I have been reflecting on the highlights of defending the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the last decade. I think it would be fun to emulate Rembert Browne’s yearly sports and pop culture tournament. I have seeded four regional divisions as a gimmick to examine the apologetic impact of various individuals, talks, publications, and events have had on the membership of Church, but more especially on Mormonism’s chattering class. By impact, I am primarily interested in how each bracket entry shaped and modeled future discourse in positive ways, socially reinforced good behaviors, or can be generalized across settings.
As the 2010s dawned, with missionary zeal, the institutional church had been encouraging the chattering class to counter misinformation about us and “Join the Conversation.” On a personal level, this challenge reinforced what I had been doing for several years as a volunteer for FairMormon. I responded to an early iteration of this invitation with enthusiasm and worries about the “tough and complicated aspects about Mormonism that are difficult to navigate through”.
I do worry about turning college grads loose on the internet. Until Mormon Apologetics 101 is taught as an institute class, I think that some percentage of them will be ill equipped to handle the rough and tumble of the various discussion forums.
The solution I constructively advocated for was for conversants to “engage in vigorous self study” and to pick their battles carefully, based on knowledge level. In 2009, I pitched the idea of a new class to BYU administrators, but there was a hiring freeze and the religion department wasn’t looking to expand its curriculum at the time. In hindsight, piloting a class with a focus on controversial topics and communications skills would have been a tough sale to get approved by a church correlation committee even for a tenured professor.
Defending the church was seen as more of an extracurricular activity. Robert White, a well-informed insider, opined in 2009
And my beloved brothers and sisters, I believe that as Latter-day Saint apologists you are mandated by heaven in what you do and what you accomplish. And I’m going to suggest that in the revelations, there are three direct references, sometimes obscure and easily passed over, in which the Lord anticipated the work being done by FAIR and by FAIR only, because the institutional Church cannot do this and be deflected from the work ….
Now, we are the line in the sand. We do not attack others, we do not promulgate doctrine or declare it, we are not officially assigned or appointed by the institutional church, but we are Latter-day Saints, true to the truth that our parents have cherished, and true to the truth for which martyrs have perished, and that as those who are standing on the thin red line, we put up a barrier that says, “this far, no further.”
I tinkered with ideas for strengthening the curriculum to help inoculate the youth, culminating in a blog asking, “Is an apologetics class feasible at BYU?” Sensing a thaw, I approached BYU again with a longshot, informal proposal. A kind administrator, while grateful for volunteer organizations countering internet misinformation, didn’t think there was a market for such a class. Having a high regard for the bright students he had worked with over the years, he estimated that only a small minority of students could be shaken in their testimonies in response to criticisms, while granting that they had room for improvement.His thoughtful response had a lot of merit.
Humbly and prayerfully, I offered a few suggestions in this 2011 correspondence.
I like your distinction of some criticisms being nonsense that most (if not all) bright BYU students can easily deal with and the “external criticism” that can sometimes shake up a minority of them. I trust your interactions reflect a much wider survey than mine and I stand corrected to the extent that I tend to observe a disproportionate amount of the minority.
Of that minority, FAIR has some statistics that suggest that it is topics that only get covered on a limited basis (if at all) in past religion classes that are doing the most damage (Nauvoo polygamy, Blacks and the Priesthood, translation methods for the BoM and BoA, Violent acts/rhetoric surrounding the Mountain Meadow Massacre, 19th century doctrinal speculations, the Church’s stance on Prop 8, etc.) When LDS members find out about these things (or the opposing viewpoint) first (or more forcefully) from anti-mormons they can sometimes develop a distrust for their church leaders and apologetic organizations that might have been able to help them. This is not a criticism of those classes, but I do suggest that there is a niche that a class aimed at apologetically inclined students might fill without disturbing the way the traditional courses are taught.
Despite my ideas for a proactive apologetics class not making an immediate impact, I was impressed that the existing learning environment was in good shape. A religious education policy page indicated that students “should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith.” Excellent instructors already had the flexibility to reactively address apologetic concerns if they were brought up by students. Since then, a Church News article helps frame realistic expectations for both the curriculum and student self-reliance. “The curriculum is meant to be a study aid but not to replace study, BYU religion professors say.” For any given issue, evaluating the trade-offs between proactive approaches (and possibly introducing questions that no one is asking) and reactive approaches (possibly incurring reduced trust from less transparency) is a decision best made by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and those in whom they have delegated stewardships and keys.
