Notes on Apologetics

Over the last couple of days I’ve seen a number of comments around the Bloggernacle and on Facebook that reflect some fundamental misunderstandings of Mormon apologetics in general and FAIR in particular. (Such as a confusion of material on the Mormon Dialogue Board with FAIR, and such as attributing material from the FARMS Review to FAIR.) I thought it might be worthwhile in light of this kind of persistent misunderstanding to share my comments on apologetics from this past summer’s Sunstone Symposium. Kaimi organized a session on the topic, featuring him, me, Bridget Jack Jeffries and John Charles-Duffy. Below I have attempted to produce a rough transcript of my comments. At the end I have reproduced the questions, followed only by my own comments (not those of the other panelists). (To hear the entire session, you may order a download from Sunstone for under $3.00.)

Hi. This is my vacation so I didn’t really prepare anything to say. I plan to just talk off the cuff a little bit. First of all, let me tell you a little bit about what apologetics is. As Kaimi said I’m involved with FAIR, which stands for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. I was not involved in the formation of the organization or the choice of the name, which name is somewhat unfortunate. For years we have gotten e-mails asking us “Why are you apologizing?” Because apologetics is a word that is not really native to the Mormon tradition. It is well known in other traditions, but not in ours. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which means “defense,” and refers to that branch of theology that has to do with defending religious faith by rational means. There are Mormon apologists, Evangelical apologists, Catholic apologists, Jewish apologists, and Muslim apologists. If you’re a religious group that seeks to interact with the wider world, you need apologists. So that’s the first thing.

Second, in Mormon discourse a lot of times the word apologist is thrown around as a slur. I personally don’t perceive it that way. Jack and I both have a background in classics at BYU, and I remember reading Plato’s Apology, in the original sense, not the modern English sense. So to me being an apologist is a perfectly honorable thing, not something one has to ashamed of.

Also, I think apologists often wear different hats at different times. I know I certainly do. I sometimes act in the role of an apologist and wear that hat. Sometimes I wear the hat of a scholar. (I’ve published some 30-odd articles in Mormon studies, some with an apologetic slant and some without.) I wear the hat of a regular member as well; I teach Sunday School in my home ward. I sometimes wear the hat of a social critic. Some of you are aware that I blog at By Common Consent, and in that forum I often have occasion to critique the Church and its policies. Among apologists there is a spectrum, and I think it’s fair to say that I’m very liberal in the world of apologetics; probably about as liberal as one can be and still wear that particular hat. Kaimi mentioned LGBT rights. I’m there with Joanna; Ralph Hancock is not, if you read his post on Times and Seasons. So there is a wide spectrum of belief and practice within the apologetic universe.

What I’d like to do now, in the wake of what happened at the Maxwell Institute, my friend Russell Arben Fox sent around an e-mail to about 15 of us, asking for our thoughts on apologetics. And I want to use my response to him as a framework for this address.

I think of apologetics as operating within three different spheres. First is what I call (these labels are just my own) “engagement apologetics.” What I mean by that is when you engage directly with the critic. That’s like debate, the aggressive style people think of. Rhetorical combat in the octagon; two people enter, one leaves, that kind of mentality. Today a lot of that takes place on message boards; that is the venue for this style of apologetics. Personally that’s not my style and I don’t do it. That is partly because I know myself well enough to know I wouldn’t be any good at it. A lot of that is just a personality issue; I’m a very empathetic person. Kaimi mentioned Dan Peterson and Lou Midgley; I know those guys, I’m friends with those guys, and I don’t view them as the Anti-Christ. But I know and am friends with everyone else, too. I really don’t want to roll around wrestling in the mud with someone; it’s just not my style. I don’t care much for message boards; I’m much more of a blog person. I’m a live and let live kind of guy.

There is also what I call scholarly apologetics. John Charles-Duffy in his lengthy Sunstone article was not only insightful but perhaps prescient in a way we wouldn’t have known in 2004. He talks about a number of tensions. There is an anti-contention tradition in the Church, and that style butts heads with that. There is also an anti-intellectual tradition in the Church, and apologetics by its nature uses scholarship, in a way that traditional Mormonism hasn’t, so in many ways apologetics has been a progressive influence in the Church. I agree with his conclusion there. I mention this article because he talks about “orthodox scholarship,” which is a good label, but I’m going to include this under the rubric of apologetics.

