Thanks for coming to this session. I’m going to share some personal observations and opinions, for whatever they may be worth. By way of background, I am a lifelong, devout member of the Church. I’m a professor of history and religious studies at a state university far from Utah, where I have just one Mormon colleague and in 22 years I’ve never had an LDS student—which means that I spend all day, most every day, talking to non-Mormons. In addition, I have written books and articles about the Book of Mormon for academic audiences, published in mainstream university presses. (Be forewarned: my examples tend to come from scriptural issues. I’m a text guy.)
I am concerned, as are you, with missionary work, with strengthening faith, and particularly with making Mormonism attractive and viable for the next generation of Latter-day Saints. My current calling is early morning seminary teacher (where I teach a third of the seminary students in our stake), and in my last calling, as a counselor in the stake presidency, I was responsible for the young single adults. Recently, I have had several friends confide to me that they, or their children, are finding belief more difficult. Mormonism is no longer as convincing or as appealing as they once thought. (This has probably happened to you as well.) I find this troubling, because my religion has been a very good thing in my life.
Apologetics can be broadly defined as “the attempt to integrate faith and reason in making a rational case for belief.” It has a long and distinguished history in both Christianity and Mormonism (and in other religions as well). I was fortunate to have grown up reading High Nibley in the 1970s. I started college at BYU in 1979, the same year that FARMS was founded, and I have been involved with FARMS and then the Maxwell Institute as a volunteer and author since the early 1980s. But what I found persuasive and inspiring as a young man in the late twentieth century may not work as well today. Times have changed, knowledge has expanded, and technology has advanced.
Here’s the challenge (starting with a bit of nostalgia for some of you). In the 1970s, Church growth rates were 4-5%. The priesthood ban was a difficult issue for some, but most Mormons lived in the West and had little day-to-day interaction with African Americans; actually, the Word of Wisdom came up more often in discussions with non-members. We had a beloved prophet [Pres. Kimball] with world-wide plans; we ran ads in Reader’s Digest. There were wholesome Mormon celebrities [the Osmonds] and adorable TV spots promoting family values [the Homefront ads]. Our missionary edition of the Book of Mormon confidently included photographs of ancient American antiquities such as this [mural from the Temple of Warriors in Chichen Itza]; indeed, I grew up thinking that these were pictures of Nephites and Lamanites—they are not. And Hugh Nibley assured us that evidence for our beliefs was coming at breakneck pace from the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocryphal writings, and elsewhere in the ancient Near East.
It was an exciting time to be a Latter-day Saint, and we took to heart Pres. McKay’s slogan “Every member a missionary.” We talked with friends and neighbors about angels, prophets, and the one true church, and since most of those we spoke to were religious in similar ways, we felt like we had a strong, positive message: “If God spoke to prophets in the Bible, why wouldn’t he speak to prophets today?” You may remember the Golden Questions: “What do you know about the Mormon Church? Would you like to know more?” Similar attitudes and growth rates continued through the 1980s.
Today, however, it feels like we’re on the defensive. People already know quite a bit about the Church, and with a few clicks of a mouse they can know a lot more, including negative information that was difficult to come by in the 1970s. The story of the Restoration is less clearcut than we had imagined, the sorts of evidences we used to put forward are less persuasive than we had hoped, and troubling issues in Church history have not faded away but instead have been magnified. In addition, there are several areas in which the contemporary Church finds itself at odds with prevailing notions of fairness, equality, democracy, transparency, and even Christian ethics. Too often, conversations about the Church take the form of “Sure I’m a Mormon, but that doesn’t mean that I’m . . .” (you can fill in the blank). All this is transpiring at a time of increasing secularism and distrust of large institutions, including churches, when the question is not “Which church is true?” but “Why do I need a church at all?” Our growth rate for last year was 1.7%, the lowest since 1937, despite the missionary surge. It’s no longer “Every member a missionary,” so much as “Every member an apologist.” Clearly, what used to work well is no longer having the same effect.
Last February Elder Russell M. Ballard spoke to CES instructors and said, “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.” Elder Ballard continued by noting that “when something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life,” it is sometimes necessary to “ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.”
