Is an apologetics class feasible at BYU?

Ever since Elder Ballard challenged graduating students to take a more active role in explaining and defending the gospel on the internet, I have felt that the time was ripe to develop an academic course designed to do just that. BYU is the ideal place to pilot such a program. Now the average student has a hard time justifying extra-curricular activities with all the other demands on their time. But offer up academic credit that can be used to meet religion requirements for participating on the internet and I anticipate a proverbial Helaman’s army could be mobilized.

The main attraction would be a weekly guest invited to speak on controversial topic open to the public. Of course, one can find a smattering of apologetically oriented lectures going on at BYU already at the Sperry Symposium, church history symposia, and church education week, etc. However, most of these forums have a continuing education vibe to them and are only sparsely attended by traditional students. Of course, there are intermediary outlets for exceptional students to present research whether it is the SANE conference or through submissions to a paper writing contest. That talent pool could be recruited from alongside seniors looking to fulfill their last religion elective.

The class would break up into sections and meet in smaller rooms and be taught by a regular instructor for the second hour each week.  Grading would be largely based on writing assignments for blogs and keeping a journal of time spent on internet participation. Participation points can be gained on message boards, through making newspaper comments, or from critiquing or providing tech support for other students prior to web publishing. The text for the class would be a selection of articles drawn heavily from the Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, and the Journal of Mormon History. Tests would be take-home and evaluate a student’s ability to find reliable sources to address specific criticisms against the church.

Realistically a class tackling controversial issues would no doubt create all kinds of headaches for BYU’s administration. I would like to know what other Bloggernacle participants think about the desirability and feasibility about such a class.

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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

24 thoughts on “Is an apologetics class feasible at BYU?

  1. Keller- splendid idea. What a wonderful idea to “inoculate” our young adults. A class like this would benefit those about to embark a mission. Missionaries need all the facts in order to teach others. When the hard questions come up, they need to provide appropriate information.

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  3. It is an interesting idea and I hope you look more into seeing if this is a possibility.

    However, personally, I think the best “defense” the church can make is the “by their fruits shall ye know them” defense. I don’t think the world is very impressed with *obviously biased* apologetic arguments in the churches defense. What they will like to see is hard data showing things like:

    1. We as a people provide the world with a substantially high amount of service.
    2. Our faith leads to a people that is happier and healthier on average.
    3. We produce the top writers, plumbers, scientists, golfers, engineers, real estate salesman, lawyers, doctors, etc… The gospel leads us to being very productive and successful with whatever we put our minds to.
    3. Our marriages and families are more likely to last and be filled with happiness.
    4. Etc…
    5. Ie.. when people say show me the beef that our gospel bears good fruits, we can immediately demonstrate it.

    That in my experience speaks to people loader than apologetic arguments. That is what I would personally like to see BYU put its energy in: cultivating generations who bring results, not just talk.

    For example, none of my graduate friends have taken interest in my arguments for why the Book of Mormon is scripture comparable to the Bible. However, they have all been *highly* impressed with how much help and assistance the local ward has given me as my family has recently gone through some very trying medical experiences. They are impressed the gospel has motivated so many people to be so helpful to someone in need.

  4. Don’t get me wrong, just because I don’t think the world is interested in apologetic arguments doesn’t mean the class won’t be very interesting and a joy to take/teach. Again, I do hope you look into it.

  5. Joseph,

    What makes you think the primary audience of apologetics is non-Mormon?

    My experience has been that the lion-share of work in LDS apologetics is more about helping active LDS not feel ashamed of their own faith – not promoting it to other people. Perhaps this is a failing of LDS apologetics that needs to be remedied. But it does seem to be the case.

  6. J. Smidt,

    I think your examples of what potentially attracts people to Mormonism raise an important question of whether an apologetics class would make a welcome addition to the curricula or not. Certainly the role of rational argument can play in help shaping our public image or leading to missionary opportunities can be overstated. At best, apologetics can remove stumbling blocks but doesn’t do much to build faith and conviction.

    So I can see where an apologetics class might be perceived as too much of a “gospel hobby,” and that is one of the reasons why any decision to teach it as a class is above my pay grade.

  7. Let me also note that I appreciate the encouragement to continue developing a course. I have volunteered to teach a class in the past at BYU but my timing wasn’t quite right.

    I also don’t quite fit the profile of someone BYU lets teach religion courses. Beyond its regular faculty, the religion department recruits faculty from other departments, grad students, career CES/Institute instructors, and prominent community figures to teach religion classes.

    I am currently looking for an electrical engineering job and it might take me out of the Provo area. I would like to see someone pick up the torch if I can’t follow through.

  8. I could see it. I say go for it.

    For one thing, you have an enormous pool of potential guest-lecturers from all across the ‘nacle. Of course, that may not be a very good selling point for BYU administration.

