I remain endlessly fascinated by the ever-changing American religious scene. Last week, an outlier LDS professor in Memphis, David V. Mason, caused a little stir when the NYTimes published his "I'm a Mormon, not a Christian." Apparently Dr. Mason did not receive the memo from Salt Lake on this one. No one expects theological subtlety from Mormons or the Times, but this piece is even sillier than most. Mason explains the difference between Mormonism and Christianity thusly:
And it is that howler that has generated the most reaction. I am going to be charitable and assume that even most Mormons have a better understanding of the doctrine they reject than does this particular writer. But as one astute observer and friend of this blog has noted on another forum--why should anyone give a damn about how badly this writer or the New York Times mangles Trinitarian Christianity, or how any theologian responds to it since the vast majority of even professing Christians in this country simply do not have a clue as to what the argument is all about? Owen writes: "It's long past time to accept that a public interest in or even acknowledgement of Christian doctrine is long past and it ain't coming back anytime soon. I think he has a point. And before I get on my theological high horse and whine about all this, I need to remind myself of my own background. I spent 25 years in a restorationist/evangelical church, and not just a pew-warmer, but the heavy-duty stuff--serving as deacon and elder, teaching classes, giving the occasional "sermon," etc. In all that time, I cannot ever once remember myself or anyone else using the words "theology," "Trinity," or Lord forbid, "Trinitarian." Had I done so, I would have been accused of reading the wrong kind of books (that accusation, of course, came later on.) And besides, such terminology is not found in Scripture and was to be avoided at all costs. We basically worshipped the Bible (the "Word") which informed us about Jesus. We didn't know what to make of the Holy Spirit, other than whatever it was, it wasn't what the charismatics claimed it was. My halting engagement with any sort of theological concepts--Trinitarian or otherwise--
has only come about in the last 9 years. And so, I was no different than most everybody else, except for the fact that I should have known better. The subject of Mormonism came up last year in a conversation with my wife (who remains Protestant.) She questioned my off-hand reference to the fact that they could not be understood as a Christian body, in the traditional understanding of the faith. I was now able to answer her in a Trinitarian context. She maintains a very particular understanding of her faith, but even so, she is like I was, and as is most of the country--identifying the LDS Church with clean-living, secretive (and weird) rituals, abstinence from caffeine (Good Lord!) and their extraneous book of "scripture," but unable to articulate exactly why they fall beyond the pale. I firmly believe that the LDS Church is on the fast-track towards full acceptance, taking its place in the broad mainstream of American religiosity. This has much more to do with the sluffing-off of American Protestantism, however, than it does with the validity of Mormonism's claims.
Apart from Dr. Mason's Trinitarian muddle, I believe his statement of faith to be of some significance.
I’m perfectly happy not being a Christian. My Mormon fellows, most of whom will argue earnestly for their Christian legitimacy, will scream bloody murder that I don’t represent them. I don’t. They don’t represent me, either. ...In fact, I rather agree with Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who calls Mormonism a fourth Abrahamic religion, along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being set apart from Christianity in this way could give Mormonism a chance to fashion its own legacy.
There has been an obvious reluctance in recent generations to just come out and say this--first, I suppose, because most people simply don't care, and second, because Mormons are just so darned nice. It makes it easier when one of their own states it so baldly. Being calmly and dispassionately realistic about what they are would be a healthy approach going forward--which means there is little chance of this happening.
Part of my fascination with Mormonism is wrapped-up in their Americanism. Understanding the LDS Church provides a useful platform for comprehending what it is, exactly, we are as Americans. They are so quintessentially American in every aspect of their faith. Theirs is the American Gospel, or as they say, the "restored Gospel." Restorationism itself is a completely American phenomenon, of which the Mormons are only one group. Of course, I always thought the Book of Mormon was just so much hokum, but give them their due--no restorationist church has pursued the concept with the wild, make-it-up-as-you-go abandon as have the Mormons. The official church site is fun (for some reason, now blocked for me, but I think it is www.mormons.org.) They have an interactive timeline of church history. The only years given are: 32 and 33 A.D, 70 A.D, bad stuff in 325 A.D., a nod to 1517, and then Joseph Smith in 1820. The language is almost exactly the same as I used to see in Church of Christ treatments of history--just substitute Alexander Campbell and 1809. It is all fantasty stuff, obviously, when it comes to the historical record, but fascinating how they employ similar narratives for their origins.
One commentator hit the nail on the head in a discussion of this article:
Mormonism’s existence is only justifiable if all existing “Christian” bodies prior to Joseph Smith had in fact, by apostasy –the Mormon term for it– ceased to be “The Church”. So asking “Are Mormons Christians?” is the wrong question. Any Mormonism that is honest and integral would have to ask, “Are Non-Mormon Churches Christian?” and answer in the negative. The contemporary whining that the LDS are being excluded from the fold is disingenuous. It is a “fold” that Smith’s revelation judge to be wholly bankrupt of the Gospel.