Mormons as Bison

English: Bison bison. Original caption: "...

Over the past several years I think I have finally gotten a pretty good handle on the Evangelical view of salvation. As a Mormon I had thought about it, and I believe I understood it, but I only from the skeptical angle.  I didn’t take the theology seriously. As I endeavored to do that over the years, I can see it’s beauty.  I think more Mormons would do well to take it more seriously.  I don’t think there is anything to fear in doing so.

What interests me is why they won’t. The main reason is that Evangelicals are often as close-minded, clueless, and defensive as Mormons, and quite often, openly aggressive.   There is smugness on both sides, which generally produces contempt in both sides as well.  They both revel in the strengths of their religions without understanding what their smug adversaries with the bizarre beliefs have to offer.

The heart of my interest in a Christian unity is mainly my curiosity.  I have no theological agenda, I am not true believer in either religion, but the conflict between Mormons and Evangelicals is a fascinating phenomenon.  In a multi-cultural world, interfaith conflict and dialogue are extremely interesting to me. It’s a complex philosophical-religious-social knot that I think can be untied, and what can be learned from the process interests me.

I am focused on the Evangelical side of the equation because unity is not a problem from the LDS perspective.  Disunity is actually often the primary impetus in LDS conversion.  It’s the heart of the Joseph Smith story.  The Church is meant to be peculiar and relatively small. The Church is the home of the elect, not of humanity in general. They believe anybody that opens their heart will be called, but few will be chosen. The LDS goal is to prepare for the Second Coming by establishing “stakes” of the great tent of Zion all over the world.  The image of the small, tenacious, tent stake is apt. The tent will be raised to cover the rest of the world after the Second Coming. The prophetic vision of the Church is to be strong enough to give refuge to those who want to come out of the world, not to change it wholesale.  

For Evangelicals, the vision is clearly different.  By the tenants of their faith, Evangelicals should desperately want to save Mormons, to bring them the benefits of the sort faith that they have. But most don’t– they want protection from them.  This always creates an adversarial relationship and gives Mormons the upper hand. Fear makes a believer think their faith must be stronger or truer than those who fear you.  I have never felt as feared as I have as a LDS missionary talking to Evangelicals.  Mormon history is replete with this sort of fear from the outside.  Being feared is a comfortable position for people of faith. 

Of course the un-realized advantage Evangelicals have is that Mormons do fear not them. If Evangelicals insist on an adversarial relationship with Mormons, they would do well to see Mormons as bison, and themselves as bison hunters. Bison are an ominous beast taken head-on–but they clearly do not have enough fear of the rifle. Nineteenth-century bison hunts decimated them by picking them off at a distance with a rifle.  What is the rifle?  Unbeknownst to Evangelicals, nearly every Mormon has a nascent Evangelical-style faith in Jesus inside of them.  In this way, they are ripe for the harvesting. But Evangelicals miss this mark by trying to engage with the head and horns of Mormonism–i.e. Mormon doctrine and history–rather than shooting for this heart.  

The reason most Evangelicals don’t take this approach is that the horns are so offensive to their theological sensibilities, and the head so thick.  The average, unprepared Evangelical can’t get over the Brigham Young quotes they were taught by their anti-social, anti-Mormon sidekicks.  And they usually give up in confusion when they explain their faith to Mormons and have Mormons simply nod their head in agreement.  The head and horns are so prominent, they don’t take the effort to understand the soft underbelly or psychology. Evangelicals wind up content to pick off disaffected Mormons, or simply try to shake Mormon faith by trying to shake their faith in the Church. This generally just makes the herd stronger.

I think that an enterprising Evangelical could harvest Mormons wholesale as “true” Christians if they found a way to avoid tangling with the horns and head. And when approached carefully, Mormons have no reason to fear. The effect comes off as pro-Mormon rather than anti-Mormon If Evangelicalism reached them directly at their heart, it doesn’t really effect their own vision of who they are in the world.

 I’ll have to write more later about what a Buffalo-Bill-style approach might look like. 


42 thoughts on “Mormons as Bison

  1. Unbeknownst to Evangelicals, nearly every Mormon has a nascent Evangelical-style faith in Jesus inside of them.

    I believe that this is absolutely not the case. Mormonism is absolutely not Christianity+[Extras]. When you strip away the Mormon distinctives from a Mormon, you are not left with Christianity. At all.

    This isn’t an abstract sticking point for me: I had to learn it the hard way coming out of Mormonism. Just look at my blog archives and see the struggles I had with Christianity as a post-Mormon. I wanted to believe, and I felt like I should have been able to build orthodox Christianity on the ostensibly Christian foundations of Mormonism, but I just could not make it happen.