This is where FairMormon and other similar organizations can play a role. I’m thinking of the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the Joseph Smith Papers project, BYU’s College of Religious Education, BYU Studies, the Interpreter, Kofford Books, and Book of Mormon Central. All of these entities seek to produce and disseminate responsible scholarship that is grounded in faith. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but the challenges are significant and I wonder, with Elder Ballard, how we could do better. The short answer, for scholars and laypersons alike, is that we all need to step up our game, and we can begin by recognizing that there are different kinds of apologetic conversations, where different approaches may be more or less helpful.
Four Apologetic Conversations
1) With academics, who ask “What do you believe and why?” Let me start with some good news. It used to be that the only people who cared about Mormonism were Mormons themselves and anti-Mormons. This is no longer the case. Thanks to pluralism and postmodernism, there is more room in academia for the perspectives of believing scholars. Academics have little interest in debates about whether Mormonism is true or false, but they are increasingly interested in Mormonism as religious and social movement. That’s been my experience at a secular university where my academic work on the Book of Mormon has been well received.
At the most basic level, you might see something along the lines of my UNC-Asheville course on Sacred Texts. Like many professors, I have found it useful to invite believers in to talk about their personal faith and religious traditions. So after we’ve read from the Qur’an, we get a presentation from our local imam. We’ve also had Hindu professors, rabbis, Buddhist monks, Baptist ministers, and Baha’is speak. When we read from the Book of Mormon, I invited our ward Young Women’s president to talk about what that text means in her life. Perhaps you yourself have had similar opportunities, either on a college campus or in an interfaith setting. My students have been unfailingly polite, curious, and engaged. (In fact, some of them seem to enjoy the guests more than my own lectures.)
When scholars get together, either in person or through written publications, they expect a much more informed level of discussion, conducted according to the conventions of academic discourse. You can’t assume that your readers will share your religious assumptions; evidence has to be publically accessible and analyzed according to standard, naturalistic methodologies; counterevidence and alternative explanations need to be recognized and dealt with responsibly; it’s bad form to overstate your case or to expect special treatment. It’s also important to set your faith within a historical context, and to have a sense of how it compares to other religious traditions. Above all, you have to give other people’s beliefs the same sort of respect and consideration that you yourself might want. And while academic discourse is far from perfect, it offers time-tested techniques for articulating distinctions, weighing evidence, finding common ground, fostering understanding, and constructing arguments that can transcend religious differences.
It seems to me that the main problem for Latter-day Saints in these types of discussions is that we’re poorly prepared to take part. I wish we were much more involved in mainstream academic conversations regarding biblical scholarship, religious studies, theology, and world religions. Otherwise, we risk just talking to ourselves and saying the same things over and over. If we’re incapable of speaking about our religion in ways that make sense to knowledgeable outsiders, they’re going to assume that we have nothing to say.
It’s natural to look to BYU for leadership, given its unique role in Mormon culture. Unfortunately, BYU has not been particularly effective in laying the groundwork for apologetic conversations with academics. Religious Education there is not an academic program, with majors and specialized upper-division courses. They have a particular mission with other priorities, so the mostly introductory classes they do offer are narrowly LDS in focus, and few religion professors are active professionally outside of Mormonism, publishing regularly in mainstream journals and academic presses. As a result, BYU students know very little about non-Mormon approaches to scripture, theology, or religious history.
The scholarly deficit among Mormons will take a generation or more to remedy, but the good news is that for ordinary Latter-day Saints, it is easier than ever to ever to escape the Mormon bubble. There are lots of resources available and they are pretty accessible. If you’re interested in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, you don’t need to rely on LDS authors to digest this material for you; you can go right to the experts themselves, and be much better prepared to talk with educated non-Mormons in interfaith situations.
For example, here are a few standard introductory textbooks designed for college freshmen and sophomores, including some I’ve used myself at UNC-Asheville. If you were to read just one of these books, you would know more about biblical scholarship than almost any BYU graduate. The same goes for academic theology. If you want to get started right away, you can click on Christine Hayes’s “Introduction to the Old Testament” (free at Open Yale), which will put you into a Yale University classroom for 24 class periods. Prof. Hayes combines deep respect for faith with remarkable erudition. I also want to give a shout-out to Blair Hodges and the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Blair has been interviewing some of the most engaging, well-respected figures in religious studies. If you want to hear what intelligent, devout non-Mormon scholars sound like, tune in. (He has also interviewed important LDS authors.) Scholars through the centuries, both Jewish and Christian, have been very careful readers of the Bible and have a lot to teach us. (It’s not like we’re the first people to have ever had faith crises in trying to reconcile old religious texts and traditions with modern sensibilities.)