What I mean by scholarly apologetics is sort of classic FARMS. FARMS stands for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, a foundation established by John Welch in 1979. It was eventually absorbed into BYU in the 90s at the request of GBH (hard to say no to him!). I’m not part of FARMS but I know those people, and I know there was a lot of concern at the time with going into BYU, and there was concern that what has happened would happen. Scholarly apologetics is applying the tools of scholarship assuming Mormon faith claims. It involves things like peer review and cite checking and footnotes and linguistic tools and dead tree publication. So FARMS would put on a conference on the Allegory of the Olive Tree, a two-day conference, and they would invite scholars and then publish a book with the proceedings. That was not directly engaging anyone but providing a scholarly apparatus around Mormon faith claims.

The third kind of apologetics is what I call educative apologetics. And that is what I see as the role of FAIR today. Now FAIR originated almost exclusively as an engagement apologetics organization. FAIR originated as an internet-based group in the late 90s (I wasn’t around then). What happened was that there were religious discussions on the old AOL message boards, and the Mormons were getting pushed around. They were the 98 pound weaklings because they didn’t control the venue. The people that did limited their access and things like that. So FAIR originated as a group of people banding together electronically for self defense. And so FAIR created its own message board. And in those early days it was very much this engagement style, let’s arm wrestle over this stuff. Then after a few years it changed its focus and gave up its message board. Some people still refer to that board as the “FAIR boards,” but FAIR has had no control over those boards for about a decade now. FAIR’s mission became one of educative apologetics. Its focus is inward, on members of the Church.

So a Primary teacher goes to prepare a talk, opens up google and enters some innocuous search term. Somehow she goes down a rabbit hole and she finds out some weird thing about the church she’s never heard before and is freaked out. So what does she do? Well in the Mormon tradition you go talk to the bishop. But the bishop has a degree in engineering from BYU; he’s never heard of this thing and is of no help. Probably no one in her ward knows anything about it. So where does she turn? That’s where FAIR tries to help. FAIR has a wiki it has developed over time, using wiki software and collaborative editing, crowd sourcing, that sort of thing. It has become a repository of every anti-Mormon argument there is. Some people think that’s a bad thing, because we’ve cataloged all of these arguments against the Church, and it is in effect a smorgasbord of anti-Mormonism. But you gotta do it, because people are going to find this stuff. We live in the internet age. When I was a missionary you would only encounter these things if you specifically went looking for them or if your crazy Aunt Sally sent you a tract in the mail. That’s not the case anymore; you’ve got the internet, baby. You’re one search away from finding this stuff. And we’ve got a lot of skeletons in the closet, a lot of bodies buried in the backyard. And we haven’t been very forthcoming as a Church about all that stuff. The Church kind of hopes people won’t find it and we won’t have to talk about it. That doesn’t work anymore; someone has to be able to talk about it

FAIR also has a feature called Ask the Apologist. If you can’t find what you want on the wiki, you can write in and it will go to a private e-mail list with over 100 volunteers, and someone on that list will respond to your question. I’ve probably answered over a thousand of those questions over the years. I love doing that, helping someone who is troubled by something. A lot of times it’s just a matter of putting something in context. People come to these things with fundamentalist, black and white thinking, very presentist, so sometimes you just need to inculcate a little historical consciousness in them. And when you practice that kind of apologetics it’s a virtue to be conversant with the literature. I’ve been reading Dialogue and Sunstone and JMH and everything else for decades. So I’ll remember that there was an article about that, and I’ll suggest they read that.

So those are the kinds of apologetics as I conceive of them. I do think there is a role for engagement apologetics. Whether it has to be under the umbrella of a university, I don’t know; I’m a little ambivalent about that. I can understand NAMI wanting to go a different direction. If this takes place I imagine that FARMS will reform under a different name and continue doing what it did before. [Since then the appearance of The Interpreter has confirmed this.] I don’t know, that’s just a guess.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject, so I’ll sit down.


To what extent does the Church countenance FARM or FAIR? I want to add something on the FAIR aspect of that. FAIR has always been clear it is completely independent of the Church. We have to be. For some people that’s a problem; they won’t listen to us without an explicit endorsement. If so, so be it. Some of the brethren are more supportive of apologetics than others.

Lutheran pastor; doesn’t understand the controversy. As Kaimi mentioned, Dan Peterson was the long time editor of the FARMS Review (the name has changed over time). That organ is the most explicitly apologetic of NAMI. He was on a lengthy trip to Europe, and received an e-mail from Gerald Bradford that he was being removed as editor. Universities remove editors all the time; it didn’t have to be this controversial. I don’t know Bradford personally, but I respect his scholarship. I suspect he thought it would be easier to do this way. Dan Peterson is a very controversial figure. I talked about different styles of apologetics, but they bleed into each other at the margins, and Dan has been active on the message boards, and that style has bled into the Review to some extent.

