply can not turn off the questioning, analyzing part of my brain. I ruin good movies all the time because of this. So while I recognize it’s not ideal, and it certainly isn’t helping me in my mormonism anymore, I simply don’t know how to not care, not dig for answers, not question, or just take someone’s word for it.

  4. Adam G. on June 28, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Stuff like this shows why the FARMS approach isn’t outdated. Personal, one-on-one apologetics requires resources to support the individual apologist.

  5. Jonathan Green on June 28, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Nice post, Dave. I think I’d say that the FARMS approach won’t work as the single approach to apologetics, but I think it would be a real loss not to have something like it. Actually, what I’d like to see is something better than FARMS, where the tone of responses was more generous and measured and all the participants were fully qualified and engaged with their academic fields, but where there was still engagement with external critiques. A more personal and less centralized apologetics will also be one that casually accepts and promotes half-truths and rumors on both sides of the debate.

  6. Robert Ricks on June 28, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for your post, Dave. This is the money quote for me: “Working out issues is not a prerequisite to being an active, believing Mormon, it is what happens as you go through life.”

    +1 to what Jonathan said. A “gold standard” apologetics that models academic rigor and expertise with a more charitable tone is still a desideratum, even if the future reality will be more decentralized, personalized, or “social.”

    Jenn, I’d agree that there can be dissonance between the sanitized history and simplified doctrine one often (but certainly not always) gets at church and the warts-and-all or fully naturalistic narratives offered elsewhere. What is regrettable, in my mind, is not the dissonance or doubts per se, but rather the fear of dissonance and doubt that church culture sometimes engenders. All the qualities you mentioned (caring, digging for answers, questioning, etc.) can and should be an authentic part of lived faith; you don’t have to give them up. Anyhow, thanks for your comments, and best wishes.

  7. g.wesley on June 28, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Dave,

    Some great points, I think.

    About your second (and at the possible risk of thread jack), I have reservations about recommending Prof Robinson’s work to someone who has read Brodie. I am less familiar with Prof Millet’s. If ‘Alex’ were facing general Protestant crit as you say, then sure, maybe that would help.

    But one of the avenues that ‘Alex’ might need to travel, if he wants to come back, is the middle road (which has many lanes). And as far as I can tell Prof Robinson, at least in the past, has been rather adamant about closing those routes off.

    It seems bizarre to me that one and same person can be the posterchild for interfaith dialogue, outreach, etc., while at the same time treating co-religionists of different varieties with contempt.

    About your fourth, where you say “… not membership in a religious debating club.” Well said. And much less is it membership in a religious fight[ing] club.

  8. Steve Smith on June 28, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Great post Dave. As someone who is a strongly cultural Mormon-who goes to church and lives a moral lifestyle but does not accept the church’s historical claims-I can certainly identify with Alex. I am assuming that since it was Fawn Brodie’s book that led him to leave the church in the first place, that his main issue with the church was belief/doctrine related and that he didn’t “get offended” or “want to sin” as many active LDS like to believe the main reasons of inactivity to be.

    I have found that FARMS and FAIR do not provide good answers for those experiencing belief crises. They may be able to answer some questions, but on major issues such as BOM and BOA historicity, they seem to engage in parallelomania and other questionable methods to buttress their main argument that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written them. By the same token I do not find that Mormon Think is a good resource either. Although I agree with the conclusions of more of the scholars at Mormon Think than at FARMS/FAIR, I still find that website to be quite biased and to paint the LDS church and experience in an overwhelmingly negative light while ignoring many admirable aspects about the church. I think Richard Bushman’s book is a fantastic resource as are the works of Jan Shipps.

    But I have found that John Dehlin and his work at Mormonstories.org and Joanna Brooks and her writings are the best resources for me to feel good about continued activity in a church whose doctrinal and historicity claims I doubt. They seem to encourage belonging before believing or even behaving. They promote the idea that one can be attached to the church by virtue of culture and a shared sense of community and that differences of belief and lifestyle (so long as they are not paraded) do not preclude one’s acceptance as a member of the fold. I certainly appreciate the sense of community in the Mormon church and my deep Mormon heritage; however, I don’t feel obligated to accept its main tenets.

    There is one thing that I would correct. Although you may experience issues in other organizations or belief trends, the Mormon church is peculiar for one main reason: the Book of Mormon. The belief in its historicity seems to have always been, since the three witness made a statement, a key component in the Mormon experience promoted by the official church and the overwhelming part of the Mormon culture. It is one of those issues that is either/or: either it is an ancient text or a 19th century construction; there is unfortunately no middle ground. You don’t have to accept the BOM as an ancient text to be a Mormon. I have been quite firm in my belief for years that the BOM is indeed a 19th century construction. But be quiet about it. Also build on common beliefs. I can certainly appreciate many of the moral lessons found in the BOM even though I believe that they emanate from either Joseph Smith or another 19th century source. But don’t make that a point of difference between you and a believing member. Good luck, Alex.

