The Apologetics of Richness?

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[Reposted]

In a recent blog comment Ben Park describes “a different approach to apologetics,” apparently favored by some young scholars.  He describes it by quoting Richard Bushman:

These younger scholars have a new attitude toward Mormon apologetics. They are no longer so interested in defending the faith in the old sense. In the time of Nibley, the aim of scholarship was to prove Mormonism true. In the new age, the aim of Mormon scholarship is to find the truth about Mormonism. Among the scholars writing today are many who are as proud of the Church, as interested in its flourishing, and as committed to its mission as the previous age, but they follow a new maxim, voiced tellingly by James Faulconer: Richness is the new proof. Rather than attempting scientific proofs of Mormonism as a previous age tried to do, they point to its cultural depth, its scope, its usefulness, in short, its richness. The unspoken assumption of this rising group is that Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated, not if it is proven perfect and infallible.  (http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/the-new-mormon-studies-review/, comment 26.)

We need to begin with a couple of clarifications.  No apologist I know tries to “prove Mormonism is true.”  No apologist I know believes there are any “scientific proofs of Mormonism.”  (There can be no “scientific” proof of history–which cannot be empirically investigated since the past no longer exists–nor of religious claims, which are inherently parahistorical.)  No apologist I know claims the church is “perfect and infallible.”  All Apologists I know reject the possibility of establishing such proof using any known scholarly method.  Second, if Mormonism is indeed “true,” then understanding that fact is indeed “finding the truth about Mormonism.”  In other words, the “truth about Mormonism” may well be that “Mormonism is true.”  To me, Bushman’s description of “old” apologetics is a straw man caricature.

Let’s turn to Park’s claim (via Faulconer) that “richness is the new proof” of the new apologetics.  First of all, richness is not a methodology, and there is no academic by which one can discover richness.  It is a quality–and a subjective quality at that–that one finds or fails to find in a text, or a religion, or a piece of music.  There is simply no way to define “richness” or determine if a text is rich or not.  It is really not at all uncommon for one person to discover richness where another finds only banality.

When I study the scriptures of other religions, I inevitably discover that believers maintain that their scriptures are “rich.”  Indeed, one could argue that if a text does not possess richness, it will never succeed as scripture.  Muslims find “richness” in the Qur’an.  Hindus find “richness” in the Bhagavad-Gita.  Buddhist find “richness” in the Dhammapada.  And, when I read those books, I find great richness there too.  Is my discovery of this richness in the Qur’an sufficient, or even a moderately valid reason to believe that Muhammad is prophet?  For that matter, I find the works of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton to be incredibly rich.  So?  Does it mean their works are scripture?    Does it mean Milton was a prophet of God?  Does that mean their works are even inspired by God?  While one may be able to argue that if a text is not rich it can not be scripture, it does not follow that if a text is rich, it must be scripture.

Of course the discovery of the richness of the Book of Mormon and other LDS scripture is hardly something new.  People have been doing this since 1829 when they first read the dictated manuscript.  In a methodological sense, richness is a part of the broader argument from complexity, which has been used in Book of Mormon studies for decades.  The problem here is that, even if a scholar believes he discovers richness in a text, it doesn’t “prove” anything except that the scholar believes that the text is “rich.”  Park’s claim that “richness is the new proof,” is, upon reflection, a vacuous one.  For richness, in and of itself, proves nothing.

So, let’s imagine that Park were able to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that the Book of Mormon is indeed “rich.”  What would that “prove”?  That the book is ancient history?  That it is authentic revelation?  That Jesus is the Christ?  That the book is “inspired fiction”?  That Joseph Smith was a literary genius?  That people who accept a text as scripture inevitably discover richness in that text?  Or merely that an individual reader believes the text is rich based on a subjective evaluation?

Given its problematic nature, what exactly does the claim “richness is the new proof” really mean?  And why would adopting an apologetics of richness require that we abandon all other apologetic endeavors?

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About William J. Hamblin

William J. Hamblin is Professor of History at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah, USA),
 specializing in the ancient and medieval Near East. He is the author of dozens of academic
 articles and several books, most recently, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History, with David 
Seely (Thames and Hudson, 2007). In the fall of 2010 his first novel was published (co-
authored with Neil Newell): The Book of Malchus, (Deseret Book, 2010). A fanatical traveler and photographer, he spent 2010 teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and has lived in
 Israel, England, Egypt and Italy, and traveled to dozens of other countries.

9 thoughts on “The Apologetics of Richness?

