Monday, July 02, 2012

Talking with the Mormons -- A Review


TALKING WITH THE MORMONS: An Invitation to Evangelicals.   By Richard J. Mouw.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.  X + 99 pages.



        I’ve been talking with Mormons most of my life.  In fact, growing up in southern Oregon, some of my best friends were Mormons.  I visited Temple Square for the first time at about the age of seven and was fascinated by the story of this people who migrated across the country and settled a desolate land.    Only later did I begin to understand the theological differences.  During my younger days, as I began to read about Mormonism, I read Fawn Brodie's important biography of Joseph Smith and read a lot of anti- Mormon polemics.   It was a point of pride to be ready to debate the Mormon missionaries and elders when they came to the door.   

Whatever you think about the theology and some of the more unique practices of the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter Day Saints, some of which having been long abandoned (polygamy), their story is one of the more interesting religious stories to emerge from American soil.  My own tradition emerged at about the same time, taking its cue from the Second Great Awakening.  Indeed, a number of early Mormon leaders including Sidney Rigdon and the Pratt brothers were Disciples preachers before becoming Mormons.  It is a story of intrigue and adventure, with a dose of persecution and martyrdom thrown in for good measure.    All of this becomes even more interesting as a Mormon becomes the presidential nominee for the Republican Party – a party that is dominated by conservative evangelicals. 

                Considering my life-long engagement with Mormonism, I was intrigued when Eerdmans sent me a copy of Richard Mouw’s brief apologia for his conversations with Mormons.  It didn’t hurt that Mouw is the President of Fuller Seminary, which is where I earned my two advanced degrees.  I was interested to see where Mouw was taking the conversation. 

                This book is directed primarily to Evangelicals who have a long history of opposing, often with much invective, the Mormon faith.   Mouw has, over the past decade or so, taken a different tact.  He’s not in agreement with a great deal of Mormon belief and practice, but he has chosen to engage them.  This has led to some resistance and opposition from conservative evangelicals who see him as either being misled by Mormons or having jumped ship to become a Mormon apologist.  Mouw rejects both charges, but seeks to offer a different possibility.  Evangelicals and Mormons have much to gain from being in conversation with each other. 

                The book is brief and written in a conversational manner.  In writing this apologia, he makes it clear that he doesn’t see Mormonism as a cult  (he sees the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult, but not Mormonism in large part due to their willingness to engage in fruitful conversation).   Mouw builds his case for conversation on what believes are important points of contact with Mormons, especially their claim that Jesus is savior.  He recognizes that there are differences, but he seems to find many within Mormonism that would verge toward his own Calvinist understanding, even if that view seems to diverge from traditional Mormon theology.  He grants them leeway, in much the same way that Calvinist hero Charles Hodge could see Friedrich Schleiermacher as a fellow believer despite a flawed theology.  Thus, evangelicals can see many Mormons as believers (born again) based on their confession of faith in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. 

                As you read the book you’ll find that it’s not a thorough exposition of Mormon doctrine.   In fact, Mouw doesn’t go into much detail on Mormon thought.  He recognizes that there are differences, including the traditional Mormon belief in a finite God, but he doesn’t go very far with it.  He’s more interested in points of contact and trajectories toward evangelical orthodoxy than in differences.  Thus, while he discusses the role of Joseph Smith, he avoids discussion o polygamy and makes no mention of Brigham Young.   He notes Smith’s own journey of faith that emerges from the confusion of the Second Great Awakening.       

                His advice to fellow evangelicals is to give Mormons a bit of slack on doctrinal issues.  He notes that Mormons themselves admit to a lack of theological sophistication (though that is changing).  Rather than engage in polemics, he suggests getting to know your Mormon neighbors.  And don’t assume their trying to mislead you by their claims to be fellow Christians – check it out, test their confessions.

                I found this to be an interesting book, though there isn’t very much in it that one could say is new.  The one exception might be the seeming movement toward Calvinism in contemporary Mormonism.  It is a helpful offering in the sense that it models a form of conversation between people of differing faith traditions (something that Fuller has been trying to engage in), while seeking to remain faithful to one’s own confession.
 
                I do have my concerns, however.  I found it annoying at times that Mouw uses the book as an opportunity to cast aspersions on liberal theology.   While I understand the tactic, I was a bit put off by his desire to give approval to forms of Mormon belief that verged toward evangelicalism and away from traditional Mormonism.   Now it may be that this branch of the Joseph Smith religious tree is moving in an evangelical direction, as has the Reorganized Church (now Community of Christ), but is this really the direction that Mormonism is going?

Following on this question of trajectory, I wish he had engage more fully with the Mormon understanding of God, especially the Mormon perspective on the Trinity.  How does the traditional understanding of God having a body, as do Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all of whom are considered finite comport with a more traditional Christian view?  Further, there is the idea of the Heavenly Mother, which has interesting feminist possibilities, but again differs from traditional evangelicalism.  Is this to be ignored or engaged?

 Pushing all this further, I wish he had taken up Jan Shipps’s suggestion that Mormonism is a separate new religion that was given birth by Christianity.  It’s not that Mormonism is a cult or a sect, but is it  a new religious phenomenon that takes its origins from Christianity, in much the same way that Christianity was born out of Judaism?  Is this a more useful and respectful way of understanding this religious force that is expanding at a rather quickening pace?  I realize that this isn’t really his purpose in writing the book, but it might have expanded the conversation. So, if you’re looking for an in depth analysis of Mormonism you might look elsewhere.

What is most important about this book is that it invites evangelicals to enter a conversation with Mormons that is respectful and that takes their professions of faith seriously.  He warns against prejudging Mormons, and letting them speak for themselves -- something that many of us have failed to do.   From personal experience, I can say that if you give them opportunity, Mormons will be glad to engage you in fruitful discussion, just don't start with your mind made up and armed with your polemics.  For that reason this is an important book, but when you finish I’d take a look at Shipps’s book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition.
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2 comments:

Jeff said...

I would say instead, as one who grew up in what is now the Community of Christ church that it is moving towards the mainline churches rather than the evangelical.

There is also an emic/etic component to the arguments of whether these bodies are Christian that is distinct from discussions on theology or cannon, that needs to be made clear lest we find ourselves obfuscating the very matter we wish to make clear.

Robert Cornwall said...

Jeff, thanks for your thoughts on this. I think you're right about Community of Christ.

Of course, the conversation remains open on true identity of the LDS Church.