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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: Day of Defense by Scott Thormaehlen

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.  

I was disappointed to see an old myth repeated, namely, the idea that so many Mormon men had been killed due to persecution that polygamy was needed (p. 42). This is said to be a paraphrase of Glen Leonard’s acclaimed Nauvoo, A Place of Peace, but I worry that some misunderstanding is involved since I don’t think Leonard as a respected historian would offer this argument. It is not supported by demographic data nor by accounts of the persecution against Mormons. We were treated badly in several areas, and there were some deaths. But these amount to a handful of victims, not hundreds and certainly not thousands. The bloody and infamous massacre at Haun’s Mill had about 18 victims. There were a handful of victims from the Mormon War in Missouri, the attack on Carthage Jail, and other scattered events. But nearly all of these deaths occurred after polygamy was already in place. Much larger numbers of deaths came from the mass crossing of the plains, including Winter Quarters and the Martin Handcart Company, where there were several deaths from exposure and disease, but females were also  vulnerable, and the deaths of males did not cause dramatic drops in the proportion of marriageable men for the Church as a whole. Polygamy as a way to compensate for numerous male martyrs does not withstand scrutiny, and it is especially hard to argue that this had anything to do with starting polygamy in the first place. I have not yet read Leonard’s book, but I don’t think Leonard could actually be making that argument.

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.

Update, March 31, 2013: In response to my suggestions, Scott has thoughtfully modified a couple of sections of the book to solve some problems I pointed out. This is a huge advantage of an electronic book and having an author willing to listen and respond to criticism. Much appreciated. My critic of comments related to the gender-imbalance myth and polygamy is no longer relevant and is deleted above. Scott also pointed out that I was reading something unintended into his explanation of the purpose of the book, and I deleted a critical sentence in that area also.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Credit where credit is due: Jeff, I appreciate the way you respond here to Thormaehlen's treatment of polygamy. To your comments about the problems with the "gender-imbalance" defense, I would add that in the pre-1890 church plural marriage was consistently and enthusiastically defended as an eternal and theological rather than a temporary and practical issue. It was never presented merely as a solution to a short-term problem (which, as you rightly note, wasn't a problem in the first place).

I also like the honest way you respond to the problem of defending one's own faith without denigrating others, as when you write that Thormaehlen's criticism of Catholicism "would play better if Mormon history had always reflected such ideals and did not have its own tarnish." (In truth, Catholicism is a lot more tarnished, but then again it's had a lot more time to compile its record.)

Having said that, I will also say that, while tolerance and mutual respect are fine, the LDS Church does believe itself to be the one true church (and the others to be, at best, apostate). It's been this way ever since Joseph Smith claimed he was told in his vision that none of the existing churches were true. It's not as if the LDS Church believes considers itself just one among many equally valid ways of understanding the divine mysteries. The Church believes it is right and the others are wrong, and I'm not sure that its apologetics can ever really get away from that.

Of course, it's not just the LDS Church that defined itself in opposition to other religions. Christianity did so, right from its start with Paul. Judaism also did so (whether you consider Judaism to start with Abraham's repudiation of his father's idol worship or with the much later prophetic denunciations of the religions being practiced in the "high places").

If reading Thormaehlen on these kinds of issues leaves you feeling dissatisfied, I would recommend some much meatier, smarter, better informed, and more challenging books that you will truly find worth reading, starting with James Carroll's wonderful Constantine's Sword, David Nirenberg's recent Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (reviewed here), and John Gray's The Silence of Animals (reviewed here).

-- Eveningsun

Scott Thormaehlen said...

I've written Jeff addressing some of his concerns. I hope to see those integrated into a revised review. My hope was not to condemn other religions, but to identify characteristics of the O.T. and N.T. combined, that create a simple pattern: that God uses prophets and continually adds or provides modern revelation.

One thing I do, is question how can we know which division of Islam is true? They answer that there are no more prophets, so I would like to see, as the LDS Church can provide, what characteristics one can definitively point to identifying the right Islamic sect? What are most Americans missing to bridge the death of Muhammed with modern Islam? In the LDS faith one can easily look to the structure of the 12 Apostles as being prophets, seers, and revelators carrying the work of Joseph to the Rockies. Did Joseph Smith not say that the saints would settle in the Rockies? People might pretend that Mormon divisions muddy the water and make it so it is indistinguishable to identify if Brigham and the following prophets carried on the true faith...but is it really that muddied?