  1. Well said Brother Hamblin. I concur that the ‘old apologetics’ methodology alluded to and left undefined, is simply a straw man argument. I am unaware of any “apologist” who has argued the truthfulness of Mormonism in any way other than personal conviction through revelatory confirmation. My understanding of the traditional approach to LDS apologetics is based on the idea that clarifications and corrections of misrepresentations (either willful or unintentional) are provided in order to accurately explain Latter-day Saint doctrine, principles, history, and theology. Indeed, this is exactly what Elder Ballard admonished us all to do in his July 2008 Ensign article, “Sharing the Gospel Using the Internet.”
    I am unsure as to how discussing the “richness” of Latter-day Saint scriptures is a form of apologetics, unless it is in response to a perception of simplicity in Joseph Smith’s productions. If this is the case, then the growing body of literature addressing the complexity of the Book of Mormon, and other Latter-day Saint scripture, is a welcomed voice; however, as you mentioned above, this is nothing new. Nibley began publishing on the richness of the Book of Mormon in the mid-20th century, and B.H. Roberts before him, and many others before Elder Roberts. Those with FARMS/MI have been doing the same for the past 30 years.
    If my assumption is correct that the “richness” methodology is in rebuttal to a perceived simplicity paradigm, then I believe that this paradigm has been shifting, perhaps more dynamically in recent years, due to the work done by scholars over the past half century. The fact that Oxford and other prestigious venues are publishing LDS authors on LDS texts signals such a change in paradigm; however, the neutral stance regarding Joseph Smith’s authority and credibility in books like Hardy’s, Understanding the Book of Mormon, while partially exposing the great richness of the Book of Mormon, can hardly be categorized as apologetic because it does not attempt to defend the restoration, it simply seeks to point out distinguishing characteristics of the editing voices in the text. (I’m not criticizing Hardy’s book, in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it). I don’t know if this publication is an accurate example of what Faulconer and others have in mind, but my point is that a focus on the complexity, depth, and richness of LDS scripture, which is quite subjective, does not provide a defense of the restoration of the gospel. In fact, any attempt in discussing LDS scripture that is not a defense of the same, can hardly be considered an apologia.

  2. I read Faulconer’s statement a little differently. I don’t see him saying that richness is proof, but that richness as the aim of investigation has supplanted proof as the aim of investigation. However, even understanding that distinction, I see Nibley’s work as providing richness much more than establishing proof. I do see the quest for proof in Ferguson and others. Perhaps there was an implicit element of that in Nibley’s work, but only in that the availability of richness depended upon an authentic ancient context consonant with that richness.

    Frankly, I am all for the investigation of and explication of the richness in Mormonism. I am particularly interested in the richness of the Book of Mormon. I do see, however, that the simple fact of examining the richness of the text against a cultural backdrop unavoidable creates a blurred line between the examination of richness and an attempt to find proof. It certainly doesn’t meant that we should avoid seeking the richness in the Book of Mormon because it might be used by some as proof.

    • You may be right about Faulconer’s meaning. In which case, he would probably agree with me. I’d like to read both Faulconer’s thoughts and Bushman’s in their full context. Unfortunately, Ben didn’t provide any source. (Of course, it was just a blog comment.) On the other hand, that formulation does misrepresent the goal of “old” apologetics as “proof.” It is a caricature.

      Let me emphasize that I do not object to the search for richness. In a sense all apologetics is based on discovering and elucidating the richness of the text. The search for richness is an absolutely necessary component of apologetics, and always has been. It is nothing new. My objection is that the search for richness for its own sake cannot replace apologetics, because the discovery of textual richness in and of itself does not demonstrate anything. The meaning of discovered richness needs to be contextualized to give it any broader significance (e.g. does it come from an ancient author, divinely inspired fiction, or Joseph Smith’s literary genius?) Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings is an extraordinarily rich text. So what? What does that mean? That richness is only meaningful when you integrate it as one element in a much broader range of issues, questions, analysis and methods.

      • I think one element of richness or complexity needs yet to be brought out. When some commentators apply a reductive methodology that impoverishes the Book of Mormon to mere parallels with nineteenth-century frontier America (or even) expands the parallelomania to include esoteric and hermetic elements from sources scattered about Europe dating back hundreds of years, we have a right to ask if such a reading does justice to the richness of the text. If one set of readers finds complexity in the text and another set finds a superficial mirror of one environment or the other, at least one kind of advantage ought to go to the approach which finds richness in the text, especially if the richness method can also account for the impoverished approach by pointing to the latter’s use of contested concepts inherited from the Enlightenment tradition that are taken for granted uncritically (say, the unexamined idea that if a literary motif exists in the Bible or the Book of Mormon, that in itself is evidence of fictional composition–the inheritance of modernity asserts that history and fiction are completely separate enterprises with no overlap). If the complexity of the text can be asserted using one particular hermeneutic, that raises the bar for other readings of the text. If the impoverished reading tradition can’t account for the textual complexity, it ought to be viewed as deficient. Incompetent readings shouldn’t be able to count their incompetence as an rhetorical support for the position. Inept readers should be required to improve their game just to gain entry to the conversation. Thus richness can provide a disqualifying standard to weed out the weeds.

        All positions have some element of subjectivity to them (as long as they are readings by humans), but we do have comparative standards to judge some readings as better than others. When I teach a literature class, my study of literature for all these years, my command of the concepts and terminology of literary criticism, and my practice of reading complex texts ought to count when compared with my students’ readings of the texts. To talk about richness is to invoke the inevitable discussions about what counts as rich. But we aren’t left bereft of ways to make those judgments. One of those tools is the richness concept; a reading which gets more out of the text than one which misses those elements should generally be considered superior to the second. Then we might be left trying to discover if the variation in richness is a result of the reductive reader’s being a deficient exegete and the rich reader being superior, but the notion of richness isn’t entirely subjective. We have traditions of reading to resort to and we have communities of readers to rely on.