    It wasn’t until after I had rejected “Christianity” completely and spent years as a pagan that I was finally able to turn back around and start to engage with Christianity fresh, from the ground up, that it all started falling into place.

  2. Jared,

    Have you ever thought about reading Protestant thought on unity, marks of the Church, catholicity of the Church etc?

  3. @Kullervo,

    Why do you think it took divorcing yourself from the Christianity you knew as a Mormon to grasp the traditional version?

  4. I think I would start with a survey of systematic theologies. My favorite Concise Reformed Dogmatics by J van Genderson and Velema is an English translation of a recent Dutch work. Mueller’s Christian Dogmaitics is a good confessional Lutheran source. Donald Bloesch”s The Church is neo-evangelical / neo-orthodox / neo-reformed / post-liberal etc.

    By and large any Systematic is going to address ecclesiology and give references for sources in contemporary and historic theology.

  5. Why do you think it took divorcing yourself from the Christianity you knew as a Mormon to grasp the traditional version?

    That’ll be a longer post on my own blog someday.

  6. Jared,

    More on your topic, outside of the Mormon Corridor the LDS Church just doesn’t really exist. Look at Seminary curriculum. How much time is spent in the average seminary on Roman Catholicism, or Eastern religions, or atheism? Compare this to the amount of time spent on Mormonism.

    Engagement with the LDS has been all but relegated to para-church groups. Nobody outsources a core threat. if it wasn’t for family or the occasional kid on a bike every 3 to 4 years, I wouldn’t even know what Mormonism is.

  7. I’m with Kullervo. Becoming Christian was not a matter of simply going, “Well, I guess ole Joseph didn’t pan out to be true, at least I still have Jesus.” In my experience as a Mormon, the “horns” of Mormonism were inseparable from the aspects of LDS faith in some way shared with the Christian mainline. I could not address a faith in Jesus without “horns” as it were, until I completely rejected “horns” and the God I knew who wore them.

  8. I don’t know that it’s a matter of the “horns,” whatever they are, being inseparable from the aspects of LDS faith in some way shared with the Christian mainline, but the fact that, as gundek put it recently, Mormon “Christianity” has almost nothing in common with orthodox Christianity other than spelling. So my Mormon understandings of who Jesus is and what he is all about turned out to not be easily mapped onto an orthodox framework, such that I really couldn’t make heads or tails of orthodox Christianity at all.

    I distinctly remember reading C.S. Lewis’s Miracles as a fresh Mormon and having most of what he wrote about, say, the Incarnation pretty much going in one ear and out the other, and then coming back to it as a lapsed pagan grappling with orthodox Christianity and it just totally blew me away.

  9. “nearly every Mormon has a nascent Evangelical-style faith in Jesus inside of them”

    Would you mind explaining this more to me. I’m curious what you mean by this more specifically

    Thinking back on my own journey of faith, I didn’t have much thought at all about religion (I believed in God, but it didn’t have much of an active role in my life. I describe that time as being irreligious) until I moved into the bible-belt. The place had a higher than average amount of Mormons in the area that had a strong catholic and Baptist influence (esp Baptist/ev). It was the land of mega-churches. The reactions to me being LDS were reactive (like telling someone I had an incurable disease) the interaction in religion was either filled with mis-characterizations and some fear/aversion. So it made me far more curious about my religion and more strong in it. Ev’s came off as adversarial and there was little that I saw redemptive about the ideology that seemed to bring out excessive reactionary responses to things different from their beliefs. It was years later that I began to see the parallels and similarities. I believe that many of our diffs are based heavily having a different language in explaining similar patterns in faith. With getting at the heart, I’m not sure how much more it would lead to conversion (I frankly don’t see that happening much)….but I think it would help to have greater moments of interfaith dialogue and spiritual communion.

  10. Gundek, I understand how minuscule Mormonism in the scheme of things. Whether Mormonism warrants any special attention is an open question.

  11. @Kullervo

    I know what you mean, I understood Nietzsche, Pascal, Kierkegaard, even Heidegger differently after grasping more about traditional Christianity.

  12. I appreciate your comments Tasha,

    I think Mormons have a deep love and devotion to Jesus and faith in him as Savior. Is say it is “nascent” because it is different than the Evangelical view. I think that some, not all, Mormons would benefit from adopting a view closer to the Evangelical view.

  13. As St. Paul said, of the Jews, “They have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.”

    This statement can apply to all those who believe that God’
    s view of them is dependent upon ‘what they do…or don’t do’.

