Good and Bad Apologetics

So last night I’m sitting on the couch with a fairly new iPad in my lap. (I recently upgraded my phone, and they threw the pad in for a nominal amount. I’ve never used one before, so I’m still getting used to it.) All of a sudden this video popped up on the screen. I recognized the space as being Writ and Vision in Provo.  It was a roundtable discussion of that new Kofford book on apologetics, featuring Blair Van Dyke, Stephen Smoot, Joe Spencer, Amanda Brown and Loyd Erickson.[1]

The roundtable as it opened in my tablet was in medias res,[2] and I was just in time for the question “Is there a difference between good and bad apologetics, and if so, what is it?” I didn’t quite catch all the responses, but some I remember were along the following lines:

  • As Blair Hodges has said in the MI context, there’s still a role for apologetics, just not of the smash mouth variety. Neal A. Maxwell said we need to be sufficiently humble to acknowledge when we come up short and try to do better. Acknowledge when you’re wrong; practice humility and gentleness.
  • If you’re going to do it, stay up to date with the state of the art.
  • The best apologetics should cause us to realize we need to think harder about this matter, that we need to change.

So I thought for a few minutes about how I would answer the question. My first thought was that I don’t really like thinking of a particular apologetic as being either good or bad in an absolute sense, but rather as being relatively so; that is, there are better and worse apologetics.

I also had a couple of other thoughts. One was that ideally you should be playing chess, not checkers, in that you should know the issues and counterarguments well enough that you anticipate them and structure your argument to seamlessly account for them. Another was that apologists need to pay more attention to the defensibility of their arguments. Just because an argument works formally doesn’t mean it is necessarily truly defensible. (Even though I’m not a litigator, I am an attorney.)

But the dominant thought that occurred to me was that for me, some of the strongest apologetics I have encountered do not simply address an issue, they first reframe it.

An illustration of what I mean that comes to mind is Stirling Adams’ review of two books: David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judasim, Christianity, and Islam and Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, which appears in BYU Studies 44/1 (2005): 157-69, available here.

In form this is not an intentional apologetic at all; it is simply a book review (although it’s more than a typical review and is more in the nature of a review essay, complete with endnotes). But it consciously is making a certain argument: that the historical practice of the priesthood and temple ban was originally grounded not in Mormon distinctives, but rather in a very widely held understanding of the curse of Genesis personalities (Cain, Noah, Ham, Canaan) as applying to blacks and the reason they were subject to slavery. In the Genesis account of the curse of Canaan, there is no reference to dark skin, or to skin color at all, and Noah does not say the curse would apply to Canaan’s descendants. There is no evidence ancient Jews viewed Africans as cursed. These books trace how the curse idea arose historically, and the influence it had in justifying slavery in the American south.

A straightforward apologetic of the priesthood/temple ban would (try to) defend the decision of BY to institute the ban and of later prophets to keep it in place. But Adams doesn’t go that apologetic route; rather, he completely reframes the issue. These books demonstrate that what Brigham Young did was not distinctive at all, but was reflective of pervasive Christian thought of the time. Understanding this doesn’t justify or excuse what Brother Brigham did, but it does make his action far more understandable for its time.

A traditional apologetic defending the ban is well nigh impossible to make (well). But this reframing gave me more of a sense of sympathy for Brother Brigham and the world view in which he was enmeshed. This wasn’t his own strange and distinctive view, it was the commonly accepted knowledge of the day. Of course, the history of the ban is rife with missed opportunities to correct a great injustice; that it took until 1978 does not reflect well on us as a people.

I still remember when I first read the Adams review, what an “Aha” moment it was for me. It made so much sense to me and caused me to see the origins of the ban in a new light. Funny story: some years later I was at some public event, I don’t recall where or for what, and I’m sitting next to this guy and somehow one of those books came up. And so I start gushing to this guy about this great review I had read of that book in BYU Studies, and describing the history of the idea. He smiles for a while and then he finally lets on that he was Stirling Adams, the author of that very review(!) That was pretty funny.[3] But I’m happy he got to see me gush my genuine enthusiasm for what he had done.

So anyway, that’s my example of a better apologetic.

[1] The Kofford folks will be pleased to know this bit of promotion worked; I just now ordered a copy.

[2] I have since gone back and watched the part of the video I missed from the beginning. You can find it on Kofford’s Facebook page.

