Mormons & Evangelicals: What can I learn from you?

Over several months so I have had a born-again sort of experience of sorts– one of those times in life where perspective shifts dramatically and you feel like you are seeing the world for the first time.  One of the biggest difficulties in experience was recognizing that I had lost faith in the LDS Church. It has been coming for quite a while, and it feels like the core meaning of my life was yanked from me. Losing faith has been very difficult for me even to acknowledge. But for complex reasons, I can’t now honestly claim to believe in the Mormon Church and this reality has stung me hard.  My participation in this blog has been a big part of the process of figuring out where I am and what to do next.

Over the years the blog has been a place for me to vent a lot of the deep thoughts and patent nonsense that bubbled up during this process. (Regulars here will recognize I write far more of the latter than the former.)  But lately I have been thinking about what attracted me to this blog– and how it might help me in the new spiritual life that I face.

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Obery Hendricks on Mitt Romney & Mormon Racism

Yesterday Obery Hendricks posted an article on the Huffington Post challenging Mitt Romney on racist sentiments found in the Book of Mormon.  As has been pointed out, Hendricks is guilty of cherry-picking some of those statements.  He also doesn’t have a good enough handle on Mormonism to understand that the Book of Mormon is not making reference to people of African descent, rather it’s speaking of dark-skinned people of Jewish descent living in a yet-to-be-determined location (some might say they are dark-skinned Native Americans, others might say these passages have nothing to do with skin color at all).

Last night Hendricks appeared as a guest of Ed Schultz on MSNBC.  As I predicted, I believe this is just the start of these attacks on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  The challenge Romney faces is answering these charges in the length of a sound-bite.  I don’t think the nuance that Mormons engage the priesthood bad with is going to communicate.  I also don’t think he has the opportunity to engage in exegis of the Book of Mormon. Hendricks does not offer an attack that effectively sways Mormons, but he does offer an attack that sways non-Mormons.

I don’t believe this is going to go away and I’ll be interested to see how Romney resolves it.  I believe he’ll eventually be forced to say, as John Huntsman has stated, that the priesthood ban was wrong.

Review: Imaginary Jesus

Imaginary JesusA couple of months ago a friend recommended “Imaginary Jesus” to me.  Over my Christmas vacation I had the chance to read it.  With little information about the content I dove in and discovered that I love this book.  In many ways I felt the book was written just for me.

The author, Matt Mikalatos, is hilarious and he applies his sense of humor to his search for what it means to be in a personal relationship with Jesus, what to do with pain and dares to ask if prayer is anything more than sitting alone talking to himself.

At one point the story takes a break to interject the character Matt into a snow-tube race in which “Meticulous Providence Jesus”, “Free Will Jesus” and “Can’t-See-the-Future-Because-It’s-Unknowable Jesus” all compete for Matt’s devotion by attempting to offer him an explanation for the death of his child while speeding down a snowy mountain.  It’s situations such as this that make the book seem far-fetched and inappropriate for dealing with such tough issues and too irreverent for religious offering.  But it’s the farcical nature of Matt’s search that allows the book to touch on places in these issues that the reader may be unprepared to examine and grateful for the element of fun in exploring them.

Mormon readers may be concerned with his introduction of Elder Laurel and Elder Hardy. Mikalatos handles Mormonism the way you might expect an Evangelical to view it.  He dismisses the Book of Mormon because of well known anachronisms and by naming the missionaries Laurel and Hardy he’s clearly using them as a comic device.  But I don’t think these issues should dissuade Mormons from reading the book.  The humor in the book is much harsher on Evangelicalism than it is on Mormonism and the missionaries ultimately serve the purpose of causing Matt to question if he’s straining at a speck in Mormonism’s eye when he has a plank in his own. The larger message of the book is so powerful that I think Mormons can easily disregard or skip any passages about Mormonism and still find great value in the book.

The writing style is fast-paced and frenetic. As a result I was able to finish the book in two sittings. Afterwards I felt encouraged and re-invigorated to pursue Jesus in a way I desperately needed. I highly recommend this book. 

Basics on Witnessing to Mormons

Every year Mormon Research Ministries leads a team of missionaries to Manti, Utah to discuss faith with people attending the Mormon Miracle Pageant. This is a training video from this year in which Bill McKeever outlines his ministy’s basic approach to presenting Evangelicalism to Mormons.

His approach of using Book of Mormon passages to emphasize and validate non-Mormon doctrines is somewhat controversial among Christian groups reaching out to Mormons, but it’s becoming the accepted standard.

