Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Mormon History–Nuanced?

We’ve all done it, in the retelling added a touch of colour to our lives, gilded the lily as they say to make ourselves look more courageous, more decisive and influential, made ourselves the hero. We’ve also done the opposite, taken colour out to make ourselves look less guilty, conveniently forgotten our culpability. It was our idea, we insist, that saved the day, or, yes, events did take a turn for the worse but, really, I played a very minor role back then.

We might feel some sympathy then with the Mormon Church as information spills out into the world at an alarming rate, no longer in the careful control of Mormon leaders but available for all to see.

Of course, when the Mormon Church gilds the lily it is much more significant then when a private individual redeems his reputation with a little gilding. The Mormon Church would have people order their lives according to its tenets, invest themselves fully into Mormonism and so it is rather important for people to know accurately what they are investing themselves into.

In an article for the Salt Lake Tribune we read about how the Mormon Church is responding to this development and how it is “concerned with misinformation and distorted information.”

It has always astonished me that a church that has always had almost sole control of its own literature and membership, that boasts a PR machine the envy of many advertising agencies should still manage to be misunderstood – read more on Why are Mormons so Misunderstood?

Surprised by what they find so easily online,” we are told, “ more and more members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encountering crises of faith.” Ever helpful, I wrote up some good links to reliable information about Mormonism in this short blog post.

“It’s a growing problem, acknowledges LDS general authority Marlin Jensen, the faith’s outgoing church historian, and one Mormon leaders are working to confront.

‘Never before have we had this information age, with social networking and bloggers publishing unvetted points of view,’ Jensen said in an interview Monday. ‘The church is concerned about misinformation and distorted information, but we are doing better and trying harder to get our story told in an accurate way'.’” (Emphasis added)

Of course, another word for unvetted might be unfettered, meaning unrestrained, unconfined – unshackled. Take away the prefix ‘un’ and you have Mormonism as they would haver it.

Mormons always insist that if you want to know the truth about Mormonism you should ask a Mormon. Have you tried doing that recently? Well, you should, then  you will find out that nothing seems to be “official”, that is to say, however exalted the authority you cite, prophet, apostle or even Joseph Smith, if what they say is inconvenient it is simply dismissed with “Oh, that’s not ‘official doctrine’, its just one man’s opinion.”

Imagine someone sitting at the back of a church in Ephesus when a letter from Paul the apostle is read out. Not liking what he hears he jumps up saying, “Oh, don’t think about it, after all its just Paul’s opinion.” But official Mormon doctrine is that easy to dismiss it seems. Which raises the question of who exactly should vet this information. The man in the pew is ever ready to dismiss his leaders’ thoughts and teachings so maybe he should do it. But what are prophets and apostles for if your Sunday School teacher can bat them away with a “not official doctrine”? (You have to click on this and watch, really, you must)

“Can the LDS Church do better to explain its history, even to its own members? ‘Sure,’ Jensen said. ‘Can we weave some of this into our seminaries, institutes and adult curriculum? I think we can, and efforts are under way to do that.’”

Imagine that, a church that has laid so great store by record keeping and education with a membership that, nevertheless, understands little or nothing about their own merely 180 year church history. Is it because Mormons are indifferent or is it because only now, with the advent of the Internet, these difficult issues are being brought to their attention? If the latter (it is the latter) then what has the Mormon organisation been teaching them up to now? If it is so important that they have an accurate understanding wouldn’t it always have been important? Lets give the last word to Terry Givens and Richard Bushman:

“I definitely get the sense that this is a real crisis,” said Mormon scholar and writer Terryl Givens. “It is an epidemic.”

There is a “discrepancy between a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System and Sunday school manuals, and a less-flattering version universally accessible on the Internet,” Givens wrote in an email from Virginia. “The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with.”

LDS scholar Richard Bushman, author of the critically acclaimed biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, has become a kind of historical therapist, he wrote in an email from his home in New York, “counseling with distraught wives and parents or disaffected Mormons themselves.”

For those who discover unwelcome information about the church’s history online, Bushman said, “the whole picture changes in a flash — like those optical illusions that show a beautiful woman and a hag.”