In the year after that correspondence, it temporarily appeared that there would be even less institutional support for defending the faith as BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute (NAMI) decided in 2012 to move in a new direction more conducive for academics working in Mormon Studies to get publishing credit towards tenure. While NAMI remains a prestigious outlet for LDS scholarship, some of its apologetic activities were absorbed off-campus with the founding of the Interpreter Foundation and Book of Mormon Central. Elder Holland urged the BYU’s Religious Studies Center to improve and “become the academic voice of the Church” in 2014 and entreated NAMI to play more defense in 2018. The Mormon Studies Review found a new home at the University of Illinois at about that time.
The decade saw the institutional church take more ownership of its defenses. Rather than training an elite group of students, as I had proposed, the Church independently came up with solutions much bolder, bigger, and better than anything I could imagine. I am reminded of Gregory Smith’s poetic description “I cast my bread upon the water and God sent back an aircraft carrier with a bakery on top.” I am entirely grateful and in awe of the way the Church released a series of articles on its website, overhauled the curriculum to gradually inoculate the youth, and trained its army of Seminary and Institute instructors to respond better to challenging questions.
Elder Christensen recently responded to a request for more support for organizations like Book of Mormon Central, Interpreter, and FairMormon. “As we respond on the battle on the Internet, only about 10 or 15% can come from the Church. The rest has to come from partners (we can count you as partners) and other individual members to be engaged in the conversation.” A year earlier at the same venue, Elder Pearson examined the separate niches for both the polish and professionalism of the Church and the independence and authenticity of its members in a joint effort to share the gospel online. In tandem, these addresses are a good snapshot of the improved state of LDS apologetics at the end of the decade .
In preparation, Elder Ballard reviewed a book celebrating the first century of seminary. Tangentially, I noticed that a chapter focuses on J. Reuben Clark’s 1938 “Charted Course” talk and proclaims it to be “the most influential address to seminary and institute teachers in the history of Church education.” In my opinion, Elder Ballard’s address, isn’t just my top overall seed for this tournament, but the early front runner for the CES Talk of the [2nd] Century. Consider these powerful observations and instructions which were generalized to address all gospel teachers in the December 2016 Ensign.
- Our curriculum […] did not prepare students for today
- Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher [….] intended to avoid the issue.
- Inoculate students
- Don’t overclaim
- James did not say, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!”
- And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.
- [K]now the content in these [Gospel Topics] essays like you know the back of your hand
Sheri Dew, Deseret Book’s CEO, delivered an amazing college devotional featured as a resource in the November 2018 Come Follow Me for youth manual covering spiritual self-reliance. Sister Dew shared a success story that is exemplary for budding apologists everywhere wishing to help others.
“Bring your scriptures and every question you have. Questions are good. Let’s see what the Lord will teach us.”
She took me at my word and brought one thorny question after another. We searched the scriptures and the teachings of prophets for answers
In different ways, FairMormon’s tagline (“Faithful answers to critical questions”) and 1 Peter 3:15 (“be ready always to give an answer”) capture the essence of apologetic activity. As an innovative format introduced in the last decade, Face to Face events with an apostolic panel illustrate these dynamics at the highest level. To be sure, not all audience submitted questions have a critical basis, but I would like to call attention to Presidents Oaks and Ballard’s in November 2017 and Elder Cook’s (with historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow) in September 2018. The format has inspired countless 5th Sundays panels and has done much to help reinforce question asking.
The Foundations of the Restoration institute manual was the first to teach from selected Gospel Topics Essays in a proactive way. It prefigured the encouraged, yet supplemental use, of the same in the 2017 adult Sunday School cycle.
Michael Otterson, then the managing director of public affairs, described this valuable resource for defending the church in the media
Newsroom and the department’s Facebook and YouTube channels are among the primary communications media we use to disseminate significant news and latest developments. Much of what is posted there deals with routine news stories, but even these cannot be posted without approval from Church Correlation, which has the responsibility to ensure that all Church communications are doctrinally sound and consistent. Because of the nature of our work, Correlation gives us high priority when we are dealing with breaking news or issuing a commentary on a significant topic.
