Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chatting with the Mormons, Part II

So I read the Book of Mormon, and the missionaries came back to talk about it. Here are a few thoughts.

1. As I mentioned in an earlier post, aside from the claim that the book itself is revealed by God, and its ostensible history of a group of Israelites who leave Israel for a new promised land, there’s little in the Book of Mormon along the lines of propositional doctrine that, say, a free-will Baptist couldn’t affirm. That leaves plenty to discuss – the role of Israel in God’s redemptive plan, the Fall, infant baptism and etc. Probably the most innovative thing in the BOM itself is the affirmation that the Fall had an upside. Still, I’ve talked with free-will Christians who ultimately adopt something of a version of this – embracing the idea that it was better that Adam and Eve fall than that “choice” be taken from them. (But that's a topic for another blog entry.)

The more distinctive LDS doctrines are discussed in LDS books less known to outsiders, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants. I’ve only skimmed parts of these books, but both basically seem to be compilations of “revelations” given to Joseph Smith (and perhaps others). As best I have seen, they do not report sustained narratives as does the BOM.

If the LDS derived all of its doctrines from the BOM, it seems to me it wouldn’t be located much beyond some of the harder Pentecostal-type churches. Significantly heterodox, to be sure, but affirming a form of Christianity.

2. I figured that the missionaries would be interested to talk about the actual content of the BOM. I was wrong about that.

My first question to them and, as it turns out, the only question we really got to in our meeting, was based on the observation I sketched in point 1 above. I told the missionaries that I was surprised that the BOM seemed to me to reveal so little distinctive doctrine. So I asked them what it was in their view that the BOM revealed that was distinctive relative to the large body of already-existing Christianity.

The missionaries started to talk about the apostasy of the church, the many denominations and etc. This is the typical introductory message that the missionaries provide in their initial contact.

So, apologetically, I interrupted the missionary and said, “I already know that’s what you believe. But to the best of my recollection, those topics are not discussed in the Book of Mormon, which is the only text I’ve had an opportunity to read. What is it in the Book of Mormon itself that was missing from the Gospel preached by the other Christian churches for most of the 1800 years before its ostensible discovery by Joseph Smith? After all, the Book of Mormon affirms that God offers salvation to humanity through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, which is the same Gospel message preached by all of the Christian churches over the last 2,000 years.”

The missionaries had two responses, neither of which referenced any content in the Book of Mormon itself.

First, they said that the Gospel includes what they called Gospel "ordinances" as well as the Gospel itself. And God reestablished these ordinances and authority in the world through Joseph Smith and the LDS.

I responded that that might well be true, and that we can talk about those, but that that didn’t really answer my question, because the Book of Mormon itself doesn't talk about those. I pointed out that they -- or at least the earlier rotation of missionaries who visited weeks before -- had invited me to read the Book of Mormon, and I had done so, even praying beforehand as they instructed regarding whether what I read is from God or not. I had done so, thinking that in doing so I would learn something of what made the LDS distinctive, and why they rejected the other churches as apostate. But I found nothing in the actual content of the Book of Mormon itself that answered that purpose.

The missionaries changed tack at that point, talking about how much comfort they received from reading the Book of Mormon, and how that testified to its truth, and how reading it increased the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. They then asked what I felt when I read it. I told them, as I had earlier, that I found much that was edifying in reading the Book of Mormon. I added that I found much that was edifying in many books, including the Apocrypha and the Chronicles of Narnia. But that didn’t mean that the books were to be received as revelations from God.

I told them that they only way I knew to test whether something was from the Spirit of God was, like the Bereans, to search the Scriptures diligently to see whether what the Book of Mormon told me was consistent with what we all agreed that the Spirit truly revealed in the New and the Old Testaments. I told them that, on that score, the Spirit did not confirm the content of the Book of Mormon to me as actual revelation from God. I told them that it was fine if they disagreed, and that I was open to discussion of what I understood the Spirit to have told me through the Scriptures, but that in order to do so, we would have to discuss the actual content of the Book of Mormon rather than talking about other LDS teachings that were not discussed in the Book of Mormon.

