The curious case of Matt Pitt

I ran across a two-part series Blurred Lines: The Basement and Evangelical History   (Part II)) by Charity Carney about the troubled and acclaimed youth preacher Matt Pitt.   Pitt is one of those people that hold your attention.  From my Mormon perspective Matt Pitt is a fascinating phenomenon that gives some insight into the some of the dynamics of Evangelical Christianity.

Pitt found God and Christ in his basement in the cathartic moment when his father told him he had to leave home if he continued to do drugs.  The transforming feeling led him to start the religious-entertainment ministry.  Cultivating a dance club atmosphere, the Basement appeals to those who affiliate with popular hip-hop culture.  Here is a taste of his ministry:

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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.

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The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles show us how the first Christians were Mormons?

Early Christian Gravestone, Jesus the ShepherdIf you haven’t read the Didache, it’s a fascinating read.  Named after the Greek word for “teaching” this short work purports to contain the teaching of the twelve apostles of Christ.  Written as early as the first century, it was considered by some prominent early Christians as part of the New Testament.  The Didache is intriguing because it was not written to tell a story, or to explain theology, but as a manual for what Mormons would call “living the Gospel.”

The Didache is ostensibly the direction of the Twelve Apostles concerning how to practice Christianity.  It lays out how to live, how not to live, how to baptize, how to prepare the sacrament, how to pray and fast, how to deal with traveling preacher, how to appoint local leaders, and how to prepare for the Second Coming. One reason the book struck me as “Mormon” is that Jesus is not mentioned by name at all. The “way of life” is straightforward– love of God, the golden rule, and shunning immorality. It’s approach to religion is unsophisticated and straightforward, not unlike most LDS conference talks. 

The book is also Mormonesque in the way it directs believers to appoint church leaders from their own congregations. Professional, traveling preachers are to be accepted, but tested. Those that hang around too long, or leach off the membership, were to be rejected.  It also smacks of the Mormon worthiness narrative.  The congregations were told to confess and repent of their sins before Sunday worship so that their sacrifice to God could be pure. They were also directed to resolve all disputes with others. 

It makes me wonder how Christianity would differ today if this guidance was considered the infallible word of God.  Would Evangelical-style money-preachers be rejected more readily? How would the church look if these practical principles were enforceable as scripture?  These are some of the fascinating questions these just-barely-uncanonical works leave me asking.

Jesus Was a Pimp?

This blog owes a lot to Del Parsons and a very awkward painting of Jesus (if you’re curious about the title of this post you have to check out that link).  So in effort to honor that legacy we must point out the glory of perhaps the most awkward painting of Jesus of all time.

Everything about this painting is awesome. I’m not sure what my favorite part is but let me point a few of them out in no particular order

  1. The hole Jesus is apparently standing in
  2. The baby orangutan
  3. The inconsistent light sources
  4. Adam’s dislocated hips and birthing posture
  5. Is that the sun or the moon?
  6. A miniature giraffe AND a dwarf tiger symbolizing male virility

awkward jesus paintingThere seem to be a few hints to me in the painting that the artist might have some Mormon influences but wasn’t for sure (Eve in particular). My suspicions were a bit confirmed by this painting of Mitt Romney welcoming a new child’s birth.  But the artist’s resume seems to indicate that he has many Evangelical connections.  Sorry Mormon friends, the brilliance of this painting appears to belong entirely to the Evangelical subculture.

Just a Little Atonement

A link to an article on Feminist Mormon Housewives popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. Though not the point of the article, the author briefly said something about the Atonement that stood out to me.

Second, know that it is NOT within your ability to save anyone. You can’t even save yourself. No matter how many good deeds you do, or how many times you attend the temple, you will fall short of perfect. We all do. All of us. We are all in need of the Atonement and God’s mercy and grace to save us. Even if someone only needs “a little” of the Atonement, it still covers us all equally.

I’m curious about the phrase “Even if someone only needs ‘a little’ of the Atonement”. Is this a common view of the Atonement within Mormonism that someone might only need “a little” of it?

The common Evangelical view is that “only” the Atonement can save us. There is no such thing as “a little” of the Atonement. If this view is of the Atonement is representative of Mormonism I think we may have yet another example of a common word that both Mormons and Evangelicals use with radically different definitions.