  9. clark on June 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    The problem is that progressing apologetics needs research and research needs to be published. FAIR really can’t take the role that FARMS and to a lesser extent MI had. It’s true people might do that sort of research on their own, but I think we’ve honestly seen a significant drop on the amount of apologetics done.

    What I’d like to see is more solid apologetics done that incorporates a lot more information.

    I do agree that the whole “Joseph couldn’t have written it due to these parallels” isn’t a particularly good pedagogy for apologetics. (Especially since many of the parallels presented end up being somewhat weak – Brant Gardner’s recent book on translation is a good tweaking of this)

  10. themormonbrit on June 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Steve Smith, I disagree that Mormonism has more issues for believers to deal with than other faiths. However, I might agree that the Mormon Church has more issues for believers to deal with than other religious organisations. Now, let me clarify what I mean by that.
    I think treating Mormonism as a broad tradition, seperate and beyond the actual LDS church, there are many difficult issues to deal with. But this is true, to a similar degree, of most faiths. I think that the problems only become more difficult because of the LDS church’s particular way of dealing with these issues. Mormonism only becomes more difficult for believers because they have grown up in a church that presents these issues in such an uncompromising, no-middle-ground, insistent way.
    To take the Book of Mormon as an example, I don’t see the historicity of the Book of Mormon as being central to Mormonism any more than the literal historicity of the Bible is central to Christianity. There are many Christians who are not creationists, there are many Christians who do not accept the story of the flood, there are many Christians who take many of the Bible’s scientific/historical claims with a grain of salt. What is central to mainstream Christianity are the core tenets and principles of their faith: the Atonement, the Divinty of Jesus; and the moral teachings of their faith: the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, etc. Similarly, the Book of Mormon’s historicity isn’t necessarily central to the essence of Mormonism. It has, sadly, become somewhat over-emphasised by the LDS Church. But again, this is due to the LDS Church’s approach to this issue rather than the issue itself.
    This is not to suggest that the Book of Mormon isn’t the keystone of our religion, merely that its historicity isn’t really a key issue. It can still be a divinely inspired document that teaches important moral truths and key doctrines, even if its production was a synthesis of Joseph Smith’s incredible imagination and memory, 19th century influences, and the divine spirit of revelation that revealed important truths to him that became incorporated in his work.

    I think similar approaches can be taken to most of the difficult issues in Mormonism. Mormonism itself doesn’t present more difficult issues for its members to confront; largely, this is purely due to the way the LDS Church has historically dealt with those issues.

  11. Steve Smith on June 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    themormonbrit, three quick observations:

    1) The Bible is different from the BOM. All can agree that the Bible is an ancient text whose ideas can be situated within an ancient context, even though there are varying levels of belief as disbelief as per the reality of the stories.

    2) There were many in the 19th century who attempted to start a religious movement but failed. The main reason that Joseph Smith succeeded was his claim to have translated the Book of Mormon. The legitimacy of the Mormon church since has been rooted in Joseph Smith’s authentication as a prophet because of this book. If the church leaders declared that the BOM was probably written by JS, the organization would undoubtedly collapse.

    3) Either the BOM has ancient origins or it does not at all. You may believe that JS inserted his own ideas into the text or expanded upon ancient ideas from a text that he found written on gold plates, like Blake Ostler’s expansion theory, but that would still be making the case that an ancient text did indeed exist and that many of the ideas had ancient origins.

  12. palerobber on June 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    to someone who took Brodie’s book seriously enough to leave over it, FAIR would be just as unhelpful as MormonThink.

  13. J. Stapley on June 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Nice write-up, Dave.

  14. g.wesley on June 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Steve Smith: “If the church leaders declared that the BOM was probably written by JS, the organization would undoubtedly collapse.”

    You are certainly in good company here. Even a Mormon scholar like Givens in By the Hand of Mormon would agree with you, on my reading anyway.

    But I don’t know that it would necessarily be so even as frankly as you put it. People are often able to handle deconfirmation of belief with surprisingly little problem, among other reasons because there is more to religion than this or that article of faith.

    Yes, Joseph Smith’s claim to prophethood and the church’s claim to be true have been hung on the one and only peg of Book of Mormon antiquity many times. Perhaps it is not a good idea to stress such an either/or, do or die, anymore in the age of the internet.

    And in little ways, I see some church leaders doing something like that. Such as when Elder Nelson says that the Book of Mormon is neither a novel nor a history book.

    I am confident that he would personally defend antiquity of the text. But the point is that as an article of faith, ‘neither a novel nor a history book’ is quite flexible and would better prepare members for dealing with, say, anachronisms without automatically jumping to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is a hoax and Mormonism false.

  15. Kevin Barney on June 28, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    A helpful overview, Dave.

    If someone needs some personalized help, she can try the Ask an Apologist route featured on the FAIR website front page. Those questions get sent automatically to a private list of about 100 volunteers, and anyone on the volunteer list that feels she has something worthwhile to say can respond directly to the questioner. If it is a stereotyped question (a recent example was someone asking about the Nephi in lieu of Moroni mistake), a respondent is likely to send a link to the applicable article in the Wiki. But often the question is more nuanced than that, and FAIR’s volunteers are happy to try to help in a tailored and individual way.