The best way to prevent this from happening, Bushman said, is to give Mormons “the whole story from the beginning.”

Of course, no matter how qualified and eminent, Givens and Bushman are not speaking officially – no one ever does it seems these days. And for all their determination that Mormons should offer full disclosure it seems the “official” story is still nuanced, as in this article in a Yorkshire newspaper. It seems the leopard can’t change its spots, and that’s official.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Book of Mormon Commentary

Three things stand out for me about this new Book of Mormon Study Guide. The first is the promise of "helpful maps and charts." That will be interesting but I imagine they will be the same as the maps in the back of your Bible since there is no Book of Mormon geography. It is always a good question to ask, "Why are there no maps at the back of the Book of Mormon as there are at the back of the Bible?" Since the first part of the book purports to be set in the Middle East maps create an opportunity to add authenticity to a book that otherwise has not a scrap of evidence to back it up. Don't expect any maps identifying Zarahemla though.

The second item of interest is the claim to "explain and assist with passages that sometimes baffle the average LDS scripture reader, putting things in historical context." Again its the historical context that might prove a stretch because, while it is easy enough to tread the well-worn path of biblical scholarship, when it comes to the seminal book of Mormonism there is really nothing to say about historical context outside the context of the book itself. No Josephus to give a wider historical perspective, no equivalent of the Roman world as a back drop, no widely recognised people groups whose existence is beyond dispute, not even modern descendants of the Lamanites these days since they disappeared in the night of a thousand DNA tests some time ago.

The most interesting question however is that of authority. We are familiar with how difficult it is to pin down "official" Mormonism. How authoritative will these commentaries be? It is published by Deseret Books but that doesn't mean it is endorsed by the Mormon politburo in downtown Salt lake City.  But I am sure it will be more than capable of being plausibly denied as all these things are.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Connections: Joseph, Sidney and the Severn Tunnel

A lad lived around the corner from me when I was a boy name of Sidney. I never knew him, I never knew his friends, or if he had any friends and he certainly wasn’t part of our crowd, didn’t attend my school or frequent my usual haunts. He was a mystery to me, still is, but with my simplistic, little boy mind I tried to fill the great gaps in my knowledge with what I thought I did know.

His life was probably no more interesting than my own but he was an unknown quantity so I leapt to the conclusion that there must be something worth knowing about him, something romantic and mysterious. His name was Sidney, the only Sydney I knew at the time was a city in Australia and so I decided he must be Australian. This satisfied me (I was just a little boy), it wasn’t that important and so I went on my way without giving it another thought.

School trips were confined mainly to visits to Bristol Zoo, my parents not being in any position to pay for a trip abroad. The train journey was exciting enough - a steam engine of course – and took us under the Severn Tunnel. Of course we didn’t know it was spelled “Severn” and spent ages speculating about why it was called the “Seven Tunnel.”

Was it because it was seven miles long? Was it because it took seven minutes to travel through it? We would sit and count from the moment we entered the tunnel until daylight suddenly flooded our carriage again but never seemed to make the journey match the expected time. Of course, it is called the Severn Tunnel because it runs under the River Severn; everybody knows that – eventually.

People, even grown-ups, are good at filling the gaps in their knowledge and understanding with suppositions and guesswork, often making mistaken connections like Sidney and Sydney, Seven and Severn. It becomes dangerous when we guess about things that are too important to risk getting wrong, make connections that leave us misinformed. What is worse is when we allow the speculations of others to lead us to their wrong conclusions without properly testing what they want us to think.

Today people are being visited by Mormon missionaries who want to share the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Two things will stand out in their story. The first is that the Christian Church is hopelessly unreliable in helping people find God, the second that the Mormon Church is the only trustworthy guide to God.

Most people are ill-prepared to judge whether these things are true so they will depend on the Mormons knowing for them that a proliferation of churches is a sign of apostasy; that a closed canon signifies closed heavens; that the Bible is unreliable; that the Book of Mormon is foretold in the Bible; that Ephesians 4:11-14 describes church offices; that men and women had a pre-mortal existence, and that the Mormon story is as wonderful as it is said to be.