For an even more radical view on the Atonement, check out Louis Farrakhan’s sermon.

Brigham Speaks

An Evangelical has begun to record reenactments of some of Brigham Young’s more notorious conference talks. The segments are short and not within context but they make their point effectively; that Brigham Young, as a Prophet and President, said some rather distasteful things from the pulpit at General Conference. These were his spiritual teachings and not just his opinions on issues of the day.

The evangelisitc strategy applied here is to dislodge Mormons from security and comfort of the teachings of Mormon prophets. I have my reservations about the strategy because it does not offer a alternative worldview. It also seems that someone could cherry-pick some quotes from the Old Testament with a reenactment of Moses preaching them in the desert for similar purposes.

I think most Mormons are at least vaguely aware of Brigham’s fiery rhetoric. They would not choose to follow his teachings if he were prophet today, but he’s not prophet today, so they don’t have to. I think if there is any traction to be found in this strategy it is to be found in his teachings on the Adam/God theory; which subsequent Mormon leaders explicitly declared to be false despite having found their way into Temple ceremonies.

The videos are handsomely produced and the actor does a fine job of delivering the sermons. See for yourself:

Less Than True Christianity

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently delivered a devotional at BYU-Idaho and told the students the following:

“Without his commission from the Father and the Son, without his priesthood ordinations and the keys he received at the hands of duly appointed heavenly messengers, without the fulness of the gospel restored through his visions and revelations and his translations of the Book of Mormon and the Bible, what we would have is something much less than true Christianity.”

Is this a way Mormons would prefer orthodox Christians to refer to Mormons, as something much less than true Christians? In many ways I think this appropriately settles the “Are Mormons Christian?” question. It acknowledges and gives deference to someone’s self description, but I’m not sure it tastes much better.

Three Stages in the Decline of a Religion

I was listening to a sermon by Ravi Zacharias in which he credited the poet Lord Byron with the following.

Three Stages in the Decline of a Religion:

1) Heresy – when true God is worshiped with false worship
2) Idolatry – false gods worshiped while we suppose them for true God
3) Witchcraft – adoration for false gods knowing them to be wicked

My friend who directed me to the sermon pointed out that this seems to loosely follow the pattern Paul lays out in Romans 1. I briefly looked but could not find any other reference to Lord Byron. [it actually comes from The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon]

Over a year ago I wrote about my begrudging acceptance of a sect of Christianity which I find disgusting but still within the camp of Christian orthodoxy. What I like about Byron’s Bacon’s three stages is that it defines such believers as heretics but still worshipers of a true God.

I would place Mormonism in the classification of “idolatry” because its description of God is so wildly different than that of orthodox Christianity. In turn I think the classic Christian understanding of God is idolatrous if Mormon theology were to be the standard (and appropriately deemed “apostate” – outside the faith).

The place I probably struggle the most in Byron’s Bacon’s paradigm is the description of “knowing the false gods to be false.” I think this might better describe an individual’s posture of religion than a religion itself. I think there are individuals who know their gods are false, but worship them anyways. But I think each religion is at least attempting to direct people toward worship of a true god.

Turns out, the Bible says that Protestants should unite with Mormons

Our friend charismatic protestant friend Cal has taken a position– beleaguered  by most non-Mormons here–that Mormons are Christians.  Although no longer a believer, I thought I would try to clearly lay out the argument for Cal’s position aimed at Protestants.

For purposes of the discussion I am assuming the truth of the Five Solae, the Nicene Creed, and the and the Bible.

I propose that these three premises are true:

1. Jesus prayed for and sought as a goal before God the unity of those that believe in him through the testimony of his disciples, i.e. the New Testament. (John 17: 20-23:

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

2. The New Testament does not make orthodox theology a qualification for inclusion in unity. Jesus was not limiting fellowship or unity to the orthodox.  He is talking about orthodoxy or unity of creed or belief–Jesus established no creed, distilled his message and rarely made it explicit. He warns against false teachers, but Jesus put the focus on distinguishing false teachers based on their fruits– i.e. you will known them by their behavior and effects on the church not (necessarily) their theological errors. 

3.  Mormons believe that the text of the New Testament is the truth.  

Given these premises, my conclusion is that Protestants should embrace Mormons as part of the group that they are challenged by Jesus to be unified with, and seek to come to complete unity.

