Sunday, February 24, 2013
Scott Thormaehlen’s new book, Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter Days (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2013) aims to help readers deal with misunderstandings and accusations regarding LDS beliefs (p. xii). As one who has spent a good deal of time over the past couple of decades in responding to the numerous critical questions that can be hurled our way, I know this is not an easy task. In general, though, Thormaehlen does a good job in treating some common areas of concern and provides good basic material for responding to objections in many areas. Some sections may seem too shallow to satisfy the needs of some serious inquirers. I might even argue that the book is too short. Given all that is said against the Church and all that may need to be said to defend it, 124 pages for the main body of the text is relatively short, but the brevity is also a virtue for those wishing to have basic material to deal with key issues.
The organization of the book begins with a review of other faiths, early Christianity, and the apostasy. After three chapters on these themes, Thormaehlen turns to particular LDS issues, but does not begin with the Restoration but with what may be the most controversial and challenging aspect of our faith, polygamy. This is an area where a more detailed treatment or, perhaps, at least links and references for more detailed information would have been helpful. The work of Greg Smith, for example, on the issue of polyandry and other topics could at least have been mentioned for those concerned with some of the more complex and challenging aspects of polygamy (may it rest in peace). Resources at FAIRLDS.org, the Maxwell Institute, and other sites could have been mentioned for readers who wish to understand the controversies in more detail.
In general, one thing I think could have strengthened the book would have been further footnotes or hyperlinks pointing readers to more detailed sources of information. After all, crafting a sophisticated rubric sometimes requires detailed information on complex topics that can’t all fit within a book treating numerous topics. Some topics seem to be too shallow, and while space is a serious limitation, references to guide the reader would have been helpful. For example, in the discussion of Islam, there is no reference to the ground-breaking work of Daniel Peterson in advancing our appreciation of the Islam faith. A reference to his 2007 book, Muhammad: Prophet of God, or to his 2-hour CD, Understanding Islam, would have been helpful.
Speaking of Islam, I was disappointed by more than the failure to recognize Daniel Peterson’s scholarship in the area. I was troubled by the quick descent into criticism of the Muslim faith almost immediately after introducing a few basics. On page 4, for example, the author states, “For Islam to remain consistent with itself after 1,400 years, a few questions must be asked. First, where is the prophet of Allah today denouncing radical activity? Islam answers by saying that Muhammad is believed to be the last in the line of prophets. After so many centuries, has God spoken again? If so, to whom? About what? Why has he spoken again after so long? And what would the result look like if God spoke to man in more recent times?” Thormaehlen also wonders if Islam, like Christianity, has experienced its own apostasy resulting in the multiple groups claiming leadership and authority. I found these questions to be a distraction. They may also be too much like the questions that people can throw at our faith without seeking to actually understand it.
This line of questioning does not further the objectives of the book, especially when one realizes that having living prophets and apostles has not removed LDS splinter groups or brought them back into the fold. If we can have division between RLDS, Fundamentalists, and the mainstream LDS Church, surely the lack of unity in other faiths such as Islam is not proof of complete apostasy (p. 6).
The brief discussion of Judaism also focuses on the lack of modern prophets in the religion. Like Islam, Judaism has “fallen from the Biblical use of prophets.” The discussion of early Christianity also quickly turns to its apostate status since they lack living apostles and prophets, which the LDS Church has. The manifold advantages of those callings are then set forth. The review of other religions boils down to the affirmation that most other faiths do not claim to have modern prophets, while we do.
Though much is stated well, there are some statements where one may take issue. On page 12, for example, we then read that “Whenever God wanted his word spoken, he revealed it through a prophet, who then recorded it. This is the consistent pattern.” But is it? Do we not have a great deal of works spoken by prophets that were not recorded? Also on page 12, is it true that Mormons believe that the death of the Apostles led to the great Apostasy? Or was it the rejection of the Apostles prior to their death? “Among the three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), those who today do not rely on prophetic guidance are associated with times of confusion, a loss of spiritual gifts, and divisions.” But again, Mormonism has its own divisions, in spite of prophets and apostles. The issues are more complex that that.
What follows then is a discussion of favorite Bible passages related to apostasy and priesthood authority, and evidence that the role of Apostles was meant to continue in the Church. Right as I was beginning to wonder if this book was a modern version of that old classic, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, there came a quote from it in which Franklin D. Richards refers to a Catholic theologian who said Mormons don’t understand the strength of their own position relative to authority and the Restoration. In a post at By Common Consent, I have noticed that Kevin Barney shared his homework leading to identification of that priest as John M. Reiner. It’s a fascinating story told more fully in the comments to the original post.
Chapter 3 tackles the issue of whether Mormons are Christian or not, including attacks on our faith related to our failure to fully embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. The chapter turns to a listing of questionable innovations in the Catholic Church and then focuses on a critique of the practice of celibacy for priests and then indulgences, followed by a comparison of popes and prophets, along with an attack on the infallibility of popes based on the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The “violent and intolerant actions” during the Inquisition and the Crusades are contrasted with the words of Christ, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). This argument would play better if Mormon history had always reflected such ideals and did not have its own tarnish.
At this point I felt that that the book sometimes was too critical of other religions when the objective is to defend our own.
Other topics briefly addressed include infant baptism, the term “saint,” and
continuing scripture (the open canon).
Chapter 4 is dedicated to the topic of plural marriage, but without getting into the heavy issues that most require a sophisticated rubric. The section on polygamy in particular fails to even mention some of the most controversial and troublesome aspects of the practice in early LDS history, and instead focuses on whether polygamy in the Bible is justified or divinely appointed. Accepting that some ancient righteous prophets practiced polygamy does not clear away many of the specific objections to how Joseph Smith implemented it.
Further chapters tackle issues such as the premortal existence, the afterlife, and the divine potential of man, relying primarily on selecting passages from the Bible, expanded with analysis and, of course, a popular quote from C.S. Lewis that I also use on my LDSFAQ page on theosis (part of a set of LDSFAQ pages that address many related topics). Chapter 7 jumps into the controversy of salvation by faith versus works, with 7 pages on that and related issues. Chapter 8 gets into Book of Mormon issues, with a tiny cross-section of criticisms taken up such as the softball question on the legitimacy of “adieu” occurring at the end of the Book of Jacob, and the old argument about not adding or subtracting to the Bible. The responses are reasonable, but the these issues are minor ones unlikely to cause problems for a wavering member, a new convert, or a serious investigator who knows Mormon missionaries or friends who can answer these common and relatively weak arguments. This chapter would have been more meaningful to at least recognize and point to resources on more weighty attacks such as those involving DNA, apparently missing plants and animals like the horse, and the alleged lack of archaeological evidence supporting the book. Evidences in favor of the Book of Mormon could also be cited.
Several other issues are briefly addressed, and then the main body of the text ends after 124 pages.
In general, this is a useful and very readable book. It covers a lot of territory, though much of it has already been covered in other apologetic works such as Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome and the many resources at FAIRLDS.org, the Maxwell Institute, and so forth. Worth reading and pondering, but an expanded version in the future with further resources and hyperlinks for interested readers would be appreciated.