The Prophet Will Not Lead the People of the Church Astray

LDS apologist Michael Ash has an ongoing series at Mormon Times and the FAIR podcast called “Challenging Issues and Keeping the Faith”. I was interested to hear him speak directly to the popular Mormon expression that “the prophet will not lead the people of the church astray.”

In his article on this issue he states

The purpose and mission of the church is to “invite all to come unto Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:59). Prophets stand as leaders in this invitation and the things they do and say (as prophets) are intended to accomplish this goal.

How do we come unto Christ? The Book of Mormon gives us the six-point pattern: belief in Christ, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Spirit, enduring to the end and being found guiltless at the final judgment.

I’m glad to see someone putting some more meat on the idea and clearly defining the places in which a prophet might lead the people astray. It’s interesting that Ash chose to reduce the arena of possible prophetic negligence down to 6 messages that all serve to help us “come unto Christ”.

Based on this criteria we could assume the absolute worst about every LDS prophet and all of them would safely be in the bounds of doctrinal orthodoxy. For instance we could take the view that polygamy was indeed started to cover up Joseph Smith’s desire for extra-marital affairs, that the Book of Mormon was a fraudulent scheme to make money, that the priesthood ban was a blatant attempt to spiritually affirm racism or that Brigham Young collaborated and conspired as an active part of the Mountain Meadows Massacre; and still safely regard these men as prophets who never led the church astray. Perhaps some future prophet could use his pulpit to disband the priesthood, bulldoze under every LDS temple or even encourage all faithful LDS to invest in another failed banking venture and still it could be said that he “never led the people astray”.

I think the phrase has to mean more than a prophet’s ability to direct people into these six principles. If it doesn’t the unique voice and role of the LDS prophet quite quickly because functionally unnecessary. In addition, the LDS teaching of a great apostasy or its status as the only one and true church lose all significance.

I can’t think of a single time in Christian history when the majority of Christian churches were not leading their people in some form of this six-point pattern. As a non-Mormon, Ash’s argument leaves me unconvinced that I need something that only the LDS church offers. Further it opens the door to prophetic fallibility so widely that we can’t be certain that the every single unique teaching of LDS prophets and LDS scriptures (given to us by modern prophets) are nothing more than overstated opinions. If the truth claims of the LDS church are really only vital in regards to this six-point pattern of belief, there are no unique LDS doctrines that aren’t and weren’t being taught by other churches.

I understand that Ash’s role as an apologist is to reduce the surface area that critics might use to attack the LDS prophet, but he’s gone so far that he’s also reduced the unique role of the LDS church to nothing and entirely eliminated its evangelistic message. If the world needs modern prophets, their role must be for something more than what my pastor delivers every week. Orson and Parley Pratt took a tact of strongly embracing difficult teachings, I think Ash should reconsider his apologetic strategy before he leaves the LDS church with nothing more than an optional-belief-in-God.

Where The Troubles Lie

I was recently asked what kinds of things in practice and in doctrine would the LDS church have to change in order to be accepted in the realm of Christian orthodoxy. I’m not under any delusion that the LDS church is interested in making any of these changes.  But this serves as a reference for how I would categorize Mormon distinctives in comparison to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. I’m sure there will be some dispute of whether or not the LDS church actually teaches some of these things.  So consider this a list of things that would need to be specifically disavowed since some Mormon somewhere has given me the impression that this is what they have learned from the LDS church. If the LDS church doesn’t teach it, then they would need to do more than remain silent on it, they would need to remove confusion over it.

I’ve placed these items in four categories.

No Compromise, This Must Change

  • God was created or formed and was not always in his present state
  • The difference between God and man is one of degree not kind
  • There is more than one god
  • God the Father has a corporeal body
  • God lived a mortal life before the creation of this world
  • God might have been a sinner
  • As God is, man may become
  • Joseph Smith (or any other mortal) is serving in the role of “Holy Ghost” (a speculative theology I’ve heard a few Mormons opine)
  • Heavenly Mother(s) (another speculative theology)

Should Really Be Reviewed

  • Salvation comes in part from our own works
  • Ordinances are required for salvation
  • “The Miracle of Forgiveness” as recommended reading
  • All references to God in the Old Testament are only references to Jesus
  • Marriage is required for the highest degree of glory
  • Acceptance of The Joseph Smith Translation
  • Canonization of “The Pearl of Great Price” and large portions of “Doctrine & Covenants”
  • Creation ex Materia
  • Belief that no Mormon Prophet has ever led the church astray
  • There are High Priests in the order of Melchizedek other than Jesus
  • The Book of Mormon is an actual history (I may hedge on this one)

Just Different, but Weird

  • Eternal Marriage
  • Canonization of “The Book of Mormon”
  • Temples for making covenants with God (content dependent)
  • Baptism for the dead
  • Sacred undergarments
  • Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods
  • The canon is open and continues to expand (content dependent)

Have Fun

  • Lay clergy
  • Expectation of missionary service
  • Canning
  • King James Bible
  • 19th Century Methodist-style worship services
  • General Conference
  • Leadership determined by longevity
  • Geographically designated worship communities

Would any other non-Mormons disagree with my list and how I’ve ordered these items? Does this clarify our differences?

