A book of essays on the Gospel Topics Essays quietly hit the shelves last year: The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement (Signature Books, 2020), edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst. There is an introductory chapter on how the Essays came to be, then a chapter on each of the Essays by a scholar equipped to have a serious discussion on that particular topic. I plan on doing a few posts covering selected chapters. In this post, let’s talk more generally about the Essays. And there are lots of general questions to kick around.
Is This What Inoculation Looks Like?
In the early days of the Bloggernacle (like fifteen years ago), there was a lot of talk about Inoculation. This was the idea that rather than running a correlated LDS curriculum that carefully avoided any discussion of difficult issues (which is how the Church always did things), maybe it would be wise to bring up those difficult issues in Seminary or Sunday School lessons so kids (and adults) don’t get blindsided by Evangelical classmates or Facebook friends on this or that issue or problem. The assumption here is that the difficult issues were not, by themselves, fatal to LDS faith claims more generally, but that avoiding them in the curriculum increasingly sets up mainstream Mormons for a Big Surprise when they stumble into the wrong discussion with friends or on the Internet. It was really the Internet that was forcing the issue.
So eventually the Gospel Topics Essays came out (first published from 2013 to 2015). This was a bold new initiative for the Church, which had carefully avoided doing “official” apologetics up until this point. FARMS and FAIR offered unofficial LDS apologetics, and that was apparently enough for awhile. But it’s not really clear that the Essays were intended to fill the Inoculation slot. In other words, a committee of apostles sits around a table and says, “So it looks like lots of members are having questions about the translation of the Book of Mormon. What are we going to do to help them?” It’s not at all clear their response is or was, “Let’s write a lengthy essay on the topic and post it at LDS.org and tell everyone to read it. That will solve the problem.” My sense is the Essays are something, but they are not Inoculation.
What Do We Do With This Shiny New Tool?
Let me quickly note that I’m not summarizing the introductory chapter in the book, I’m just thinking out loud about the Essays before engaging with the book in future posts. It’s clear the Essays are not intended to fill the Inoculation slot, because: (1) The Essays weren’t announced or publicized as they were published, and were for several years tough to find at the LDS.org site. If you didn’t know they were there, you probably wouldn’t find them. (2) The Essays have not been matriculated into the LDS curriculum, and probably won’t be. Inoculation was discussed as a broad program. The Essays seem to be viewed as a narrow solution. Frankly, I have no clear idea what the LDS leadership thinks about the Essays.
Here’s the problem. Imagine an apostle at General Conference giving a talk along these lines: We have come to understand lots of members have serious questions about tricky doctrinal and historical issues. These are valid questions. We have published the Essays to respond to those questions and provide members with some official and faithful responses drafted by various LDS scholars, then edited, endorsed, and published by the senior leaders of the Church. Well, you can see why that won’t happen. The last thing the leadership wants to do is acknowledge that doubts are valid or well founded. And they can’t say there are bunch of trivial and silly questions that members now have, and we put out these long, detailed, serious Essays to address those trivial issues. First, most people sense the issues aren’t trivial, and second, you don’t spend a lot of time and money producing and publishing a bunch of Essays responding to trivial questions. You only respond to serious issues. So there really isn’t a productive (as opposed to counterproductive) approach to publicly explain and endorse the Essays. So they pretty much haven’t.
So what we have in the Essays is a shiny new tool that is somehow useful in an apologetic way as a response to doctrinal or historical questions that some members have. But the leadership isn’t quite sure how to use it. And the initial reaction of many members to the Essays when they come across them is more like, “Wow, this sounds like anti-Mormon discussions I have heard about,” not “It’s really nice to have these helpful official responses on these troubling issues.” The bottom line: For many mainstream Mormons, the Essays were troubling more than they were helpful. I think the leadership was a little surprised at that development. I suspect that some of the apostles think the Essays were a bad idea, at least in retrospect. I wouldn’t be surprised if they disappear from LDS.org at some point.
There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On
As I hinted at in the first section, drafting and editing and publishing a long essay is not the only way to deal with this or that topic that troubles the membership enough to warrant some sort of response. You could drop apologetic discussions into LDS lesson material. You could post articles on various topics at LDS.org or in the Ensign (now the Liahona). You could attempt to address this or that topic in Conference talks. You could do it in firesides addressed to particular demographics, LDS Youth or Young Adults or Missionaries. You could use books like the Saints volumes rather than topical essays. Or, of course, you could just do nothing and decide to not address the issues at all.
In case you haven’t noticed — most of those options are now being used. There is more open discussion of the problems and issues, and more direct attempts to address those questions, than ever before. The term “faith crisis” or some similar description appears in talks and articles. My sense from just casual observation (I haven’t gone looking in the Ensign or Conference talks, or done a Ziff-like tabulation) is that these discussions don’t often refer to the Essays. The Essays are the shiny new tool they don’t want to use.
It’s a Tool That Does Something, But What Does It Do?
So if it’s not really clear what the Essays were supposed to do, let’s ask what they are actually doing. I’m going to assume that you Readers of the Blog are aware of the Essays and have read most of them. Did they do anything for you? Did they answer any questions or just make you shake your head? Did you recommend them to a family members or to a local leader? And how did those people respond? Were they Essays helpful to them, or troubling? Did your Bishop say thanks for the link? Or did he say you ask too many questions and read too many books and don’t send me any more links?
If we’re really lucky, some Reader of the Blog had a conversation with Uncle GA and can give us some inside information about what senior leaders expected from the Essays and what, after the fact, they now think about the project. But everyone gets to share their two cents worth.
- What did you think of the Essays when you first read them?
- What do you think of them now?