Also, at what point does a Jew look at their own history, and by what standard or evidence do they continue their religion, breaking away from God's pattern? Besides, all Christians before the Church grew into Greece and Rome, were composed of a Jewish membership. The idea isn't to focus on bashing other religions, as it is to point out characteristics, and ask tough questions. Merely having the blood of a Jewish person does not make that person in modern days endowed with the "right religion." The point of Chapter 1 is to put the three larger faiths of the God of Israel: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in perspective as to why there are so many religions. The first stigma that Day of Defense addresses is "God is too big for one religion". My purpose is to ask, since when? Sure, there are a lot of divisions...but the Bible provides a simple blue print for how God works...and I simply argue that the LDS Church, through the faith of a young, humble truth seeker, God continues his marvelous work in the same manner he always has.

I appreciate the remarks and the critical analysis of Day of Defense.

Scott Thormaehlen said...

Anonymous...

I appreciate your comments:

<...the LDS Church does believe itself to be the one true church (and the others to be, at best, apostate). It's been this way ever since Joseph Smith claimed he was told in his vision that none of the existing churches were true. It's not as if the LDS Church believes considers itself just one among many equally valid ways of understanding the divine mysteries. The Church believes it is right and the others are wrong, and I'm not sure that its apologetics can ever really get away from that.

Of course, it's not just the LDS Church that defined itself in opposition to other religions. Christianity did so, right from its start with Paul. Judaism also did so (whether you consider Judaism to start with Abraham's repudiation of his father's idol worship or with the much later prophetic denunciations of the religions being practiced in the "high places").>

However, regarding polygamy, Jacob 2 in the BOM tells us the purpose. I also don't believe more than 3% of the Church practiced authorized polygamy nor was it necessary for eternal life unless the prophet asked/commanded certain members to engage in such marriages. I purposely did not get into the supposed abuses or bad practices of the saints, especially those attributed to Joseph Smith. My intentions with the book are to provide a biblical basis for some of Mormonism's oddest beliefs, not to rely so much on extra-biblical research and modern "problems." I believe the Church is perfect and the people are not. If even the prophet himself became proud and married himself to too many women, perhaps that is what he was cut down? I don't know that there is enough primary source material to give hard evidence to the prophets behavior or where to find it...so I admittedly do leave the more seasoned apologetics or critics with remaining questions on issues I chose not to tackle. My book was meant to be short to keep the attention of the reader and provide, perhaps not a "sophisticated rubric" as much as an "Into to Mormonism and the Bible."




Anonymous said...

Scott, you write that you "would like to see, as the LDS Church can provide, what characteristics one can definitively point to identifying the right Islamic sect?"

OK, so the difference between the Mormons and the Muslims, the difference that somehow makes Mormon claims more defensible than Muslim claims, is that the Mormons have living prophets. Their Ultimate Authorities live in the present; Muslim's Ultimate Authorities do not.

I guess I'm supposed to be reassured that Mormonism offers me a living prophet as a conduit to God's truth. Awesome! Just what I've been looking for! But wait.... Which living Mormon prophet is the right one? There are so many different living prophets to choose from! There's Thomas Monson, Warren Jeffs, Vernon Whiting.... So I guess I still need to know what "characteristics can one definitively point to identifying the right Mormon sect?"

There are some tough questions here that you seem more willing to ask about Islam than about Mormonism. You're claiming not only that there continue to be living prophets, but also that you know who they are. Why should I believe either claim? Maybe it would be nice if there were living prophets, just as it would be nice for everyone to get a nice shiny pony, but just because something would be nice doesn't make it so.

Again, maybe it would be nice if Thomas Monson were a living prophet, but how can I possibly know whether the prophetic mantle was passed on to him through Brigham Young (and the LDS Church), and not to others through Joseph Smith III (and the Community of Christ), or to yet others through James Strang, or to yet others through Lorin Woolley and the Hildale polygamists? Each of these Mormon sects makes the same claims to legitimacy that you make for your own sect.

It's all so confusing! How do you know that you are right and they are wrong? You cannot possibly appeal here to the notions of living prophets and continuing revelation, because the other sects believe in those notions, too, every bit as strongly as you do.

So why should I believe your claims, and not those of, say, a follower of Warren Jeffs?

-- Eveningsun

Scott Thormaehlen said...