  14. I know what you mean, I understood Nietzsche, Pascal, Kierkegaard, even Heidegger differently after grasping more about traditional Christianity.

    You have yet to say anything that makes me think you have even a basic grasp of orthodox Christianity. I strongly suspect that you are seeing it through very, very Mormon eyes.

  15. I like the analogy Jared and I think there is some wisdom here for Evangelicals as they approach Mormonism. But I’m not sure it describes all Mormons.

    In my experience, for some, I think the analogy is reversed; where the head and the horns appear to be a love for Jesus but when you get to the heart you discover a commitment to Mormonism and only an attachment to Jesus in that his name is on the front of the building. I re-posted something by someone who was grateful that this was the case for himself: Joseph Saved Me From Getting Hung Up on Jesus.

    I think the take-away is that promoting a love for Jesus is ultimately what Evangelicals want for every Mormon. The primary goal is to teach someone to love Jesus, if a Mormon leaves the LDS church it should be first and foremost because they love Jesus. Failure to do so brings up my long standing dilemma

  16. The main reason is that Evangelicals are often as close-minded, clueless, and defensive as Mormons, and quite often, openly aggressive.

    Previously I wrote:

    Over the past 180 years the Evangelical world has had two primary missions in response to Mormonism. The first was to protect our own sheep, the second was to call Mormons to repentance and motivate them to join the fellowship of true believers.

  17. Well, I think Mormon eyes are good. Within limits, understanding a position does not require changing your own.

    Mormon eyes in this situation are bad, because (1) Mormons not only perpetuate strawman descritpions of other churches and their beliefs and practices, but Mormon theology in certain respects rests on strawman assumptions about other churches and their beliefs and practices, and (2) Mormons are generally unaware of the extent to which their ideas about Jesus are not the same as orthodoxy’s (again, as gundek puts it, in a lot of respects, Mormons and Christians only have spelling in common), and certainly do not grok the extent to which the differences have profound interdoctrinal ramifications.

    And basically everything you have ever posted here has indicated that not only are these two true of you, but you are obstinate about it. And to be honest, it really surprises me given your academic background.

  18. Jared,

    Sorry I should have been a little more clearer. I meant more along the lines of specific examples that you’ve seen or at least picture. I believe I agree with you, but I’d bee interested to know more specifically what you’ve viewed.

  19. Kullervo,

    (1)Portraying a religion with complete accuracy from an unbelieving perspective is always tricky. If I am presenting strawman arguments, please point them out. I don’t think I am falsely or weakly portraying Evangelicalism or Mormonism, but I am happy to be shown the fallacy of my ways. At root, my observations are mainly psychological, not theological.

    (2) Please take this as my confession that belief system of orthodox Christianity is radically different than the largely undefined belief system of Mormonism. The theological differences, when properly understood, are breathtaking.

    Perhaps I am obstinate, but I do not agree with the traditional Christian picture of the world, I believe I understand it, but I do not believe it.

  20. Tasha,

    What I meant by an “Evangelical-style faith in Jesus” is a passionate and personal devotion to Jesus over all else, and a complete trust that this faith and devotion is enough in itself purge the effect of sin. There are plenty of Mormons who have this, plenty who don’t. Many have that sort of feeling and thought toward Heavenly Father.

    If you have a chance to meet an Evangelical who is willing to discuss their faith in Jesus without preaching or defense you might be able to get a sense of what I am talking about.

  21. What I meant by an “Evangelical-style faith in Jesus” is a passionate and personal devotion to Jesus over all else, and a complete trust that this faith and devotion is enough in itself purge the effect of sin.

    The fact that you think that this is the essence of orthodox Christianity shows that you don’t really get orthodox Christianity.

  22. Did I say this was the essence of Christianity?

    I don’t equate orthodoxy with Evangelicalism, nor do I equate the way Evangelicals believe in Jesus with orthodoxy.

    I think it’s obvious that any reasonable definition of orthodoxy does not require an Evangelical-style love for Jesus.

  23. @Tim

    The horns the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is close to the center of the heart of the LDS religion and their personal religious experiences with God and Christ. One of the reasons it is so ineffective to attack the Book of Mormon is that many of their most real and powerful experiences with Christ are through contemplating that book.

  24. Jared, I like your attempt at unity, but I think it needs to be acknowledged that Evangelicals and Mormons are not even the best suited for it. IMHO, the primary reason that the conversation even exists is that Mormons and EV’s are the only ones showing up to dinner. Not because of any theological/practical symmetry. Unless you consider the desire to convert everyone a point worth exploring (I don’t). I don’t know why Mormons should put Evangelicals at the top of their list anyway. Are Catholic, Mainline, EO approaches to Jesus not just as valid if not more so? I still like to talk with Evangelicals about Jesus and the Bible, but I have very little hope of the two coming together on much that isn’t gay-marriage-related.

