Friday, 9 March 2012

Is Mormonism a Cult? 4 That Apology and how Liberals go Native

Richard Mouw, offered this apology at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Nov. 2004 just before Ravi Zacharias stood and gave an inspired and inspiring sermon on the gospel:

I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.”

The first question that springs to mind is who gave Professor Mouw the right to speak for Evangelicals? Mormons make great play of the fact that they “do not speak for the church.” On every blog and website, in every book, periodical and article you will find a version of this disclaimer.

Given the Mormons’ history of leaving hostages to fortune, from the self-aggrandising pronouncements of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to the scandalous statements of Bruce R McConkie in his Mormon Doctrine and the shocking prevarications and obfuscations of Gordon B Hinckley, you can understand this. Of course, such disclaimers are now ubiquitous leaving us wondering if anyone actually speaks for the Mormon Church.

But Richard Mouw apologising on behalf of Evangelicals makes about as much sense as Hans Kung apologising on behalf of Catholics, or Mitt Romney on behalf of Mormons. The connection of one with the other is tenuous at best.

Fuller Seminary is the seed bed of the Church Growth Movement in which pragmatism trumps truth and spirituality trumps spiritual integrity. It promotes the Emerging Church Movement and celebrates the questionable teachings of Rob Bell and others. How can Mouw say such a thing?

Buying the Mormon Idiom

This is a classic example of someone parroting the Mormon line instead of critically examining the facts. Mormonism didn't start when, in 1820, Joseph Smith claimed he had a vision. The first reliable mention of the Book of Mormon outside Smith's immediate circle was June 11th 1829 when he obtained a copyright for it at the US District Court. Before that time all we have are fables, unsubstantiated claims, all of which came to light after the establishment of the church.

It was only later that he told the story of the vision because he had to have some account of how he obtained the book. Yet we all too easily do the Mormons' work for them by telling the story of Mormonism the way they tell it, even as we criticise and challenge Mormon beliefs. This is what Richard Mouw does here.

Richard Mouw has said, “For the past dozen years, I’ve been co-chairing, with Professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University – the respected Mormon school - a behind-closed-doors dialogue between about a dozen evangelicals and an equal number of our Mormon counterparts.”

He tells the story of persecuted and misrepresented Mormonism because that's the way Mormons tell it and he has spent so much time with them he has simply gone native. Ironically, in making his apology he demonstrates eloquently why Mormons engage in these exercises, i.e. not to find truth together but, as Jude 16 tells it, to win over respectable names to their cause.

Mormons have not been misrepresented and there is very little misunderstanding of Mormonism. If Mormons wish to claim that critics don't understand Mormonism I would issue a counter challenge and say that Mormons cannot honestly and reasonably answer Mormonism's critics!

So, to answer the question posed by the title of this short series, Mormonism is a cult in terms established and understood by sociologists, by Christian leaders and academics alike. “Cult” is not a pejorative but a description. The only “Christians” saying otherwise are liberals who would rather be branded with hot irons than define a doctrine, identify an orthodoxy or draw a line in the sand.


Mormonism in Context

Defining Cult

Richard Mouw’s “Marks of a Cult”

Monday, 5 March 2012

Is Mormonism a Cult? 3 Richard Mouw’s “Marks of a Cult”

One of the things that has prompted this question is the controversial apology given by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Nov. 2004. We will come on to the apology presently. Richard Mouw said in 2004,

For the past dozen years, I’ve been co-chairing, with Professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University – the respected Mormon school - a behind-closed-doors dialogue between about a dozen evangelicals and an equal number of our Mormon counterparts.”

In defending Mormonism against the charge professor Mouw identifies four things that show Mormonism is not a cult and argues that the dialogue he describes shows these four things not to be true of Mormonism.

1 us-versus-them

Religious cults are very much us-versus-them.”

It is true that, traditionally, cults stand apart from the church as defined in the previous post. Professor Maouw clearly thinks that “open” dialogue marks a departure from this traditional stance thereby disqualifying Mormonism from being a cult.