[3] We later would serve on the Dialogue board together.


  1. The topic of apologetics, good and bad, is going around. I like this approach.
    I’d like to assume a good question. It seems to me that the cases where a proper apologetic is “you’re just wrong” are few and uninteresting.
    A good question usually means there is no one-for-one direct reply. I like to see that (absence of a direct reply) acknowledged. It’s respectful, and all the alternatives I can think of smack of ad hominism.
    Failing a one-for-one direct reply, a useful apologetic — it seems to me — will usually be expansive, some form of added information, bigger picture, perspective, reframing. It won’t make the question go away, but will show it in a new light, making it less important, less pressing, or more understandable.
    I suspect that my preferred approach, which I think is consonant with the OP, will be frustrating both to those who see the questions as gotcha!-s and to those who see apologetics as whack-a-mole bats. But I’d just as soon play in a different ballpark anyway.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    That’s a great point Kevin. Today we tell people to turn to commentaries or the like. Effectively Brigham Young was doing just that, even if not formally. We can (and ought) criticize the ideas, but for someone immersed in the ideas of the day it’s somewhat akin to criticizing someone today for taking scholarship seriously about deutero-Isaiah. (Yes I know those pushing the ideas in the 19th century weren’t really scholars – but many of those ideas were widely held by people at Yale, Harvard and so forth)

    Now of course as apologetic that’s a lousy approach to take because no one cares what people generally thought if a prophet is involved. Their first instinct is to say, shouldn’t a prophet know what is really going on independent of general belief. So from an apologetic perspective we better first explain why prophets are fallible and often using their worldly knowledge to figure things out as best they can most of the time.

  3. Michael H says:

    I totally see the importance of assessing the quality of apologetics, but I also wonder about the quantity of apologetics. I sometimes think that too much of the writing in Morning Studies is devoted to implicitly defending the faith. I have apologetics fatigue, though I don’t think many authors or bloggers would claim the title of apologist. Many think it’s a dirty word.

  4. good article

  5. Mark Clark says:

    “There is no evidence ancient Jews viewed Africans as cursed.”

    I fail to see your point. Isn’t the Book of Mormon considered to be the words of ancient Jews who migrated from Jerusalem to the Americas? Doesn’t Nephi call white people delightsome and those with dark skin cursed? Couldn’t it be inferred from that that Nephi would also see black-skinned Africans as cursed?

    As for the difference between good and bad apologetics, I see the term apologetics in and of itself of having a negative connotation. It suggests starting with a preset conclusion in mind around which one bends facts and evidence to conform to the said conclusion. But I guess that is sort of what self-identified Mormon apologists do. They start with the conclusion in mind that a number of elements of Mormon teachings are true beyond question and try their darnedest to show that critics’ arguments about the untruth of said claims lack evidence, are incoherent, or are guilty of some logical fallacy or another. In many ways it seems a double standard. The apologists set the bar for what is considered valid evidence ridiculously high for critics and skeptics of LDS truth claims (saying that they have insufficient evidence of falsehood, when the critics’ evidence would arguably convince most non-Mormon intellectuals and scholars), and yet they ask little to no evidence of many truth claims by an LDS leaders. This is the reason that much of the so-called Mormon apologetics has gained little to no traction in scholarly communities outside the believing Mormon community. They are clearly starting with the premise that Mormonism is already true and they don’t dare question the teachings of Mormon authorities beyond a certain point lest they damage their reputation among their believing peers and family. For many apologists, expressing too much doubt in particular truth claims of the LDS church could lead to serious social fallout, including divorce, firing, and ostracism. I have strong reason to believe that fear of potential fallout influences what and how they write about Mormonism. Their intellectual freedom is limited by fear of negative reactions from their surrounding community. And this is another reason that Mormon apologetics can’t be taken too seriously.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Clark, the fallibility of prophets is one of those things we believe formally, but in practice not so much. But when our (unstated) premise is that a prophet can do no wrong, we’re actually putting the church in a terrible position, even if the average member doesn’t realize it.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark, the sentence you quote was a conclusion from the Goldenberg book, which was not interacting with Mormon loci.

