Saturday, 21 August 2010

Is Mormonism Surplus to Requirements?

Years ago I held a job selling encyclopaedias (yes that encyclopaedia). Of course we didn’t carry all 32 volumes around, instead having samples from each main section bound into one volume. When I began with the firm I had to do a residential course to learn the benefits and features of the product at a sort of Merchandise Training Centre (MTC). We learned a script that told the story of the encyclopaedia and its benefits to the potential purchaser and learned, often through role play, to deal with questions and objections we might possibly meet. Finally, with a special book tucked under our arm, we went into the world to prearranged meetings with people in their homes, people who had expressed an interest through advertising, events and referrals from existing customers.

As I was looking again at the new Mormon missionary lessons it struck me how the process isn’t so very different. A sales force is trained in presenting the product, role play is used, a script is memorised and representatives learn how to answer questions and deal with objections. They then go out into the world with a book under their arm to prearranged meetings with people who have answered an ad, been to an open house or temple opening and signed a visitor’s book.

After financial considerations (which were always important) the key to the whole presentation for the customer was always whether there were benefits in accepting the product that were not available in other products making similar claims. In the same way, Mormons encourage their contacts to believe that there are benefits in being a Mormon that are not readily available in other organisations making similar claims.

The Book of Mormon in particular is presented in such a way as to lead their investigators to infer that it has answers not found elsewhere. In a list headed “The Book of Mormon Answers Questions of the Soul” missionaries present the special benefits of having the Book of Mormon. But is the Book of Mormon so singular in its ability to satisfy man’s curiosity about the big questions? Decide for yourself whether Mormonism is so special or whether it is surplus to requirements. Here are the questions as they appear in the lessons and the answers to be found in any good Bible. I am sure any good Bible scholar could add many more references:

The Book of Mormon Answers Questions of the Soul (As Does the Bible)

1. Is there a God? Romans - 1:19 Psalm 19:1-3

2. What Does Jesus Expect of me? - 1 Peter 2:1 John 6:28-29

3. How can belief in Jesus Christ help me? - Acts 16:31 John 3:15-16

4. Is there a Life after Death? - 1 Corinthians 15

5. What is the Purpose of Life? - John 17:21-23

6. Why does God allow evil and suffering? - Genesis 3:17 Romans 2:5

7. Does my infant need to be baptised? - Mark 16:16 Acts 2:38

8. Does God know me? Matthew 6:25-34

9. Does God answer prayer? - Psalm 65:2; 145:18-19

10. How can I find peace and joy? - John 16:33; 14: 27; 15:11

11. How can my family be happier and more united? - 1Timothy 3&5, Colossians 3:18-25. Ephesians 6:1-4

12. How can I balance my family and career? - 1Timothy 3&5, Colossians 3:18-25. Ephesians 6:1-4

13. How can I strengthen my relationship with my spouse? - 1Timothy 3&5, Colossians 3:18-25. Ephesians 6:1-4

14. How can I avoid the evils that threaten my family? - 1Timothy 3&5, Colossians 3:18-25. Ephesians 6:1-4

15. How can I avoid sin? - Colossians 3:1-17 Ephesians 6: 10-20

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Rebranding the Mormons | Religion Dispatches

The Mormons are rebranding – again. If a commercial enterprise ever felt the need to rebrand as much as the Mormons their stock would surely fall and investors would ask what was wrong. This is an article by Joanna Brooks, a writer with Religious Despatches and a Mormon putting a positive spin on this latest incarnation of Mormonism.

It revolves around the new website which features “thousands of profiles posted by individual members”, a sort of “Hi, I’m Mike, and I am a Mormon…” thing. Joanna Brooks remarks:

It's…clearly an effort to address the major PR problems facing the Church as it continues to contend with century-old stereotypes about Mormons as clannish polygamists as well as with recent fallout from its heavy involvement in California's Proposition 8 campaign.