In summary, when conversing with academics:
Be better informed
Learn the language
Listen to others
Remember the Golden Rule
2) With critics, who ask: “How can you believe that?” These are more difficult conversations, because our interlocutors sometimes know a great deal about Mormonism, and rather than simply inquiring about beliefs, they are actively challenging them. Nevertheless, I don’t think that dividing the world into “us” and “them” and being perpetually on the defensive is an effective strategy anymore, and it can sometimes lead to uncharitable behavior. Metaphors from warfare or sports that involve attacks, opposing teams, winning and losing, or points scored for one side or the other don’t feel right to me when what I really want is more understanding and greater discipleship. (I could also use more friends.) There’s a difference between apologetics and polemics.
Rhetoric that wounds or ridicules, even in the name of “humor,” is not going to impress thoughtful bystanders; nor is it helpful to try to discredit or delegitimize people who are expressing genuine concerns. Bringing up troubling issues or inconvenient facts doesn’t automatically make someone an enemy. Many of those whom we might label as “critics” are simply reaching for explanations that make sense in terms of their own worldviews, or they have felt genuine hurt and betrayal when traditional modes of Mormon belief (including apologetics) have not measured up to real challenges. At times it seems like we are more testy with former Mormons than with outsiders. And I would recommend retiring the term “Anti-Mormon,” unless people are happy to claim the label for themselves; it’s not helpful in any of the four conversations I will be describing. Generally, it is far better to assume good will than bad faith; kindness and generosity are always in order.
When confronted with information that makes our beliefs seem unreasonable, it can be appropriate to point out inaccuracies, or to suggest alternate interpretations. But sometimes the best response may be to reexamine our own assumptions and expectations. I grew up thinking that evolution was false and that the Book of Mormon was a history of most of the inhabitants of ancient America. I no longer believe those things. Many criticisms can be summarized as “the basic claims of the Church are contrary to science, history, or ethics,” and as painful as it may be to hear that, such charges often have some validity and deserve careful consideration rather than an offhand dismissal or a snappy retort.
Occasionally, critics take relatively narrow, either/or views of science, history, and ethics (this all-or-nothing approach can be something they learned from LDS culture, where we tend to be certain and dogmatic). Thoughtful apologists, for their part, argue that things are often more complex than they first appear; they need to be seen in historical context; sources need to be critically evaluated; and it’s good to give well-meaning people the benefit of the doubt. This can be perceived as obfuscating or special pleading, though I believe such attitudes are a mark of maturity.
Sometimes the disagreements are not so much over specifics as over underlying theological assumptions. To say that God could not have been involved in the production of an imperfect Book of Mormon, or that God does not work through fallible prophets, is to say something about God rather than history. A little humility might be in order before we start making assertions about what God can or can’t do. And few institutions will come off well if there is an assumption that any objectionable details will discredit the whole enterprise. People are complicated and history is messy. I would prefer to shift conversations with critics in the direction of academics—where there is more room for tolerance and nuance, where the goal is to expand one’s field of vision through rigorous analysis, self-reflection, and creative interpretation.
In summary, when conversing with critics:
Assume good faith
Watch your rhetoric
Own up to problems
Be willing to reconsider
Check theological assumptions
Remember the Golden Rule
3) With Faithful Members, who ask: “Aren’t our beliefs great?” Mormons like to talk about religion, and when we do, the conversation sometimes turns toward apologetics—not just what we believe, or how we came to believe, or the effect of belief in our lives (those are the main topics for Sunday meetings)—but whether the history, doctrines, and policies of the Church can stand up to rational scrutiny, and why it might make sense to be a Latter-day Saint. There are two tendencies to keep in mind in conversations with the faithful: stewardship and partisanship.
With regard to stewardship, it’s not enough to do negative apologetics, that is, to criticize the criticisms. We need to do more with positive apologetics, in making a case for belief by better articulating what in Mormonism is true and beautiful and inspiring. Terryl and Fiona Givens have been making strides here, as well as Patrick Mason, Adam Miller, and other authors in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. It’s important for Latter-day Saints who by training or inclination are a little more intellectual to bring those talents to the table—and that doesn’t mean just recycling talking points from the past.