  8. Brother Sky says:

    I think I’m with Mark Clark, at least as far as starting with a preset conclusion goes. My two problems with Mormon apologetics have always been:

    1. What I call the justification problem. Re, for example, BY’s temple ban. Any attempt to defend or even to understand how the ban came about can quite easily be read as a justification of racism. This is the problem with apologetics. They often appear to be an attempt to justify, (even if they claim they merely attempt to “understand”) indefensible behavior. That sort of gets back to Mark Clark’s point about the preset conclusion: apologetics, by virtue of its very name and intent, is designed to defend a given position (i.e. the church’s) even if it’s couched in terms of “wanting to understand”. All academic articles/viewpoints are biased, of course, but apologetics seems extraordinarily so and thus, to my mind, lacks credibility in general.

    2 . Any apologetic piece ultimately calls into question God and Christ’s role in directing the church, which, I suppose can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint, but if you’re trying to defend the church, minimizing God’s role in its historic course doesn’t seem to be a terribly good idea. To go back to the temple ban issue, the contextual argument/tack that Adams would take about BY’s ban reflecting Christian thought at the time essentially leads to the conclusion that the LDS Church is no different than any other church and therefore not really guided by God, unless one believes that God is a racist, which of course, creates an opportunity for more apologetics, I suppose, but which is nonetheless a troubling conclusion. In other words, God’s revelatory power (i.e. his likely stance that racism is wrong) is less powerful (in the case of BY) than BY’s own cultural biases/human understanding. The further implication of this, of course, is that God didn’t care enough about this mistaken course to correct it with a revelation (or that God isn’t as powerful as human choice/will/error), but either way, this “defense” of BY ends up really just making a strong point for the critics of the LDS Church.

  9. I’ve come to appreciate the kind of apologetics that addresses me as a Mormon (“Here, curious Mormon, are some things you should probably know about Issue X”), but still despise the kind that is addressed to someone the apologist is arguing with (“Here, stupid anti-Mormon, is where you’re wrong.”) I care about learning something, not about beating a foe. And I suppose it takes quite a bit of Kevin’s reframing to tackle an issue in terms I care about rather than to slug back directly against whoever the apologist is fighting with.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Ardis, you might like these notes from a presentation I gave on apologetics at Sunstone some years ago:

    I basically saw apologetics in the Mormon world as operating within three spheres: engagement, educative and scholarly. Engagement is external looking and engaging a critic in rhetorical battle, educative is inward looking and educating the Saints themselves on difficult issues, and scholarly is erectiing a scholarly apparatus around Mormonb faith claims. Like you, I’m not much of a fan of the engagement approach.

  11. Aussie Mormon says:

    As long as “apologist” is being used as a pejorative by someone, the engagement method is unlikely to be effective in helping them see the other side of the topic.

  12. Mary Ann says:

    The “smash mouth” variety of engagement apologetics is what’s given apologetics a bad name. Too often self-proclaimed apologists rely on ad hominem attacks or sarcasm rather than engaging with arguments themselves. The style is off-putting and ultimately undermines any defense of the church. There is a place and a need for *respectful* engagement between opposing views, but I’m not sure I could point to a conversation where that is modeled well. I think while a lot of us appreciate the educational apologetic style, there are many people who want and need a direct back and forth debate on a particular issue to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own position. We need better apologetics in multiple styles.

  13. I’m reading this now and should have a review up in a few weeks. Thanks for highlighting this angle, Kevin.

  14. Kevin Christensen says:

    In various discussions over the years, I have posted links to Stirling Adams’s BYU essay dozens of times, hoping that it might have a similar effect on conversations that all too often fall into all too familiar grooves. And I usually add quotes from Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt that point out that what the Book of Abraham offers is very distinct from the mythos that Adams’s review describes. And of course, the passages in D&C 1:24-28 which offer a remarkably blunt and specific and realistic formal definition of “mine authority, and the authority of my servants” cannot possibly be confused with infallibility.

    Another thing I like about Kevin Barney’s discussion of a good apologetic is that he builds on a specific example, rather than an unsupported generalization. All too often I have seen skeptics describe LDS apologetic with the same care and specificity and fair representation that our current president gives Mexican or Muslim immigrants in his tweets and rallies. In short, unsupported and irresponsible generalizations, hot button memes designed to close out investigation and instigate moral panic rather than encourage understanding.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    My apologies to Loyd for misspelling his name. I’ll leave it intact so this apology will make sense to future readers.

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