A Change Would Do You Good — 3 of 3

(See also: Part 1, Part 2)

My Disillusionment with Much of Mormon Apologetics

I first became aware of Dan Peterson in the late 1990s, at about the time that I became aware of LDS apologetics in general (see Part 1 of this series). I cannot remember where I first heard of him at, but I know that my aunt gave me James White’s Is the Mormon My Brother? for my seventeenth birthday in January of 1999, and I know that I soon found some correspondences between White and other LDS apologists (Peterson among them) on the SHIELDS Web site. At the time, I did not believe that White came off very well, and I thought the apologists were witty as well as amusing. I found myself mesmerized by their “in-your-face” style of snarkiness, to the extent that part of me even longed to emulate them. [1] I also felt intimidated any time I interacted with one of them, afraid of ever crossing them and becoming the target of that snark. Besides this, I read the Review and other LDS apologetics materials quite regularly. The materials presented in apologetic writings spurred me into studying the scholarship on a number of issues that I had never considered before. When I arrived at Brigham Young University to work on my undergraduate education, I looked Dan up and asked him for an interview for a paper I was writing, which he kindly granted. He is very congenial and friendly in person.

In the past decade, my mesmerisation with LDS apologetics began to crack. Some factors in that disillusionment:

  • In 2002, FARMS published a very negative critique of a personal friend’s book. The critique branded my friend an “anti-Mormon,” suggested that his book was just a regurgitation of the materials found in other critical evangelical Protestant books on Mormonism (few things could be further from the truth), and utilized ad hominem by insinuating that my friend was “disturbed” by How Wide the Divide?. As my friend stated in his reply, “What place is there in a professional journal for this sort of psychoanalytic treatment?” Dan served as the editor of this article and, as of 2010, stood by it.
  • I began to note that the Review goes out of its way to call evangelicals who engage Mormonism “anti-Mormons” or to characterize their work as “anti-Mormon.” Even evangelicals who are overwhelmingly professional and respectful in their scholarly interactions with Mormonism have met this fate. For example, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen’s famous “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” paper was described by the Review as a “call for better anti-Mormon attacks by evangelicals.” In general, the Review’s practice of frequently labeling those who disagree with its authors’ views with charged terms such as “anti-Mormon,” “Korihor,” “cultural dissident,” and “apostate” is problematic for its aspirations to academic respectability. [2]
  • I witnessed numerous occurrences of highly unprofessional public behavior from Mormon apologists associated with the MI, including Dan Peterson. [3] The very antics which once mesmerized me as a teenager began to make me cringe as an adult. Along these lines, Dan once posted private correspondence from me onto the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion message board without my permission, making the recent complaints about his own leaked correspondence rather ironic. [4] Another MI author was previously utilizing a line from a private correspondence with me in his signature at MADB/MDDB, though he removed it when a mutual friend asked him to. [5]

In my view, had the issues which involve Dan listed above constituted Bradford’s only reasons for removing him as editor of the MSR, he would have been fully justified.

My final disillusionment came at the realization that many apologists (Dan included) only seemed to respect opinions that are favorable of Mormonism, apologetics, and apologists. In my case, when I was reproving the countercult ministry and steering unknowing LDS scholars away from disingenuous “interfaith dialogue” encounters, I was good enough to speak highly of, to put on the stage at the FAIR conference. When I’ve had critical things to say about Mormonism, apologist arguments, or apologist behavior, I’ve been treated in a very hostile or dismissive fashion [6] and branded an “anti-Mormon” or an “enemy of the church” or an “evie bigot.” To me, this behavior is little different from that of the counter-cultists who have denounced me as a non-Christian for critiquing them or for offering a favorable view of historic strains of Christian deification. It’s a matter of labeling someone “the enemy” over intellectual, theological, and social disagreement. If the only way I can maintain friendships with certain people is by not saying how I truly feel on some issues, then I do not think those are friendships worth culturing.

As I hope is clear by now: I do not have a problem with the concept of apologetics. I do have a problem with the behaviors I have listed in this post. If the Maxwell Institute has to be one of the following:  (a) a place for BYU-sponsored scholarship, or (b) a place for BYU-sponsored scholarship plus BYU-sponsored apologetics plus BYU-sponsored ad hominem attacks, well poisoning, & unprofessional behavior, then I would prefer it to be (a). Hence I potentially support the Maxwell Institute’s new direction. There is a certain tragedy in this, because I believe apologetics can be done without the problems I listed. I know many apologists who do just that. But key apologists are not acknowledging that these things are problems and pledging to correct them.

