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 My view: the FARMS approach has become outdated.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.