Daniel C Peterson is a respected Islamic Studies professor Brigham Young University but much of his work involves producing apologetic literature within the broader mission of the Neal A Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly known as FARMS).
I’ve never met Dan personally but have interacted with him online. We have had a couple of spirited debates but for the most part I simply observe the relationship between Mormon critics and apologists (too strict and a false dichotomy in many ways). In large part, substantive issues are raised but the conversation usually degenrates into contest to see who can dispense the most clever and biting rhetoric. Certainly entertaining, but disappointing as well.
I would argue that the tenor and nature of Mormon apologetics can be attributed to one man: Hugh Nibley. After the release of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, Nibley wrote a scathing review entitled No Maam, that’s not History. As a young LDS missionary I read Nibley’s review for the first time and thought, based on Brodie’s evidence he chose to present, that Nibley had shown Brodie’s scholarship and work to be of little, if any, value. 10 years later when I actually read Brodie’s book myself, I became disapointed in Nibley. While he raised many good points he failed to address Brodie on a substantive level. What he provided was not a review or even a critique. It was a polemic against Brodie and her work.
A similar polemical style has permeated Mormon apologetics ever since. Several times I have read from the FARMS Review and been frustrated that the reviewers spend so much time on peripheral, insubstantial issues and only briefly, if ever, engage the actual thesis of the work being reviewed. A good example of this is Russel McGregor’s review of JP Holding’s The Mormon Defenders. Holding’s response is very interesting.
I certainly don’t want to say that all of the Maxwell Institute’s work is polemical. A lot of great stuff comes out of the MI. Unfortunately, reviews of books written by perceived “anti-Mormons” or “Church critics,” are published the polemical cannons come out, as it were.
Works written by Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, which are very symathetic and unapolgetically biased towards the Latter-day Saint worldview (both Bushman and Givens are devout Latter-day Saints) seem to engage critics on a substantive level. Personally, I find this type of approach much more appealing than a battle of wits within an echo chamber.
Back to Daniel Peterson. Dan will never be a Bushman or Givens in tone or approach. I get the impression that it simply isn’t his personality and that he enjoys engaging critics in what he sees as a clever and entertaining way. I’m the first to admit you would be hard pressed to find someone as witty as Peterson.
Anyway, I don’t want to ramble on too long so in summary, I’m going to provide wish list of sorts:
- Critics need to lay off of Dan personally. Just as they expect Dan to engage specific arguments, they too should engage arguments only. Personal attacks may be entertaining but they can be hurtful. Stope digging into and his personal life. I mean, someone took the time to check out what books Dan’s had in his Amazon wishlist. Really?? Such behavior is pure nonsense.
- The MI should take a hard look at the tone of its book reviews. They can be quite nasty and this nastiness adds nothing to the conversation. Besides, being nasty is antithetical to the teachings of the LDS Church.
- Dan needs to be more explicit if he is engaging in “good natured humor” because when you have to explain the joke, the joke wasn’t funny. By NOT being absolutely clear in this regard, Dan “feeds the trolls”, as it were.
I like reading Dan’s work as well as the work of LDS Church critics like Brent Metcalfe and Dan Vogel. I even found JP Holding’s work to be a unique take on evangelical theological opposition to Mormonism.
I close with a quote from Jesus which I hope helps to shape the future of both Mormon criticism and apologetics:
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.