  16. Rameumptom on June 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    I still think we need a form of FARMS. It could be tweaked to the needs of today. As Clark noted above, research still needs to be done. Most members do not know how to do that research. We are often finding new concepts that bolster, improve, or even replace older research and statements.
    I do not know if there still needs to be a published hard-backed journal. But an on-line journal could be very effective today, and less expensive to publish. We see this with much of the JS Papers Project now, with much being posted on-line for speed and cost benefits.
    And we can take apologetics and research in new areas. Joseph Spencer, Adam Miller, and others are doing some amazing things with theological studies of the Book of Mormon text (read some at SaltPress.org).
    I find that for many LDS, Sunday services are dry, uninspiring, and do not promote gospel learning. I’ve seen teachers “teachings” high priests regarding tithing as being one dime out of every dollar. Really? Do you really think there is a high priest out there that does not already know that? What we really need is to begin teaching doctrines in a deeper way (not speculation, but deeper). We’ve been told to stop providing spiritual Twinkies, which many Sunday School/PH/RS classes tend to be, simply because the correlated materials just skim the surface of doctrines.

    So, members need to learn the gospel from other sources. They don’t get it at home, and they haven’t learned how to do critical study of the text themselves, and so only see what has been correlated. Teaching the LGT has opened many members eyes to the idea that the Book of Mormon does not necessarily say what they thought it did. Imagine if we provided them with 1000 more such concepts regarding the Book of Mormon, so that their eyes would be opened to what doctrine is really about.

    And they need answers for their friends. Scholarly articles are important, but also articles made for the average user, as well.

  17. Steve Smith on June 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    g.wesley, it seems that you’re proposing a post-modernist outlook to the historicity question; a ‘we can’t know for sure’ type of approach. This is certainly an approach that works for many members who question JS’s and the BOM’s claims. But as a church policy, I don’t think it works. The church has always promoted the idea that you can know that the BOM is ‘true’ (in other words, an ancient text) through prayer and has made that a core part of being a member. Its whole missionary program is based on that idea. Elder Nelson’s statement that the BOM is not a history book is not an admission that he hasn’t conviction of the BOM’s historicity.

    The post-modern outlook on BOM historicity used to work for me. But after several ‘Mormon moments’ and Elder Holland’s October 2009 conference talk on the BOM, I found that I had to confront the historicity question head on sooner or later. I eventually came to the conclusion that I liked the LDS church, but the idea of prophecy and future prediction (which is what JS and the BOM claim to do) violated the principle of God’s agency. There were just too many variables and possible outcomes for the future to be foreseen, especially the distant future in great detail.

  18. Dave on June 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Adam (#4) and Jonathan (#5), I agree that practical and personalized apologetics requires resources. Badly done, it does as much harm as good. But FARMS and its journal, with or without the complicating institutional ties to BYU, are not the only or even the best solution to the resources problem. But the archive of FARMS articles remains a very helpful resource.

    Kevin (#15), thanks for the info on the Ask an Apologist feature at FAIR. There’s a lot of good information at the FAIR site. Personally, I find the addition of the Wiki has made some of the information less accessible — I used to pull up short essays on searched topics, but now a search produces a pastiche of text and links that doesn’t always hang together. But then I haven’t really spent much time there lately.

    To the middle-roaders: obviously being fully active in the Church while holding to an amended version of LDS doctrine or history is a tricky business. There are dozens of different amended versions, not just one, so even people who adopt a similar approach are likely to disagree with you on the details. And while most LDS agree with such a decision to remain active in the Church, they and most LDS leaders are rather uncomfortable with vocal departures from orthodoxy. But if that’s where life takes you, I hope it works for you. No guarantees, though. One bishop might privately applaud your determination to remain active; the next might consider formal discipline for being out of harmony with LDS leaders or undermining the faith of your fellow believers. Sometimes local leadership is kind of a crapshoot.

  19. christine on June 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    interesting point about undermining fellow believers. we all do not know who in the congregation might be struggling with their faith and are emotionally not ready for apologetics and other “academic” nonsense hence best keep it at the blog where you can lose faith anonymously at a computer screen. haha… being REALLY converted, what is it. when you NEVER have a crisis of faith. possibly not because, sooner or later people will have some sort of crisis or at least questioning how active in the church they want to be…especially when any kind of intellectual inquiry sets of an avalanche of people becoming inactive…

  20. Trevor Price on June 28, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Richard Bushman’s comments on his Mormon Stories podcast [transcribed by Mormon Heretic: http://www.mormonheretic.org/2012/06/27/stung-by-the-bees-why-its-hard-to-help-the-disaffected/ are interesting. He compares apologetic work with someone who’s already experienced a serious loss of faith with helping someone stung by a swarm of bees. You can attempt to treat the bee stings individually, but it’s probably impossible to have a significant effect on the overall pain.

