Here's a second post [see Part 1] on Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries (OUP, 2009). I didn't find the second and third sections quite as strong as the first section, although I liked Richard Bushman's essay "Joseph Smith and the Creation of the Sacred." But I'll talk a bit about Richard J. Mouw's essay "The Possiblity of Joseph Smith: Some Evangelical Probings." Some of what Mouw has to say rubs me the wrong way, but at the same time I'm grateful that this Evangelical theologian continues to make sincere attempts to engage with Mormonism.
Mouw starts off by describing the context for his inquiry.
Richard Bushman once posed an intriguing question to a group of evangelical scholars who were gathered with our Mormon counterparts for dialogue. "Is Joseph Smith possible for you?" he asked us.
Maybe a different way to pose the question is, "Can you take Joseph Smith seriously?" Some do, some don't, and of those who take him seriously, some accept his religious claims (generally Mormons) and some don't. It's the ground of those who reject Joseph Smith's claims yet still take him seriously that Mouw is addressing.
As an example, Mouw discusses the case of Cotton Mather. Besides cheering on the witch-hunters of Salem, Mather recorded his own personal angelic encounter in 1693. Here it is, as quoted by Mouw:
After outpourings of prayer, with the utmost fervor and fasting there appeared an Angel, whose face shone like the noonday sun. He was completely beardless, but in other respects human, his head encircled by a splendid tiara. On his shoulders were wings; his garments were white and shining; his robe reached to his ankles; and about his loins was a belt not unlike the girdles of the peoples of the East.
Mouw notes that present-day Protestants are inclined to reject the veracity of Mather's angelic encounter, yet still accept Mather as a sincere and legitimate minister of Christianity: "[H]e need not be seen as either a deliberate deceiver or a deluded fool." If that holds for Mather, it should hold for Joseph Smith as well. Evangelical critics ought to be able to reject Joseph's angelic encounters or other claims without rejecting the possibility of Joseph as a sincere and legitimate Christian voice. At least that's what I take away from Mouw's discussion.
This notion of possiblity is quite useful for opening up our thinking. We might ask ourselves a few similar questions about what we are willing to consider as possible (but nevertheless reject) in other religions as opposed to those claims we reject out of hand without ever seriously considering. Perhaps the same even applies to how we view aspects of our own religion.