    I think the take-away is that promoting a love for Jesus is ultimately what Evangelicals want for every Mormon.

    Tim, I think its more accurate to say that promoting an evangelical love for Jesus is ultimately what Evangelicals want for every Mormon. And let’s be clear, I’m not talking about general Protestant or traditional “orthodox” Christian concepts, but decidedly Evangelical visions of Jesus and his place in our lives.

  25. How are Evangelical visions of Jesus and his place in our lives different from general Protestant or traditional “orthodox” Christian concepts?

  26. 1. An emphasis on having a “personal relationship” with Jesus. A bent toward religious individualism.

    2. Getting us saved and calling us to heaven as the main objective of his death and resurrection.

    3. seeing a direct link between the reliability of what Jesus did and who he was with biblical inerrancy (and in many cases literalness or historicity). For example, the NT writers could not have taken the OT out of context, because it would undermine Jesus. Or, Adam has to be viewed as the historical first human or it would undermine Paul, which would undermine Jesus.

  27. Thanks for the comments Christian,

    I think Mormons and Evangelicals have radically different world views, they may not be best disposed to unity compared with other groups. However, Mormons and Evangelicals share some basic practical similarities and attitudes toward life. They want to live “God’s way” in their heart, head, and body. For many Mormons, an evangelical-style love for Jesus might come in very handy in the face of the spiritual pitfalls that such an endeavor can pose. Mormons believe in a personal relationship with God, and within limits, believe in a balance of head-knowledge over heart impressions. A personal relationship with Jesus may something that they can readily adopt and use within their existing belief structure.

    I actually don’t think Mormons have much luck converting Evangelicals because of their practical similarities.

  28. gundek, the characteristics I described may be uniquely American (or Western). They may not be based on a strict reading of scripture or much of pre-20th C. Christian tradition, but they’re a real part of fairly recent Evangelical movements, regardless of their ad-hoc-ness.

  29. Jared, I see the personal approach toward God being a Mormon characteristic. But it becomes complicated when you throw in prophetic counsel. That whole animal is strange to EV’s, in my experience. They can’t relate.

    I will agree that are connection there. And there’s not harm in trying.

  30. I understand that my position is the minority view, but taking your points in reverse order, inerrancy has been the default position of the church for millennia, that the incarnation of Christ, his life and resurrection was for our salvation is confessed in the Nicene Creed, leaving a personal relationship (an ambiguous concept) as the distinction of evangelicalism.

  31. Not one that has any distinctive clarity on particular beliefs. Any group that has both Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll is so diverse that is defies definition.

  32. gundek, that the Evangelical tradition is heavily fractured today is hard to argue against. Your Bell/Driscoll point is well taken. However, there seem to be some foundational themes at the root that are distinctive from other Protestant traditions. Or maybe I’m just focusing on the most common subset of Evangelical that engages in Mormon outreach (usually theologically conservative and American).

  33. Christian,

    Historically I think that American evangelicalism has always been theologically fractured. Unlike Mormons who are unified by systems of priesthoods and prophets, evangelical are not compelled to submit to an ecclesiastical structure they disagree with.10-15 Years ago you could say that the unique authority of the Bible or the necessity of regeneration/being born again were distinctive but I’m not sure that these distinctions are still valid.

    At heart American evangelicalism is a conservative ecumenical movement and by nature ecumenism goal is to blur distinctions to increase cooperation. From the 40’s until the last decade or so evangelicalism ecumenical overarching goal was to give united cooperating voice (public witness) to the conservative protestants views contra to the Mainline denominations and Liberal ecumenical organizations. The original practical goals of the movement centered on access to radio airtime and the ability to provide ecclesiastical endorsement for military Chaplains.

    Like I said, I think that my opinions are still in the minority but if I had to define the American evangelical identity it is the broadly moderate to conservative (theologically supernaturalist) protestant ecumenical movement. What the goals of this ecumenism are, is a tougher question.

  34. I wouldn’t normally recommend a book without reading it entirely but the Kindle version of Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity is only $2.99

    From what I have read so far… I think a Mormon trying to understand areas of broad agreement of Christian teaching across the East, Rome, Protestant, Evangelical could safely start with Oden’s book.

    I am not trying to gloss over distinctions and differences but it may be helpful for Mormons to see that their basic disagreement isn’t really with Evangelicals, at least not anything theologically unique to Evangelicalism.

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