But Mormonism is not a cult because it doesn’t altogether stand apart. Many groups stand apart, unfortunately, but still belong to the broad category of church because they stand in the traditions and culture of historical Christianity. Mormonism does not and has historically prided itself in that fact.Book of Mormon The words of the seminal Mormon text, the Book of Mormon, understood to be describing our own day in prophecy, shows as much,

“Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:10)

There is a strong and clear us-versus-them attitude in Mormonism so perhaps there is another explanation for the dialogue described by Professor Mouw.

2 The only ones with divine approval:

Their adherents are taught to think that they are the only ones who benefit from divine approval.”

Again, dialogue seems to suggest a respect among Mormons for other churches, an acceptance that they have truth too. This, he suggests, is another reason for not categorising Mormonism among the cults.First Vision

Clearly, he has never read Joseph Smith's claim that all other churches “were all wrong, their creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were corrupt.” (JSH 1:19)

Or heard a typical Mormon testimony that the Mormon Church is “the only true church on earth today.” I wonder has he considered the implications of Mormon missionaries’ taking this exclusivist message to his neighbours even as he dialogues with Mormon academics.

Mormonism brings a message of exclusivity to our neighbours every day so why would they dialogue with leaders of other churches?

3 Dialogue:

They don’t like to engage in serious, respectful give-and-take dialogue with people with whom they disagree. Nor do they promote the kind of scholarship that works alongside others in pursuing the truth.”

Well, it has to be admitted that in any engagement with Mormons there is indeed give-and-take after a fashion. But it is worth asking who is doing the giving and who the taking? And what is their purpose in dialogue? Is it the discovery of common ground? We will come on to that.

There certainly is such a thing as scholarship associated with Mormons but whether it works alongside others in pursuing the truth is seriously questionable.

The late Karl Sandberg, a lifelong Mormon and a French professor (emeritus) at Macalester College, shortly before his death at 69 in 2000 wrote a piece entitled Whither Mormon Scholarship? He wrote:

"There are Mormons who do scholarship in all of the various disciplines — they play by the same rules as everyone else, they participate in the same dynamics, and they produce the same kind of knowledge. This is not the case, however, when Mormons do scholarship about Mormonism or directly related subjects."

"There are prominent examples of Mormon scholarship whose purpose appears to be that of giving scholarly permission to people to believe what they already believed on subjective grounds and of answering and repulsing any perceived attacks on the Church."

He goes on to compare Mormon scholarship with the Greek myth of Procrustes.

The figure for this kind of scholarship is Procrustes,” he writes, “the robber chief of antiquity, who had a bed in his cave upon which he placed every prisoner taken by his band. If the prisoner was too short for the bed, he was stretched out, or if too long, chopped off. One could not know the length of anyone going into the cave, but one could be entirely sure of anyone coming out.Procrustes

The result of a Procrustean scholarship is the inability to communicate with people outside of the walls. I have heard luminaries of Mormon scholasticism address professional groups-for example, a group of a hundred counselors and psychotherapists about a "Mormon view" of psychotherapy-and gave wonderful talks understandable to any sacrament meeting but totally baffling to the diverse group of professionals they addressed. Procrustes is convincing only to people who already admire the size of his bed.”(Whither Mormon Scholarship)

Could there be a better description of a cult than the bed of Procrustes? The truth is that there is the scholarship of academics who happen to be Mormons applying themselves to mainstream academic work but nothing you can call legitimate Mormon scholarship. In that context the thinker is made to fit the dogma.

4 Respect for Christian notables:

These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults.”

But Mormons don't read any Christian leaders, authors, or commentators with the attitude of “what will I learn today?” There is no respect, just an exercise in quote mining. You and I might pick up a book on subjects from the authority of the Bible, the work of the Spirit, the person of Jesus and have our thinking challenged, our understanding deepened. This is the journey of every healthy Christian. Mormons, when they quote Christian commentators, proof-text them to reinforce their already established view of the world.

