When heated discussions about Mormonism come up online with negative portrayals of theology, almost inevitably a Mormon will make what at first sounds like a reasonable request. They will ask as an analogy, If you want to learn about Ford vehicles, do you go to a Honda dealership? No, they will state. This will be followed by a request to ask a Mormon or, visit mormon.org, or lds.org websites for research. Not sure where this “meme” reaction came from. It isn’t a completely bad request, but it can be cringe worthy.
The problem is the phrasing and logic of the answer is not correct. When you want to learn about Ford vehicles, do you go to a Honda dealership? Well yes you will go to both if you want a good comparison in price and reliability. In fact, those looking for a car in general might go to a number of dealerships unless they have made up their minds already what kind of brand they hold loyalty or preference.
There are some examples from my own study of Mormonism that explains how research from both critics and more faithful places give the possibility of better perspective. Without reprinting my full posts on learning about LDS history and doctrine there are some points I’d like to quote in amalgamation. Some in the “bloggernacle” might say its a discussion of “inoculation” against more serious issues of the faith. That is partly true, but I prefer to think of it as how a person can truly learn any subject when there are competing narratives.
My first full biography on Joseph Smith was by John Henry Evans, a rather unsophisticated treatment. What intrigued me about the book was less how definitive it was than how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. That there was more to the man and the Prophet than the author presented didn’t bother me — it fascinated me.
Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I had decided to find another one. As with so many people, that would be Fawn Brodie’s treatment. At this point my focus of LDS Church history was set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. I read a few chapters, a few at the start and a couple in the middle (I have since read in full). Unlike so many people who apparently read her treatment and become disenchanted, I was unimpressed. As a teenager I could tell where history stopped and her own unfounded biases filled in the gaps. Where Evan’s book was sketchy, this one had been overproduced. Reading Hugh Nibley’s criticism about the book was not a discovery, but a realization I wasn’t the only one seeing the problems.
Another curiosity is that for all the “hidden” information, it is interesting that the bulk of the knowledge comes from LDS produced writings. For example, other than a few original newspaper sources and letters, Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” mostly uses The Joseph Smith History and Journal of Discourses. Aside from that, much of what she talks about can be found in B.H. Robert’s Comprehensive History of the Church from a different perspective. Now, if you go to blatant anti-LDS works, they are a compendium of quotes (badly edited and way out of context) from LDS sources. To paraphrase Scully from the X-Files, “the [information] is there. You just have to know where to look.” Thus, a person can actually go to the source material even more so than ever before and decide for themselves what the bigger or different picture might include.
Next time there are negative statements discovered online that need countered, get rid of the Ford only analogy. Direct them to positive LDS Church related material, but don’t imply that is the only place to get accurate information. It gives off the impression that Mormons are trying cover-up rather than expand sourcing. Those people blatantly anti-LDS are easy to detect because they ignore other interpretations and critical contexts. Thoughtful people don’t like propaganda from either side as a single source of information.
My own quick reply other than direct answers to specific charges would be,
“You can get a better understanding of how Mormons view the issues and history by asking a Mormon or visiting the official websites. You can’t learn about a Ford [Democrat] if you only consider the views of a Honda dealership [Republican].”