In my case, I tried to say some new things about the Book of Mormon in an academic study of its narrative structure [Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)]—you can judge for yourself how successful that was—but there is so much more to do. The more I learn about the Bible from non-Mormon scholars, the more questions I have: How is the Book of Mormon like the Deuteronomistic History? In the Old Testament, there are four major covenants: Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic; which of these matter to the Nephites? Are there other, new covenants in the Book of Mormon? Why? Does atonement in the Book of Mormon follow the substitution model, the governmental model, or something else? How do Old Testament themes of holiness and social justice play out in our scripture? What about more modern ideas of God’s sovereignty and human agency? What does the Book of Mormon contribute to Christian theology? How does it compare to nineteenth-century thought?
But unlike Biblical studies, you don’t have to have mastered ancient languages and centuries of commentary to be part of the discussion. Our earliest Book of Mormon is in English, and you can get a good sense of past scholarship from a few FARMS compilations, or FairMormon, or Book of Mormon Central. (Many thanks to the Interpreter and Book of Mormon Central for making Royal Skousen’s work available online! Whatever you may think of Royal’s work—and I’m a huge fan—at least he is bringing significant new data into the discussion.) There are still valuable insights and observations that can be contributed by ordinary members, and by the less ordinary supporters of FairMormon.
I have two suggestions for becoming better readers, better stewards, of the Book of Mormon. The first is the New Oxford Annotated Bible ($25 from Amazon). This volume is like a guided tour through the Old and New Testaments, with textual notes, short judicious annotations, brief introductions, and supplementary essays, but always with a primary focus on the text itself. (In this way, it’s often more useful than voluminous commentaries.) It will help you make sense of the Bible in larger patterns than you’ve seen before, and it will also focus attention on details that have escaped your notice. In fact, it will teach you how to read scripture more carefully and closely.
My second suggestion is the Reader’s Edition [Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003)]—for which I get no royalties as the editor; they all go directly to the Church’s Humanitarian Services Fund. (It felt weird to me to make money from a text that I hold sacred). The words are the same, but if you read the Book of Mormon in paragraphs and poetic stanzas, with quotation marks and section headings, you will see new things, even if the text is very familiar to you. There are all sorts of narrative connections and patterns to discover. In addition, the narrators’ voices become much more pronounced. I believe the Book of Mormon is a gift from God, and that the testimony of ancient Nephite prophets is crucial for our day, but I feel like we’ve hardly scratched the surface of this sacred text, especially when compared with the scholarly attention given to the Bible or the Qur’an over the centuries. Our apologetics have got to offer more than just “Look at these ancient parallels” or “Joseph Smith couldn’t have written it.” We should be plumbing the depths of this strange, perplexing, inspiring new scripture for whatever it might tell us. In fact, I think we should follow the example of how Jews study the Torah.
Promoting better stewardship is one aspect of improving apologetic conversations with members. The other is avoiding unhealthy partisanship. When we start to line up evidences and arguments, often with one eye toward our critics, we tend to gloss over inconvenient details, which means that it’s easy to over-claim, to imagine that the evidence for faith is overwhelming. That in turn may lead to a naïve over-confidence, and then perhaps disappointment or confusion when members come across less well-known, troubling aspects of our history and scriptures. You don’t want to sow doubt, but at the same time you don’t want to foster a brittle, fragile kind of faith that may later crack under pressure. It can be a tricky thing, and we’ve seen recent moves in the Church towards more candor, with general authorities using the metaphor of inoculation, but how might we do this more effectively?
Whereas the apologetic impulse in speaking to critics is to point out complexities, questionable sources, and extenuating circumstances, when we’re talking with insiders who share our worldview and commitments, the temptation is partisan over-simplification. Sometimes it seems like our primary mode of apologetics is forensic; that is, it’s taken from the world of debate and the courtroom. (I’m speaking cautiously here, realizing that attorneys have been some of the most avid supporters and participants in LDS apologetics.) Typically, we present the strongest case possible for our side, piling up arguments and refusing to cede any ground to the opposition. This approach has carried us a long way, but it can also lead to habits of thought that are less helpful in the long run. These include cherry-picking, eisegesis, distorting the positions of others, disparaging expertise, and stretching evidence to support pre-ordained conclusions—the sorts of things that wouldn’t make it past academic peer review. We get away with them in conversations with fellow Mormons because we know there won’t be much pushback.
