One feature that I would like to include in this blog is the sharing of real stories of people succeeding, and failing, in their conversations about big life stuff. I thought I would start with my own story of how God nudged me (not so gently) into the world of Apologetics.
The economy wasn’t so hot that year so I wasn’t doing the Engineering I had trained so hard to do; I was mowing lawns for the summer. I enjoyed the job, and I got the opportunity to meet new people, including a Mormon, who also mowed lawns for the same outfit. My boss had contracts at a lot of places that were often quite far from each other so there was just about as much driving as there was mowing. Driving, of course, meant time to talk.
I don’t remember all the conversations we had, but I do recall the day that I dove (somewhat naively) into the religion discussion. You see, I was no ignoramus about religion. I knew about Mormonism. I was virtually an expert, in fact. How so? Quite simple. I had been to a lecture once by a Christian who told us everything we needed to know about Mormonism. Yes, that’s right; one lecture by one authority. Clearly, I was an expert.
So I, rather innocently, asked my friend about one of the particular Mormon doctrines (which doctrine I asked about is irrelevant to the story) that this Christian “expert” had described. I picked one of the doctrines that I felt diverged most clearly from orthodox Christianity. Could my friend comment, please, on that Mormon doctrine. Well, comment he did. He unleashed a remarkably passionate, lengthy, diatribe against these horrible people who go around spreading false information about his religion. Mormons simply do not (he was quite adamant about just how much they do NOT) believe what I had been told.
I remember the location perfectly, even to this day, and I will certainly remember it until the day I die. I remember it for one simple reason. In that moment, in that conversation, at that particular spot on the road a question emerged in my mind larger than any elephant that has ever uncomfortably occupied any room. This question was not going anywhere until it was answered. Who was right? My friend actually was a Mormon and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. Odds seemed pretty good that he was both adequately informed about his own beliefs, and of sufficient character to be trustworthy in his description of his beliefs.
But, the Christian “expert” I had listened to as a kid was… well… an expert. He had been advanced by the Church of my upbringing, even by my own parents, as somebody I could trust to accurately describe a religious group that seemed foreign and mysterious to me. If he was wrong then not only his reliability was at stake; the reliability of the entire Church authority structure of my upbringing (even my parents to some extent) was under suspicion at this point. Frankly the Bible needed to be re-evaluated, my concept of God… this was no minor thorn in my side, it immediately became a stake right through my mid-section.
What to do? Because the Christian “experts” were now under suspicion I was not going to turn to any further Christian resources in order to understand Mormonism. That meant I had no choice but to turn to the Mormon literature itself. I perused the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, one of their journals (the name eludes me right now) and other material as I could find it at my University library. I didn’t read it all front to back, but I did my best to piece together the broad picture of Mormon theology, from Mormon sources.
Then, of course, subsequent questions also emerged. Once I understood Mormon theology I needed to understand how (if at all) it differed from the theology of my upbringing. And, of course, that naturally leads to the question of which worldview is most likely to be an accurate description of reality, including supernatural realities? Without realising it – because I don’t recall the word “Apologetics” ever coming up in Church – I was neck deep in Apologetics without having even learned the word or what it meant. For me there was no fancy title needed; I knew what I had to do and I was going to do it, come what may.
Back to the truck, though, how did I handle this revelation and these claims from my friend? Poorly. As far as I recall I more or less just listened, intently, and occasionally added, “oh, ok; thanks for the info.” I had no idea how to respond. I had listened to the Christian “expert” and simply accepted what I was told. I never checked for myself so I had no way of adding anything of value to the conversation. I also had not yet learned the fine art of asking questions (as I describe in some length in Arguing with Friends) so I could not even think of what to ask him. Essentially it became a one-way onslaught of talking with me offering nothing of value in return. Quite the effective witness, no?
It was, in fact, even more embarrassing. At one point he was establishing one of his theological points by making reference to a particular verse in the book of Abraham. I wasn’t familiar with that book, so I had to go to the table of contents in my Bible. I could not find it anywhere in the Old or New Testament! What was going on here? It took me a while to realize it’s a book in his own Scripture (Pearl of Great Price). But think about that for a second; I’d been a Christian for my entire upbringing, I had graduated University, and still I was not entirely certain about which books were in the Bible that I claimed was the most important book in my life. Pathetic? Absolutely! My ignorance knew almost no bounds.
So, what lessons can we learn from this episode in my own history? First, something about failure. I was ignorant. I had not studied the beliefs of others and I hardly knew even my own beliefs. Such ignorance is pitiful and, I have learned since then, unfortunately common in the Church. Second, I had no idea how to handle such a conversation. I had no skills, no tools, and no experience in talking with people of differing religious perspectives. Entering into the conversation unarmed with either knowledge or skills virtually guarantees the outcome, and it happened precisely as it should have.
But, it is not all bad news. I am happy to report that I did at least three things right. I did not get angry, confrontational (that would come later; it turned out I had many lessons to learn), or just accuse him of lying or something outlandish like that. Secondly, I studied. Rather than throw my hands in the air and shrug it all off, I rolled up my sleeves, took the situation seriously, and educated myself on Mormonism. Lastly, I studied Mormon material before Christian material about Mormonism. I had already made the mistake once of blindly trusting an authority intent on refuting a certain group; I learned to start with the resources within the group before reading responses to it.
So, it was by no means a total loss. In that particular conversation there was very little of value that I contributed, but I must say the entire process was immensely educational because I learned of the inestimable value of knowledge. That is, of course, one of the major themes of my book. Later I would learn many, many, more lessons, many of which are described in Arguing with Friends.
That’s one of my stories. Part of the purpose of this blog is to share stories, both some of my own and stories from those brave enough to submit them for sharing. If you have a good story to share – whether it involves a failure we can all learn from or a success we can all celebrate – why don’t you drop me a line. In the mean time get out there and chat with others, fall on your face, get up, learn and try again.