  21. themormonbrit on June 29, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Steve smith, regardinf your first observation, I did not mean to imply that the Bible was the same as, or even very similar to, the Book of Mormon. Everyone knows the Bible is an ancient document, while few accept the Book of Mormon as being a genuinely ancient document. What I meant to point out was that matters of historicity and science very rarely pose a serious risk to a believer’s faith. This is true of any religion, including Christianity. This is because a religious faith is, at root, a spiritual tradition, not a historical theory or scientific hypothesis. As I said before, the only reason these things may sometimes pose a risk to a believer’s faith is when they have grown up in a tradition that does treat their faith as being as much a collection of historical and scientific fact as it is a spiritual path to God. For example, a church that treats the Book of Mormon as a historical textbook of genuine ancient american civilisations.

    As for your second observation, I think you may have a point in saying that the church would collapse if the book of mormon were merely written by joseph smith. Perhaps the church might collapse, but mormonism as a religious tradition would not. Having said that, it is likely that the church would not collapse, merely have to undergo a serious intense period of reform and transformation, comparable to the counter-reformation fo the Catholic Church.

  22. Adam G. on June 29, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Adam (#4) and Jonathan (#5), I agree that practical and personalized apologetics requires resources. Badly done, it does as much harm as good. But FARMS and its journal, with or without the complicating institutional ties to BYU, are not the only or even the best solution to the resources problem.

    If you’re backing off your original claim that institutionalized apologetics was outmoded, then I guess we just disagree on whether FARMS needed to be discarded or not. I say no.

  23. tom on June 29, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Might not hurt to read a little Nibley along the way.. not exactly light reading, but take some time to examine the connections he makes with Enoch, Abraham, and ancient temple worship – through all the various non-biblical records that have come to light since the days of Joseph Smith. There really is a lot of evidence that Joseph was a prophet and that these restoration scriptures are really what they say they are.

  24. Dave on June 29, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Adam, just consider the variety of outlets available to an informed Mormon who wants to publish apologetic material: book, journal, newsletter, website, blog, discussion board, twitter, email, conference, one-on-one visits. The people who published in the FARMS Review could easily publish or circulate their essays (the “resources” we are talking about) in a different forum. So no, we don’t need the FARMS Review or FARMS as an organization to produce the apologetic resources helpful to rank-and-file members of the Church who either have questions themselves or who seek resources to answer questions that others may have. I think that is fairly obvious, but FARMS elicits such a strong emotional response from people, both for and against, that making that obvious point sounds like an argument against apologetics or against individuals who have been central to FARMS as an organization. Those are not points I am making.

  25. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 29, 2012 at 11:40 am

    FARMS created a central clearinghouse where LDS scholars applying various academic disciplines to the Book of Mormon could communicate with each other and the interested membership of the Church. How many forums are there, for example, where LDS experts in DNA research could gather and publish responses to DNA-related critiques of the Book of Mormon, without having to go through the book publishing hassle, including marketing it as a stand-alone item. While it is all well and good to have venues where Mormons can communicate with other members, as well as curious non-members, and share what they know about particular issues, FARMS has operated as a much more sophisticated network. Someone who is a BYU faculty member and belongs to various professional organizations with an LDS affiliation might be able to put out questions to their counterparts and get sophisticated responses, but most LDS do not have those informal contacts. I shouldn’t have to pester BYU faculty members, or LDS academics at other schools, in order to get their views on issues that bother me. While it is fine for LDS scholars to publish books on such topics, often the questions can be responded to much more succinctly, which means having a forum where less than book-length essays can be gathered with others and made available to the broad market of Mormons who are looking for intellectually-informed engagement with the Book of Mormon. The need that FARMS was created to fill has not gone away. I think that the broadening of conversations through the internet has made the need for a central clearinghouse even more acute.

    Totally as an aside to Steve, since physics is dealing with newly minted mysteries by the gazillion, like not knowing the nature of 95% of the universe’s matter-energy, or even how many universes there are, I would not bet too much of my world view on my own comprehension of the nature of time and causation and the ability of God to foresee our future.

    And yes, I think the analyses of the Book of Mormon that have been made over the last couple of decades, much of it channelled through FARMS, have made a pretty good case that nobody alive in 1829, especially Joseph Smith, could have wittingly constructed the Book of Mormon. Most basically, I find the notion that someone trying to commit a deception was offering what I find to be a humble and persuasive call to faith in Christ and a life of integrity, to be one of the most irrational propositions I have ever dealt with, either personally or professionally.

  26. Ben S. on June 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Many people simply don’t know where to look. My Mom asked on behalf of a woman in her ward (successful, intelligent, MA) about some challenging questions she’d discovered reading Paul Gutjahr’s recent Book of Mormonbiography from Yale Press. I forwarded her some links from JI and other places, and she was happy to receive them, but had no idea such resources were out there. Or note the comment on Kevin’s MHA thread, where a lifetime member from Utah had never heard of the MHA. If well-established loci of information are not well-known, the odd one-off website, tweet, email, or discussion board is not going to do it.