The danger is that in advancing one-sided arguments, what might seem like good lawyering to the faithful may look more like fudging, or even dishonesty, to outsiders or to the wavering. It also means that we tend not to be very self-critical; that is, we don’t evaluate the relative strengths or weaknesses of the evidences we put forward. As long as it reaches the desired conclusions, it’s all good. But what we may lose, over time, is trust. By all means, when talking to our fellow saints we should accentuate the positive, but it would be useful to introduce more balance into our discussions. The Gospel Topics essays are notable in this regard, as is FairMormon. They make a case for faith, but they also acknowledge genuine difficulties. However, what they offer in candidness can be offset by their brevity. Quick back and forth exchanges don’t foster broader, more nuanced perspectives.
Again, the place to make a difference is BYU, and to my mind, far better than simply introducing the Gospel Topics essays—as in the new Foundations of the Restoration cornerstone course—it would be much more beneficial to have every student read Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling in a required religion class. A few pages worth of historical background is no substitute for actually trying to imagine Joseph’s life and concerns, the high and the low points, in the thick context of early nineteenth-century culture, over the course of 550 pages (which could be supplemented with readings from the Joseph Smith Papers). Bushman is faithful but honest, and sympathetic as well as critical. In fact, in the twenty-first century, Bushman is probably a better model for apologetics than Nibley. He’s a more careful scholar; he is more integrated into mainstream academics; and he’s less antagonistic toward outsiders (in part because times have changed).
In summary, when conversing with faithful members:
Provide positive apologetics
Encourage context and nuance
Remember the Golden Rule
4) With Wavering Mormons, who ask: “What do I believe?” or “Can I believe?” These are perhaps the most delicate conversations of all. The individuals in this group have a sense of what it means to be Mormon—sometimes with a lot of lived experience—but non-Mormon perspectives seem credible as well. They’re caught between the two. There’s often still a desire to believe, even if belief is not entirely a matter of will—you can’t force yourself to believe something that seems impossible. I’m sure you all know the importance of being patient and non-judgmental. It’s also important to be fair. Trust matters a great deal; don’t deny or dismiss obvious difficulties. And remember that, thanks to the Internet, anyone in this conversation can overhear what’s going on in the other three conversations. Those who have questions or concerns may be put off if they see slippery responses, poor arguments, or derision.
In addition to providing possible answers or alternative interpretations—and sometimes admitting that we don’t have great explanations for everything—again we need to make a positive case for why Mormonism is worthy of belief and commitment, especially since it’s a high-demand/high-reward sort of faith. It’s good to remember the big picture, that religion is more than just accepting doctrines or (in more philosophical language) assenting to propositional truth-claims. Spiritual experiences, rituals, stories, traditions, moral teachings, and community are all part of the package. We need to offer space for religious identity to grow and develop, as well as respect for those whose journey leads them away from church activity or membership. If the people we’re talking to are not perceiving genuine love, we’re doing it wrong.
I’m not sure that it’s helpful to always talk of “crises of faith.” Often what’s bothering people is more along the lines of a “crisis of expectations.” Some Latter-day Saints were raised with fairly rigid notions of scriptural inerrancy, or prophetic infallibility, or the kinds of opinions that are or are not acceptable within the community. A shift to more realistic attitudes may in order. It can also be useful to remind people that you don’t have to defend everything to be a Latter-day Saint, and the list of essentials will vary from person to person. For me, for example, the Book of Mormon is central to my faith in a way that, say, polygamy or the Book of Abraham is not. And the Church doesn’t have to be an all or nothing deal. I like Melissa Inouye’s analogy that Mormonism is less like a string of Christmas lights—where one flawed bulb renders the whole strand dysfunctional—than it is like sourdough bread, in which components work together in a messy, organic way to create something wonderful.
In summary, when conversing with wavering members, we should:
Be patient and fair
Provide positive apologetics
Be aware of “crises of expectations”
Remember the Golden Rule
For all four apologetic conversations: with academics, critics, faithful members, and wavering Mormons. As you undoubtedly noticed (I wasn’t particularly subtle), the Golden Rule is always applicable, and it’s crucial to imagine yourself on the other side of each of these conversations. How might you react to various arguments or appeals if you were on the other side? Actually, if you yourself have never had doubts or questions, or if you’re perfectly content with the Church just the way it is today, you may not be well-suited for apologetics. And you’ve probably already figured out that if it were up to me, I would shift all four of these conversations in the direction of academics, where there are higher standards, along with more room for complexity, nuance, and alternative interpretations.
