Intellectual defense of the faith

Apologetics group sponsors conference to discuss claims of adversarial critics

OREM, Utah — From the moment of its founding, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the object of adversarial criticism. In recent times, some individuals and groups independent of the Church have endeavored to counter such criticism, alleviate misconceptions and correct falsehood. Among these is the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR).

Apologetics in this context can be defined, according to one dictionary, as "the branch of theology having to do with the defense and proofs of Christianity," specifically, in this case, Latter-day Saint Christianity.

"The purpose of FAIR is not to debate, argue, or contend with critics of our faith," said Scott Gordon, president. "Our goal is to help members and investigators of the Church deal with the issues that the critics raise." Pursuant to that goal, the organization maintains an informational Web site at

The fifth annual FAIR conference was held Aug. 7 and 8 at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah. Eighteen speakers addressed a variety of topics. Here are summaries of some points made by a few of the speakers.

Daniel C. Peterson

Religion in general, and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular, tend to be an inviting target for some in the secular media, observed Daniel C. Peterson in his presentation at the conference.

"This has not been a very good year for the Church in terms of publicity on its history, particularly on the question of Mormons and violence," said Brother Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and past chairman of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).

"Journalists tend overwhelmingly to be to the political left, and that's a pretty non-debatable, unobjectionable, non-controversial finding," he said. "That would make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a particularly attractive target, because it pushes a lot of the hot buttons of the left." He cited the Church's corporate organizational structure and the tendency toward social and political conservatism among the membership. "Anything conservative tends to draw the attention of that sort of person who wants to do an expose," he explained.

But why has it recently become fashionable in some quarters to talk about Mormonism and relate it to violence? "I think the clear difference is [the events of] Sept. 11 [2001]," he said. Now the idea of religion and violence is very much in the news. We have seen groups like the Taliban, al-Qaida and [others] who would zealously commit planned violence in the name of religious belief. There are people out there, secularists in particular, who see religion as the cause of violence, and this gives rise to a book like Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven." The prominent idea of the book, Brother Peterson said, is that religion in general, not merely Mormonism, is "a throwback. It's an atavistic influence and society would be better were it to disappear; it creates suffering, it creates judgmentalism, it leads to violence."

To counter that notion, Brother Peterson pointed out that in the 20th Century, "scores of millions of people have died, largely at the hands of militant atheists" or near-atheists. "Now, I do not for a moment say atheism causes that," he added. "I just say there are other things that cause mass murder besides religion."

Brother Peterson said an evil act done by a Christian leader is apt to make headlines. "Meanwhile, that day, religious faith has solved thousands, tens of thousands of personal questions for people. It has helped people get by the death of loved ones. It's helped them make moral decisions. It's contributed to the goodness of life in innumerable ways. These will never make it into the headlines."

Roger Keller

People in other religious traditions are not the competitors of the Latter-day Saints, declared Roger Keller, professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, in his presentation at the conference on "the Grace of Apologetics."

"They are our co-travelers," he said. "In many instances they prepare the way for us to proclaim the fulness of the gospel."

Brother Keller, who teaches a course on comparative religions, said, "I do not believe that I have to undercut another person's position to make my position look good. If I have to do that, I don't have a position. . . . If I have to do that, I'm not depending upon the Holy Spirit, who validates what is true."

In sharing the gospel, "one has to work from a position of proclamation," he said. "In the end, my job is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it and let the Holy Spirit do His job. If I do that, nobody can get uptight."

Brother Keller said he was at a meeting of Lutherans recently where the bishop of Madagascar said to him, "Your missionaries . . . don't go out and look for non-Christians, they come and teach my members."

"And I said, 'Yes, we do, and it's because we believe there is a fulness to the gospel. We have something that adds to and builds on the truths that you already have. If we didn't love you, we wouldn't come to you.' "

He said Latter-day Saints, if they are going to talk about other faiths, have "an absolute divine commission to be accurate in what we say about their faiths. . . . If I want somebody to do that with mine, then I have the absolute obligation to do it with theirs."

Michael Rhodes

Detractors have challenged the authenticity of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price on the basis of Facsimiles 1 and 3 therein having been identified by scholars as being part of an ancient Egyptian text, the Book of Breathings. That text can be reliably dated to around the Second Century B.C., nearly 2,000 years after Abraham. Michael Rhodes, associate research professor in Ancient Scripture at BYU, responded to that criticism in his FAIR presentation.

"The answer, to me, is simply that these illustrations ultimately derive through a 2,000-year period from illustrations done by Abraham but have, in the intervening period, been adopted and adapted for other uses," he explained. "What Joseph Smith did was to simply give the original interpretation of the illustrations as they had been done by Abraham, although they're in a very distorted form as they appear now."

Does evidence exist to show that anciently these illustrations were associated with Abraham? "That's the real pivotal question," Brother Rhodes said, "and the answer is yes."

For example, an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating roughly to the First or Second Century A.D. has a lion couch scene similar to that found in the Book of Abraham, he said. A portion underneath the scene contains the name Abraham as the subject of a sentence that breaks off because a portion of the papyrus is missing. "The key point here is an ancient Egyptian papyrus that Joseph Smith didn't know about associates this scene with Abraham," Brother Rhodes noted.

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