Elder Lance Wickman may have been to use the phrase “fairness for all” in the context of defending religious liberties sometimes in the spirit of compromise.
Stephen Harper said that these narrative history volumes also have an apologetic purpose:
They’re not children’s books, but youth will be able to read and understand them, and over the course of the next generation, the new knowledge and insight gained from every page will become the common knowledge of all Latter-day Saints everywhere, and we will be less vulnerable to our enemies than we are today. I’m really excited about that.
Another thing that’s unique about Saints that’s not typical of the histories we’ve done before is that it is intentionally designed to immunize the rising generations of Latter-day Saints.
The metaphor for keeping the faith by not abandoning the ship is taken to new, profound heights. The Renlunds’ talk featured a delightful video illustrating a parable first told the prior June. The week earlier, I had overturned a kayak in the very cold waters of Fish Lake as dusk approached. The embarrassment I felt at getting rescued by the tiredest farmer in Koosharem made me feel a little like the young man depicted. A must read for any apologist trying to help a perma-doubter.
This training by Chad H Webb, administrator of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, expounded on Elder Ballard’s counsel to consult experts and was accompanied with a short list of recommended resources that included FairMormon. “Sometimes our students ask questions that may be a little difficult to answer. After we have turned to the scriptures, it can also be helpful to turn to supplemental resources as we search for answers.”
I am lumping a whole series of changes here. Cutting the third hour of church created more time for personal and family study which facilitated more readership of apologetic resources on the church website. Teacher’s council and a new training manual drilled in strategies for encouraging class members to ask tougher questions and share their personal studies. Synchronizing the seminary and Sunday School four-year cycles will lead to more adults becoming inoculated alongside their youth.
I note plainly one thing we expect you to do because it is central to your raison d’être. It is to undergird and inform the pledge Elder Maxwell made when he said of uncontested criticism, “No more slam dunks.” We ask you as part of a larger game plan to always keep a scholarly hand fully in the face of those who oppose us. As a ne’er-do-well athlete of yesteryear, I was always told you played offense for the crowd, but you played defense for the coach.
About a year ago, I visited with a mother of young children who decided to take a proactive approach to inoculating her children against the many negative influences they were being exposed to online and at school. She chooses a topic each week, often one that has generated a lot of discussion online, and she initiates meaningful discussions during the week when her children can ask questions and she can make sure they’re getting a balanced and fair perspective on the often-difficult issues. She is making her home a safe place to raise questions and have meaningful gospel instruction.
Matthew McBride explained what jobs the Church History Topics accomplish. 1. Be transparent: actively tell members about challenging aspects of church history. 2, Supply context to help avoid presentism and make better sense of our past. 3. Tell the rest of the story to learn to see the world through another’s eyes can promote charity. 4. Show change over time for understanding how revelation occurs line upon line. 5. Clarify well known stories with research updates. 5. interrogate sources to help members learn about strengths and weaknesses of them. 6. Encourage further reading by pointing out additional resources. 7. Provoke pondering, don’t rush pass issues like they are sideshows.
The June Ensign in 2018 commemorated the 30 year anniversary of the revelation authorizing all worthy males to receive the priesthood. Unfortunately, the racial folklore that had been used to justify the prior, long-standing ban has persisted. Earlier in 2013, Race and the Priesthood was released as one of the first Gospel Topics Essays. Building on this and other prophetic statements, the Ensign contains 7 educational articles that share historical context and personal perspectives, denounce past racist teachings, and suggest ways to recognize and reduce subtle racism in the future. For the latter, Darius Gray’s expanded article deserves special consideration.
These 11 essays have had an unquestionable impact on LDS apologetics, laying the groundwork for improving curriculum, inoculating the youth, and recognizing faithful scholarship.
It’s the intent of Church leaders that these essays be more than just a one-read experience on LDS.org, but rather that their content and principles work their way into the larger tapestry of learning, especially for our youth.
It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand. If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. In other words, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” as you master the content of these essays.
A good apologist needs to have a sound understanding of what constitutes the doctrine of the Church before defending it. Those “19th century doctrinal speculations” that I worried were shaking testimonies at the beginning of the decade were largely neutralized by Elder Christofferson’s talk on the “The Doctrine of Christ.” Patterns, procedures, and prophetic prerogatives for establishing doctrines are detailed, while we are reminded “that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.”