A Response to My Friend Daniel Peterson

A Response to My Friend Daniel Peterson December 30, 2014

I’m very grateful for Daniel Peterson’s kind, thoughtful response to my recent post. I’m going to state publicly that I love Daniel Peterson. He is both a friend and a mentor to me. I provided Interpreter with its first article as a way to offer my support to him and his new efforts. I’m grateful for his many significant contributions to the fields of Mormon studies and LDS apologetics.

It’s very clear that Dan is very much a champion of the academic growth of Mormon studies. He clearly supports expanding the Maxwell Institute’s effort to broaden the academic discussion of Mormonism by inviting non-LDS scholars to share their views on Mormon history and scripture in the pages of BYU journals. Remember, Dan was kind enough to publish one such exchange between myself and evangelical biblical scholar Michael Heiser in the pages of the FARMS Review. He’s not opposed to change, and he certainly supports the growth of Mormon studies.

Still, I believe that my characterization of many of the posts and articles that have appeared as of late are correct and they needed to be addressed. So why have we seen so many critiques of the Maxwell Institute and Mormon studies from Dan and his supporters, which paint these efforts as a “secularization” process?

The Maxwell Institute has not abandoned publishing material that explores the Book of Mormon’s connections with the ancient world. The new Journal of Book of Mormon Studies is edited by two faculty members in BYU’s Religious Education department. It’s filled with fascinating articles that explore the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. Recently, the Maxwell Institute has made available for free many of the old classic FARMS essays that defend the Book of Mormon as ancient scriptural material. So it hasn’t been “secularized” away from this angle.

Moreover, the MI has not jettisoned its efforts to reach out and inspire a general Church audience. They’ve created the new Living Faith Series and have published inspiring devotional work by Adam Miller that has been cited approvingly by Elder D. Todd Christofferson. Letters to a Young Mormon has been very well received by a broad LDS audience, as has the second volume by Sam Brown, First Principles and Ordinances.

So since the MI is not abandoning its efforts to inspire a general Church audience and has not jettisoned its effort in publishing strong academic material on the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, AND since Dan (and I assume most of his colleagues) support/s the academic growth of Mormon studies, we really, REALLY need to abandon all the “secularization” rhetoric.

If we cut through all of the hyperbole, I believe what this all really comes down to is simply aggressive apologetic tactics. The MI clearly wants to move away from such efforts and some believe that this is a misstep. To illustrate, we should consider the comment added to Dan’s post by Stephen Smoot, an active participant and defender of apologetic venues such as FAIR and Interpreter. Smoot writes:

“The Maxwell Institute’s ‘new course’ . . . seems to me plainly to have essentially abandoned the people whom David sincerely wants to help.” I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that many of those who argue for the “new direction” seem to either be unaware or uncaring of the fact that most people these days who experience faith crises aren’t concerned about the nuances of a postmodern literary reading of Alma 32, or how Mormon folklore created the modern Mormon identity, etc., but are freaking out over such claims as Joseph Smith was a womanizer who sent men on missions to steal their wives, that Brigham Young was a bloodthirsty tyrant, that the Book of Abraham is a crude forgery, etc. It doesn’t seem to me like it’s really going to help these people to show how rich the Book of Mormon is as literature when they’re being told Joseph Smith plagiarized the whole thing from Ethan Smith and whatever other 19th century book du jour naturalistic critics of the Book of Mormon are pointing to.

“If the current orchestrators and proponents of the “new direction” want a dozen academics at Claremont reading something like the current Mormon Studies Review, then bully for them! I would just hope that they not lose sight of what the consequences will be if Jeremy Runnells and John Dehlin and other vocal anti-Mormons on the Internet go unchallenged.”

And there we have it. The new “Book of Mormon Wars” between LDS apologists and Mormon studies supporters is not about secularization. This is simply unfortunate rhetoric used to attack “new directions.” What this is all really about is what style of apologetics the MI should pursue.

I’m not connected with the MI, but I’ll share my opinion that I strongly believe that Smoot is wrong. I believe that many people really are strengthened spiritually by reading academic studies that take the Book of Mormon seriously. Someone experiencing a faith crises CAN be strengthened to hold on and continue belief by encountering a postmodern literary reading of Alma 32 from a scholar who knows what the doubter knows, yet still believes to the point that she is producing serious Mormon scholarship. In fact, I’ve seen this happen many, many times.

But what about attacking people directly like Jeremy Runnells and John Dehlin? Does this strengthen faith? It may, but I’m not convinced. I don’t like it, and it feels wrong to me. More importantly, that type of apologetic seems inappropriate from my perspective for a serious academic venue, especially one sponsored by the LDS Church.

I’m not going to cite the emails because they’re personal exchanges, and to do so would be highly inappropriate. But I will give a personal example. In the not-too-distant past, my name was attached to an apologetic email list that was discussing how the group should respond to an article that appeared in the news. Several of the emails discussed openly the type of “digging” that could be done into this person’s past in an effort to provide an effective apologetic response. It made me feel very, very uncomfortable.

I responded, asking the group to please reconsider their approach, stating, “placing the blame on [name omitted] for his struggles is not an effective apologetic and I personally don’t think it will help [your] cause.”

And this is what this entire unfortunate public confrontation comes down to: What is the most effective type of apologetics, and what style of academics should an LDS sponsored institution engage in? I don’t believe in aggressive attack style apologetics. Some people do. I believe in critical thinking, listening to alternative views, and open friendly exchanges.

We need to stop the rhetoric. Dan is not afraid of change and is a supporter of Mormon studies, and the MI is not becoming “secular” by expanding respectful academic dialogue. This really comes down to differences of opinion concerning apologetic style and tone, and that’s OK. We can still all love each other and be friends.

I’ll close by reposting the following quote from Historian Richard Bushman that seems appropriate to this conversation:

“The apologists. . . feel that they are living in a hostile world. The church has real enemies, they firmly believe, and war has to be waged. Not all of the apologists write pugnaciously, but they all write defensively. If not exactly at war with an enemy, they are certainly engaged in debate…

“Although seeing themselves as collaborators in the cause of Mormon history, apologists and new Mormon historians occasionally snipe at one another. The apologists wonder why the historians do not spring to the defense of the faith when Joseph Smith comes under attack. The apologists want to war with the critics; the historians ask them out to lunch.

“At Mormon History Association meetings you can hear a critic vehemently attack Joseph Smith in one session while in the next room a presenter lauds Smith’s character and achievements. The apologists insist that the historians fail to understand what is at stake. The historians for their part question the apologists’ polemical writing and special pleading. They think the apologists repel readers with their bellicose style and unwillingness to yield points. Though assembled on the same campus at Brigham Young University and acknowledging each other as brothers and sisters in the gospel, they live in different worlds.” Richard Bushman, “What’s New in Mormon History: A Response to Jan Shipps,” in The Journal of American History (Sept. 2007), 518-19.

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