It’s also good to keep in mind 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” and especially the part that comes next—“But do this with gentleness and respect” [New International Version translation]. I am reminded of Elder L. Tom Perry’s wise conference talk from 2011 about sharing our faith with others: “Engage them in a two-way conversation—share something about your religious beliefs but also ask them about their beliefs”; “Our tone, whether speaking or writing, should be respectful and civil, regardless of the response of others. We should be honest and open”; and “In speaking about the Church, we do not try to make it sound better than it is.”
As I shift toward my conclusion (and you start eyeing the exits), let me issue two invitations for enhancing your own apologetic skills. The first is to practice—not by talking, but by listening, especially in situations where you are the outsider. See what is more or less effective when non-Mormon scholars discuss their own faith. Going back to episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, I have found four of them particularly engaging in terms of apologetics. Listen to the way that Peter Enns (an evangelical) talks about difficult issues in the Old Testament such as the God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites or the lack of archaeological evidence for the conquest in the book of Joshua; or how N. T. Wright (an Anglican), when talking about slavery in the New Testament, explains that the Bible is a “drama,” a gradual unfolding of God’s plan for humanity. That is to say, the Bible is not simply a collection of timeless truths; it demonstrates a gradual realization of higher values. (I might say similar things about racism in the Book of Mormon).
Listen to Maria Dakake and Joseph Lumbard (both converts to Islam) share what they find inspiring in Islam and take on common criticisms of the Qur’an; and then to Julia Watts Belser, who as a rabbi is a religious leader as well as a scholar, as she talks about how she navigates those two roles, and how Jewish religiosity differs from that of traditional Christianity—in ways that may offer possibilities for Latter-day Saints. These scholars certainly do more than just push back against critics, and they are all able to speak from positions of personal faith in inviting, non-defensive ways. I wish that I sounded more like them.
There is no doubt that the historical-critical method of modern biblical scholarship can challenge traditional beliefs, yet there are many models of scholars who combine secular learning with deep devotion, as well as a burgeoning field of the theological interpretation of scripture. Mormon scholars could use a whole lot more of that. So when I encounter anachronisms or other puzzling or problematic features in the Book of Mormon, rather than jumping to “Joseph must have been a fraud,” I ask “What else might this mean?” and “What might this tell us about God, and his relations with his children?”
My second invitation is to prepare—and I don’t mean just by arming yourself with the latest arguments from LDS apologetic sources, but in a broader, scriptural sense of 1 Peter 3:15. Sometimes the problem is not with just a disturbing fact, or even a list of them, but rather in losing sight of the bigger picture. Last November, my wife Heather got an urgent call from her mother, who had been assigned to teach a Relief Society lesson on one of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talks from Conference the month before. Discussing his talks is usually a delight, but you may recall that in mid-November there was considerable turmoil over policy changes that had just come from Salt Lake about the place of same-sex couples and their children in the Church, and it seemed potentially awkward to ask sisters in the ward to take up Pres. Uchtdorf’s invitation to ponder the question, “How is being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints working for you?” For a number of active, faithful Mormons at the time, his own answer, “It works wonderfully!” was not the first one that came to mind. Heather’s initial suggestion to her mother was to pick a different talk and pretend she had misread the schedule.
But at 3:00 am Heather got out of bed to write up some ideas—putting this, and many other challenges to faith, within in the broader context of what she has come to love about the Church over many decades. She noted how it offers a pre-enactment of the kingdom of God, with practices that help cultivate virtues that will someday make it a reality; a deep vision that runs counter to the dominant cultural values of radical autonomy, competition, and material consumption; the channeling of community resources for the benefit of all members via lay ministry, opportunities for meaningful service, tithes and offerings; the brilliant combination of chapel and temple Mormonism and the capacity of the Church, as an institution, to foster trust, love, moral goodness, goodwill, and self-sacrifice with a viable mechanism to keep the free-rider problem associated with common goods in check; the missionary system as a way to inculcate values and commitment in young adults; the international church; support for family and education; inspiring doctrines of the plan of salvation, eternal progress, forgiveness, Zion, and the Restoration; the Book of Mormon as the keystone; covenants and ordinances; personal revelation; and a tradition of pioneer faithfulness; to say nothing of BYU sports and MoTab.