Conclusion

I need to make a final comment on Dan Peterson: he is down right now, but not out. Many of his longtime critics are enjoying this time of humiliation for him, leading to some very unkind things being said about him in certain quarters. Their “victory” over Dan reminds me of this scene from the phenomenal first season of Desperate Housewives, wherein the once-affluent Gabrielle Solis has been forced by financial hardship to take a menial job at a cosmetics counter in a department store. Her erstwhile maid, Yao Lin, enters the store as a customer in order to force her former employer to serve her. But Gabrielle turns the tables on Yao Lin with this speech:

That’s the difference between you and me, Yao Lin. Our dreams. … You see I dreamed of pulling myself up from nothing, and I did. I dreamed about the things I wanted and I got them all: a high-powered career, a handsome husband, an extravagant house. So, this is just a blip in the radar for me, because now, I know what I’m capable of and if I did it once, I can do it again. I’m never really down, Yao Lin, even when it looks like I am. So, enjoy this moment, enjoy your dream. Because for you, it doesn’t get any better than this. [7]

Even as somebody who supports the MI’s recent decision, I believe Dan Peterson is capable of very great things. If he wants to, this whole thing can simply be a blip for him, and he can return to implementing his own contributions to Mormon studies. For many of his detractors though, it will never get better than this.

(See also: Part 1, Part 2)

Notes:
———-

[1] Not that I needed Mormon apologists to teach me how to be rude. As many could attest, I’m pretty good at that all on my own.

[2] There is some relevant discussion of this in the comments at Faith Promoting Rumor by g. wesley and smallaxe.

[3] Representative examples of this include “Metcalfe is Butthead” (here, here, here, here), smearing Egyptologist Robert Ritner (herehere), misquoting Camus and lack of a correction (here, here) and the TIME Lightbox fiasco (here).

[4] This can be seen in Wayback Machine here. Relevant threads leading up to the event may be found here and here.

[5] When I first saw it, I used my “report” button and politely asked the moderators of the forum to respect my privacy by removing the quote. They ignored my request and promptly banned my account. The person in question later removed it when he was notified via other means. While I appreciate that the MI author in question removed the quote of his own accord, the actions of the MADB/MDDB moderators shows that there are other apologists and supporters of apologists who apparently have no qualms about posting private correspondence without permission.

[6] An example of this can be seen in smallaxe’s respectful critique of Dan and praise for the MI’s new direction, and Dan’s dismissive response to it.

[7] You can watch this scene from the show here.


Comments

A Change Would Do You Good — 3 of 3 — 12 Comments

  1. “…and I thought the apologists were witty as well as amusing. I found myself mesmerized by their “in-your-face” style of snarkiness, to the extent that part of me even longed to emulate them….In the past decade, my mesmerisation with LDS apologetics began to crack.”

    I read every Review from the first up to sometime in the late ’90s, and selected ones into the 2000′s. My reaction was very much the same as yours. I encountered Dan’s “in your face” style firsthand on ZLMB in 2003, and I think that’s where my own turnaround took place to some degree. After all, it was now being directed at *me*. Long story short, I got banned from ZLMB – permanently – but for equally unwise polemics and making statements I regret to this day. I didn’t really examine The Review in more depth until about 2007-2008, where it was brought to my closer attention by some posters on Mormon Discussions (you know who). In retrospect, I believe I overreacted to that. I’ll examine “perspective” and “proportion” later, but probably elsewhere, as to why I believe it’s an overreaction. Not that I think The Review was guiltless, but I believe that the “substance” parts of it, the larger parts actually, have been highly underrated, and unexamined by its critics, including contributions from scholars such as Richard Bushman, Eugene England (who was himself critical of polemics), Terryl Givens, Kent Jackson (a “loyal” Nibley critic), Kevin Barney, David Bokovoy, Davis Bitton, Todd Compton, David Waltz, Royal Skousen, Blake Ostler, Gary Gillum, Ben McGuire, and many others.

    While it is true that the vast majority of individual contributions have come from Dr. Peterson and Dr. Hamblin, I believe even their polemical content has been exaggerated in the best “offenders for a word” style, egged on by those with their *own* personal agendas, and whose own “professional behaviour” has *not* come under equal scrutiny, which brings me to this:

    “My final disillusionment came at the realization that many apologists (Dan included) only seemed to respect opinions that are favorable of Mormonism, apologetics, and apologists.”

    I believe this is largely true of both “sides”, and it is human “tribal” nature. We naturally barrack for those who agree with us, and tend to “downsize” those who disagree with us. However, I don’t believe this is strictly true of all, including Dan, who has formed many “non-tribal” friendships with “outsiders”. I suppose the key is to try not give nor to take too much personal offense, which leads me to:

    “It’s a matter of labeling someone “the enemy” over intellectual, theological, and social disagreement. If the only way I can maintain friendships with certain people is by not saying how I truly feel on some issues, then I do not think those are friendships worth culturing.”