The task of the ministry is to equip people to make informed and intelligent decisions about the most important issues of life in the face of such remarkable claims. To provide the tools needed to discern truth from error, to stand in the gap between their ignorance and the knowledge of the truth that can be theirs. To bring light and understanding by suggesting another way of looking at things, different, more reliable connections.

To ask whether, just as “Severn” has nothing to do with time or distance, but all to do with place, so a proliferation of churches does not necessarily signify apostasy but reflects the fallen nature of man as he grapples with truth. That a closed canon may have nothing to do with closed heavens and all to do with the heavens being opened to all Christians by the power of the Spirit making the established, written Word alive to us.

To show that the Book of Mormon is nowhere foretold in the Bible by a careful exposition of Bible verses twisted out of shape to “verify” Mormon claims. To suggest that Ephesians 4 describes not offices but gifts, not a demonstration of form and structure for church government but of the power of God in the gifts described. To show that men and women are created beings who had a beginning in this life and to reveal that the Mormon story is carefully crafted to look good but anyone who hears the full story, unvarnished, will recognise readily the flaws in the claims of Mormonism.

We may be satisfied with thinking that Sidney comes from Sydney and no harm done but eternal matters demand a much higher standard of inquiry. It is the task of the Christian witness to model that standard and help others attain it in inquiring after truth. To help people make the right connections and find the right path.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Book of Mormon– Guide or Talisman?

Is the Book of Mormon a sure guide or simply a Mormon talisman? Dan Peterson regrets that to most Mormons it is the latter: he writes today:

"Studies of Latter-day Saint sermons and curriculum from the earliest period of church history well into the 20th century demonstrate surprisingly little use of the Book of Mormon to establish doctrines or as a text from which to preach. Many Saints were converted by reading it, but, thereafter, they tended to overlook its specific content. Early members, mostly converts, knew the Bible well and used it extensively in their teaching and missionary efforts, but the Book of Mormon served mainly as a kind of talisman, its sheer existence pointing to Joseph Smith's prophetic calling. Even Joseph Smith used the Bible far more than he used the Book of Mormon in his sermons."

It is little wonder that he is concerned because, as he points out, as late as 1984-86 Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson was berating church members for neglecting the Book of Mormon, declaring in the October 1984 General Conference:

“My beloved brethren and sisters, for some years now I have been deeply concerned that we are not using the Book of Mormon as God intends. As I participated in the Mexico City Temple dedication, I received the distinct impression that God is not pleased with our neglect of the Book of Mormon. In the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. 'And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,' said the Lord, 'and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon' (Doctrine and Covenants 84:57)."

Even in delivering the news that this trend is being reversed professor Peterson admits the news is not that good after all because the change is but dimly seen:

“I'm personally glad that we've moved beyond the day when the Book of Mormon's chief function, by far, was simply to serve as evidence that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet of God. I'm delighted that we've begun, however dimly, to perceive the richness of its content.”

Imagine that! A book of “scripture”, of modern revelation that has been the exclusive preserve of the Mormon Church for 180 years being largely neglected in its content for – well, 180 years. It is remarkable, more so because this neglect is brought to our attention by a Mormon scholar of no little repute. Why should “investigators” have to wade through this quagmire of atrocious writing and worse history if Mormons are not prepared to do it?

He regrets this neglect that has prevailed for much of the history of his church, both in the pulpit as well as the pew, at headquarters as well as across the stakes and wards of the church. He says nothing by way of explanation or mitigation, instead taking the opportunity to reject the Spalding theory, reinforce the Joseph Smith story and then, remarkably, to celebrate nonetheless the profound importance of the Book of Mormon as symbol.

Coming full circle, he ends celebrating what he began by regretting, that the Book of Mormon is, “a virtuoso display of revelatory power.” That is, a symbol of Joseph Smith’s authenticity as a latter-day prophet.