  27. Tyler on June 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    As someone who has struggled with faith, and who has a PhD in Theology focusing on the implications of LDS doctrine, I have to admit that beyond any arguments or apoplogetics, the fundamental key that has kept and keeps me in the faith is the Book of Mormon. With my limited comprehension of the world, I cannot find any explanation for it that makes better sense than the explanation provided internally and officially.

  28. Dave on June 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    RTS and Ben S., those are fine arguments in favor of FARMS as it functioned until the recent changes, but you only address the positive effects of FARMS so you are really only offering half an argument. You have to consider the negatives that emerged from having an institution that took as its self-appointed mission to repudiate with sound arguments and pointed rhetoric those who criticize the Church.

    1. By letting the rhetoric overshadow the message, they essentially adopted the tactics of their adversaries which undermined their own credibility and caused some who would otherwise support FARMS as an institution to question it. They got carried away and no one at BYU or in the LDS leadership structure reigned them in, until now. That’s probably a management failure on the part of BYU and LDS leaders. Better late than never.

    2. By letting their working definition of “enemies of the Church” expand from those who publish anti-Mormon material into anyone who disagreed with FARMS positions, they allowed themselves to target active LDS such as Rod Meldrum and John Dehlin. We have bishops and stake presidents to handle LDS disciplinary councils. They have institutional responsibility to consider the membership status of LDS and, because they feel that weight of that responsibility, they act with care and discretion. FARMS did not act with care and discretion, and by going after active LDS they crossed a line and acted irresponsibly. I recognize some good things FARMS has published and like some of the individuals, but FARMS was out of control. Best to kill it before it starts coming after you and me.

  29. Steve Smith on June 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Raymond, I’m not accusing Joseph Smith of deceit. I think that he believed his own words. But I just think that he was wrong about the BOM’s ancient nature. And yes FARMS has done a good job at making everything revolve around the question of “how could have JS written the BOM” and poor job of finding evidence that would support the idea that the BOM is rooted in antiquity.

    Themormonbrit, I think that matters of historicity and science have gravely threatened to undermine religions throughout history and forced them to alter their explanations of reality. I think that the LDS church is no exception. The ease of access of information through the internet have caused an increasing number of its members to experience faith crises. My hunch is that many apologists have been increasingly finding that the traditional LDS apologist explanations are failing to preempt or resolve these faith crises and that this realization on the part of many has led to the recent direction changes at the Maxwell Institute.

  30. Steve Smith on June 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Ben S., you’re right that many people simply don’t know where to look. And apologists are perfect for the people that are faithfuls but stumble over a seemingly minor issue that they feel they need a quick answer for. But the fact is that many who leave the church because of faith crises have actually been avid readers of material published by Mormon apologists and are unsatisfied with their approach for a variety of reasons. In my case I came to the conclusion that FARMS just couldn’t compete with modern academics. It seemed to me that if the BOM’s ancient setting were so evident in the research of the apologists, that many non-LDS academics would be latching onto it. But after reading many works and listening to many lectures by the leading researchers of ancient American civilizations, particularly Michael Coe at Yale, I came to the conclusion that it was highly implausible for the Book of Mormon story to have taken place in ancient America.

    I hope that the change at the MI will provide better help for those experiencing faith crises by promoting the idea that faith doesn’t have to be rooted in historicity and truth claims. After all it is not like I resort to prayer to answer my questions about which of the competing versions of Civil War history is correct. Nor do I pray to know if the Quran or the Hindu Vedas are the words of God. But I can appreciate different human attempts to find God and establish a just society, even if I disagree with how they may explain history.

  31. themormonbrit on June 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Steve Smith, I think we both agree (correct me if I’m wrong) that the primary thing at fault that is causing so many people to leave the church is not so much Mormonism as it is the particular flavour of Mormonism promoted by the LDS Church. Nothing in the world could ever make it impossible to believe in Mormonism because Mormonism isn’t a collection of historical truth claims, or at least not at its core. The LDS Church promotes and teaches a flavour of Mormonism that does incorporate some pretty heavy and somewhat bold historical truth claims, but even they would most likely agree that these truth claims do not define what Mormonism is.
    Mormonism cannot be falsified by history, because the primary, most important things it teaches are not historical. It cannot be falsified by science because its core teachings are not scientific.
    Mormonism’s primary truth claims, the core of what Mormonism is, do not deal with history or science. They deal with things far above and beyond the realm of history and science – the nature of God, the nature of mankind, our relationship with God, and how to achieve spiritual satisfaction, happiness, peace and lasting joy. All other things, whether or not the Book of Mormon is historical, whether or not evolution is a valid theory, etc are all really outside the realm of ‘Mormonism’ because Mormonism is a religion, and these are not religious issues. They are historical/scientific issues closely (but not inseperably) intertwined with a particular belief system, but they are historical/scientific issues nonetheless. Thus, I look to historians and the historical method to provide answers regarding the Book of Mormon’s historicity, I look to science and the scientific method to determine the origin of life, and I look to religion for answers regarding the nature of God and my relationship with Him.