Notice that I am assuming what Protestant’s believe is orthodoxy to be correct but the strength of the argument holds on a practical and ethical level.  But there is no orthodoxy regarding how unity can and should be achieved. That is an open question.  I suggest that even if the path to reaching unity is unclear– efforts toward unity will lead–ultimately–to a greater prevalence of salvation and faith in Jesus more effectively than efforts toward disunity–which are, generally, the order of the day.  

Finding Our Way Out of Mormonism

Video

Former BYU professor Lynn Wilder was recently on the popular Evangelical television show “The 700 Club”. She discussed her book about her transition out of Mormonism and some of the differences between Mormonism and Evangelicalism. She mentions her perceptions of finding a different gospel outside of Mormonism and her embrace of the cross and grace.

Skittles In Remembrance

Today a friend from college posted the following on Facebook:

We just took Skittles and iced tea as communion elements at my church in honor of the situation with Trayvon Martin–because being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life…

I knew immediately that there were a great many things to unpack in this posting.  At the very least I knew her congregation had inspired a conversation about Jesus and injustice and for that I applaud them.  But there seemed to be something else nestled into this radical statement that didn’t sit well with me.

254069-skittlesFor those unaware of the reference, Trayvon Martin was a black, 17-year-old who was killed (some say murdered) in an altercation with a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was recently acquitted of murdering Martin and the case brought up many controversial conversations about race, self-defense, and injustice. Martin had decided to go out to the store that evening to get Skittles and Iced Tea.

It is clear to me that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die that night.  His death is a tragedy. It simply should not have happened.  I do not wish to jump into the cultural, political or legal controversies surrounding his death in this space, but I acknowledge the deep feelings of injustice that are conjured in the hearts of many Americans by his death. Trayvon Martin should not be dead because he wanted some Skittles and Iced Tea.

In many ways I understand what my friend’s church was doing by serving Skittles and Iced Tea in communion.  The bread and the wine are two of the most powerful symbols in Christianity.  Skittles and Iced Tea have become powerful symbols of racial injustice in America.  From an artistic perspective it makes a lot of sense to put these symbols in proximity to one another.  The moral complexity caused by creating a relationship between these symbols is explosive.  I believe this symbol clashing expression of a Christian sacrament is powerful, but I also must ask “is it good?”

From a purely pragmatic perspective I believe that Skittles and Iced Tea can be used as a substitute for bread and wine in Communion.  On a deserted island with nothing else on hand, I think God would find them an honorable means of worship.  If I had to guess, I’d say 99% of my worship experiences have been in churches that chooses to use grape juice instead of wine.  The LDS church uses water.  Most churches serve some variety of crackers, wafers or even bread with yeast.  My own church has recently begun to set out gluten-free crackers for those with gluten allergies. I say all of this to acknowledge that many churches use some substitute for the wine and the kind of bread Jesus served in the Last Supper.  Not many make the effort to replicate Jewish, First Century wine and Passover bread.

From a symbolic perspective I think the use of Skittles and Iced Tea is wrong.  I whole-heartedly agree that “being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life… ”  We should, ought and must be fighting against racial barriers and injustice.  Nonetheless I think it was inappropriate to make the Sacrament an opportunity to call Christians to the fight against injustice.

When Jesus broke the bread and served the wine, he said “do this in remembrance of me”.  He did not say “do this in remembrance of Trayvon Martin and the injustice of racial stereotypes”.  I hope and pray that churches every where are preaching relevant, practical and Biblical sermons on breaking the bonds of injustice.  I strongly encourage them to develop programs to help their neighbors overcome those types of struggles.  But Communion is not the place to offer that charge. The Gospel of Jesus is in part about racial and societal reconciliation, but that is not the entire message.

The error in using Skittles and Iced Tea in Communion is that it places the Christian mission against injustice at the center of the worship experience rather than Christ. In many ways this story illuminates the Conservative/Liberal Christian divide for me.  Churches on both sides of the spectrum fall into heresy when they misplace any one aspect of the Christian pursuit of virtue over Jesus himself.  Churches that designate themselves as “open and affirming” seem to easily devolve into nothing more than the message of acceptance.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that focus on personal piety and moral regulations can devolve into nothing more than the message of righteousness.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than than. Churches that focus on nothing but their liturgy and priesthood can become a place where nothing is more important that the right mode of worship and authority. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that passionately pursue complex theological teaching can become nothing more than their sound doctrines. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Justice, acceptance, righteousness, worship, authority and doctrine are all wonderful things and should be pursued passionately. . . but they aren’t Jesus.  Our Savior calls us to all of them, but they are not saviors.