A Faith Based in History

This is a guest post provided by Eric.

Despite significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences in the way we understand the Bible, evangelicals and Mormons generally share an appreciation not only for its teachings, but also for its historicity. We see our faiths grounded not in what is merely a collection of goodness-promoting stories, but in a God who directly intervened in history in a series of miraculous events culminating in an actual, physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, we share an outlook that is not shared by all who consider themselves Christians.

For most of us who wear the LDS or evangelical label, this historicity is a key aspect of our faiths. We agree with Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that if is isn’t true that God raised Jesus from the dead then our faith is useless. But our belief in what the Bible teaches as history goes beyond that: Generally, if the Bible teaches that something is historical — whether it’s the raising of Lazarus or the feeding of the thousands — we tend to believe it actually happened. That isn’t the case with the Bible’s skeptics, nor is it the case among many leaders in mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Church of Christ (I’m not picking on my UCC friends here, just mentioning a denomination that has become particularly liberal in its interpretive outlook).

Certainly, accepting the Bible as literal truth isn’t the only way of understanding it. In fact, some parts of the Bible are clearly intended to be allegory: You’ll find almost no evangelical pastor nor LDS bishop advising the parishioner who got caught shoplifting to chop off his or her hands. Most likely, that pastor or bishop would suggest that the parishioner find a way to remove the source of temptation, and also to apply that principle not just to thievery but also in dealing with other temptations as well where that principle may help.

But what about other aspects of the Biblical narrative? A century ago, you would have found few Bible-believing Christians, whether Protestant or LDS, who believed that the Earth was many millions of years old. But today, that is no longer the case. Many of us, whether evangelical or LDS, have come up with ways of reconciling, at least to some degree, what the Bible teachers and what science teaches. Perhaps the six days weren’t meant to be understood literally (possibly, in LDS lingo, they’re six “creative periods”), that the creation accounts of Genesis were meant to be allegorical or figurative in some way. And, at least according to what I’ve observed, many evangelicals and Mormons don’t spend a lot of time defending as literal history some of the more seemingly outlandish events of the Old Testament, such as Joshua’s making the sun stand still.

But all this raises some ultimate questions: How much of the Bible is real history? How much is figurative or allegorical? Did Jesus perform amazing miracles? Does it matter? Are Adam and Eve to be understood as actual, historical characters, or are they an allegory designed to teach us about the state of humanity? Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish? Or is that merely a fun, humorous story designed to teach us lessons about sharing the gospel?

More importantly, does it matter if these events weren’t real in a historical sense? And if we say it’s unimportant whether the story of Jonah is true in a historical sense, what about the ultimate miracle, the Resurrection of Christ? Do these mean anything as historical events, or are they merely allegories designed to teach us eternal truths?

This essay was prompted by a recent Mormon Expressions interview with a Mormon bishop who has become skeptical of much of the Church’s historical narrative. It’s a fascinating interview, and it raises questions not just for Mormons, but for all Christians who believe in a God who intervened in history.

Of course, the broader question is a bigger one for Mormons than it is for evangelicals — for Mormonism’s legacy is based not only on the Bible but also on a series of events where we believe God intervened in the 19th century and since then. But I don’t really care to dwell on specifically LDS beliefs here; there are plenty of places in this blog and elsewhere on the web where those issues are discussed (as they should be). I’d like us to look at those extraordinary events that are part of our common heritage. Specifically, here are some questions for discussion:

  • How do we determine which parts of the Bible should be accepted as literal truth and which as figurative or allegorical in nature?
  • How important is it to believe in a literal Resurrection?
  • If you were the person in charge, would you accept into church membership someone who openly denied a literal Resurrection? If so, would you allow such a person to teach Sunday school? Preach a Sunday sermon?
  • The same questions can be asked of Biblical teachings that would seem to be foundational to some degree: Were there a literal Adam and Eve? Is Satan for real? Will there be a Second Coming?
  • Or how about the lesser fantastic events of the Bible? Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he heal the sick? Is Job a historical character? Were there a David and Goliath? A worldwide flood? Does it matter? And how do you decide whether it matters?
  • Finally, if some or all of the events above are allegorical in nature, how does that affect your faith?