  32. Steve Smith on June 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Themormonbrit, I think that our philosophies about God and life coincide in many instances. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t try to inform our historical and scientific body of knowledge through religion. But ultimately I can’t see a Mormonism without a belief in prophecy. Having a prophet who prophecies of matters past, present, and future is sort of the crux of Mormonism and is what is supposed to distinguish it from other religions and philosophies. I suppose I can accept prophecy as faith, inspiration, strong belief, and charisma. But I have always sensed in Mormon discourse both past and present that prophecy and revelation are held in separate special categories that aren’t just mere inspiration and human moral philosophy, but God’s direct words to humans.

    Maybe a sort of true Platonic Mormonism could exist that the LDS church is not currently grasping fully. But I find it hard to detach the LDS institution, both past and present, from Mormonism.

  33. Martin James on June 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    If that is what its all about, then why all the talk about a restored priesthood and ordinances and keys and three degrees of glory.

    I don’t just want to go back to church; I want to go back to the eternal sunshine of the spotless worldview.

  34. Martin James on June 29, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Dave said, “Attending church on Sunday, singing hymns, sharing comments in class, chatting with people you know, visiting those in need, mourning with those who mourn, feeling the spirit of God from time to time — these and similar things is what being a Christian is all about. That is certainly what being a Mormon Christian is all about.”

    If that is what its all about, then why all the talk about a restored priesthood and ordinances and keys and three degrees of glory.

    I don’t just want to go back to church; I want to go back to the eternal sunshine of the spotless worldview.

  35. Blake on June 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Steve Smith: I don’t believe that your argument from prophecy is persuasive. I suspect that you know I don’t accept divine foreknowledge of free actions and yet I accept the Book of Mormon as deriving from an ancient document. Why isn’t the expansion of the text in commentary by Joseph Smith a very good explanation? Why aren’t the various types of conditional prophecies (which cannot be known with surety) and those unconditional prophecies that God has vowed that he would bring about himself (which God most certainly can know with surety) a good answer to the problem?

  36. christine on June 29, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    I am almost an outsider because I was only just converted.
    but I am getting the impression that the naive idea of everything to do with the church is a spotless eternal sunshiny world is somewhat predominant with many members and anything that disrupts this harmony is reason to potentially leave the church. even though we all know at heart that our souls do not belong to a church but to God.
    Mormonism in the LDS interpretation (its the only one I know a little bit about) is very ecclectic, and unusual. Only 2% of Americans are Mormon, and maybe not all of them active. That is a very low might i say elitarian percentage. A member who wants to stay in the church has to value it for what it is. An unusual perspective on the universe, on the future, on how god functions (i.e. something as indescribable as impressions for the individual to guide them through life and equally impressions for priests, prophets to guide the LDS as a community) not a sunshiny unproblematic world one can escape to from ordinary life. The vast majority of members are not willing or able to conduct academic inquiries into anything Mormon, the same is true for any other belief system.
    I think your weekly church meeting has very little space for academic analysis of scripture or doctrine, etc, even if this inquiry were not preceived as creating threats of people leaving …which, honestly, from what i have observed, it does create these threats. because too many Mormons quit giving as an excuse some obstruse anti mormon theory. I think they really quit because the church creates pressure to live a good life and they feel too much of it ..they wanted to quit for that emotional reason but find a way out when someone questions something fundamental in the church. …the ones left behind usually do not understand that and assume the reasons they gave are accurate…so they are suspicious of any intellectual inquiries into the belief…. I truly believe that the Mormon church will always have this kind of attrition and nothing can stop it. it is just too unusual…much of the belief is like a fairy tale but it is actually a very realistic way of looking at life. i.e. the word of wisdom goes straight to the heart of most people’s problems. addiction.eating too much .. and if anyone thinks they can live in lala land, by being a Mormon, I think they missed the boat. I think the harsh reality is, taking only what one needs and sharing the rest with others in a neigborly fashion, or, to take this further, as if the other were our valued Heavenly Brother or Father is sadly, a tall order. At the same time, for me it is what Mormonism is all about…

  37. annegb on June 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Robert Millett is one of my heroes. He has managed to communicate a strong testimony AND understanding of those who struggle. I don’t know much about anything at all, let alone FARMS—and John Dehlin left me in his dust a long time ago, but the IMPRESSION I have is that FARMS is cold and uncaring and patriarchial while John has become a celebrity whose fame is more important than his purpose.

    I’ve loved Stephen Robinson’s books, also. I like the idea of these two mens’ methods at work among those of us whose testimonies are not rock solid.

    The other impression I’ve had of FARMS is that they are historical scholars and that’s important, but not to Joe Blow ordinary member who is struggling not only with testimony, but bills and marriage and wayward kids.

    I believe there has to be a middle ground and I like this post.