One of the missionaries asked, “The Spirit did not confirm to you the message of the Book of Mormon? Did you pray when you read it?” I told them I did, although I admitted that on a couple of occasions I had forgotten to pray when I started reading it, but then prayed as soon as I remembered my oversight.

They pointed me to a particular prayer and promise in Moroni 10.2-5. I asked them whether there was anything special about the specific working of the prayer in that text. They asked why I had read the Book of Mormon. I told them that I read it because I wanted to know what is true. I said that if Christianity is really true, then we should have no fear of exposure to, and of trying to understand, contending beliefs. Hence my goal of giving the BOM a sympathetic reading; to read it to understand what it taught, rather than just trolling it to identify some debating points.

Our discussion pretty much ended there. I thanked them for their time, and for allowing me the opportunity to read the Book of Mormon, and they left.

3. From all of this it seems to me that the missionaries are not all that interested in people actually reading the Book of Mormon. In the context of LDS missionary work, what seems most important about the Book of Mormon isn’t its actual content, but the claim that it is new revelation from God. That, at least, is the only lesson that the missionaries seemed to want me to learn from the BOM. And even then, it formed very little of what the missionaries wanted me to understand about the LDS. Overall, they did little more than reiterate what they said in their earlier visits, that God had reinstituted the authority of the apostles in the LDS, and as a result had reestablished the true church as Jesus Christ had intended it. (I pointed out that Paul says in 1 Co 15.8 that he is the last person to see Jesus and so is the last person who could be an apostle. Both missionaries looked at the passage, but said nothing more about it. I also pointed out that the office of the Twelve Apostles could not continue after the first generation of the church, since that office was limited to men who had accompanied Jesus from his baptism through to his ascension, Acts 1.21-22.)

So all in all it was a surprise that for all of the commercials on T.V. about the Book of Mormon, for all of the emphasis the missionaries put on it, that the actual content or message of the book plays such a small role in the distinctive beliefs and practices of the LDS, and in their missionary activity.

This does suggest to me something of a "bait and switch" missionary approach. The missionary emphasis toward outsiders seemingly is to get them to accept the principle of additional revelation from God through Joseph Smith and the LDS church. They do so by introducing this new revelation in a book of (relatively) innocuous doctrinal content. Once you accept the general principle, only then are the texts introduced with the more distinctive doctrinal content. If true, then that's a bit disappointing, since the LDS missionary systsem seems to revolve around a bit of manipulation. That being said, I'm unsure that there is much different in principle between the LDS approach, and the so-called "seeker sensitive" methodologies adopted by some Christian churches. The whole point is to tell people what they want to hear in order to "get them through the doors," and then at that point give them the "real message."


Blogger CPA said...

Thanks for taking the time to actually read the book and then write such an interesting post about it. There's an important lesson in there.

August 20, 2007 6:50 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I intend to post a little more on the actual content of the BOM. Things are a bit busy for me right now, so I'm unsure when I'll get to it.

August 21, 2007 8:01 AM  
Blogger J.M.W. said...

Well done, well done. You are correct, however the missionaries are young and a bit ignorant. Most of the best work on the BOM is over at FARMS, FAIR and places like that. But I am with you that it contains very little in the way of brand new doctrine.

August 22, 2007 5:46 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Yeah, I guess I expected the missionaries to be more informed and more engaging on the substance of the BOM.

August 23, 2007 8:23 AM  
Blogger J said...

Nah, it's a requirement that is fairly seriously enforced - that young adults go out for a year of missionary work.

These aren't people who are so on-fire-enthused about what they believe that they study and volunteer to do the missions work. Consider taking about half the young adults of a church, and send them out. There will be precious few scholars among them.

August 27, 2007 9:46 AM  

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