I always smile wryly when I read such comment. It puts the blame for Mormonism’s “major PR problems” squarely on stereotyping and neatly bypasses the embarrassing fact that Mormonism is not the victim of stereotyping but victim to its own history of being clannish and polygamous. Even today, although Salt Lake City Mormons are no longer practicing polygamists they are certainly among the most clannish people you will ever meet. It is not a stereotype but a true representation of Mormons and Mormonism. isn’t it funny that a people who lay such great store at keeping records and connecting with their forebears should be so forgetful of their past and so anxious to bury it – and re-write it?

Joanna Brooks also makes the following interesting observation:

The Church is struggling to retool its approach to missionary work away from the time-honored tradition of door-to-door tracting as growth rates flatline worldwide, in sharp contrast with sociologist Rodney Stark's famous projection that there could be as many as 265 million Mormons by the late 21st century. Retention of members too is a major issue around the globe.

Many will know that as far back as 1980 the Mormon Church was forecasting huge growth in numbers based on a recent spurt in growth and Stark’s projection. I have already written about Mormon demographics and asked what went wrong in the past thirty years. What is refreshing is the frank confession that “[Mormon] growth rates have flat lined worldwide” since Stark. Remember that the next time you hear a Mormon leader utter that inevitable claim “the church continues to grow.” (what do you mean you don’t listen to General Conference!)

There is, finally, a lovely quote from John Dehlin writing on the blog Mormon Matters:

"Let’s say that a young, hip, progressive, yuppy, affluent, intellectual, artistic, and most likely pro-gay couple decides to join the church in an average LDS ward. Will their experience in the church, today, reflect the open, progressive, liberal, almost artsy sentiments and values reflected in this marketing campaign? Will they stay? Or will they feel that a bit of a 'bait and switch' has happened?"

Dehlin concludes that this campaign is “aspirational” and here is the rub. Some young, hip, progressive Mormons might well pray that it may be so but the Mormon Church is probably the most conservative church in America and does not view “progressive” as a good thing. It is still true that when the prophet speaks the discussion is over. The problem for Mormons is that their prophet hasn’t said anything much for a long time now – see Testing Mormon Prophets - and that is why the Ad Men and armchair theologians such as those nice people at FAIR are currently on the ascendant.

Maybe about now would a good time for Mormons to have their own Council of Nicea to hammer out what it is exactly Mormons believe, whether theirs is a progressive religion, whether prophets do lead their church or whether its time to start producing a closed canon and something approaching a systematic theology. Now that would be a major rebranding.






Rebranding the Mormons | Religion Dispatches

Friday, 6 August 2010

Mormons Who Are Confident, Christians Who Aren’t

Holmes handed his visiting card to the aristocrat who looked at it, disdainfully observing the address, “Baker Street...221...B. Hardly an address to inspire confidence.”

Sherlock Holmes replied, “My Lord, I have more than enough confidence in myself. I do not need to inspire it in others.”

It’s one of my favourite exchanges from the Jeremy Brett television series’ of the Sherlock Holmes adventures and demonstrates the supreme confidence the great man has in his formidable powers of deduction. Of course, he has every reason to be as confident as subsequent events affirm.

Mormons can Inspire Confidence

Christians can be discouraged from talking to Mormons as, aping their leaders, they display a similar confidence in what they are saying. And Mormon leaders know that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, they do need to inspire confidence in others if they are to win converts. In this instance however there is no justification for encouraging or reason for entertaining such confidence. I say this not because Mormonism isn’t true (it isn’t), nor because the claims of Mormonism are not capable of being substantiated (they are not) but because of the ignorance of the average Mormon of their own faith, much less the Christian faith they reject in embracing Mormonism.