  38. christine on June 30, 2012 at 11:13 am

    annegb of course them scholars of any persuasion / scientists are in an ivory tower, Only go there if you wish to be presented with intellectual outpours of discussions of relatively detailed things that have very little to do with your real world of getting a household to function etc. (i do not have kids haha, so luxuriating in following scholarly debate) I am impressed that you linked the FARMS article with this Desire for FAith restoring article, they could be related in that FARMS was kicked out because they were insufficiently faith building/restoring but no one has officially said that…impressions GO

  39. christine on July 1, 2012 at 12:31 am

    and then the other thing…that we all do not want to talk about, how to get back in when you have been excommunicated

  40. themormonbrit on July 1, 2012 at 2:10 am

    Steve Smith, Blake has pointed out that he doesn’t believe in divine foreknowledge. He has defended this point of view in several places using what I believe are very Mormon arguments.
    I, on the other hand, do believe in divine foreknowledge. As did James E Talmage, one of Mormonism’s most powerful and influential early theologians. As (I would guess) do most Mormons today. There are references to comprehensive foreknowledge in Mormon scripture. These are also passages of scripture that seem to make divine foreknowledge impossible.

    The point that I’m trying to make is that Mormonism comes in all different shapes and sizes. If you find one particular flavour/variety of Mormonism unpalatable or unacceptable, there is no reason to dismiss Mormonism in its entirety.

    However, I personally agree that prophecy (in the form of prophets, seers and revelators) is central to Mormonism. Others may disagree, because, as I have pointed out, there are many different varieties of Mormonism, but that’s my personal opinion. However, prophecy is not synonymous with prediction or foreknowledge. A prophet doesn’t have to tell the future in order to be a prophet. Rather, a prophet is an intercessor between God and humanity. He tells humanity what God requires of them, what He thinks of them, His nature, His attributes, His plan of salvation, and other things pertaining to Him. None of this necessarily entails that he accurately predict the future. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, you don’t have to believe in prediction or divine foreknowledge in order to be a Mormon.

  41. Diane on July 1, 2012 at 9:14 am

    2″. By letting their working definition of “enemies of the Church” expand from those who publish anti-Mormon material into anyone who disagreed with FARMS positions, they allowed themselves to target active LDS such as Rod Meldrum and John Dehlin. We have bishops and stake presidents to handle LDS disciplinary councils. They have institutional responsibility to consider the membership status of LDS and, because they feel that weight of that responsibility, they act with care and discretion. FARMS did not act with care and discretion, and by going after active LDS they crossed a line and acted irresponsibly. I recognize some good things FARMS has published and like some of the individuals, but FARMS was out of control. Best to kill it before it starts coming after you and me.’

    The problem with this kind of discourse is the fact that it actually shuts down discourse. We say we want to allow people to come back, but, they can only come back if they say and think EXACTLY like everyone else does. As far as I’m concern labeling someone as anti’ because they are voicing legitimate concerns is greatly disconcerting to me.

    If we really want to open a dialogue, lets’ get rid of the Anti. Than we won’t need apologetic s or Farms

  42. christine on July 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

    I am reading Diane’s contribution and cannot help but wonder what is between the lines because there is not much there IN THE LINES.yet allusions,,,target the members like Dehlin as what ?>murderers of missionaries ? The ones that drowned in Guatemala in a lake ? And that “targetting” influences someone who thinks they wahow nt to come back to church how exactly ? I still think people are in denial about why someone leaves the church and then one needs to look at the reasons why they might come back.like: leave church because too much pressure to follow some of the doctrine ? get back in to get warm and fuzzy feelings from times long past ? FARMS is supposed to help with that and did not so they were unceremoniously shut down with no warning ? escortet out of the building with their belongings if some of them had not been out of the country ? wait until several of them are out of the country and knowing they check the computer way less often when they are away. and ..then one day decide they are OUT as of today, have their desks cleared and chuck their stuff in a plastic bag that they can collect at reception if they care enough, then email them to say they are Gonners. hmm . without even knowing what FARMS published, this kind of stuff makes my non-mormon friends think I am in some scientology. does not help the cause of trying to get people to come (back) into the fold. If FARMS is suddenly publishing inflammatory things (after 23 years,come on how bad can it be), shutting it down quietly with a couple of months notice without stopping a scheduled publication would have seemed adaequate. Who is John Dehlin that he cannot defend himself but deserves.requires the power of the Maxwell Institute behind him to destroy his enemies, like Parohan II was destroyed in Helaman 9, i am not sure who are the Gadianton Robbers here but obviously someone who hugely benefits from this change.

  43. annegb on July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Christine, I have no idea what you meant in your post. You lost me.

  44. christine on July 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Sorry I thought you had the info Anne
    conceivably someone could leave the church because FARMS publications do not convince them i.e. in their answers to anti mormon statements ? and someone could come back to the church because of something from FARMS…and someone could leave the church because they think someone like Dr. Peterson should be given a smoother exit from the MI as a result of his continued contributions to the faith over the years…some think Dr. Peterson was let go as a result of an attack he was allegedly planning against John Dehlin whom you said you had read. He says he was not planning to publish a HIT article against Dehlin so he is not sure why he was let go, especially since upon request from MI he withdrew the article which according to him did not contain inflammatory accusations , lifes not always fair, but…can often be extremely ironic…as in, Helaman 9, the judge is dead…

  45. MormonThink on July 2, 2012 at 10:34 am

    We at MormonThink would like to chime in here. There may be no totally objective website concerning Mormonism, but MormonThink is the closest. Since every member already knows the church’s position, the emphasis is on the critics’ issues which are often not well known by most LDS.

