Monday, 12 October 2015

(Mis) Understanding Mormonism

mormon billboard

Recent years have seen the Mormon Church redouble its efforts at repackaging itself for a new generation. They're use of Search Engine Optimisation, content marketing, and social media is astonishingly slick and professional. Enter the word 'Bible' into your search engine and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will appear on the first page of results. 'Christ' gave me the same result third entry down on that page. 'New Testament' gave them second place. Type in Mormon and top place is given to mormon.org, with half the page given over to Mormon sites. You have to be impressed.

 

Mormon.Org

Mormon.org is a simple ( you might say simplistic) introduction to Mormonism. It has 12 simple, click and play short videos that present a misleadingly disarming picture of the Mormon faith. Are these the new Articles of Faith? You can ask questions in a live chat with a missionary, and link through to I'm a Mormon, a carefully selected set of testimonies telling how Mormons are just like you and me.

You can 'Chat with a Mormon,' 'Find a church,' arrange to 'Meet with Missionaries,' and, 'Request a free Book of Mormon.' Those last two amount to the same thing. Request a Book of Mormon and it will usually come with a missionary attached. There are links to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Youtube, and Instagram pages, and they are right on top of Wikipedia entries on Mormonism.

The official site of the Mormon Church is as professional as it gets and we might conclude that lessons might be learned from these people in how to get your message across. There can be little doubt that Mormonism leads the field in bringing itself to market, presenting a wholesome image, and convincing folk of its 'Christian' credentials. But there's the rub. Look further into these sites and it quickly becomes apparent that much of their time is spent trying to convince folk that Mormons are Christians, that they are this not that, and correcting apparent misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Mormon Church.

 

If a Mormon Apostle Can't Tell You...

M Russell BallardM Russell Ballard is a Mormon apostle and chairman of the church’s Public Affairs Committee. In an experiment designed to test the viability of news conferences using internet technology, the church released a series of video clips in October 2007 in which he addressed some of the questions most frequently asked by the news media. In a statement on their official web site the church said:

“The video clips were produced to help better define the Church in the public mind - especially among journalists - at a time when it has become the subject of nationwide discussion. A series of national opinion polls has shown that a large segment of the population knows little or nothing about the Church.”

The questions addressed in what we were told may be the first in a series of such interviews were:

  1. Are you Christian? What is the role of Jesus Christ in your faith?
    1. Do you worship Jesus Christ in your Sunday services?
    2. Why do some people say you are a cult?
    3. In what ways are you similar to other Christians?
    4. In what ways do you differ from other Christians?
    5. Was Joseph Smith a prophet? Are prophets necessary today?
    6. Is there scientific proof authenticating the Book of Mormon?
    7. Does the Church support political candidates?

One of the most common questions is, “Are Mormons Christians?” In responding to question 3, he said, “I think it is a matter of misunderstanding. I think it’s a matter of characterization that has grown up over the generations of time by the lack of understanding.”

On the face of it this seems a healthy exercise in informing and enlightening the public in the face of a general lack of understanding. Such exercises in explaining are so accepted a part of Mormonism however that we perhaps fail to reflect on how very peculiar they are for a church that calls itself Christian. Of course, every organisation produces publicity these days, even local Evangelical churches having their own web sites, blogs etc. but, where other churches tell the gospel and advertise church programmes, the Mormon Church seems to be constantly fighting a rearguard action against misunderstandings and misconceptions.

This is all the more puzzling for a church that has a professional Public Affairs Committee, local, regional and global publicity initiatives and a relentless programme of self-promotion. Is Mormonism hard to understand? Why does the church continually have to “explain” itself? Who is causing the apparent confusion?