My heart sinks each time I find a Mormon declaring with supreme assurance that, “the church is true”, that those who deny or challenge the claims of Mormonism have failed to grasp simple truths and that "people who leave 'the church' misunderstand some of our basic teachings." To the uninitiated, to those who are perhaps a bit slack about their own faith, this unwavering confidence can seem intimidating. These self-possessed, bright young things who come to our doors, oozing self-assurance and bringing an unfamiliar and unsettling message seem completely at home sharing their faith and we might be forgiven for cautiously stepping back, or even being taken in to some degree. Even those who finally reject the Mormon message can be duped into accepting the Mormon claim that they are Christians. Those who don’t and set to the task of witnessing to Mormons can still demonstrate a certain begrudging respect and wariness because of the apparent depth of knowledge and sincerity of Mormons.

Mormon Confidence in What?

But my heart sinks because, sincere as they may be the ignorance of most Mormons today is so profound and worrying that you have to teach them what they believe before you can begin to show them they are wrong. Don’t believe me? Allow me to illustrate:

I spoke with authority (which means I knew what I was talking about) to four young Mormon missionaries about the guns smuggled in to Joseph Smith and his companions when he was in Carthage Jail. They mocked this claim, insisting, "No one in jail can get hold of a gun." I showed them a picture of the gun Smith used, a 'pepper-box' repeating pistol, and they looked at it and declared mockingly, "That gun wasn't even around at the time of Joseph Smith." I then showed them that the account and the picture of the pistol came from an official Mormon Institute manual "My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth" (p281). Faces fell, a silence ensued and, studying the pages more closely, they asked, "Can we take a copy of this?" Of course I had copies prepared and gave them out willingly. Mormons are ignorant of their own history, even when it is sanitised and presented in official manuals.

Grace and Works

One of the fundamental errors taught by Mormonism is that man is saved by a combination of grace and works. In the Book of Mormon there is a verse to this effect: “For we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (2Nephi 25:23) I had two charming 'older' ladies, lifetime Mormons on senior mission visit my home. As we discussed the merits of our respective messages and I insisted that we are saved by grace alone one demurely offered, "Didn't Paul say, 'we are saved by grace after all we can do'?" Of course, Paul said no such thing, indeed he said the very opposite, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph.2:8) Frightening to think that these two “missionaries” not only didn’t know Paul but neither did they know their own Book of Mormon.

Mormons quote James 2:17 to 'prove' that we are saved by faith AND works. Challenged to reconcile their interpretation of James with the words of Paul quoted above, they cannot and fall back on the familiar Mormon claim that this is because the Bible is not reliable, having been passed down to us through the hands of scheming priests and profane interpreters, thus rejecting the Bible as the reliable word of God. But James and Paul are easily reconciled when you realise that Paul is writing as a missionary about the condition of the lost while James is writing as a pastor about the obligations of the saved. Paul is emphasising the futility of depending on our own efforts to be saved and put right with God while James is writing about how those who are now right with God should live in the power of God. Paul is writing against legalism while James is writing against Antinomianism. Mormons cannot understand the difference and reject God’s word because they don’t understand it.

Moroni’s Promise

Mormons quote James 1:5 to put a biblical sheen on Moroni's promise. This is a text at the back of the Book of Mormon that effectively bypasses the reasoning process and challenges people to pray about the book with the promise that God will answer with a warm sensation in the breast known as the burning in the bosom. But it is already established that James is writing to Christians, those who already know the truth, and this verse is advising on the wise application, in times of trials and testing, of what they already know. This is plain from the opening verses of the letter so why don’t Mormons know this?

To answer that you might ask them to close their Bibles and tell you, who is James? Who was he writing to? What is the main theme of his letter and what are the key texts that illustrate that theme? How many chapters does it contain and how does his message develop? They have no idea because they only know proof-texts and haven't read it like a letter. Rather as someone looking at an old school photo naturally scans first to see their own face, so Mormons scan Scripture to find those familiar texts that jump out at them affirming what they already “know”; but they don’t know and, tragically, they don’t know that they don’t know.