  3. I agree that “richness” is probably too squishy a quality from which to frame apologetics. In partial defense of Park, however, I read his comment in light of the bolded words at the end, “perfect and infallible.” Perhaps it is just my perception, but the difference between Coke apologists (old line) and Pepsi apologists (the choice of a new generation) is the willingness to say, “Boy, that is a hard issue — maybe (insert name of prophet) just made that part up.”

    Of course, that’s not apologia per se. But there are some issues for which some people simply will not accept an apologetic answer, and the very fact that someone tries to offer an answer is bothersome. Talking about Nauvoo polyandry in terms of “dynastic sealing,” for example, doesn’t make it any less disturbing. It’s just plain creepy from any perspective AND the Church itself won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. That’s enough for many Church members to say, “Joseph got carried away.” That doesn’t mean we deny that God worked through Joseph in other matters.

    Now, obviously, apologists cannot be tasked with figuring out whom they might irk by offering an apologetic answer. If they have reasonable theory, they should offer it. But my sense is that the new generation (in which I include myself) is frustrated with theories that won’t acknowledge potential error. In other words, to the extent apologetics cannot step back and admit the potential weaknesses in an apologetic answer — not the least of which is that the apologetic answer is often way outside what the Church itself would be willing to endorse — then the new generation will look elsewhere. Or in other other words, perhaps the new generation is looking for answers that are less lawyerly (advocating for a client) and more neutral.

    All that said, I think the work of FARMS/MI, Interpreter, MSR, etc., is has been and is very valuable — or at least I learn a lot from it — and I encourage all of you to keep it up.

    • I know of no apologist who does not acknowledge potential error in apologetic answers. Nibley’s work on many issues relating to the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, although foundational, are now superseded. Apologetic answers are sometimes wrong. Apologists are constantly updating, refining, and rejecting some apologetic responses. You’re arguing with a straw man here.

      • From the post above, I don’t think ‘potential error’ was referring to the error in the apologetic explanations themselves so much as claiming that certain things couldn’t be defended because they were themselves in error – hence: ” “Boy, that is a hard issue — maybe (insert name of prophet) just made that part up.””

        Of course, that’s a much more problematic perspective (and certainly doesn’t count as an defence of anything). While the Book of Mormon talks about the possibility of the “mistakes of men”, it also warns against condemning the things of God. It seems to be quite a different thing to talk about mistakes of men to asserting (as I’ve seen one claim) that Amulek teaches actual false doctrine about the Atonement. And who has the right to determine such “error”? It places a scholar in the position of trying to judge revelation rather than trying to understand it, a position that in the Church they have no right to (since they lack the authority) and which they’re not equipped to – what scholarly tools can possibly answer that sort of question? Indeed, the Book of Mormon suggests only further revelation can help us keep and understand that we already have.

        An approach that has scholars deciding where “(insert name of prophet) just made that part up”, and thus judging the divinity of actual revelations ends up setting scholars up as the ultimate arbiters of revelatory truth – something that’s appeared to have a disastrous effect elsewhere, and that scripture even warns against. I don’t know of any LDS scholar consciously suggesting that sort of approach, but it’s something we should stay well clear of.

  4. I appreciate all of the above attempted analysis and discussion. I would just like to ask the question regarding the definition of the new “richness”? Or as stated the “cultural depth, its scope, its usefulness” I already live in the modern “Mormon culture” and continue to see its scope and usefulness. However, I yearn for the old days and hope they can continue along all of the other paths of Mormonism. I totally agree with Dr. Hamblin’s views on this subject and other posts he has written regarding the mission of F.A.R.M.S. But why does there have to be a choice made between the supposedly “old” or “new”? I for one appreciate “The Interpreter” and all it has done and is doing to further its stated mission in its early beginnings. However one defines “apologetics”, I just want a better or “richer” understanding of our sacred texts in Mormonism. I already believe firmly regarding the truth of Mormonism. A friend of mine years ago put forth a comparison between religionists and a bunch of barking dogs. I believe we are like barking dogs looking up a tree. We are all barking after something we can only partially see, but at least we are barking up the right tree.

  5. I see Park arguing more that new apologetics is a kind of PR campaign. He’s saying that young apologists are coming to realize that you can fill a head full of facts all day, but in order to turn someone’s heart, they need to see some benefit. A positive individual or cultural impact. Richness is the answer.
    Sure, it’s not academically rigorous. But there’s a reason pop stars get more press time than statisticians. They write lyrics that connect to human hearts. If we can show that same kind of connection with the words of Abinadi, we soften hearts and open communication channels.
    If we show the world the richness of the Mormon worship experience, we give people a reason to pay attention to the scholarly stuff.

    I don’t, by any stretch, argue that the academic method is inferior. I hope both methods will work together.

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