A true Christian might learn something from a wide range of sources, sacred and secular, but a Mormon brings what he already “knows” to what he reads and finds there what he wants to find. I have yet to meet a Mormon who will say, “I thought this way because that is the way my church taught me but my mind has been changed by reading this or that Christian thinker.”CS Lewis

They make the Christian thinker fit the bed of Mormonism. A Procrustean approach if ever there was one. They can speak warmly of such diverse characters as Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Henry Nouwen and CS Lewis because they have no intefre4st in what they say, only in what they can make them say. The use to which they put the writings of C S Lewis, for example, is scandalous and Lewis would turn in his grave to find Mormons misquoting him to reinforce the idea that men become actual gods. We will look next time at that apology and the reason for their apparent penchant for dialogue and discover the real motive behind such initiatives.


Mormonism in Context

Defining Cult


That Apology and How Liberals go Native

Friday, 2 March 2012

Is Mormonism a Cult? 2 Defining “Cult”

CULT! It seems such a pejorative word and certainly in ministry it is not intended as a compliment. But is it an insult? Is its use an example of disagreeing while being disagreeable? To listen to many there is no excuse for using it, especially when what people see as sensible alternatives are available such as sect, or the more acceptable “new (or alternative) religious movement.” So is “cult” used out of nothing more than spite? Or is there a legitimate application in ministry terms?


“Cult” comes from the Latin, cultus, from colore, to cultivate or to worship. Colore is the same root for the Latin cultura, from which we get culture. One of many ways of defining culture is, “the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” Culture may be said to denote the system of values within a group, how a society defines itself, identifies what is important to its members and how they view the world. It teaches and evaluates the group’s history, evolution and values and is essential to the understanding of our society.

The U.S. educator and author Jacques Barzun said:

“A culture may be conceived as a network of beliefs and purposes in which any string in the net pulls and is pulled by the others, thus perpetually changing the configuration of the whole. If the cultural element called morals takes on a new shape, we must ask what other strings have pulled it out of line. It cannot be one solitary string, nor even the strings nearby, for the network is three-dimensional at least.” (Jacques Barzun (b. 1907), U.S. educator, author. "The Bugbear of Relativism," The Culture We Deserve, Wesleyan University Press-1989)

The word cult as we understand it originally meant a system of ritual practice. It first appeared in the 17the century and meant homage paid to a divinity. It was revived in the  19th century to describe ancient or primitive rituals but gained its present usage in the 1930’s as a sociological classification to describe a deviant religious group. It is by this definition that we describe Mormonism as a cult.

Sociologists distinguished between three types of religious behaviour: church, sect and mystic. If “church” is the mainstream body of believers a “sect” is a break-way from that body, where we get the idea of sectarianism, it is division. Mysticism goes even further, putting forward the idea of enlightenment, or mystical attainment regardless of faith. Later, church was split into ecclesia and denomination and sect became sect and cult. Cult then came to mean a deviant religious group “deriving their inspiration from outside the predominant culture or denomination.”

Sociologists say that sects are products of religious schism and maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. It is, then, a legitimate sociological category we are using when we use the term cult and when we define a cult as a deviant religious group.

Is Mormonism a cult?

Mormonism is one such group because, by its own admission, it does not stand in the tradition of Christian culture and practice but claims to be a distinct entity, a restoration of the original church it insists was lost in apostasy. 2.2 billion Christians today would not agree that there was an apostasy and insist that their faith is the faith of the earliest believers, maintaining a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices.

Christianity is “church” in the sociological definition, the mainstream body of believers. Mormonism historically prides itself in not belonging to that body. This is not a particularly controversial point although it is key. If Mormonism is not part of the body of believers contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude:6) it cannot then be a Christian denomination.

There are sects within Christianity but Mormonism insists it is not one of them. It claims to be the “only true church on the earth today” so doesn’t fit the definition of mystic. That leaves cult, a deviant religious group, that is deviating from the mainstream body of believers, deriving their inspiration from outside the predominant culture or denomination.

Previously: Mormonism in Context

Next: Richard Mouw Defines “Cult”

Coming up: Richard Mouw and that Apology

        How Easily Liberals go Native