Can a career be made in apologetics? To what extent should an organization maintain its original mandate v. adapting to changing times? I’m going to answer your first question: “No.” Although some of the people involved are university professors and use those skill sets tangentially in apologetics.

Different parties are asserting institutional support or not. How do we define apologetics when there is no specific institutional backing? Mentioned Joanna Brooks. I think I see where you’re going with this now. I love Joanna, and in many ways what she does is apologetics. She’s making the case that you don’t have to check your brain at the door to be a Mormon. A lot of people would say that some of what Richard did in RSR is a kind of apologetic. Much of the Bloggernacle is apologetic in some sense. Apologetics is much broader than what people usually think of under that rubric.

[More on the controversy.] I don’t know that there was any GA impetus behind this move. Someone wrote a paper critiquing John Dehlin’s work, he got wind of it, and contacted a GA about that. That may have given Gerald an opening to do something. There has long been an anti-apologetic wing of FARMS, which sounds weird to people, because they assume FARMS is monolithic. There is academic politics involved. I’m not convinced this was a GA driven thing, but rather a matter of academic politics. Attitude of GAs towards apologetics remains a mixed bag; some favor it, others don’t.

Questioner talked about an independent objective reality. How does apologetics cope with that? Don’t you have to throw up your hands and say it’s ridiculous to defend a God who drowns all those people? I don’t know that there is an objective reality. We think we see things as they are, but instead we see things as we are. This is actually a big issue in apologetic discourse and involves postmodernism. (From audience member to questioner: “Study philosophy.”)


  1. Thanks, Kevin!

  2. “There is also an anti-intellectual tradition in the Church, and apologetics by its nature uses scholarship, in a way that traditional Mormonism hasn’t, so in many ways apologetics has been a progressive influence in the Church.”

    One of the difficulties I see with apologetics is helping orthodox members who have been raised with a binary view of the Church to develop a more nuanced faith. While the Church has been more open with its history to scholars as of late, I have not noticed much of a trickle down to most members. In my experience, most members and leaders still cling to and perpetuate the black and white, all or nothing type of faith. When these same people go to FAIR, they often see a type of progressive and nuanced faith that is completely foreign to the faith they were raised in, which can lead to feelings of betrayal and a loss of faith in the institution. Is FAIR doing anything proactive to inform and inoculate pre faith crisis members about certain issues instead of just being a band-aid?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    JohnE, probably the most proactive thing FAIR does is sponsor an annual conference. I hope that helps some people broaden their faith, but admittedly it’s just a drop in the bucket. As you may know, I’m a big propnent of the concept of inoculation, but I’m not sure what the most effective delivery system for that would be. The binary assumptions so many of our people have are a huge problem when it comes time to deal with challenging faith issues. And I don’t profess to knw what the answer for that is.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Kevin I agree that apologetics in general has sometimes become, as you say, a slur. And that is too bad. There are very appropriate and needful areas for apologetics and I am grateful that you are active in them.

  5. The point JohnE brings up is a real challenge among Saints of all stripes – especially including the weak rooted converts – and not just around those who grew up in the Church. It’s not just about binary views but about learning a history the missionaries, Gospel Principles, Gospel Doctrine and Priesthood classes didn’t cover. I know of a couple people who are struggling with testimonies due to what they encountered on FAIR. It’s not “fair” to lay the blame on the wiki but it’s an issue every member has to work through and help those with weaker testimonies resolve. At some point it is possible to have an inoculated attitude toward our history, but that requires deep roots and maturity.

  6. First off, haha at “Study philosophy.” I probably shouldn’t laugh at people, but I rather enjoyed that comment.

    On a more serious note, I really enjoyed this. I liked your different classifications of apologetics (though, as you note, there is certainly crossover and things can be a little muddled).

    Just a couple thoughts on the point JohnE (2) brought up. The best way I’ve found to help introduce people to more contextual and nuanced ways of viewing things is through possibility. Essentially I say things like, “What if you’re wrong? Might there be another way of thinking about this issue? I think there is. Don’t get me wrong; you may very well be correct, I don’t know. I’m simply leaving my mind open to other possibilities.” Something to that effect.

