Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.
First, Mason is a historian, so there is helpful discussion on the use and abuse of Mormon history. Chapter 5, “A Principled Approach to Church History,” he offers five principles for thinking about Mormon history: (1) tell the truth, (2) do your homework (using more than the Internet), (3) the past is a foreign country (with norms and values that may differ from our own time and place), (4) there is none good but God, and (5) learn the lessons of history (issues are more complex than they appear and resist simple black-and-white analysis). He recommends these principles, culled from his experience as a historian, as a corrective to the overreaction that some Mormons have to the messier side of LDS history, particularly when packaged to debunk particular LDS doctrines or claims.
Mason also holds the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont. No doubt that brings him into regular contact and dialogue with scholars and students of religion from many different traditions and denominations. The expected result of such contact is a measure of humility with respect to the exaggerated claims of one’s own denomination (they all exaggerate) paired with a new appreciation of its particular strengths and virtues, the good things about one’s own faith that a person who grows up in a denomination takes for granted or doesn’t even notice. That is what seems to come through in the book: the idea that we certainly need to do a better job teaching our history and reforming LDS culture to match the Christian ideals of love and sincere fellowship, but that we should never lose sight of what is true and valuable and praiseworthy in our congregations and the Church as a whole. As Mason expresses his broader purpose in the Introduction, “I have written this less as a work of formal apologetics and more as a pastoral dialogue. I value honest and sincere conversation more than scoring points in debates that can probably never be decisively won” (p. 6). For most Mormons most of the time, that is the right approach to take.
Second, apart from the broad meta-apologetic points made in the first half of the book, Mason addresses what I would call pastoral issues in the second half of the book. “What does it mean to pursue a life of faith, with all of its challenges, in the context of a community?” Obviously, it means more than reading blogs and books on Mormonism or arguing with your Facebook frenemies. He draws on reflective essays by other LDS scholars to paint a richer picture of life in the Mormon community, with “both triumphs and difficulties in their relationship to the church.” Chapter 9, “When Church is Hard,” follows up with advice for how troubled Mormons might deal with the many imperfections at the local and general level: simplify, create spaces of inclusion, make a place for yourself, use the church to accomplish good things, and so forth. If he had adopted the popular metaphor, he might have said: Sure, the boat leaks, the pilot is plainly still learning his craft, and some of the other passengers are mildly obnoxious — but you are better off looking to fix a few leaks and making friendly if strained conversation with fellow passengers than jumping off the boat. It’s a long trip; no one swam to America.
At various points in the book, that pastoral theme emerges in advice given to both doubting Mormons and faithful Mormons. The bulk of the book is aimed at troubled or doubting Mormons who need a broader, more productive framework in which to ponder and resolve (or simply ponder and tolerate) difficult issues. But there are also passages aimed at faithful Mormons who likewise need a broader view of life in the Church: to tolerate more diversity than has previously been the rule and to handle doubt or disaffection by friends or family without going passive-aggressively ballistic. Remember the subtitle: belief and belonging. The book helps any reader get a deeper sense of belief and belonging, regardless of where she is on the spectrum. In fact, those two words can be used to frame the now stereotypical “spiritual but not religious” person (who claims belief but not belonging) as well as the rarer religious but not spiritual types (who belong but don’t so much believe).
Third, I like the New Apologetics better than the older apologetics pioneered by Hugh Nibley and run into the ground by Old FARMS. Yes, it is nice to have resources to deepen one’s understanding of tricky doctrinal and historical issues in order to fend off partisan attacks or counsel troubled friends. But the overconfidence of Old FARMS in its ability to produce definitive answers to difficult issues, coupled with pointed and even vicious rejection of anyone who disagreed with that approach and those supposedly definitive answers, whether LDS or not, sort of poisoned that well. Seeing Deseret Book embrace the New Apologetics is a very hopeful sign. Now if we can just get people to actually read these new books …