Despite legitimate frustrations and concerns, there is nevertheless a lot about the Church that is still working for us. It’s a smart list that brings together mind and heart, and I would be comfortable discussing those features of my religion in all four of the apologetic conversations I mentioned earlier. These all require more than just bearing testimony; we need to think hard about who we are and what we do. So my second invitation to you is to come up with your own list of what the Church means in your life, and why those ideals matter, even if we often fall short of them. Apologetics has to be more than just putting forward counterarguments for this issue or that criticism.
I’ll end with one last suggestion, again connected with scripture (because that’s who I am). In some ways, the best preparation for any number of faith crises is to become better readers of the Old Testament, which can be very challenging to modern believers, and which I taught in seminary last year. It was tough for my students. They found the King James Version nearly impenetrable, the poetry was beyond them, and though they enjoyed the stories, many of them were very strange. I followed the manual—which tried desperately to steer the discussion away from polytheism, patriarchy, idolatry, law codes, dietary restrictions, violence, monarchy, oracles against neighboring countries, and regulations for worship into the familiar territory of prophets, priesthood, obedience, temples, and Christ—but it was a struggle, since once you get away from a few favorite verses, it becomes clear that Hebrew priests and temples were very different from our own, connections with Jesus are far from obvious, and it’s hard to imagine Pres. Monson denouncing national leaders, or being naked and barefoot for three years, or putting a yoke on his neck, or marrying a prostitute. And we didn’t even talk about questions of authorship, archaeology, historicity, or textual transmission.
Yet if we had been able to take that rich historical background seriously, and still been able to see God’s hand working through people and circumstances that are often troubling by today’s standards, I wonder if it might have given my students a better foundation for trying to make sense of the sometimes difficult aspects of our own Latter-day Saint history. Our urge is often to domesticate the scriptures, to make them safe and comfortable. One way we do this is by focusing on doctrines rather than allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves. We treat them as if they were little more than elaborations of the Gospel Principles manual. Sometimes there was an overlap between the chapters we were reading and True to the Faith; more often there was not. But the Old Testament is above all the story of a relationship, between Yahweh and his people. God chose Israel and called them to lives of holiness and justice, promising that through them he would bless the entire world. It was something of an up-and-down relationship, characterized by kindness and mercy on God’s part, but also by frustration and even anger at sin and unfaithfulness. Yet undergirding it all was a steadfast love, God’s steadfast love, manifest in covenants.
This is our story as well. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we don’t have a monopoly on truth or on goodness (though we have quite a bit of both), but we have been called to be God’s people in the latter days, to be holy and just, as he is, to be a light to the nations (though according to the Book of Mormon, this is not supersessionism; God’s covenants with the Jews are still very much in force). Church leaders, the scriptures, and personal revelation provide a solid foundation, but we still have a lot to learn. Nevertheless, I believe that God is with us. And more important than trying to push back on every criticism, or even than proclaiming that “We’re right because we believe X, Y, and Z and you don’t,” we have been given a glimpse of a life that transcends the ordinary. I see it particularly in the Book of Mormon, which offers a vision of a world where all are alike unto God, who has a plan for humanity and who intervenes in history, where miracles and revelation occur with some regularity, where those who have received mercy themselves covenant to bear each other’s burdens, mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those in need of comfort. That is a world I want to live in, and I hope that my children and my seminary students do as well.
Questions and Answers
Q. What do you think about the historicity of the Book of Mormon?
I believe that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni were actual, historical people. Partly that’s a matter of faith, but they also sound like distinct voices to me, and perhaps even more importantly, I think they are the wisest, most admirable voices in our religious tradition. (One of the limitations of fiction writing is that it’s hard for authors to create characters who are smarter than themselves, and the Book of Mormon narrators seem much smarter to me than Joseph Smith, especially at age 24.) This doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is accurate as history in every respect; real-live historians have biases and blindspots, and they can make mistakes.
