Evaluating the Blueprint: Introduction
Let me state before going any further: I don't bear Tad Callister any ill will personally. I'm sure he is a great guy, and you don't get to earn a higher degree in law and still be a dodo. You've got to read a lot of books to get there!
I've heard some bad stories about the personal behavior of some of the General Authorities when they're in private situations like visiting a friend's home or working at the Church Office Building. I find it notable that despite being a rather well-known GA, Elder Callister always comes off as a thoughtful, intelligent, and kind man when talking to anyone who has met or worked with him personally!
Which is part of why it bothers me when it seems he always sticks his foot in his mouth when speaking publicly in his office as a General Authority.
A few years ago he chose a childishly silly analogy for why LDS doctrine depended on the combined authority of the Christian* Bible and the Book of Mormon. I'll have to write a short post someday on how that one fails miserably.
And then he gave his infamous talk at BYU-Idaho (a location where it seems the high level of strident Mormons in the local culture causes some of the mental cautions to fall for many people) where he unknowingly gave voice to what is pretty much the epitome of rape culture when he cautioned young women to dress modestly because of how they affected men. His comments at the time caused some stir, and the controversy only grew when a year later the Ensign reproduced the talk in its entirety for English-speaking Mormons generally living in America and Canada (interestingly enough, the talk was not translated or reproduced in the Liahona, the international magazine of the LDS Church which includes an English version that English-speakers around the world can subscribe to).
Finally, nearly a year and a half ago Tad gave nearly an hour-long overview of why Mormonism was true and confined himself to using the Bible to do so. The talk was merely the latest in a particular LDS argument that has been made far longer than I or even Elder Callister have been around. I led a panel discussion that sought to critique some of the more egregious errors and oversights of the this talk. If you do happen to give it a listen you should know that I am an anxious person by nature and it was my first major podcast that thousands of people listened to. I've been told that it's actually quite fun, but I haven't yet worked up the nerve to listen to myself. You can cover a lot more ground speaking out loud than through text, but you also can't review and revise what was said before releasing it. There's a few mistakes and mistatements I myself made in that episode and what is said is said and can't be easily fixed with audio.
For a while since recording, I have found myself thinking back to Elder Callister's presentation of January 2014 with the same thoughts. It's entirely possible that Tad made some mistakes, and that if given the chance to do it again he might have delivered things differently. I know that no matter how well I would have prepared, in the same situation there's no way that I could be completely satisfied with whatever I presented. Perhaps he has similar misgivings afterwards, too.
Which is why I am planning to take another look at Elder Callister's arguments over the new few weeks. He recently published a full book on the same subject, and while we could spent a lot of time discussing the possibly-immoral practice of spiritual leaders who publish materials for profit meant to benefit their fellow humans spiritually† I think I'll have more than enough to talk about Tad Callister's arguments when he has the time and patience to slowly explore them in textual form. I hope that things will have improved in the interim, but I suspect that on the whole it will be as problematic as the fireside (please prove me wrong, sir!).
Why am I wasting my time critiquing something meant to help people? Why am I (conceivably) “tearing down” instead of “building up”? I covered my objections to the use of this particular argument style on the podcast episode, but to reiterate them here: because just as Tad discusses in his fireside, the strength of a position rests upon the foundational parts of it, ultimately running to the strength of the very blueprints of the position itself. The attempts to build up the position of the LDS Church by tearing down, misunderstanding, and omitting the beliefs of other Christians does not benefit anyone. It doesn't benefit other faiths who approach the Christian New Testament as an authoritative book, it doesn't benefit Mormons who build their testimony on faulty information and assumptions, and it doesn't even benefit the presenter when he presents faulty arguments unknowingly (or even knowingly as Elder Holland has sometimes done, though Callister doesn't seem to dance the same careful dance about the boundaries of information detrimental to his argument that betrays his knowledge of such information).
The hardcover has been out for a few weeks now, but like many people my age I tend to read a lot of my books digitally, so the release of the book on Kindle this upcoming Wednesday will be the first time I've taken a look at it. I'm looking forward to it because even if I plan on tearing down the bad arguments (and hopefully highlighting the goos ones) the end result is increased knowledge. I can reasonably predict that Elder Callister has read a lot on the subject of the rise of early Christian orthodoxy and I have too, but I doubt that our knowledge overlaps exactly. This will mean study and research of my own as I try to unwrap the original sources and current research behind Tad's arguments. I think everybody benefits from this sort of approach, because between the both of us I'd predict that most people who will be reading my critiques will walk away knowing more than they did about the subjects.
I hope you enjoy the series as much as I do. (And I hope I can actually keep moving forward with it, unlike the Nicea project I have thousands of notes and many aborted posts written for but just can't seem to find the oomph to keep moving forward on it.)
* I only use the term "Christian" here to distinguish from the Hebrew Bible, which many Christians would know as the "Old Testament". However, the idea that the scriptural authority of an entire religion and people can be relegated under the single term of "old" in comparison to "new" is rather offensive to Judaism in general, so I tend to use the terms Christian New Testament and Hebrew Bible, or Christian Bible if I need to refer to the combined scriptures that most Christians use. This isn't a statement of whether or not Mormonism is Christian. When compared to the wide range of Christianities in the history of Christian thought they most certainly belong to the same group, just as there were Arian Christians, Donatist Christians, Anabaptists, Pelagian Christians (in fact, the overlap with the Pelagians hopefully would pop up in Callister's book as there's a lot of meat for interesting discussion in comparing and contrasting there), and a plethora of various Gnostic Christians with widely divergent beliefs. They're certainly not orthodox or traditional, but they are Christian: a style of Christianity firmly in the camp of orthodox heresy, but Christian nonetheless.↩
† Seriously, what would the harm be of selling them only for the cost of materials and publishing, or even, in this age of the Internet, releasing the text for free digitally, especially if the material in question is meant to help people grow in testimony and spirituality? ↩