    The trouble is that children and youth are less able (generally speaking) to understand context and nuance. Also, generally a strong relationship is required with the person (one strong enough that they won’t question your devotion to the Church), because otherwise they’ll automatically discount what you say. Which leads me to agree with what Kevin (3) said: “I’m a big propnent of the concept of inoculation, but I’m not sure what the most effective delivery system for that would be.” It’s hard, because I think teaching children has to be black-and-white, but then at what point is it okay to start adding in the gray? I think it has to be left to more individual and personal contact–like me talking with a close friend.

  7. A guy at work was making fun of the Mormon South Park episode for “making stuff up” like Joseph Smith looking into a hat and wondered out loud how they came up with that stuff. When you tell him that it’s true, he’s going to feel stupid. He’s been through 30 years of Sunday School, 4 years of seminary, served a mission, seen all the historical movies at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and reads the Ensign every month, yet regular South Park watchers know more about his religion’s history than he does. That’s embarrassing and insulting. We have three hours of church every single week, not counting expected personal study, weekly activities, auxiliary programs, and seminary. We shouldn’t have to learn ANY of this on the Internet.

    I appreciate that sites like FAIR are willing to tackle all of the hard subjects, but I think it’s too little too late. There almost needs to be a section of “why the church didn’t tell you this,” since I think that’s the real question people are asking. But only the church can answer that.

  8. “It’s hard, because I think teaching children has to be black-and-white, but then at what point is it okay to start adding in the gray?”

    I totally disagree. Kids are brilliant at handling the gray and at managing quite sophisticated ideas. They love big questions, and are ok with “I don’t know, let’s see if we can find out” as an answer. For instance, I was teaching 12-13-year-olds about the First Vision. I started by asking them to describe a very powerful dream or really important emotional experience they had had. And then I asked them if it made sense all at once, if they described it the same way now as they would have the day it happened. They (mostly) said, no, it took a while to understand and describe. And then we talked about JS’s multiple accounts of the first vision. Easy peasy.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Jamie S. you might appreciate this post where I talked about my experience teaching the stone in the hat. Part of my motivation, as I expressed near the end, was not wanting anyone to be blindsided by the South Park All About Mormons episode!

  10. Kids are the perfect age for inoculation because then they don’t have any preconceived notions to overcome and they avoid being blindsided by naivete.

    Inoculating your kids starts in the home by exposing them to their history on a regular and consistent basis in all kinds of contexts. My Dad was no shrinking violet when it came to talking about our polygamous ancestors, the rough experiences of Joseph and Brigham and other challenging issues of our faith. The dinner table was a buffet of unusual ideas that went deeper as we were capable of ingesting them. There was even a stack of church history stories on tape (no idea where those came from but they were at times very fascinating and others downright sleep inducing), that were part of the library of audio selections as we traveled across the country in the car for vacation.

    We do the same with our girls now by introducing what we know as the opportunity arises and by creating those opportunities deliberately. I don’t want any of them to be able to come back to me and say, “But did you know this, why didn’t you ever tell me?” and thereby lose their testimony.

  11. regular South Park watchers know more about his religion’s history than he does.

    Well, no. South Park watchers may know more about a severely limited set of lampooned details, but any Church member with the background you outline knows a broader and deeper Mormon history, even if he’s lacking those few, relatively trivial facts.

    We have three hours of church every single week, not counting expected personal study, weekly activities, auxiliary programs, and seminary. We shouldn’t have to learn ANY of this on the Internet.

    What in heaven’s name are these people you speak of spending their personal study time on?? Unless you’re reading only the scriptures and church magazines — something that can hardly be called study if you aren’t bringing something more to it than merely passing your eyes over the page — then almost by definition you have to have contact with materials that contain these facts, including — gasp — the INTERNET. Saying you shouldn’t have to find “any of this” there is like saying you shouldn’t have to find any of it at the library.

    I’m glad, Kevin, to read your distinctions among different styles or formats of apologetics. I’ve had such negative encounters with apologists on a personal level, and yet find some of the FAIR wiki and other sources so valuable, that it’s been more than a little disorienting. This helps.

  12. Kristine – a 12-13 year old is much different from a 7 yr old child. The younger age is VERY black and white. But I agree, by the age 12, (and even younger, depending on the child and how they were raised) they can handle much more nuance.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Alain, I’ve never been bothered by polygamy because I had polygamous ancestors and my parents spoke openly about them with evident pride. I think a certain openness with your kids while they’re young makes a huge difference in their capacity to process challenging ideas later.

  14. DeeAnn–true enough. But even 7-year-olds can start to understand that things are not always what they seem, that people are complicated and have mixed motives, etc. Think about, say, Grimm’s fairy tales…

  15. Meldrum the Less says:

    Very interesting discussion about different flavors of apologists.