Eveningsun

On point number 1, about Islam, their ultimate authority was 1,400 years ago and all I am asking is IF anyone has any distinguishable characteristics that allow one investigating Islam to know for within reason which of the sects is consistent. That is not to say they do not, but the LDS Church has a simple and consistent connection with where the N.T. left off. Peter, James, and John appeared to J. Smith and gave him the priesthood. That falls in line with the Great Apostasy and the need for a restoration as described by the N.T. that I go into with the book. Also, are Muslims Gentiles? Where does the Bible say this lineage will have the Gospel?

Number 2, this book will be marketed primarily to the LDS audience and to those who understand Mormonism to some degree, whether through a negative light or struggle with basic stigmas.

The point about living prophets and discussing Christianity, Islam, and Judaism draws on the a pattern one can easily examine in the Bible, a book all these groups claim to revere. This pattern is that God calls prophets and very few religions today that are spread all over the earth, building the kingdom, claim to have a prophet. In the end it is up to the reader to decide. My mind has been made up, with the evidence I address and much much more that I never intended on answering that you will not find i the book.

To continue with point number 2, a few things can tell you who the mantel was passed to. For one, the Community of Christ lost their "prophetic line" years ago when there were no more direct descendants of Smith. Also, where did J. Smith ever say it would pass from himself to his son, and not the 12 apostles? Also, didn't J. Smith acknowledge that the saints would be established in the Rockies? Where did the Community of Christ remain? Also, assuming the mantel fell to Brigham Young along with the other 12 Apostles, I'm pretty sure the Church in SLC is documented well enough to show that at no point did the descendants of Warren Jeff's predecessors correctly assume the mantle. The practice ended with the Manifesto. J. Smith said the Church would spread over the earth, Jeff's group are in isolated areas of Texas, AZ, UT, and Canada from what I understand. Also, I don't see any of the groups you mention as having missionaries all over the earth. Those are just a few characteristics I can think of that distinguish the groups. One could speculate, why not there other groups? But one would first have to find a connection of how the other branches are more correct and are they the Gospel spreading to all the earth?

I would look at current LDS leadership and ask wherein have they erred in past scripture and doctrine during General Conference or otherwise? Prophets are moral teachers...the current LDS authorities are just that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jeff and Scott.

Scott Thormaehlen said...

In my book, I said it was written to "help initiate within the LDS community a "sophisticated rubric" for dealing with misconceptions" towards our faith, not that IT was the sophisticated rubric. Hence, much of the research was left out. I figure the best way to talk to non-members is with the Bible, not with information from the Maxwell Institute or very much from FAIR. For more seasoned critics, that would be necessary and much needed.

It felt like a daunting task to take on alone exactly how Joseph Smith implemented the practice of plural marriage. I hoped that if I could lay out the biblical foundation, that would be a good starting point and allow someone else in the community to pick up the other pieces, or do so myself in a revised addition.

Many of the sources are very difficult to find and not really shared in the LDS community on some of this controversial topic matter.

As far as Islam and Judaism, I never meant to deconstruct the faiths, but only to show the 3 major religions evolved out of 1, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Such a split in light of the O.T. is unprecedented and I figured the best way to talk about which of the Christian sects followed more closely to the Bible, I had better set the foundation for why this bigger split exists. The LDS Church claims to be the one true Church and I figured looking to the O.T. as a pattern that such a concept once existed would set the tone for the rest of the book...that in 1830 the last dispensation began.

Scott Thormaehlen said...

Jeff, you are correct. The only thing Leonard suggests is that there were a couple of orhpans J. Smith married. There is nothing I could see about there being more women or men due to deaths, persecution, etc. In my original drafts something may have been removed or moved around, but Leonard doesn't suggest this from what I read. In Day of Defense, there were only two statements about this myth and they have been removed.

The issue of plural marriage in DofD relies mainly on the doctrinal and recorded means for why it is practiced. I do not go into the the wives of Joseph Smith, or how it was implemented, for good or for bad. The idea is to create the Biblical reasoning first, and perhaps a later addition can get into other stigmas about this issue.

Anonymous said...

"The idea is to create the Biblical reasoning first"

Scott,

I have been troubled by this for some time. Polygamy may be a practice one can justify in the Bible, but what Biblical reasoning can possibly be made to explain J.Smith's POLYANDRY? Why would he ever need to marry a married woman? Especially when some were still married to faithful LDS men?