New feature: a weekly review of an online essay, starting off with Recent Trends in Book of Mormon Apologetics: A Critical Assessment of Methodological Diversity and Academic Viability, in the latest edition of the Farms Review, by Benjamin Judkins. The trend? He thinks it's getting better, noting "the increasing methodological sophistication and professionalization of the field." I'd agree, although I have yet to see anyone self-identify as a professional Mormon apologist.
External Approaches. Judkins holds out Terryl Givens' By the Hand of Mormon as an exemplar of the new apologetics, which he splits into external and internal approaches. "External" means archaeological, although he notes Nibley was "persistently hostile toward the role of archaeology in Book of Mormon studies." He continues:
How the Jaredites actually fit into the Nephite myth complex and what evidence of them one can rationally expect to see are examples of issues that have yet to be addressed by the Latter-day Saint scholarly community. Finding answers to these questions is difficult . . .
While these difficulties haven't stopped the external approach from moving forward with new energy in recent years, Judkins sounds a methodological note of caution by reviewing the controversy that bedevils biblical archaeological claims resting on considerably better artifacts than the Nephite quest is likely to produce in the near future. Nevertheless, he gives a brief but friendly review of the more promising Mormon developments.
Internal Approaches. He discusses the textual school (think chiasmus) and the ethnographic school (think Nibley). Methodologically, he highlights the need for a theory of translation, noting that the textual school almost necessarily forces one to "adopt a direct, word-for-word theory of translation," but pointing out the problems this raises. He is rather blunt in describing these "overly literal theories," which "while respectable by the standards of seventeenth-century biblical scholarship, must be considered very marginal today." Wow. But self-criticism is always a good sign. Judkins is friendlier toward the ethnographic approach, noting that it "does not pressure scholars to adopt any particular theory of translation and transmission."
Overall, I found Judkins' essay to be a refreshingly candid assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Mormon apologetics. It's well worth your ten minutes to give it a quick read.