Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

First let me say upfront that I simply don’t read that many apologetic papers anymore. That’s less about any problems with the genre so much as just a lack of time. I have to be a little pickier about what I read than I used to. One day when little kids aren’t waking up all hours of the night that may change. Second let me say I’m not really interested in doing apologetics in the below. I’ll do my best to refrain from answering tangents that head in that direction. Rather, what I’m more interested in is the theoretic scaffolding behind different eras and trends in Mormon apologetics. I’ve been thinking about this a lot primarily in reaction to some of Dave’s post and Brad L’s comments to it last week. Brad in particular justifiably called me out on staking out a stronger position than I could defend. That said, I’m not sure I agree with taxonomy of apologetics many took for granted in that discussion.

Please take this in the spirit it was intended. A loose set of categories that I see in the history of apologetics. Further I’ll say up front this is pretty preliminary. I may be completely wrong in some points. I look forward to your critiques.

Dave didn’t really define the two types of apologetics in his post. Brad in response to my questioning on the taxonomy divided apologetics into classical apologetics and the new apologetics. The former is focused primarily on finding as many parallels as possible but is far more confident of their answers than perhaps the evidence justifies. New apologetics has a gentler tone and focuses more on rhetoric and logic than parallels. It also is more up front about it’s limits. (Please correct me if that doesn’t represent your positions correctly)

My qualms with this arise primarily because I’ve just never seen that divide. I do think in the early period of modern apologetics (primarily Nibley in the Improvement Era) there was far too much focus on parallels divested from their context. To be fair to Nibley, this was a huge problem with structuralist scholarship in general. Most of the criticisms one can make of Nibley one can make of scholarship of that era by Eliade, Campbell or others. There’s a reason post-structuralism developed as a movement in the 60’s after all. (Eliade is interesting since he in some ways is in both camps) So to me I’d characterize early apologetics as primarily structuralist with all the problems that suggests. Were I to characterize a tone to it I’d say it tends to have a stridency due to a kind of siege mentality from the era. “The enemies” who the apologists engaged were both academic secularists but more often Protestant critics (whether quasi-academic or more often just anti-Mormon treatises with a more populist streak).

I should add that rhetoric to my eyes was a big factor in these early apologetics. Nibley’s Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass and related work reminds me of the kind of avoidance you find from a political spokesman although couched in very sophisticated satire Nibley had studied from the Roman era. While I have only very superficial knowledge of that kind of satire, my friends who have read a lot tell me Nibley completely nails that style. The problem with satire though is that all too often it’s avoiding the fundamental historical issues rather than engaging with them. To me the problem with the apologetics of that era is they simply don’t engage difficult questions as often as they should. This to my eyes is a major defining feature. Of course not all apologetics of that era avoids difficult issues. When they can engage with them in at least a semi-plausible fashion they do. However from a contemporary perspective, a lot of the apologetic writings of this era simply don’t hold up. Both because of that non-engagement but more significantly because of the fundamental structuralist stance behind the analysis. Again, read the academic literature from that era – especially Campbell or worse yet those with a quasi-psychological stance. Sadly I think the great flaw of apologetics from that era is that it was all too characteristic of a certain style of scholarship. It’s just too polemical and looking at large structures far too divorced from context. (None of this is to deny some great arguments that came out of that era mind you)

Around the 80’s you start getting not just a focus on structural parallels but also more extended arguments that bring in issues of translation, semiotics (broadly conceived), and better establishing of facts. Apologetics starts grappling more honestly with uncomfortable facts that are harder to explain. I think Sorenson is the key figure in this era. Nibley becomes better known in the 80’s and 90’s but most of the works that become widely available are from the 50’s through 70’s. So I’m making a claim here about a certain style and not publication availability. FARMS makes Nibley widely available starting in the late 80’s and going quite well in the 90’s but they themselves have started to shift away from Nibley approaches to engage more traditional scholarly styles of argument in the various fields people come from.

I know it will be controversial, but were I to characterize this era of apologetics I’d say it’s a kind of mirror of what was transpiring in the New Mormon History. There was more of a concern of getting basic facts right in their basic contexts. We see closer readings of the texts and the beginnings of more engagement with wider fields of history. While there’s still at times an over reliance on parallels, the nature of the parallels shifts. The context, especially within translations, becomes much more significant. The parallels tend to be engaged with contextually, even if there’s still a problem of taking post-exilic or even Christian era parallels and applying them to the Book of Mormon which starts in pre-exilic times. While this is acontextual in one sense, the details of the parallels in their original setting are more engaged with. Sometimes this is done well. Sometimes it’s not as well done. But my concern is less with how good a particular apologetic work is than with the style that it tends to demonstrate. One limit is that ancient parallels rather than more 19th century parallels are primarily focused on. The debates that rage are often over what setting fits the facts better.

With the late 90’s we see within history a move away from the New Mormon History. Facts are fairly well established and what is now of concern is the meaning of Mormon history related to various broader trends and theoretical scaffoldings. I personally think the same thing happens in apologetics. We start seeing more injecting of military theory, climate, linguistics, and a lot else into apologetics. This is a kind of pivot point for what happens next in the last decade or so.

Now I’d say the last phase of apologetics is the move towards a focus on meanings. When I say this though let me also say that I think apologetics today is far more diverse than in the past. You still have a concern, ala the New Mormon History, to go beyond assumptions and get facts right. But you also have a lot of concern with competing narratives and what events mean for people. Some aspects of this get labeled as postmodern. Without repeating the debate over postmodernism let me just say I don’t like that term. I’d prefer to say that there’s far more focus on say Joseph Smith’s history as Joseph Smith would have understood it. There is more looking at the range of meanings that texts might have – especially with close readings less concerned with setting. One might say the number of apologetics keeps birfucating as there are new ways to read texts. The older apologetics are still present and still being written. This new phase doesn’t replace the old but expands on it. The new apologetics as often as not takes for granted that the apologetics of the 90’s is there. A lot of work is the refining of ideas already proposed. Take say the debate over whether Quetzalcoatl should be taken as a Book of Mormon parallel or not. It’s a debate among apologists with a close concern with archaeology and texts but also a very close concern with contexts and meanings. The sophistication of such debates shows just what apologetics became.

So to summarize I’d say there are four general periods, although the last one encompasses the earlier ones.

1. Structuralist parallels and avoidance (say 1950’s though 1970’s)
2. The “New Mormon Apologetics” – facts contextualized with concern that the facts fit.
3. Broader Paradigms – relating facts to larger theoretical ideas in many disciplines.
4. Diversity and Meaning – range of apologetics often focused on different meanings the texts can have

In talking about this I can’t help but mention the unfortunate Maxwell Institute and FARMS split. I have friends in both camps and I think both groups are doing good work. I think it fair to say there are differences in the focus on style – The Interpreter has a little more of the combative style that characterized FARMS in the 90’s. The Maxwell Institute is much more concerned with meaning rather than settings for the text. It’s also more focused on building on common ground rather than pointing out where critics are wrong. However despite appearances, I think both are very much in that fourth category. I know some will say that The Interpreter is much more the style of apologetics from the early 90’s. I’d disagree based upon my reading of what they’ve written. I think first off the concern with settings engage such settings much more broadly than we typically saw in the early 90’s. There also often much more engagement with meaning than you’d see in the 90’s. Also note that my fourth category includes a great deal of diversity. That is you see elements of all the categories. I think that’s true of the Maxwell Institute, The Interpreter, FAIR or even various blogs oriented around apologetics. I think the quality of apologetics today is simply head and shoulders above what was produced in the early 90’s. Were I to specify a particular difference between The Interpreter and The Maxwell Institute it’d be over the place of 19th century parallels. The Maxwell Institute is more willing to embrace such issues and their meaning. The Interpreter sees such parallels somewhat as a threat (I’m clearly over generalizing here) and wants to emphasize that ancient settings matter more for meanings. I tend to see things as a bit of both. While I’m very partial to the stance the Interpreter takes, I don’t think we can neglect the nature of the translation. Further I think the text itself references other texts in the mode of its translation. That is I think we have to pay special attention if the translation makes us of Paul achronistically to translate Nephi. That’s communicating something about the text. It might be an inspired expansion or it might be simply doing what today we do with footnotes and references. I think it significant though and can’t be easily dismissed.

Now note that I haven’t addresses how successful apologetics have been. I really think that’s a separate issue. Maybe for an other post.

11 comments for “Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

  1. Victor
    May 24, 2016 at 3:11 am

    I’m a non-believer and so I think whichever way apologetics go will ultimately be fruitless if the end goal is to save the truth claims of mormonism. The facts and logic just aren’t there. I think the game in the future will be how to transition from current mormonism to one where community is maintained but based more on the provable.

    That being said, the movement in apologetics toward engagement with facts and sound analysis based on those facts should always be applauded. The sooner we get there the better.

  2. Clark Goble
    May 24, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Victor, I think that has been the move of apologetics, especially in what I’m calling its second phase above. Whether people agree with the apologists or not, they aren’t shying away from difficult problems like horses or steel in the Book of Mormon.

    Now if the issue is inference to the best explanation based upon a limited set of academically accepted public evidence, then of course apologetics is fruitless. The problem with that is that I simply don’t think apologists disagree. They just note that what the best explanation consists of changes depending upon what the evidence discussed is. That is they think spiritual experiences completely change the calculus for what the best explanation is found to be. To them at worst issues like horses or steel are more akin to apparent contradictions in science. We may have evidence for contradictory views but presume there is an explanation that reconciles them as we gain more data.

    The classic analogy for this would be quantum gravity where quantum mechanics and general relativity simply can’t be universally reconciled. Physicists then come up with speculative notions like loop quantum gravity or string theory that have no empirical evidence. More empirically inclined physicists then get upset at this calling it “not even wrong” since there’s no evidence or even way of testing.

    I suspect some speculations by apologists such as horses being a translational artifact are akin to that.

    The reality is that if we go purely by public tangible evidence no one should believe the Book of Mormon. It seems undeniable that was intended. (Thus the angel taking back the plates) The whole point of the Book of Mormon is something apparently fantastic that makes a demand to turn to God to find out if it is true. That is it’s very nature is designed to be a catalyst for prayer and personal revelation. That’s not to deny the importance of what’s on it’s pages. Just that I find it interesting how so much of Mormonism hinges upon this functional way to turn people to personal revelation.

  3. May 24, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Clark, can you explain a bit more what the term “structuralist” means? I’m perfectly willing to look it up, but I worry that it’s one of those terms that means something different depending on disciplines, who’s using it, etc. That said, you’ve given me a lot to think about here. Thanks!

  4. Clark Goble
    May 24, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Abu, it’s basically the idea that there are structures in human experience independent of particular people. Often this was pushed in psychological terms so you see a lot of common ground between early psychology and psycho-analysis and myth criticism, certain forms of anthropology, and religious studies. Figures dealing with myth like Eliade or Campbell (who wrote the widely influential Power of Myth) more or less see themselves working on the border of psychology and history. The structures are not really arbitrary but tell something about the structures of human cognition.

    This is the tradition in which Nibley was trained. Now in a few books he outlines his views, albeit in fairly vague ways. His book, The Ancient State, is probably the best place to see this. In it FARMS collected several of his non-Mormon scholarly works relevant to his apologetics. (And despite being dated they are quite well written) It also compiles quite a few of what I’d call more Platonic essays. Nibley’s view is kind of an odd structuralist account but he sees diffusion as more prominent than common psychology. (That is, common structures are due to the Nephites coming from the mid east and remnants of common old religion) However in addition to this he has fairly platonic conceptions as well. That’s actually pretty common among the more psycho-analytic types of structuralists. Jung is a classic example of that. Although you can also have less Platonic styled structuralists like Cassirer (who opposed both Heidegger’s phenomenology and Carnap’s positivism).

    It gets kind of complicated quick – especially since while the structuralists all had common methods there were simultaneously big differences between the different figures. The main thing is that structuralists would look for common structures in cultures and especially their myths or religious texts. These structures would be abstract and would be broken out from the texts, sometimes doing violence to the myths themselves. The way to think of it is akin to the laws of physics being the common structures behind very disparate phenomena. Effectively these people were trying to find the common structures behind psychology, culture and myth.

    I tried to find some good introductory links, but most required a fair background. The best I could find was this one “How Structuralism Became Post.” It’s a nice job going through the history and downfall of the movement.

  5. Clark Goble
    May 24, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Actually this one may be more helpful. The above link primarily just dealt with Cassier. This one deals with Levi-Strauss whose influence probably is more significant. Levi-Strauss Structuralism. It also gives some good examples of the type of thinking going on.

  6. May 24, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    Thanks so much!

  7. BHodges
    May 24, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    FWIW, from inside the Maxwell Institute I’m not seeing the clear dividing line you propose at the issue of 19th century parallels.

  8. Clark Goble
    May 24, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I’m not sure it’s a dividing line. I think it’s more just that people at the Interpreter seems to get upset more at 19th century analysis while Maxwell is more open. However it’s a blurry line at best and there are people who are “associated” (I use that very loosely) at both who fit both styles. As I said, I don’t have a problem with looking through a 19th century prism if done carefully.

    The better divide – although again it’s not absolute since I think the lines are far more blurry than people make out – is over a focus on ancient settings to explain texts or a focus on what the text means in terms of a kind of intentionality rather than background.

  9. Brad L
    May 25, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Thanks for the write-up Clark. Sorry I hadn’t noticed it earlier. I don’t have time for an in-depth reply, but I think your analysis is fairly good.

  10. May 25, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Clark, this is kind of an open invitation for a question. I feel like the uneducated naif in the room but it’s sometimes vocabulary. I read your references on Structuralism and recognize the concept and even some of the seminal works and some of what works and doesn’t work (in my opinion but without hearing what others are saying or thinking). So with respect to Mormon apologetics, I notice a trend moving from the “faith promoting” style where the conclusion is known from the beginning and the argument seems to be results driven, to and toward a more open-ended style where the feel of it is more “let’s see where these facts, this argument, that comparison, take us” and more often than not ends with a question or “food for thought” or “more work to do”, but in any event without a neat “and hence thou shalt believe” summary. Now maybe that’s just style, but it feels different and in some important way feels substantively different.
    So two questions: Am I imagining things? Or do you see something like this? (Did you just describe some of this in the OP and I didn’t understand? Embarrassing . . .) And what would you call this? More or less didactic? More or less polemical?

  11. Clark Goble
    May 25, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    I think there’s a bit of that, but I also think the “conclusion is known” was always overstated. Certainly back in the heyday of FARMS when I read apologetics the most. Even back then there were quite a few disagreements over the significance of some parallels and even agreement on claims. There was a faith promoting aspect to it for sure. Also I think often there was a remnant of the siege mentality that I think characterized so much of mid-century Mormonism.

    Perhaps this is just me disagreeing over what faith promoting means. Maybe others would disagree but I’d say Adam’s work while not straightforwardly apologetic in the FARMS mold is still apologetic and definitely faith promoting. Admittedly Adam is not usually arguing about facts and that is a big difference. But I think that the FARMS heyday was very open to going where the facts led. Indeed in many ways FARMS revolutionized church theology in a way I don’t think anyone else (McConkie, JFS, and Pratt all included) ever did. Almost always that was because they were more open to following where they thought the evidence pointed even when it went against “sacred cows.”

    Now again I do think the big innovation not just in apologetics but in Mormon history in general, is less of a concern for arguing over facts than it is arguing over how things mean for people. I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, I should hasten to add. I think in some ways it gets back to what I mentioned in the early Nibley apologetics where it just avoids engaging with difficult questions.

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