  9. I had a New Testament class at BYU that required weekly papers related to whatever content (the focus was Luke and John) was covered that week. The weekly papers were a grind, not because the writing itself was hard, but because I had an impossible time finding a way to approach the topics without being either milquetoast or argumentative. The former approach is just boring, and I didn’t like how I would feel when doing the latter. It has a lot to do with the intended audience, and proving some new point to a professor who studies such things for a living (or even his secretary who read the papers) is the worst kind of preaching to the choir. I was only too relieved to get out of that class when the semester ended.

    An apologetic course, I fear, would inflict the same problem on a lot of the students who take it. Avoiding controversies and misunderstandings is problematic, but so is becoming contentious about them. I can see some use in such a course, but my feeling is that the best way to learn how to defend the faith is in real-world experience, interacting with real people with specific quibbles instead of a theoretical audience that can’t provide feedback or clarification for their concerns.

  10. I think the biggest concern of the class would have to be how to engage in apologetics without becoming a complete jerk. This is a real problem for Mormon apologists, me included.

    It’s very hard to engage the kind of hatred and stupidity that’s out there without becoming very snide, insulting, and cynical in your remarks. I think any class would need to keep this problem as a central ongoing theme and concern for the entire semester.

    Call it professionalism if you want. But it’s a vital quality to cultivate in new apologists.

  11. witteafval,

    You bring up some good points about the challenges of making a religion class writing intensive. I would only plan on having students write 4-5 blog essays during the semester following the three paragraphs and the truth rule proposed by DMI Dave http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com/mormon_inquiry/2006/07/what_i_have_lea.html .

    I think writing for public consumption is less difficult than writing for a professor. The type of feedback one gets on the internet can be far more educational than a paper marked up with red ink. There should be some ways to impart some journalism basics to class.

    I hope to have an internal class discussion board that will be used to help students brainstorm about topics and approaches.

  12. The point of apologetics isn’t to convince others. The point of apologetics is to keep yourself from becoming unconvinced.

    Apologetics is defensive in nature, and is required for a belief system to exist at all. It’s job is to work out a logically coherent form of belief for those that already believe (say because of a revelation or answer to prayer, of family circumstances, etc.)

    You either have apologetics (after a fashion) in your belief system or you aren’t a belief system at all, your rejectionists. Only rejectionists can survive without apologetics, and then only because they fall into the not even wrong category.

  13. Bruce, I agree. And I know that your comment simply complements my earlier comment.

    However, I think that done right and properly understood, apologetics can play an important role in proselyting.

  14. “However, I think that done right and properly understood, apologetics can play an important role in proselyting.”

    I would love to see this happen.

    But, as I mentioned back at this post, religion (or any belief system) tends to fall into the ‘easily variable explanation’ category. I think this is somewhat of a problem (for any religion, not just ours) if what you are trying to do is ‘convince’ people. There is simply too much room for alternative interpretations.

    But I could see apologetics playing a role in proselyting in a more muted way. As a way of generating interest, causing people to stop and give something a second thought, etc. I’ve always felt the witness of the Book of Mormon played this role. They are hardly sufficient to convince a skeptic, but just enough to make you think twice.

  15. One big problem is audience/traffic. Who are we “defending” the gospel from? And how do we get these people to these blogs that the students would build? Practically speaking I think this is a large issue.

  16. I don’t know. I spend quite a bit of time at William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith website, and I enjoy the debates there, knowing that often I don’t necessarily have a dog in the fight (on certain issues, like whether the past can be infinite, I think Mormon theology could go either way). The problem with apologetics with a system like Mormonism is that the brute facts can change suddenly with a new revelation from the prophet, invalidating the apologetics that went before it. An interesting example is the priesthood ban. Apologists and General Authorities spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to rationally explain why a priesthood ban made sense, and many outside the Church took those apologetics as definitive statements of Church doctrine, and valid explanations for the ban. In 1978, all those apologetics seemed racist, offensive, unnecessary, and just plain wrong, and sometimes they’re still cited as explanations for the ban.

    I think an apologetics system in the Church would be very interesting but I don’t know how it could exist in a context as fluid as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Maybe I’m wrong.

  17. This comment is a little late, and I’m not sure if anything has developed since the original inquiry, but if there were an apologetics course offered, and I was back in school, I would love to have attended. I’m well aware that debating doctrines/history accomplishes little with critics; however, as I have taken an interest in apologetics, my testimony and interest in the Gospel has increased tremendously. I think something like this course could definately do good for young Latter-day Saints, especially, when other churches openly watch anti-Mormon videos such as The Lost Book of Abraham, etc. In many cases, young non-Mormons know only about Mormonism’s controversies, while many young Latter-day Saints are completely unaware that a controvery might even exist.

    While testimony aided by the Spirit is what converts others, having legitmate and intelligble answers for non-Mormons who only know what they have heard/seen through anti-Mormon propaganda, will provide a response that is meaningful and will assist in teaching correct principles/doctrines to non-Mormons, even if they aren’t necessarily converted. Per Elder Ballard, “There are conversations going on about the Church constantly. Those conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them. But we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches.”