    I think I have to agree with Ardis that you would have to be mighty narrow-minded in your personal study to never run across these things. J. Golden Kimball claimed that some people are so narrow minded in the church that they can look through a key hole with both eyes open.

    Then the anti-intellectual undercurrent pulls you down and you are so busy busy busy doing things. Look at the mission experience, all work, little meditation, almost no reading; that for many provides a template for the rest of their life and they never go much beyond it. Mormonism is so much a faith of doing tasks, some might say busy work, others find it as meaningful as most anything else.

    Ok, I gotta ask. Give it to me straight. Where would you fit my cousin Rod Meldrum and his FIRM outfit into the scheme? I am not entirely moon-eyed with his success, but do find it amazing.

  16. I like your breakdown of different forms of apologetics. Personally, I’m not a fan of engagement apologetics as I think the mode of communication too often ignores gospel principles of communication.

    Thanks for your take.

  17. I like the post but I have a problem with the following:
    “But the bishop has a degree in engineering from BYU; he’s never heard of this thing and is of no help.”

    I happen to have a degree in engineering from BYU, and trust me, there is hardly anything about the Church I have not heard, read about or researched in some way from as primary or otherwise as reliable sources as I can possibly get my hands on (I guess that is the tricky part)… ;P But I admit my answer to the poor teacher won’t be in much of an apologetic tone (probably the reason why an engineer like me will never be her bishop anyway), so she may be better off going to FAIR wiki. :) Good post!

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Ha, Manuel, I was just trying to be a little funny with that line.

  19. It’s okay. We engineers are also eye-rolleyish about liberal arts majors, sometimes. =)

  20. I have to say that finding so many people having faith crisis about things they hadn’t been taught was one of the disorienting things about Mormon and post-Mormon blogs. I realize now my seminary experience was not typical, but I still have people essentially call me a liar.

    My seminary teacher was kind of a “scripture nerd” as he called himself, and probably would have written about a quarter of the wiki from memory. When we learned about the prophets, we learned about them as men and as apostles and prophets. We talked about their faults and weaknesses, and those were on our tests. You lost points for getting the weaknesses of prophets mixed up, just like you lost points if you mixed up which prophet dedicated which temple.

    We did almost a full month, each year, where our devotional time was focused on things we needed to know to be able to answer questions nonmembers might have. (This was the early 1990s, so no convenient, “Get out you iPhone and lets look at the top rated wiki articles this week.” We actually covered the history of polygamy in the church more during the Old Testament than during D&C and Pearl of Great Price.

    I grew up in a home with very few Deseret Book offerings, but since both my parents were coverts, my dad at age 4, my mom at 18, I learned a lot about the vagaries of German Jews, who were not all perfect but still didn’t deserve the gas chambers, southern bigots, Christian Scientists, and Conservative Evangelicals. Grey was a pretty common color when I looked at people.

    I am coming to understand that members grow up seeing only black and white, but not really how. Maybe I will suddenly learn some historical fact that will shake me, but since I have dealt with many imperfect leaders in my own life, I doubt that anything will be more likely to shake my testimony than my personal experiences.

  21. Snyderman says:

    I feel like I should clarify what I meant a little bit. When I said “children,” I meant the junior primary kids. (I’m currently the primary pianist, so I think about them quite a bit.) Those kids need black-and-white, as anything more complex than that is too complex.

    I agree that nuance can start being taught as the children get older. Perhaps even as early as age 7, depending on the child. Still, even with the 10-12 year-olds I interact with, things can be too complex. Kevin, in your example you used their personal experience; I try to do the same. I’ve noticed that they don’t always have personal experience, however, and then they have great difficulty understanding.

    For example, imagine you had phrased your question the following way: “Do you think people express the same experience in the same way throughout their life?” I wonder how many of them would have been able to answer that question. People still have great difficulty with abstract thought at that age.

    So, anyway, my main point is that I don’t think we’re actually in disagreement, or at least very much. I think I just probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been.

  22. My son learned about seer stones from South Park. I have found that in order to keep up with my children and answer their questions, I must know the history. Every one of my four children has asked me hard questions, and I’m glad to have had the knowledge to answer them honestly and faithfully.Thanks, Kevin!

  23. I was there at the start of both FARMS and FAIR and a founding board member of FAIR.

    I think FAIR has taken the right direction.

    Thanks for this article. Say hello to Pistas3 for me.

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