I imagine the good people at my friend’s church would be appalled if they heard of another church that had replaced the bread and the wine with Budweiser and apple pie.  I hope their outrage would not be because they reject the cultural or political message symbolized by those items, but rather because what those items represent are never meant to displace our call to remember Jesus’ death when we partake of the sacraments.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

St. Paul on road to Damascus

St. Paul on road to Damascus (Photo credit: bobosh_t)

Christian J pointed out in the discussion of my last post that he thought the Mormon model of seeking spiritual confirmation of doctrine was biblical. I think he is right. When I was LDS, I was very impressed by Paul’s discussion in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2.  It captured perfectly my view of the core of Missionary work.  Those interested in Mormonism would do well to understand how Paul’s words are lived by LDS today.

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The Weeping God of Teryl Givens

Teryl and Fiona Givens were recently on a tour of British ward houses giving a series of talks entitled “The Crucible of Doubt”. The point of the talk seemed to be to encourage Mormons who may be struggling with doubts. One attendee recorded the talk and shared it.  Another attendee took notes on the talk and shared those notes.  I’ll set aside the content of Givens’ apologetic arguments in order to focus on something he said about Protestantism. Continue reading

Two Too Many

R.C. Sproul took a question from a pastor on his radio show that interested me quite a bit. The pastor had a new convert in his church that had been a polygamous Mormon. The man had left Mormonism but not any of his three wives. The pastor was curious how he should go about disciplining this man and if he should be encouraged to leave his two additional wives.

You can hear Sproul’s answer here. Start at the 9:00 mark.

I expect Christians to encounter more situations like this one. And the dilemma isn’t just for polygamist. What should two married women with children be counseled to do if they join a church? Two married men? How about a man who divorced, as a believer, for unbiblical reasons and remarried?

I’m sure the situation is semi-regular in the LDS church. What must a polygamous man do to be baptized and enjoy full communion in the LDS church?

The Universalist Pope?!

Pope Francis appears to have a new, dramatic, position on salvation for the non-believer.  Catholic Online  gives a detailed account of the Pope’s sermon yesterday where he stated that even atheists were redeemed by Christ and would go to heaven if they “do good.”

A quote from the article:

Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

I recognize that the pope is not really making himself out to be a universalist, but he definitely opens the door to salvation to anyone regardless of belief. If this is a sign of things to come, I think this pope may have ideas that could really unite Christianity.  If the pope believes an atheist can get into heaven, this seems to change the entire dynamic of Christian interaction with the world.  The fundamental missionary act would be to promote and support good conduct–Christian love–rather than merely spreading Christian theology or belief.  Is the pope implying this? Am I reading too much into it? Whether this represents a sea change or is simply warmer rhetoric, I think its a very positive step. Thoughts?

Explaining Jesus to a child – How should I indoctrinate my children?

indoctrinate_xlarge_xlargeWhen children are taught religion, they are indoctrinated. As parents we can’t explain how the world really works to them–they won’t understand and nobody has the patience–so we happily give them simple skeletons which they can build on, that they can organize the necessarily limited experience and information they stumble across.  We hope that the skeletons are elegant and strong enough to gird all the good information our children come across and allow them to create a robust, useful picture of how things are. Of course the problem with indoctrination is that it shuts of lines if inquiry, creating intellectual bias.  If the process of education moves people from cocksure confidence to thoughtful uncertainty, indoctrination attempts to stall or abort this process–on a few important areas of thought at least.

Indoctrination is a big issue in our multi-cultural, increasingly divisive, political and ideological climate. At least one writer – David French– contends that Evangelicals’ failure to properly indoctrinate their children is part of the reason they fall short in church growth compared to moromons.   Citing the Barna Group’s conclusion that of the 84 million Americans who claim to be Evangelical, only about 19 million actually hold orthodox beliefs, French advocates that Evangelicals must follow the LDS lead in teaching their distinctive beliefs and culture early and well.