They go on about context but don't know the meaning of the word. For instance, if they understood the identity of the recipients of James' letter they would see that James 1:5 is not instructing us to pray to find out truth and has no bearing on Moroni's promise. Indeed, if they knew their Bible they would know that nothing there remotely resembles Moroni's promise and God deals in facts, events and people not feelings, impressions and inclinations.

You might think a Mormon, who lays such great store by “priesthood authority”, would be familiar with the profound and wonderful portrayal of Jesus as our great high priest in Hebrews, chapters five to eight. Yet a Mormon will typically know the first five verses of chapter five because they are twisted and taken out of context to fit the Mormon account of things and then has no idea of the depth of truth to be mined elsewhere in the book. Why is this so?

Mormons Please Face Reality!

It is their ignorance of the Bible that leads to their being so confused and misled, without clear biblical answers about biblical themes. It is their ignorance of their own faith that leads to them naively trusting in what they are told and leaves them vulnerable to robust challenges to Mormon claims of “Restoration” and of being led by apostles and prophets. Why do you think Mormons so often "bear their testimony"? It’s because they have nothing else to offer. They are stumped, so they fall back on, "this is the way I feel about the church."

Even Mormon apostles recognise this fatal deficiency in Mormon knowledge and understanding. In an address entitled The Peaceable Followers of Christ given on 1 February 1998, and reported in the April 1998 Ensign magazine, Mormon apostle Boyd K Packer spoke of how troubling it is not to have robust and reasoned answers to questions about the Mormon faith:

"It is not an easy thing for us to defend the position that bothers so many others. But, brethren and sisters, never be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never apologise for the sacred doctrines of the kingdom. Never feel inadequate and unsettled because you cannot explain them to the satisfaction of all who might enquire of you. Do not be ill at ease or uncomfortable because you can give little more than your conviction."

I don't write this to insult anyone; I simply wish to urge on every Mormon who cares about the truth to consider what your true position is. You are eating husks of corn with the swine and they have you convinced you are eating well. You are blind, ignorant and lost and they have you believing you see more clearly than everyone and that you are wise and are on your way to a degree of glory. Even a Mormon apostle is troubled by his inability to come up with reasonable answers beyond, "I know the church is true..." But knowledge is based not on feelings, sentiments. It is based on evidence, events, people and places. Faith is not the opposite of evidence and reason but is based on what God shows you in this life, of this life. Of course, faith is more than reason but it is never less than reason.

Be Encouraged Pastor

I write also to encourage Christians, particularly that special breed of overworked and underappreciated people, Christian pastors. Pastors have onerous responsibilities, so many concerns. Their primary concern however is for the safety of their flock. When the Mormons call, pastors are rightly protective of their congregations and might discourage them from engaging with Mormons, “just in case.” I know there is enough to do without a late night phone call from a worried parent saying that their son or daughter is talking to the Mormons.

But be encouraged because a Bible-centred church and Bible-centred congregations are ready for the fray and should be encouraged to talk to Mormons. Don’t super spiritualise this away with talk of demons and demon-possessed books as though God has left you orphans, unprotected. Don’t discourage your people by indicating that you don’t trust them to witness. Rather prepare them, pray for them and send them out to the mission field on their own doorstep. If I may be frank, if you are fearful of talking to Mormons and having your people talk to them the reason lies not with the Mormons’ knowledge and abilities but with you and your people for not being prepared to give an answer at every opportunity to anyone who asks. Of course there are those who need protecting, the vulnerable, the young in the Lord, but let’s not be timid when we have such as great message and people calling at our very doors to hear it.

Mormons do not know as they think they know and Mormons who leave the Mormon Church and find and turn to Jesus and the Bible, far from not understanding, find themselves seated at a table groaning with true knowledge and understanding of God and His ways for the first time. They begin to know as they are known and as they have never known before and grow in a confidence that even a Mormon prophet confesses he lacks. The field is white and ready for harvest so don’t hunker down in the safety of Sunday services and midweek meetings. Pick up your Bibles and tell the Good News, even to the Mormon at your door. S/he may well be eternally grateful that someone did; I am.