 

Misdirection: Like in Magic Shows

wizard_poster_rounded

We begin to understand the source of misunderstandings, so-called, when we look at M Russell Ballard’s answer to the question, “Is there scientific proof authenticating the Book of Mormon?” This is a good and legitimate question since Mormons claim that the Book of Mormon is an historical document telling the true history, secular and sacred, of the Americas, the main period covered being from BC 600 to AD 421. This is not a particularly remote period in the world’s history and a simple answer, one would expect, may be eminently accessible. The plain answer is, “No, there is no scientific proof authenticating the Book of Mormon.” Ballard’s reply was rather more circumspect:

“I don’t believe that’s how people will ever come to know whether or not the Book of Mormon is the word of God. I remember an experience that I had as mission president some years ago when I presided over the affairs of the Church in Eastern Canada. I met with about 30 different ministers of different religions and then I let them ask me questions and the very first question I was asked was by a fine minister who said, “Mr. Ballard, if you just give us the gold plates and let us see that they exist, then we would know that the Book of Mormon is true.” And I looked at him and I said, “Father, you know better than that. You’re a man of the cloth. You know that God has never revealed religious truth to the heart and soul of a man or a woman except by the power of the spirit. Now you could have those plates, you could turn the pages, you could look at it, you could hold it, and you wouldn’t know any more after that experience whether or not the book is true than you would have before. My question to you; have you ever read the Book of Mormon?” And he said, “No, I haven’t.” That’s how people will come to know whether or not the Book of Mormon is true. You will not get to know it by trying to prove it archeologically or by DNA or by anything else in my judgment. Just pick it up and read it and pray about it and you will come to know religious truth is always confirmed by what you feel and that’s the way Heavenly Father answers prayers.”

Like a consummate politician, he has answered a completely different question. No one asked whether it is the word of God, as important as that may be to a Mormon. No wonder there is apparent confusion when a Mormon leader can’t give a straight answer to a straight question. What is happening here? It’s simple really. When someone answers a question they think you ought to have asked and not the question you asked they are not bringing clarity where there was confusion, they are changing the subject. They are saying, “I don’t want you to think about it like that, I want you to think about it like this.” Its called misdirection and magicians do it to distract you from what is really going on.

He doesn’t want you to think about Book of Mormon archaeology because there is no such thing. He wants you, instead, to think about and adopt the Mormon view of revelation:

“You know that God has never revealed religious truth to the heart and soul of a man or a woman except by the power of the spirit... You will not get to know it by trying to prove it archeologically or by DNA or by anything else in my judgment.”

This is surprisingly close to the current secular understanding of faith as something that is fed by ignorance and held to against the evidence.

 

Saving Faith v Mormon Faith

However, saving faith is consistent with knowledge and a true understanding of facts. Indeed, faith can be defined in three steps; intellectual understanding, emotional approval and personal decision. It is not true that Christians are asked to emotionally and personally commit to a message that is intellectually inadequate. Contrary to popular lore, the Bible makes frequent appeals to our intellectual processes and to evidences that challenge our thinking.

Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Ro.10:17). What message? John wrote:

'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.' (1 John 1:1-3)

There was an empty tomb, living witnesses, names, dates, places, and an historical provenance, all of which could be known intellectually. The call to faith, the message, is based on real events, evidenced by historical verities and eye-witness reports. Paul wrote to the Galatians, who had strayed from the pure message he had preached, “Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Christ was portrayed as crucified” (Gal.3:1).

Of course, facts alone do not make saving faith. Even the demons have a firm grasp of the facts (James 2:19). The facts attested to by creation; by God’s acting in history in choosing a people for himself, giving the law and then fulfilling it in Christ; by the life, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His Son; by the establishment of his church on the testimony of living witnesses and in the work of the Holy Spirit; all these facts together challenge us to give emotional consent to the truth.

This realisation of the truth, in turn, challenges us to make a personal commitment. Christians are saved because of the facts not in spite of the facts or in the absence of facts. When Ballard insists that, “God has never revealed religious truth to the heart and soul of a man or a woman except by the power of the spirit” he is only telling part of the truth. Of course truth is revealed to the heart by the Spirit, but it is the intellect that conveys to the heart the facts to which the Spirit testifies. If there are no facts there is nothing to know, and nothing to which we can reasonably commit ourselves.