But indoctrination is an extremely inflammatory concept. It is almost universally condemned by those who don’t want children to be indoctrinated against their positions. But I don’t think indoctrination can or should have the bad rap given it by fervent opponents of religious indoctrination such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Arguably most childhood education in areas of history and even many areas of science smacks of indoctrination in one form or another.

Given its unavoidable necessity, I have started to take indoctrination of my own children more seriously. My kids are indoctrinated Mormons, their skeletons come from church.   They have a surface-level, Sunday-school understanding of the church, salvation, and the righteous life. But because I am no longer what can be fairly called a believing Mormon, I want to temper this indoctrination with indoctrination of my own–one that reflects the understanding I have developed in my spiritual life and education.  I am trying to find a way to explain Christianity differently without closing the lines of inquiry that I find critical.  I want to add a few limbs to my kids’ conceptual skeletons without making their existing frameworks useless.

So, my project is to develop simple, short, easy-to-understand narratives of important historical events and religious principles- sort of like the Gospel Principles Manual in the LDS Church. Something that can give my children a place to start inquiry based roughly on what I think are proper conclusions about history and the world; a different narrative to expand and allow critical evaluation of the narrative they receive in church.

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Stephen’s Sermon in Post-Christian America

stephenThe seventh chapter of Acts tells the story of Stephen, a newly ordained deacon (Church waiter), who is brought before the Jewish authorities with false charges of blasphemy and plans to destroy the Temple. In his defense, full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen offers an alternate history of Judaism that both devalues the importance of the Temple and charges the authorities with the murder of Jesus and all of the previous prophets. Stephen is hastily dragged out of the city and stoned to death. He becomes the first post-Ressurection martyr and an immense persecution immediately breaks out against the Church.

My bible study group was recently discussing this passage and my wife rhetorically asked “Was Stephen’s sermon effective?” The obvious Christian answer is “yes”, but I can’t imagine in the first weeks and months following Stephen’s sermon that many Christians thought that it was effective. The story does not tell of any Jew who became a Christian because of the sermon; in fact it seemed to have the opposite effect, entrenching the hatred and persecution of this new religious community. The church at that moment in time is what we today would call a mega-church. Thousands of believers were together, centered in Jerusalem with thousands being added daily. The church was becoming institutionalized adding structure and organization to make it more effective in its mission. As Stephen was dragged out of the city, all of the success of the early church seemed to be dragged out with him. Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and forced into secrecy and fear. Many more would lose their lives for preaching the name of Jesus. Jewish authorities would no longer call for patient tolerance of this new heresy but instead made it legal to pursue and punish all who dared devote their lives to Jesus. By all appearances and short term evidences the event seemed to be an utter disaster for Christianity.

The Evangelical Church in America is currently facing a paradigm shift. Continue reading

We Pretenders

When I was a kid, I loved to pretend.  My life was filled with forts, guns, armies, horses, dragons, talking animals, magic swords, and space armadas.  You didn’t have to point out to me that I was pretending, I was doing it on purpose.

Jesus pointed out the pretenders who did not seem to know they were pretending. To the Romans he pointed out that they were merely pretending to be the masters of the world. In fact, the Kingdom of God was in our midst and held sway over what mattered.  To those pretending to be good, he said there is no good but God.  To those pretending to honor the temple of God, he dealt a beating.  To those pretending to be his disciples, he exposed as denyers, betrayers, and court jesters. Jesus was God who pretended to be a man and–in the end–He exposed this pretense as well.

Few would disagree that those who follow Jesus only pretend to.   The Old Testament teaches us that we are foolish and pretending children to a Perfect Father who has given us his law, the New teaches us that we are all fallen and lost, incapable of following the law God gave–we can only pretend. The Book of Mormon teaches that when it comes to obedience, we are less than we are not the dust of the earth, only pretending to be submissive. Joseph Smith taught that our compliance and authority is often–because of our nature and disposition–simply pretense to fulfill our pride and hide our sins. Jesus’ apostles made it clear that Jesus was the Christ, we merely pretend to be Christians. Paul taught that whatever we are of Christ is not us, but Christ in us.

Ironically, Christians also like to point out pretenders.

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