One last note, and this needs to be heard no matter how often it must be repeated. Professor Peterson makes much of the fact that critics cannot explain the Book of Mormon, writing, “no explanation other than the one involving God and angels — which [critics] reject — has withstood scrutiny.” But it is not for critics to account for the Book of Mormon, just as it is not for victims to account for perpetrators, just to demonstrate that it is not what Mormons claim it to be, that it is wrong, and that has been done eloquently and often enough for any reasonable person to understand. It is for Mormons to account for the Book of Mormon since it is they who are presenting it to the world as something it is patently not.

He then writes that, “The so-called "Spalding Theory," for instance, flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and enjoys occasional zombie-like revivals still today. However, no reputable historian, believer or unbeliever, advocates it any more.”

But then nor do any historians outside the Mormon Church give any credence to the claims of the Mormon Church for the Book of Mormon. You can’t appeal to historians when it suits you and then neglect their considered, expert opinion when it fails to agree with you. It might be more honest to tell prospective Mormons that even Mormons are not so impressed with this turgid tome and non-Mormon experts reject wholesale every claim made for it, talisman or not.

Monday, 2 January 2012

10 Mormon Predictions for 2012

Is the church that claimed to reverse the apostasy – apostate?

Meridian is an online Mormon magazine that I largely ignore because it is usually trying to sell me food storage racking, cake recipes, tours of “Book of Mormon Lands”, or unmissable business opportunities. Once in a while though it comes up with something worthy of attention and my attention was caught by the promise of 10 predictions for 2012.

The most fundamental claim of Mormonism is that a church without current, on-going prophecy is effectively apostate, that Mormonism is a restoration of that essential prophetic gift, that “prophets speak today.” “So what does Mormonism’s ‘living prophet’ have to say about the year ahead?” I hear you ask.

Oh, sorry. Did I give you the impression that the Mormon prophet had made 10 predictions? Well, no – actually. I did look up what Thomas Monson had to say to help us as we face 2012 – well, you do, don’t you? You can find it on the official Mormon website.

But the fact is, in a world that continues to see major conflict in different parts, the toppling of dictators, violent and destabilising uprisings in the “Arab Spring,” rising religious fundamentalism, unprecedented financial instability and confident predictions of climatic disaster the Mormon prophet brings us neither dire warning nor reassuring certainties; just a pep talk.

Mormonism promises an authentic, true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool cross between Elijah and Paul the apostle then delivers a smooth talking, make-your-own-luck Norman Vincent-Peale. Like a stereotypical preacher from a certain temple movie of yester-year - “a fine congregation!” – he offers simple, home-spun philosophy that proves second-hand after all as he quotes William James, Charles Swindoll, Cardinal Wolsey (via Shakespeare), Thomas Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson; not a single “Thus saith the Lord.”

No, these predictions come from a public opinions pollster named Gary C. Lawrence. From the Middle East, through the upcoming elections, international affairs, the economy and the fate of Europe, even missionary work and the future of the Mormon Church, Gary Lawrence has a prophetic word. You can find his predictions here.

It will be interesting to see at year end how well he has done and how it compares with the track record of those who speak officially for the Mormon Church. Meanwhile, one comment on the article is interesting. Chuck Whicker writes:

“You have pretty good prophetic insight on several of the items you have covered. But you lack the same when it comes to the church, itself. It is always a mistake to assume the church is a righteous and worthy entity, as if she has not fallen away from the fullness of the gospel that Joseph put in place. You are right to preach against the salesmanship tactics that the church has inculcated among its missionaries - that tactic is a far cry from the spiritual power that is manifested by true servants of the Lord. There are many pure in heart members in the church; but they must learn not to view the church as righteous, nor their leadership, and must return to the original principles revealed in the foundation Joseph laid. Otherwise they will never be able to recognize the Zion that is rising up.”

“Fallen away from the fullness of the gospel…salesmanship tactics…they…must return to the original principles…”? Are even Mormons beginning to recognise the paucity of authentic prophetic leadership? Is the church that claimed to reverse the apostasy – apostate? If the Mormon Church can remain authentic in the absence of current, on-going prophecy what does that say about the Christian Church over the past two-thousand-years? Perhaps Reformation, not restoration, was the answer after all.