My wife and I recently had a group of friends over for dinner, and at one point in the evening one of my friends saw my copy of Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling on a table in our living room. This provoked an unexpected conversation about Church History, as my friend mentioned that a co-worker of his in the office had recently showed him the wikipedia page on Joseph Smith. My friend’s reaction to this wikipedia page was typical of a member of the Church unfamiliar with the details Joseph Smith’s history: the word “shaken” is definitely the best way to describe what his thoughts and feelings were. Unfortunately, a dinner party is not the best venue for having the kinds of long conversations that can really help someone in that situation. I told him some of my thoughts on how to approach that material, and I promised to send him some more literature to help him work through his concerns.

I had recently read an article by Michael Ash discussing his book Shaken Faith Syndrome, and based on my favorable impression of the article I read, I ordered one copy of the book for my friend, and another for myself. The book begins with a discussion of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when people come across information that challenges their beliefs about the gospel, and Ash outlines four ways that people respond:

  1. Reject the new information as false;
  2. Reject the information as unimportant;
  3. Add more information to validate the original belief; or
  4. Change the original belief
  5. He then devotes chapters to concepts such as dealing with doubt, unrealistic expectations of prophets and/or scripture, the nature and limitations of scholarship, and other topics before doing a topic-by-topic overview of apologetic research on many of the most perplexing issues of Church history and doctrine.

    One of the chapters deals with the credentials of LDS apologetic scholars, which I thought was unusual, but I think Ash’s reasoning for doing that was illustrated in this review of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Interrupted:

    The appeal to authority or expertise in any case does not really settle much. The issue is—what is the evidence and why should we draw this or that conclusion? The other issue is— why mislead the general public about what “the majority of serious critical scholars” have been saying? Perhaps an end run has been done from the outset— you define a small circle of scholars as the serious ones, the critical ones, the real scholarly thinkers, the real historians, and then having defined your own group narrowly enough, you then say—“the majority of such people think…” Evangelicals are sometimes just as guilty of this ploy as others, but in any case, it does not help when one misrepresents the actual state of play of things among scholars to the general public.

    That quote illustrates our tendency to devalue scholarship that contradicts our own thinking, and Ash wanted to make sure his readers understood that however LDS apologetic scholars are viewed by others, they do bring outstanding credentials to their work.

    If Shaken Faith Syndrome seems written to reassure people who are struggling in their faith, that objective is only partially achieved. Someone who has stumbled across wikipedia pages on Church history topics will find some comfort in Ash’s plausible explanations of a host of challenging issues. However, the book’s hard medicine is its treatment of the reliability of prophetic pronouncements. Quoting the author,

    Just because a prophet has the keys to the Priesthood and the authority to receive revelation from God for the direction of the Church, doesn’t mean that every word spoken by a prophet is infallible, inspired, or factually accurate.

    What, then, is official doctrine and what is opinion? Official doctrine will be announced as revelation and the body of the Church will sustain it (D&C 26:2, 107:27-31). Likewise, we can know if leaders speak the will of God when we, ourselves, are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 68:3-4). The onus is upon us to determine when they speak for the Lord.

    I believe that statement and I appreciate the intellectual and spiritual freedom it proposes, but I also find it very troubling on a personal level because I believe my acceptance of that statement puts my approach to the Gospel at odds with that of the majority of active members of the Church. I doubt if even 5% of people I go to Church with would agree with the statement that it is up to us to discern when prophets are speaking for the Lord, and if President Monson were to make the same statement from the pulpit in Conference, I would bet the majority of the Church would find this responsibility in discernment to be a disappointing burden, rather than a liberating opportunity. There is a comfort that we members of the Church feel in repeating the simple statement prophets speak for the Lord here on earth, without adding caveats and qualifiers to that statement.

    In conclusion, I think Shaken Faith Syndrome is a fantastic book to give to someone whose faith in the Gospel has been rocked by some new information. It not only gives the reader a host of plausible alternative explanations for troubling criticisms of the Church, but it also equips the reader with intellectual tools for reevaluating faulty assumptions that are already carried by most members of the Church. Unfortunately, a new set of intellectual tools are not always welcome among those of us who have developed a belief that the work of discerning doctrinal truth is the sole responsibility of someone else far away in downtown Salt Lake City.