I recently read a fascinating and important blog post on a potential source for a crisis of faith for the rising generation and felt inclined to give a response to it. I just now noticed, however, that the post was written in October of 2014, so this will be a bit of a delayed response (I don’t know how the post even registered on my radar — maybe it was on my Facebook feed for some reason). Regardless of this fact, I think the point the author is making is still very relevant and wanted to weigh in on the topic.
The post was by Julie M. Smith, a prolific writer and LDS New Testament scholar. Her blog post was entitled “On the Next Generation’s Faith Crisis” and was posted on the Times and Seasons blog. In her piece, Julie predicts that in the coming years, latter-day saints will find that their faith will be challenged more by secularists than by evangelicals (who have been responsible for much anti-Mormon rhetoric in the past) and that the attacks will not be so focused on Church history (as it has been in the past) but on the reliability of the Bible, especially the New Testament and its testimony of Jesus. Of course, these secularist attacks are not necessarily against Mormons in particular, but against all Bible believers and, essentially, against religion in general.
First of all, let me express that I agree with the essential points of Julie’s concerns here. However, I believe that this is of more immediate concern to those who are being or have been educated about the New Testament in more secular academic settings. For many or most members of the LDS Church, this is not currently and may not ever be the cause of a major faith crisis. I will explain why I feel this way below.
On a very real level, I can sympathize with Julie’s concerns. I have had the opportunity to gain something of a post-secondary education in biblical studies, and would say that from what I can see, the discipline has been co-opted by those who do not particularly believe in the Bible’s faith claims. The result is that many who go into the field of biblical studies with a strong belief in the Bible come out very disillusioned, and many even agnostic or atheist. A prominent example is that of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, whose journey from being a fundamentalist evangelical christian to being agnostic is very well known (at least among biblical studies nerds). You can hear his story from his own mouth here: http://ehrmanblog.org/an-interview-about-my-agnosticism/. Essentially, what Ehrman learned about the Bible as he became more and more educated about it caused him to doubt its authenticity and he ended up rejecting virtually everything that he had been taught about it growing up as an evangelical.
I, myself, know a number of people who have essentially gone through the same process. Once they started taking classes that talked about errors, changes, etc., in the biblical text, questions about authorship, and so on, their whole understanding of what the Bible was and how it came to be was shattered — they “lost their testimony” of the Scriptures, as we Mormons would put it.
So, taking these serious issues into consideration, I can certainly understand why Julie would feel the desire to prepare the rising generation of Mormons against facing a similar crisis of faith. I know a number of good latter-day saints who face these types of doubts, having had their faith shaken by what they were taught in university courses about the Bible. So again, on this level, I am in agreement with Julie’s post. However, I feel that this is more of a concern for those latter-day saints who have decided to study the Bible as a career than for most others, for the simple reason that most LDS people will never seriously engage in this type of biblical studies discourse where we see these issues arise. To be fair, Julie sees the threat arising not so much from Bible professors at universities, but from secularists attempting to diminish the faith of believers — most likely in online forums and the like. Although this is certainly a potential threat — and the easy accessibility of information on the Internet makes it a much greater threat than it would otherwise be — I still don’t see too many latter-day saints being in a situation where this would affect them greatly.
In my experience — again, having some biblical studies education in my background — it is not impossible for Mormons to face these types of attacks while keeping their testimonies intact. Mormons are, in my opinion, much better prepared than many other Christians to learn that the biblical text is not inerrant, for example. When someone like Ehrman brings up the fact that there are thousands of errors, inconsistencies, or differences between known manuscripts of New Testament texts, this is actually quite faith-affirming to most latter-day saints. I realize that there are more serious and complicated issues than this one, but I think that this is the case with many issues that would be brought up by secularists — they just aren’t as much of a problem for Mormons as they would be for many others. Looking back over Julie’s post, I see that she does affirm this point: “This can be an enormous problem for conservative evangelicals but it need not be a problem for Mormons … Mormonism is entirely capable of withstanding a close study of the Bible, something that can’t, I think, be said for some of the more conservative strands of evangelical thought.” However, she argues that there is trouble on the horizon if we do not clue young Mormon students in on the problems that are arising among students of the Bible out there. She states: “But I’m nervous that we are moving in precisely the opposite direction that we need to be in terms of preparing the next generation for what is most likely to challenge their faith, which is the findings of the academic study of the Bible which challenge some common assumptions.” Her concern arises from the fact that BYU is instituting a new religion curriculum that would require students to take more generalized, topic-based courses in religion, namely: Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Foundations of the Restoration, Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, and The Eternal Family. The worry she expresses is that these courses will be too broad and general in nature to be capable of addressing the serious issues surrounding biblical studies that secularists will bring up. Although this may end up being the case, I am sure that Julie would agree that we do not know this for sure. Although the courses will focus on targeted themes from the Scriptures, we do not know that the way in which a given professor presents them will not be helpful in resolving some of the concerns that Julie raises, so it is a bit early to get too worried about this now.
Furthermore, although I agree that students should be “inoculated” to some degree against these types of criticism of holy writ, I would reiterate that these issues will likely not ever become a major concern for most members of the Church. Most turn to the Scriptures for inspiration — for personal revelation that they are seeking as they ponder on the words contained on those pages. For most, their is an understanding that the Bible has come to us in an imperfect form (“as far as it is translated correctly”) and that what matters to them is what modern prophets have said about it and what they can glean, through study and the Spirit, that is applicable to themselves personally. Some may argue that this is a very shallow way of engaging with the ancient texts — an approach that Mormons need to overcome — but those who make such an argument are generally those who have dedicated years of their lives to studying these texts and have a deep interest in the surrounding issues. Most members of the Church do not fit into that category and I think it is fruitless to argue that they need to do so. What they need to understand is how the Scriptures can bring them closer to Christ and to their Heavenly Father and I see the new curriculum as being designed specifically to fulfill that purpose.
So I can sympathize with Julie and others who have made similar arguments, but in the end I would suggest that we trust the inspiration of the Brethren on this and work to support the goal of the Church and its educational system in strengthening the faith of believers through this new curriculum.