Perspectives on Mormon Theology

Apologetics

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
Blair G. Van Dyke, Loyd Isao Ericson
  • Draper, UT: 
    Greg Kofford Books, Inc.
    , July
     2017.
     294 pages.
     $25.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781589585805.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics gathers together fifteen essays on the role of apologetics in Mormonism, each of which can be loosely sorted according to whether its author promotes or critiques the apologetic project. The resulting volume reads unevenly, as many anthologies do—but here, that patchiness is amplified by the polemic subtext of the book. The volume displays an uncomfortable amount of the underside of academic debate, and as much as individual authors have done their best to cogently argue their points for a peer-reviewed venue, many of the contributions remain unusually rough around the edges.

This roughness, it should be noted, is deliberately cultivated by the editors, who explain: “we aimed to portray the breadth and width, the borders and boundaries of Mormon Apologetics, and thus intentionally employed limited editorial touch to allow readers the opportunity to encounter authors as they present themselves in their own style” (viii). And this spare hand does have some benefits. By sampling as transparently as possible the contemporary conversation around Mormon apologetics, the volume is especially useful as anthropological data or a case study of apologetic wrangling within a particular religious tradition. Toward that end, non-specialist readers might look especially to pieces like Neal Rappleye’s best-hits summary of Mormon apologetic articles, Juliann Reynolds’s institutional history of FairMormon, Julie Smith’s sampling of apologetic and feminist discourse within the LDS church, or any of the various historical outlines of Mormon Studies and the LDS confrontation with modernism in the mid 20th century (Van Dyke, Park, Birch). On the other hand, such frugal revision also allows professional errors to slip through on occasion, including a noticeable smattering of typos and a tendency for contributors to reference informal conversation spaces (Facebook conversations, online message boards, blog posts) more frequently than peer-reviewed publications.

Another noticeable feature of this volume is the similarity of critique each camp tends to level against the other. Many contributors critical of Mormon apologists level an identical charge: apologetics is not genuine scholarship—either in that it refuses to go all-in on the secular methods of the academy or that it commits a category error by defending spiritual loyalties in the evidentiary discourse of public reason. Defenders respond by relying on the etymology of apologia to universalize apologetic work (everyone is an apologist, they reason, given that everyone defends a particular point of view) or pointing out the contingency of the secular presumptions that underwrite academic norms. Where the “scholars” focus on the discrepancy between apologetic values and academic methods, the “apologists” are keenly aware that secularity is not neutral, and repeatedly call out their perceived opponents for pretending that it is. Though both critiques naturally have some warrant, the repetition across articles can feel burdensome to the reader. The result is that both the volume and the debate it aims to sample feel stale. Rather than forwarding the conversation, this volume risks coming across as just one more especially-public platform for each side of the debate to showcase in-group virtue signals.

There are, however, refreshing exceptions to this rule, three of which I’ll mention here. Juliann Reynolds offers a breath of fresh air by noting that the first Mormon apologists were 19th century LDS women. In this way, she not only highlights the gender politics of Mormon apologetics more broadly, but also casts a subtle critique on several of the volume’s own historical accounts of the rise of apologetics in Mormonism. Reynolds’s essay is also admirably attentive to sites of apologetic encounter different from the male- and academy-dominated battle line between Latter-day Saints and secularists. As she notes, many defenses of LDS faith claims arose first in conversation with evangelical Christians. Reynolds’s article, despite its clear affinity for apologetic work, thus escapes the polarized undertone of the volume and performatively showcases what so many of the other essays overlook. 

David Knowlton’s anthropological article also escapes conversational ruts by engaging in close, attentive reading of a single concept within Mormon thought. Examining apologetic deployment of the category of Lamanites, he observes that the Book of Mormon’s Nephite-vs-Lamanite typology is often used to veil a similar mapping of power dynamics within the larger Latter-day Saint community. By taking apologetics itself to be an anthropological artifact, Knowlton sidesteps debates about historicity and academic methodology to scrutinize what otherwise might be at work behind apologetic impulses on their own terms. Refreshingly, this approach allows him to engage specific apologetic texts which he does more closely and carefully than any other essay in the volume.

Finally, Joseph Spencer’s essay diagnoses the Mormon apologetic debate as a case of each side “talking past” the other, and prescribes a different definition of apologetics as a next step toward furthering the conversation. Rather than understanding apologetics to aim toward “favorable conditions” for belief—a definition on which both apologetics and their critics seem to agree—Spencer argues that apologetics ought to be instead understood as clarifying the stakesof faith. His essay is bracing for the precision with which it analyzes the very debate this collection aims to sample, as well as its offer of a non-polarized definition of apologetics that attends to apologetic methods without disparagement but also offers a characterization more robust than a simple reliance on Greek etymology.

In the end, this volume fills an important gap in Mormon Studies; nowhere else, to my knowledge, has there been a collected anthology of LDS apologists and their critics reflecting together on the past half-century of the Mormon apologetic project. All the same, some readers are likely to feel disappointed that so much of the volume merely repeats familiar tropes of that debate rather than moving the ball forward.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Berkey is a doctoral student in Theology at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Blair G. Van Dyke is an independent scholar and teaches philosophy and religious studies at Utah Valley University. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation For Religious Diplomacy and is the Custodian of the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in the philosophy of education from Brigham Young University. Van Dyke is the co-author of Holy Lands, A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Near East, and co-editor of a forthcoming volume entitled The Expanded Canon Mormonism and Sacred Texts.

Loyd Isao Ericson is the managing editor of Greg Kofford Books and has been published in SunstoneElement: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, and the Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies, which he helped found. 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments