The ghoulish tactics of Dan Peterson and fiendish apologetics

Here I sit waiting for ghouls and goblins to manifest at my door with their insatiable demands for sugar-laden lucre. And while I await my ghoulish doom, I feel compelled to respond to perhaps the biggest ghoul of them all, Daniel Peterson (lest anyone think I am being serious, I am not. I like to believe that Dan and I are jovial enough towards each other to be able to kid around without offense. I’m actually quite fond of brother Peterson, shocking as that may be to some).

In Dan’s most recent blog post, he quoted something I recently wrote regarding my view of the role and place for apologetics in Mormonism. Here is a link to his post. You should read it. Now let me give you a quick backstory:

I work as an editor and handle marketing for Greg Kofford Books, an independent scholarly press that specializes in Mormon history, theology, philosophy and scripture. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with our work. Our most recent publication was the second volume in the Perspectives on Mormon Theology series titled Apologetics. Most who read this blog will be familiar with the term “apologetics” (or apologia), which is Greek meaning to speak or write in defense of something (usually religious belief). Apologetics have been present in Christianity and Mormonism since their earliest days. Both the apostle Paul and LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt engaged in apologetic defenses of their faith. The Interpreter Foundation, a scholarly organization and journal dedicated to the defense of Mormon faith, recently posted a review of our book that was, well, less than flattering. Negative reviews come with the territory. However, this review, written by Steve Densley and titled “Should We Apologize for Apologetics?,” admittedly got the better of us. The bottom line is (in the spirit of the season?), we may have trolled Interpreter with a fake ad campaign that intentionally took words out of context from the negative review, making it appear to be a glowing endorsement (and clumsily removed it once the point had been sufficiently made). It seemed funny at the time. Needless to say, it went over like a lead baloon and I have spent the better part of the past two days apologizing for our immaturity. We are human and we all eat crow from time to time. However, what came out of this is an important conversation (the one, incidentally, that the book is actually trying to have): what is the utility of apologetics within Mormonism? Where are apologetics best engaged? In what ways are they best engaged? I think this is a conversation worth having, and one which Dan seems to be open to.

Here is Dan quoting me:

“I see myself as someone who believes apologetics play an important role in Mormon scholarship, but feel it has no place in secular academics. Furthermore, I appreciated Daniel Peterson’s categorization of “positive” and “negative” apologetics, and tend to prefer the “positive” approach. Given my somewhat complicated view, I would likely be someone who [Steve] Densley considers as “anti-apologetics,” which is not at all how I view myself. It seems that many of the authors who contributed to [Perspective on Mormon Theology: Apologetics] feel similarly.”

Dan then went on to clarify what he means by the terms “positive” and “negative” apologetics, likening positive to the offensive line on a football team and negative to the defensive line. Being a fair-weather football fan, I appreciated this analogy and found it not only useful, but pretty much exactly what I had taken away from his chapter in Apologetics.

Dan argues that both are necessary parts of the game. Believing scholars will at times be compelled to take both positions, both advancing scholarship that defends faith (positive) as well as defending faith from the attacks of critics (negative). They go hand-in-hand. I’ll give a recent example of where I see exactly what Dan is talking about: John Gee’s An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (2017, BYU RSC). First, let me state that I enjoyed Gee’s book (shameless plug: Gee was recently interviewed about his book by me and my-cohost, Brandt Malone, on our weekly general-interest podcast, The Mormon News Report. You should check it out. No, really. I’ll wait). I found most chapters to be quite enlightening. However, in my opinion the weakest parts of his book were the spots where he directly addressed criticisms against a historical Book of Abraham, one in particular aimed at scholars who are engaged in source criticism. This is where I feel the book derailed from its main focus, although it got back on track in the concluding chapters.

Here are my thoughts. Let me categorize religious (Mormon) scholarship into five broad categories:

1. Negative/reactive apologetic
2. Positive/proactive apologetic
3. Devotional/pastoral
4. Secular/academic
5. Critical/skeptical

Obviously, these are not sharply-drawn lines and there is plenty of overlap between one category and the next. But let me provide a few subjective examples of each without much commentary:

Negative/reactive apologetics: Michael Ash, Bamboozled By the “CES Letter”

Positive/proactive apologetics: Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (yes, it’s a Kofford plug)

Devotional/pastoral: Terryl and Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith

Secular/academic: Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness

Critical/skeptical: Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

Let me state that I own and have read all of these books. I enjoyed them all while recognizing that each contains author bias and displays both strengths and weaknesses. As a substantive editor, ocassional book reviewer, and self-described “book hound,” I typically try to ascertain the purpose of the book, its intended audience, and how sucessfully the book reached its goals. Taking the extreme ends of my example list, Bamboozled by the “CES Letter” and An Insider’s View are my least favorites. The first is defending faith specifically against the charges made by Jeremy Runnells in his wildly-popular “CES Letter,” which attacks several historic claims of Mormonism. In An Insider’s View, former CES employee (and recently deceased, may he rest in peace) Grant Palmer deconstructs the restoration claims of Mormonism in favor of more mainline Christian views. While I may consider these books to be the weakest on my list of examples, this is not to say that they were ineffective or even unnecessary. Both books were clear in their intent and audience, and while quibbles can be made over evidence used by both scholars to achieve their respective goals, both were largely successful in accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. Should Michael Ash have an opportunity to respond in print to the charges levied my Mr. Runnells? Absolutely. I’m just personally not all that interested (sorry, Mike. I still admire you). And should Grant Palmer be permitted to publish his list of concerns regarding Mormonism’s claim of a restored church in the hopes that his readers will adopt more traditionally-Christian views? Absolutely, he does. Again, I’m just personally not all that interested (sorry folks at Signature. I still admire you as well).

As someone trained in the field of history in a secular university, my intellectual preference is the secular/academic approach of Paul Reeve in Religion of a Different Color (winner of the Mormon History Association’s Best Book Award for 2016, unsurprisingly). However, as a commiteed devotee of the Mormon religion, I am, to coin a popular Mormon idiom, both strengthened and nourished by Brant Gardner’s The Gift and Power and Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt. Each serve a purpose in my intellectual inquiries as well as my personal faith and spiritual growth.

But this is where my “academic privelege” begins to show. The reasons I may be more dismissive towards Bamboozled by the “CES Letter” or Insider’s View may be because of my academic training and relatively in-depth reading. For those new to Mormon scholarship, or casual browsers online of Mormon-related blogs, podcasts, and social media, this may not be the case. For them, books such as these may be their first exposure (and hopefully one which leads them to further reading rather than rash, life-altering decisions). So, as long as there are critical and skeptical publications, there will always be a need for defensive responses, and perhaps vice versa. Sigh. I just wish it weren’t so, becuase this is typically where things get ugliest, in my experience.

A year or so ago, I sat in the living room of two respected scholars whose work is typically classified as apologetic (you’ll notice that I am being intentionally evasive about their identities as I have not asked their permission to retell this). My advice to them was that their scholarship is important, but to stop spending their time responding to critics. Just put out good scholarship and let it live or die on its own merits. My advice would be the same to scholars who are critical/skeptical of Mormonism: stop vollying insults and barbs in an unwinnable back-and-forth exhange with apologists. Just publish the best scholarship you can and let it live or die on its own merits.

Of course, I’m over-simplifying the realities of human exchange and debate.

Let me conclude my rambling thought exercise with a general observation from the perspective of a book publisher: I attend and exhibit at numerous conferences dedicated to Mormon scholarship and culture. The FairMormon Conference, a conference devoted to apologetic scholarship (and also annually keynoted by the venerable Dan Peterson) has, for the past several years, been one of my favorites to attend and exhibit at not only for its curation of speakers, but also because of the intellectual engagement of its attendees. To put it plainly: the apologetic community (if it can be so labeled) pride themselves on being well-read and intellectually curious while remaining devoted members of the faith. They buy our books, which makes me happy. I think apologists often get a bad rap. It is assumed that they are intellectually dishonest, insufferable blowhards. Sometimes they are. Sometimes critics (or those who claim secular neutrality) are as well. I know I can be. People are complex like that. Even Dan Peterson.


The ghoulish tactics of Dan Peterson and fiendish apologetics — 6 Comments

  1. It seems often that when one challenges the truth of Mormon claims one might be considered a critic, apostate,etc. I like to read a lot. I read the book by Israel Finkelstein The Bible Unearthed and watched lectures on Youtube by William Dever. It seems the consensus among many scholars that the Exodus and Conquest did not happen and that perhaps Abraham was a fictional character. If true then the Book of Abraham is not history.If Moses was a fictional character then the Book of Moses is fiction.

  2. My advice to apologists and critics alike is to stop publishing sloppy, one-sided research. I see too much of it. The inability to see the issues in a larger context with all the nuances that implies has no place in any discussion.

  3. Nice post, Brian. And on the “strength” of the Interpreter review of “Apologetics,” I’ve ordered the book.