    The summaries by faithful members are generally a short summary, but give the basics of the Mormon position. The summaries always include the links to the faithful sites so every reader can go to faithful sites and read the entire faithful argument in their own words, with just a click away. FAIR, FARMS, LDS.org, etc, do not even list 1 link to the critics’ sites, yet MormonThink has over 300 links to faithful sites.

    MormonThink has listed many times that if faithful members want additional information, they can go to ‘Ask the Apologist’ on FAIR’s website, and MormonThink gives the link for easy access. Can you imagine FAIR advising its readers to ‘Ask the Critic’ to get their unabridged viewpoint?

    Also, MormonThink has asked its readers many times to submit articles to boost the TBM responses. Whenever a reader sends in a faithful defense or link, it is added, as was done just last week. So instead of criticizing the site, spend your time making it more objective by sending in some Pro-LDS arguments.

    MormonThink is continuing to strive to be objective, as demonstrated by a Times & Seasons link added to the list of blogs on the MormonThink links page. Even though Times & Seasons trashed MormonThink, the Times & Seasons link is still included.

    So who sounds most like they want everyone to see all viewpoints – The Church, FAIR, FARMS, or MormonThink?

  46. Dave on July 2, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    christine, I think more information will come out as those directly involved with the changes at the FARMS Review and the Maxwell Institute make public statements. You seem to be accepting rumors at face value even when they have little or no support and have been publicly denied. One can argue the case that changes were need at the FARMS Review without believing every crazy rumor that circulates.

    annegb, glad you enjoyed the post.

    Steve Smith, you said:

    But ultimately I can’t see a Mormonism without a belief in prophecy. Having a prophet who prophecies of matters past, present, and future is sort of the crux of Mormonism and is what is supposed to distinguish it from other religions and philosophies.

    I think that confuses what prophets do with what fortune tellers do. Prophet as the term appears in the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew term navi which might better be translated spokesman or mouthpiece. And as reflected in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, they spent most of their time calling the people to repentance and delivering oracles of judgment against neighboring peoples and oracles of hope to the Israelites.

    Later readers (Jewish, Christian, and Mormon) often look for prophecy on the model you are describing, sometimes devising intricate and arcane codes to tie contemporaneous events and posited near future events back to those old texts. But they are generally reading prophecy into those texts rather than reading prophecy out of them. Pervasive misunderstanding of apocalyptic writing reinforces this misguided fortunetelling bias by lay readers. I think that’s the wrong approach to the scriptures and to life. It is certainly not the approach LDS leaders take. Mormons who get off on that tangent are doing just that — they’re off on a tangent. Attributing that misguided misunderstanding of the scriptures and of what prophets do to mainstream Mormonism is simply wrong.

  47. Dave on July 2, 2012 at 11:09 am

    MormonThink, nice of you to drop in. I’ll give you points for maintaining civil discourse, but it is incorrect that I “trashed” your site, I just described it, and several commenters have agreed with those descriptions. The site does highlight criticism of the LDS Church. The descriptions of LDS doctrine are simplified and primarily designed as a set-up for the criticsims you highlight. Everyone seems to agree that the discussions at your site present one side of the issue, not a balanced discussion. You’re welcome to run such a site (there are plenty of similar sites) and some naive visitors might take it as a neutral, objective discussion. But don’t expect a pat on the back from the rest of us.

    The anonymity game is so phony — like the Danites are going to show up at your door next week if you posted using real names like the rest of us do. It detracts from whatever credibility the criticisms might have on their own merits.

  48. themormonbrit on July 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Dave, I agree with your comments on prophecy. As I tried to point out and outline in my comment, prophecy is not synonymous with prediction – a prophet can be a prophet simply by the virtue that he speaks on behalf of God. He doesn’t necessarily have to predict the future.

  49. clark on July 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    By letting their working definition of “enemies of the Church” expand from those who publish anti-Mormon material into anyone who disagreed with FARMS positions, they allowed themselves to target active LDS such as Rod Meldrum and John Dehlin. We have bishops and stake presidents to handle LDS disciplinary councils.

    Coming late to the discussion. I agree that FARMS was weakest and most problematic when they engaged in polemics against particular individuals. I don’t think that was helpful pedagogically and distracted from the real points they made. I do think that a small number of texts where this was done is taken to represent the whole. Which is just unfair.

    That said though if one is engaging in thoroughgoing debate then I don’t think Mormons should be somehow held to a different standard than non-Mormons. The old saying, “with friends like these…” holds true. There are plenty of well meaning people producing horribly bad apologetics or theology and that needs critiqued. There are also well meaning people attempting their own reconciliation of Mormon theology, history with secularism that can also be problematic. While I think a more charitable nature is definitely called for I’m not sure the engagement itself is bad. More the bedside manner…

  50. Dave on July 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’m going to close comments now.

    Look for another episode of Practical Apologetics in coming weeks.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.