    Yes, Dan did once call me an “anti-Mormon”, in fact several times, and at the time I took great personal offense, until I had a “light bulb” moment, and realised that he was right (I’m not saying this applies to you, or is true of you), so I backed off. That realisation has enabled me to maintain, at least what I think, has been since then an amicable friendship, and it’s certainly not based on what we disagree on, but what we agree on, and empathising the latter, and exercising tactfulness towards the former. Sometimes they actually listen *more* when the latter (tactfulness) is applied.

    Finally, I appreciated your concluding comments, and I very much agree.

  2. Thanks for the synopsis Ms. Jack. The politics of all of this has peaked my interests somewhat and I’ll have to look into these events some more and see how the continuing warring of personalities affects what happens from here on out.

    Still, I think this is a case of where the event is big for the people involved, but may not be noticed by the population at large. For example, recently there was an Atheist blogger that converted to Catholicism. The Atheist and Catholic blogs went crazy, racking up hundreds of comments (the blogger even got a 5 minute segment on CNN). It was a huge deal for the people who read those blogs…but for the rest of the world, not so much. 99.9999% of the world has never heard of this blogger, even after this uncommon conversion.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/

    So while the blog debates between Mormons and Evangelicals can be captivating, I think it is important for them not to take themselves too seriously, because mostly they are just debates among people who are already set in their views and won’t change. A more interesting focus would be how the culture as a whole is moving and what types of media are causing it to happen. It is the facebook posts and the comment discussions on Yahoo that I think shape the views of the population at large far more than the blog debates that the middle of the road people (the ones who mostly change their faith) almost never read.

  3. Do you know if the statements that prof Welch had been marginalized are true?

    In my experience he has been a kindly gentleman.

    Thank you for your kind comments about FAIR.

    Lastly, the alleged quote from you appears blacked out. Is that true in the original?

    Interesting, all in all.

  4. #3 Ray ~ I believe this is largely true of both “sides”, and it is human “tribal” nature. We naturally barrack for those who agree with us, and tend to “downsize” those who disagree with us.

    I think it is natural for people to not want to hear that they’re in the wrong; who doesn’t resist that at first? But I don’t think it’s natural for people to throw even trusted friends under the bus and demonize them as enemies for dissenting from the prevailing narrative.

    I’m probably going to have a forthcoming post laying out very specifically how apologists are abusing the term “anti-Mormon” and why I object so strenuously to it being applied to me.

    #4 Hibernia86 ~ Still, I think this is a case of where the event is big for the people involved, but may not be noticed by the population at large.

    Completely agree. I don’t think any of this gets noticed by or commented on by most of the outside world, although Salon did pick up on and report on it just recently.

    #5 Stephen M. ~ Lastly, the alleged quote from you appears blacked out. Is that true in the original?

    No; I blotted it out myself. You can still see it here. I commented on the context leading up to what I said here.

  5. #5 Stephen M. ~ Forgot to say, no, I know nothing about Jack’s role in all this and in what sense he has been marginalized, if any. He was a sort-of guest co-teacher for a few of my classics courses, with John Hall, and he came to my wedding and reception. Was always a nice guy.

  6. “I think it is natural for people to not want to hear that they’re in the wrong; who doesn’t resist that at first? But I don’t think it’s natural for people to throw even trusted friends under the bus and demonize them as enemies for dissenting from the prevailing narrative.”

    Try a little experiment, MsJack. Go on Mormon Discussions and dissent from the prevailing narrative there, and see how many friends you have left standing.

  7. #8 Ray ~ Try a little experiment, MsJack. Go on Mormon Discussions and dissent from the prevailing narrative there, and see how many friends you have left standing.

    I’ve done it before. I am, after all, evangelical Christian and Republican on a forum that’s predominantly atheist/agnostic and Democrat, and I have a more sympathetic view of Mormonism on a lot of issues than a lot of the posters there. For example:

    http://mormondiscussions.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?p=600987#p600987

    People speak up to disagree with me and argue my position, but few people start calling me names and treating me as “the enemy.”

  8. Nice job. I love inside baseball. Only thing I’d like more of is a discussion on the differences between apologetics and the stylings of Peterson etc al.

  9. Ms. Jack,

    As a faithful and believing Mormon, I have also been on the receiving end of name calling from some of the individuals you reference above. I trust you know that this behavior is not in keeping with the faith we claim and that most LDS would likely be both shocked and disgusted at what passes for apologetics online.

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