I missed the FairMormon conference last week but caught the streaming. You can still purchase the streaming option for $30 and watch all the presentations. https://www.fairmormon.org/store/conference-streaming/conference-streaming-2019

Here is a summary of selected presentations.

Don Bradley — Joseph Smith’s First Vision as Endowment and Epitome of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or Why I Came Back to the Church)

Don Bradley is a genius. I think he may be the best on the planet in terms of familiarity with the source materials of church history and being able to combine data into interesting new insights from a faithful perspective. I’m copying this summary I read elsewhere that covered the interesting points.

  1. There is an account of the first vision by the brother of Fanny Alger which includes God touching Joseph’s eyes before his is called to look upon Christ. This theme of God touching body parts to endow people with divine traits has scriptural precedent.
  2. The First Vision included Joseph being transported or elevated up to Heaven – to God’s presence – not simply him staying in the sacred grove.
  3. The First Vision was a “second sight” experience and marked Joseph’s first experience as a “seer” – something which he would go on to employ in his treasure digging. His eyes, having been touched by God, were given special ability for the purpose of being a “seer”
  4. The First Vision led to Joseph locating his first White Seer stone – base on a bright light seen far off – becoming brighter till brighter than the mid day sun – Joseph’s description of both the First Vision and locating his White seer stone – both having connections to the eventual Temple Endowment ceremony.

Ben Spackman — A Paradoxical Preservation of Faith: LDS Creation Accounts and the Composite Nature of Revelation

This was fantastic. I plan to do a more thorough treatment on this and dedicate a post to reviewing this great presentation. Ranks among my all time favorites at FairMormon with Grant Hardy and Patrick Mason from a couple years ago.

The gist of his presentation was breaking down fundamentalistic attitudes toward scripture and recognizing that scripture is *always* a cooperative effort between a perfect God and a messy and error-prone human.

Bruce C. and Sister Marie K. Hafen — Faith is Not Blind

I absolutely love their concept of describing the common human experience of going from simplicity to complexity and then back to simplicity. They call it the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

For me, I describe it like this. At first I had a very simple, literal, traditional, fundamentalistic testimony of the restored gospel. The complexity came crashing that down in the form of information I read online that challenged that simplistic view point. It seemed life was chaos during that phase. But as I worked through that over many years, my view of the gospel has returned to a simple form: focusing on the good and the lived experience and being OK with many of the literal truth claims not all tying together perfectly.

Rene Krywult — Fear Leads to the Dark Side: How to Navigate the Shallows of (Mis)Information

This presentation accused Mormon critics of lying, using big lists to overwhelm, emotionally manipulating, etc. I don’t think this approach is very helpful. He’s not wrong. Some critics do that. But that’s not the main problem or why we have a faith crisis problem in the church today. I feel like by focusing on that, we’re missing the opportunity of helping people in faith crisis make sense of the difficult information. The information is difficult. Period. If we spend our time bashing the critics for their methods, I think we just end up looking like we’re scared to take the actual information head on and don’t have the tools to help people process new information that challenges their simplistic assumptions of church history and scripture. Scott Gordon also did this in his presentation. It’s a common theme.

He also spends time creating mistrust in the internet. The Hafens, in the weakest part of their presentation, also did that.  Again, I think it’s a bad tactic. Warning millennials to not trust the internet just is not going to work in today’s world. They know how the internet works. They know there are good sources, bad sources, biased sources, sources that attempt to be more neutral, and how to figure that all out.

Here’s a thought experiment I’d like to put back on Rene. If he was given a day to write up a five page paper on the main Apologetic arguments of Jehovah’s Witness and weigh in with his evaluation of their truth claims, what sources would he use? I imagine he would start with Google. He would look at what JW officially said, but that might have the least weight. He would look at what critics say. He would look at what apologists say. He would maybe see if there was anything produced by a scholar or in a journal or publication with any sort of reputation. He would evaluate each source to see how the larger community both for and against JW seemed to trust them. If any source was using particularly emotional or manipulative language, he would drop that and move to the next source and distrust people that backed it. Using this sort of methodology, he could triangulate into the best view.

