I’ve been thinking of late about apologetics. I imagine that the word has lots of different meanings for different people. Some are likely to hear the word as referring to a kind of antithesis to serious or honest inquiry, a discussion that simply marshals arguments in support of a predetermined thesis. (I don’t know what to make of this myself, as it seems to me that all scholarship is about marshalling arguments in support of a thesis; the real question is whether or not the arguments are any good.) Others are likely to understand the word in more neutral terms as simply an argument offered in defense of the faith. I have in mind, however, those who wish to respond point-by-point to historical or doctrinal “issues” of the kind one might find in Grant Palmer’s work or Dan Vogel’s books. The point-by-point response might be an attempt at refutation or it might be more along the lines of the sort of free-lance pastoring that someone like John Dehlin does. I’ve been trying to figure out why exactly I can’t get excited about this kind of discussion, despite the fact that I realize that for many this is important stuff. Here is what I’ve come up with.
First, such work is inherently reactionary. It’s main concern is some sort of damage control, and it is always conceptualizing the discussion in terms of resolving or living with some “problem.” As I say, the damage control is important for some, but it is also rather narrow. The agenda of the discussion is always set by “The Critic” or “The Skeptic” or “What I Wasn’t Told By My Seminary Teacher” etc. and the discussion tends to be about establishing the truth of this or that particular claim and battling over the ultimately meaningless bragging rights to “honest history” or being a “real intellectual” (as opposed to a “so-called intellectual”). It makes little attempt to get at meanings or significance.
Second, intellectual discussion is generally set up as the antithesis of parochialism. “I may have grown up in a small town in Utah (a small town in Idaho, a sheltered suburb in Salt Lake or Phoenix, etc. etc.) but — dang it! — I’m an intellectual. I realize that there is a big wide world out there beyond the Sunday School lessons and I am ‘engaged.”‘” The problem with the narrowly focused cut and thrust of critic and respondent is that there is a sense in which these discussions are themselves parochial. On occasion they seem like the ritual enactment of tribal self-loathing met by tribal defensiveness or tribal breast pounding. I am a member of the tribe, so I care about such discussions, but they are not quite the same thing as being “engaged” with the intellectual discussions of our times; they certainly don’t do much in the way of articulating a Mormon voice on those issues.
Third, I doubt that such work is really the best kind of apologetic. I think that Mormonism is rendered most appealing not when it is duking it out with the critics, but when it is forging some sort of narrative or message of its own that is compelling. Put in intellectual terms, I think that the discussion of Mormonism is most valuable when we are trying to get at meaning rather than truth claims and when Mormonism is teaching us something about the world rather than providing an arena for intellectual Gladiators. I’ve heard Bushman’s biography criticized for failing to engage in the specifics of this or that historical argument put forward by Palmer or Vogel. This, however, strikes me as one of the book’s great strengths. It is not ultimately reactive, but rather it has its own story to tell about Joseph, a story that aims for honesty and forthrightness but is doing more than simply reacting against the arguments of others.
In a sense, this is simply my way of saying that in apologetics — as in so much else — the best defense is often a good offense. In my opinion, the best argument for Mormonism is to show that it has something meaningful and important to say.