The Book of Mormon is also a translation that is a strange hybrid, even a singularity. (I’m not convinced that it is similar to the JST or the Book of Abraham). It seems to have been revealed in a fairly exact form, perhaps even read off the seer stone. In some ways it’s quite precise—the various parts of the narrative are carefully composed and fit together in complicated ways—while in other ways the translation had to have been rather free, particularly with regard to nineteenth-century concepts and language, including the pervasive phrasing from the King James Bible. When I encounter anachronisms, I don’t automatically think “Joseph must have been a fraud”; instead I ask, “What else could this mean?” Perhaps the God of the Book of Mormon loves intertextuality and wordplay; he certainly wasn’t overly concerned with regular grammar. So I view the Book of Mormon as the words of ancient prophets updated and transformed into something that would make sense to, and inspire, Bible-reading Americans of the nineteenth century. The text was revealed in the form that Jesus wanted, or at least it was sufficient for his purposes.
Q. What about theories of the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction?
A. There are certainly problems with the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but the institutional Church can’t and won’t change. The historical claims of our Mormon scripture are more direct than those made by the Bible, and they are more central to the book’s message—not just with regard to gold plates and angels, but also in the sense of bearing witness that God has a plan for human history, and that he intervenes rather dramatically from time to time (Christ appearing in the ancient Americas is very significant).
When people talk about “inspired fiction,” it’s worth thinking harder about what they might mean. Perhaps that the Book of Mormon is a product of human genius, like other literary or religious works. Or it may be the product of general revelation, in which God or some higher power makes himself known to humans, who then communicate that encounter with the Divine though various scriptures such as Buddhist sutras or the Daodejing or the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an. Or there may be special revelation in which God inspired Joseph to create the Book of Mormon in such a way that it exemplifies specific truths of unique importance. In any case, however, we might ask, “Can faith in the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction be a saving faith?” My answer is, “Absolutely!” I believe that if someone, at the judgment bar, were to say to God, “I couldn’t make sense of the Book of Mormon as an ancient American codex, given the available evidence, but I loved that book, I heard your voice in it, and I tried to live by its precepts as best I could,” then God will respond, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
For me, I expect to see the resurrected Nephi and Moroni at the judgment bar. It matters to me that they are real individuals. At the same time, I’m not sure that God will ask, “Did you believe the right things about the Trinity, Joseph Smith, the plan of salvation, and the nature of revelation,” let alone my opinions about polygamy, same-sex marriage, blacks and the priesthood, women’s ordination, politics, or Mormon history. Rather, I believe he will say, “Were you my disciple? Did you strive to know me better? Were you constantly trying to refine your ideas and actions in light of your growing understanding? Were you fully engaged in the Church? How did you treat those with different beliefs and values? And by the way, you were wrong on a number of things you felt strongly about.”
I believe that at the judgment day, when Mormons and ex-Mormons, Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs, agnostics and atheists are gathered together, we’re all going to be surprised in one way or another. In fact, I’m sure of it. If I’m not surprised, that would be a huge surprise.
 This presentation was originally accompanied by PowerPoint slides. I have added some information in brackets indicating what a few of the images were.
 Keep in mind, however, that high growth rates are harder to sustain from a larger population base. Total church membership in 1980 (4.6 million) is less than a third of what is was in 2015 (15.6 million).
 M. Russell Ballard, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century,” Address to CES Religious Educators, Salt Lake Tabernacle, Feb. 26, 2016.
 Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008); Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015); Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010). Note that these are all textbooks and are priced as such (i.e., expensively), but previous editions will give you most of the same information at a fraction of the price.
 Because I wrote Understanding the Book of Mormon as a contribution to academic discussions, I deliberately tried to leave space for non-Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith was the author—which is a completely natural and reasonable interpretation for outsiders. These are conversations that we should be having, but I speak differently about the Book of Mormon in church meetings or when I’m on splits with the missionaries.
 Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol Newsom, eds., New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Melissa Inouye, “Mormonism Isn’t Like a String of Christmas Lights,” Religion News Service, June 18, 2012, Washington Post.
 L. Tom Perry, “Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear,” Ensign, Nov. 2011, 41-44.
 Maxwell Institute Podcast, Episodes 16 and 38.
 Maxwell Institute Podcast, Episodes 33 and 42.
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “It Works Wonderfully!,” Ensign, Nov. 2015, 20-23.