It might be argued that conversion is seldom so neat a process, personal commitment following on from emotional approval based on intellectual understanding. However, whether ours is a crisis experience or a process nevertheless intellectual content is always a substantial part of conversion. Many come to faith out of an instinctive realisation of a need for and a seeking after God, only afterwards seeking intellectual order to what they have come to believe. Nevertheless, the Bible still challenges us to deal with known facts and intellectually established truth.

 

Blind Faith

Mormons, however, consider it a virtue to believe in the absence of facts and ask people to give emotional consent to what cannot be intellectually verified, indeed is intellectually implausible, and to make a personal commitment on the basis of emotional subjectivity based on Moroni’s promise. That is exactly what Ballard is doing in his answer, by asking, “Have you ever read the Book of Mormon?” and insisting, “That’s how people will come to know whether or not the Book of Mormon is true. You will not get to know it by trying to prove it archeologically or by DNA or by anything else in my judgment. Just pick it up and read it and pray about it and you will come to know religious truth is always confirmed by what you feel and that’s the way Heavenly Father answers prayers.”

Some time ago I received an email from a Mormon friend, the signature of which read, “Never mind the doctrine, feel the love”. This kind of non-thinking leads to a form of Gnosticism where the claims of the Mormon are rendered invulnerable to criticism from outside by the fact that the Mormon has had a certain experience. “I know the church is true”, goes the mantra of this new Gnosticism, “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God.” But this knowledge has no basis in reality, instead depending on purely subjective experiences and impressions gained while reading a book the provenance of which is in serious question.

Lest Evangelical believers get smug about this, I should say that this is a problem amongst Christians. In an essay entitled Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage? Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, makes an impassioned appeal to the church and the Christian academy to understand and complement each other’s work, lamenting the fact that too many believers put knowledge and experience in opposition to one another. Our faith has a basis in the real world around us, can stand close intellectual scrutiny, and is intellectually compelling as well as spiritually challenging. That cannot be said of Mormonism.

The apparent confusion a Mormon might perceive in people’s minds regarding the Mormon faith is not based on ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of non-Mormons. Indeed, those who take the time to study the Mormon Church and its beliefs have little difficulty understanding its provenance, progress and development. Rather, they struggle only with understanding the credulity that leads someone to believe such implausible claims. The Mormon is simply predisposed to assume misunderstanding on the part of critics because that is the only way he can explain to himself why people reject what he “knows” is true.

This approach is modelled by leaders like M. Russell Ballard who, notwithstanding being an apostle of the church, can throw no more light into the dark corners of Mormonism and is thrown back on having to appeal to the enquirer to “pray about it”. Of course, this all sounds rather virtuous, praying about it and receiving spiritual impressions, but the Berean spirit (Acts 17) tells us that we are not to be satisfied with having a good impression of either the message or the messenger. No less an authority than the apostle Paul was put to intellectually rigorous testing by the Bereans “to see if what Paul said was true” and they were commended for it!

Finally, it must be realised that, while there is a paucity of Mormon facts to support Mormon claims nevertheless there is a raft of factual information to challenge and refute those claims. Indeed, established facts in those very areas that M Russell Ballard insists will never satisfy the enquirer regarding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon show Mormonism to be untrue. New World archaeology, DNA, historical data, hermeneutics, biblical theology, a range of disciplines show that the Book of Mormon is not “true” as Mormons claim.

The confusion is on the part of the Mormons who refuse to address the facts and who studiously avoid the intellectual challenges that should be the familiar friends of true believers. If they would simply address the facts they would clear up any confusion and bring clarity and reality to their search for truth. Many have already done so and rejoice in coming to know the truth of the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians need to understand this and be encouraged to grow in the knowledge of their faith and confidently share it with their Mormon friends.

Recommended Reading:

Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin, pub. Christian Focus Publications, 2004

Forster and Marston, Reason and Faith, pub. Monarch Publications, 1989

Peter Adam, Hearing God’s Word, Exploring biblical spirituality, New Studies in Biblical Theology Series, pub. IVP, 2004

This article first appeared in the September edition of the Reachout Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here and download a free 40-page Reachout Beginner’s Guide to the Cults

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