by Christian Y. Cardall
I wonder, might FARMS in some instances do more harm than good? I mention two potential areas of concern. (I’m even less familiar with FAIR than I am with FARMS, but perhaps much of this applies to them as well.)
One potential problem is that in addressing arguments against Mormonism, FARMS makes Church members aware of potential problems they never knew existed. A personal example of this can be found in this recent thread. During a discussion of a particular feature of the Book of Mormon narrative, I speculated whether this feature might be explainable in connection with the possible reflection in the text of some nineteenth century concerns. I was subsequently chastised for having “bought Vogel’s argument.”
What’s ironic about this charge is that I have never read any Vogel, or either of the volumes edited by Metcalfe, for that matter; what I know of their arguments I know from a couple of FARMS articles railing against them. But even without reading the original arguments, being only dimly aware of their ideas from reading FARMS critiques thereof, in subsequent readings of the Book of Mormon the passages that might be used as a basis for the anti-historicist ideas pop out with at least a superficial plausibility. Moreover, the relatively few less-than-sanitized books on Mormonism I have read are ones of which I was made aware through the FARMS Review.
A second potential problem with FARMS intellectual sword-crossing is that the confrontations with detractors and anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon raise the question of whether this is even an appropriate way to address critics. In these encounters, it does not seem they are ever beat at their own game; they are never convincingly defeated by argument. Time and again it is the prophets’ personal revelatory experiences that fortify them as individuals, and open demonstrations of divine power—to either the destruction or miraculous conversion of the detractors—that end up convincing the entire community.
The moral of these stories seems to be that one should trust in the power of God and in prophetic and personal revelation even when—as may always be the case—the naysayers’ arguments cannot be otherwise answered convincingly. Individual members could follow this lead, refusing to engage the critics on an intellectual basis at all, but relying only on personal revelation and attacks on critics’ worthiness as license (or indeed a moral imperative) to ignore them. (Come to think of it, perhaps some FARMS authors do some of this reasonably well!) And on a public basis, perhaps it is not FARMS that is needed against the likes of Vogel and Metcalfe, but President Hinckley striking them dumb. It’d be nice if our dispensation had its share of spectacular public showdowns.
Now don’t get me wrong; I personally am glad FARMS exists. To me, a failure to intellectually examine and evaluate available evidence and ideas would be both unthinkable and unconscionable—a betrayal of a legacy of independent pursuit of truth exemplified by, for example, John Taylor (not to mention Brigham Young and Joseph himself). I tend to think that only by knowing as much as possible about the scriptures and their background can it possible to appreciate them for what they truly are, whatever that may turn out to be.
But given the two concerns above, I can see how some might think otherwise, and why there may have been a trend towards leaving the sort of work FARMS does out of official Church discourse—magazines, lesson manuals, conference talks. I get the sense that voices like Nibley’s or B. H. Roberts’ used to be welcome in the first two of these official channels, and of course Roberts spoke in conference, but I don’t know the extent to which his intellectual bent penetrated his conference talks. But nowadays I can imagine the leaders saying, ‘Okay, let FARMS be out there as a safety net for those unfortunate souls infected with the intellectual bug, but let’s bring it under the ægis of BYU to ensure that in some future day it doesn’t end up taking strength unto itself. Moreover, let the intellectualism in the Church be quarantined there. In official channels let’s avoid engagement with an intellectual mode of discourse, but instead stick with material that brings the Spirit, helps for practical gospel living, and affirms our unique identity as Saints; and let any doctrinal material be largely restricted to past authoritative statements (let’s start the Gospel Classics series!) and summary articles written by reliable authors willing to steer clear of controversy.’