  18. Hi Tim B,
    Also late to the debate :)
    I see the intelligence in your comment, but I can’t help but think in a religion where we are guided by the Savior and looking at his actions in how he directly responded to critics we can find some answer to your question. I can’t help but think a class on apologetics would invariably teach reliance on apologetics rather than on testimony.

    All that said, I’d attend as I would find it interesting, but I see some wisdom in responding to our critics the way the Savior did, rather than engaging in debate with them.

  19. Chris,

    Thanks for the response. I agree – our response to critics must be the same way the Savior responded. However, I do think there is a place for this. For example, I had a co-worker over for dinner with her cousin. They are both Calvinist, but she was attending an Evangelical church. They were not critical of our church, but the source of their knowledge, however, was very critical. So she came to me with questions about the Book of Abraham, because she had watched The Lost Book of Abraham. Now the issues in this particular subject can get very technical very quickly, and I knew full well that she hadn’t a clue as to what the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were, or what the so called Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was. However, she had concerns because all she knew was what was available through anti-material, but she was interested in learning more. She wasn’t interested in an argument, and neither was I. Apologetics doesn’t necessarily mean arguing with others, it simply refers to defending the faith.

    Sharing testimony is key; however, people need to understand that our faith is rational, and anti-Mormon materials continually distort our teachings to look anything but rational. As Elder Ballard stated, we cannot sit on the sidelines while critics define what the church teaches. Part of being able to answer potential investigator’s questions is knowing what the issues are, and having some answers. Ultimately, everybody has to overcome their doubts and place faith in Christ in order to obtain a testimony of the restored gospel, but people need to be able to make sense of the gospel to some extent before they will exercise faith. If all they know is anti-Mormon viewpoints than the gospel will not make any sense to them, and it will not be enticing to them if they continue to perceive that our faith is bound up solely in “feelings” rather than having some rationality to it as well.

    I think your primary concern is how apologetics is used. If it is used combatively, then it will never convert anybody. It is also interesting to note what the Lord has said through latter-day revelation regarding anti-Mormon material – D&C 123.

  20. Interesting resurrection of this blog discussion. When I first posted this, there was a hiring freeze at BYU and no way for me to get my foot in the door. I pitched the idea of a class again this August to various administrators and while I was invited to apply as an adjunct, it appears that a class specifically about apologetics doesn’t fit in the curriculum.

    That doesn’t rule out students forming a club, which is the most likely route to eventually getting academic credit for internet participation. Individual professors can introduce a healthy dose of apologetics or make blogging assignments as part of their regular religion courses. Some my most memorable Institute classes at USU were from instructors who addressed some apologetic issues as a small percentage of their lessons and I would help answer questions posed during or after class.

    So really the ball is in the student’s court. The religious education hiring page indicates that “[Students] should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith.”

    An interesting development has occurred at UVU where a pair of students are getting credit for blogging about Mormonism in their mass media class. One of them is a friend of mine: http://themormonmoment.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/problems-with-the-ever-persistent-christian-question/

  21. Keller,
    If we could rewind the clock five or six years, I’d be right on board with initiating a club/study group…
    I’m too far removed now. Hopefully some students at the Y will feel similarly.

  22. RG,

    That is a good question. A new, full time religious education professor is required to have a doctorate in a relevant field, but that isn’t what I am aiming for. Part-time instructors just need a master’s degree and be “members of the community who have a love for and commitment to the gospel, and who have demonstrated competence as gospel teachers.” While it might be hard for me to stand out in such a crowd, there are at least a few things I might bring to the table. I have taught at UVU as a faculty lecturer in the Computer Science department and I have about 6 years of experience blogging, answering apologetic questions, and collaborating on an occasional print publication.

    The elite Mormon apologetics community is mostly Church employed (but not always) academic-types who occasionally submit articles to MSR and other journals and skilled amateurs who do the same, many of whom are associated with FAIR. Although I fit in the latter category, it is a small pond and I am a known commodity. I recognize that for a given issue in apologetics there will be someone more knowledgeable than I, that is why I would prefer to explore ways to invite other experts to participate as guest lecturers.

    If someone else with more clout than I took up the torch I would gladly stand aside and offer my assistance. I care more about results and serving my fellow saints, whatever opportunities are given to me that utilize my talents.

    Of course BYU admins know what they are doing when they hire instructors, so I would leave it to them to evaluate my resume if and when I take them up on their invitation to apply. I would probably have to establish myself as a good instructor of regular religion courses for a time before getting an opportunity to try something new.

    With that said, I think there might be better ways to structure an internet participation class designed to train students to help meet Elder Ballard’s challenge to “join the conversation.” I still think it preferable that apologetics should be an (optional?) element in the course, but it doesn’t have to be the main one.

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