Over at Wheat and Tares there was an interesting post on neo-apologetics. I’ll admit that this is one of these terms, like neo-orthodoxy back in the 90’s, that just seems inherently problematic as used. Having been “accused” of being a neo-apologist before let me try and discuss what I think people mean and why it’s somewhat problematic.
As best I can figure out the main differences between the two are that traditional apologists deal with definitions and historical facts with an emphasis on what is likely or at least possible in defending traditional Mormon beliefs – particularly about the scriptures. A so-called neo-apologist in contrast is focused on scriptural meaning, not facts. Meaning here is a little vague typically, but often is seen along utilitarian grounds. That is how do the stories help me in my day to day life. While questions of truth in this approach are bracketed, that doesn’t mean the neo-apologetic denies say the historicity of the Book of Mormon. It’s just that they typically think it’s too focused on to the detriment of the text’s value.
My problem with this approach is twofold. First I think it concedes too much. It’s effectively acknowledging that at least for some people apologetics can’t make a persuasive enough case for Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham historicity so it just brackets the question. Part of the problem there though is that I think the way apologetics has presented these ideas has been poor. The rhetoric ends up being, “how could you rationally doubt” when the reality of the evidence is at best, “here’s how you can rationally believe.” I’ve addressed that point ad nauseam so I’ll not bore people with it again. The bigger issue though is that when we reduce the gospel to a kind of utilitarian, “what’s the cash value of believing,” we end up losing the content along the way.
I understand that culturally there’s been a huge shift towards an individualism where all that matters are these short term practical benefits. In that context religion simply falters. Our meetings are fairly boring, the scriptures don’t directly address the issues people care about, it makes demands that seem incompatible with contemporary politics, and there’s little to really make people choose it. Into that culture traditional apologetics seem almost quaint. Asking someone to believe because something is at best plausible and more likely merely possible is a hard sell. Of course Mormons believe in personal revelation that can answer that. The problem is getting people to a space where they want to ask, let alone spend the effort to wrestle with the scriptures to gain that personal revelation.
The danger with a lot of neo-apologetics is that it often concedes most of this ground to a focus on meaning that owes more to literary criticism than truth. The problem is that lots of things provide that sort of meaning. Why wrestle with the scriptures if all we get are at best someone’s thoughts on God? In this approach the real competition is Dante’s Divine Comedy or Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Do close literary readings of the Book of Mormon really offer much against those? Our own scriptures might be of worth to those who read them and apply them, but as apologetics it’s hard to see why that would be enough for most of those who struggle. Further that sort of meaning ultimately is only of interest to intellectuals.
My own feeling, which I know many will disagree with, is that our religion can only matter if there are essential historical truths that make demands upon us. The problem with apologetics in the age of The Nones is people don’t particularly want demands. Their views of truth is “show me” rather than “you have to search and wrestle.” That is there’s a certain willingness to only engage passively not actively. It’s hard to deal with that.
 A lot of those called neo-apologists don’t accept the label. Some don’t even think of themselves as apologists. For instance Adam Miller here at T&S did a self-interview interesting along those lines. “Q. Are you an apologist or neo-apologist? A. No, I’m just a philosopher. Others have said I’m an apologist, but I’ve never been interested in apologetics. Mormonism can stand on its own two feet and it doesn’t need me to defend it.”