Repeat this for Scientology, Flat Earth, Catholicism, Evangelicalism. Then LDS. Would the process be any different for LDS truth claims?  Of course the Holy Ghost is required to help interpret the spiritual truth of religious claims. But to understand the factual historical details and which are correct and which are not? Research is the proper method. And it’s not impossible to sort through internet sources. Millennials know this. Don’t tell them to mistrust the internet. That’s just going to backfire. Help them process the information.

Also, another thought experiment. After doing the five page paper on LDS truth claims using this process, compare that to the experience most of us get growing up in the church and how we have been taught. Now you see why this is such a huge problem right now.

Sorry for that long tangent.

Brian Hales — Supernatural or Supernormal? Scrutinizing Secular Sources for the Book of Mormon

This is a presentation I’ve seen a couple times. He goes through five critical theories for BOM creation. The fifth one being “his intellect”. Then goes into the evidence of how the BOM was dictated with no notes, no manuscript, over a 90 day period of time. And then also the evidence of how complex and consistent the Book of Mormon is. I agree! He then concludes that the only possible theory that’s left is that the BOM was dictated word for word to Joseph Smith by God through the seer stone, with zero contribution by Joseph. I don’t agree.

This is another presentation I want to do a full blog post on, because BOM creation is one of my favorite topics. This is a sloppy paragraph, which I knocked out quickly in a facebook comment and gives a preview of where I’m going with this.

Can you think about it this way? Let’s first imagine a purely humanistic effort with no Spirit or power of God involved. Joseph uses his own intellect, he thinks of a lot of source material, dreams up the plot, thinks about it for many years, then he’s with Oliver that spring-summer and he produces it dictating six pages at a time for 90 days or whatever the math works out. Let’s put a scale up in terms of complexity and consistency and call the Book of Mormon a 100. A 1 would be the worst effort you could think of, making no sense, and full of error and lacking in consistent internal plot. What do you think Joseph Smith could knock out himself, with no help from God whatsoever? Let’s call that an 11. Pretty poor. Maybe with your education and experience with the Bible and religious texts, you could do a 70, but let’s assume you couldn’t do a Book of Mormon level 100. Do you think that God by blessing and consecrating Joseph’s effort and giving him a special power and strength could lift him up to a 100? Not give him the words, so that he’s not even doing anything. But take his 11 level effort and endow him with knowledge and and power and special ability so that he could knock out a 100 level text. Do you think that’s possible? And if so, don’t you think a process like that fits the historical data as well or better than a pure dictation model with no contribution from Joseph?

Tad Callister — A Case for the Book of Mormon

I love a lot of what Callister does. He testifies of the complexity, spiritual power, doctrinal profundity of the Book of Mormon. How could Joseph have done it himself? I agree. He gives examples of how the Book of Mormon has transformed and impacted so many lives, and brought so many people to Christ, including himself. I agree.

What I think he does very poorly is connecting this to historicity. He doesn’t allow for any possibility that the Book of Mormon could be inspired scripture if it’s not historical. And then the apologetics and arguments he uses to support historicity seem very weak to me.

Daniel Peterson — “Idle Tales”? The Witness of Women

I enjoyed the presentation a lot. Informational and well done. He included examples of many women and men who have testified both generally of Jesus Christ and the restoration, specifically the gold plates.

He included this quote from non-LDS scholar Ann Taves.

Taves: I would argue both that he believed what he was saying and that there were no ancient golden plates in the archaeological sense that there were plates that were thousands of years old.

Elder Craig C. Christensen — Foundations of Our Faith

It’s great hearing an actual General Authority speak at FairMormon and weigh in on the issues. I loved Elder Christensen’s talk. It was very interesting how he wouldn’t give full endorsement to FairMormon (however Elder Pearson last year did—so I’m not making too strong of a point on that), because he said it’s good that FairMormon is disconnected from the Church so that it can go into more speculative and non-official answers and theories to help answer historical issues. That made me feel like it’s possible he feels the same way about my approach as an Apologist answering the critics.

Quoting a 1935 statement from the First Presidency:

There are two great truths that must be believed by mankind if they are to be saved:

  • That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God
  • That God has restored to the earth, through the prophet Joseph Smith, the fulness of His everlasting Gospel

I love the simplicity of that. I believe it. I don’t think it matters that each of us might have a little bit different understanding of what those two bullet point items mean. That’s not essential. The gospel is simple. We need not defend every single point. We just need to focus on those two.