Friday, June 22, 2012

This Week in American Religion

     I've been too busy lately to do much in the way of blogging.  We are having the coolest, wettest summer (for Texas) in many years.  Evenings like this are too precious to waste in front of a computer screen, and I can no longer stay up into the wee hours.  And so, my imagined essays mostly remain only that.  I did want to comment, however, on a couple of recent developments.
    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:

For the curious, the dispute can be reduced to Jesus. Mormons assert that because they believe Jesus is divine, they are Christians by default. Christians respond that because Mormons don’t believe — in accordance with the Nicene Creed promulgated in the fourth century — that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Jesus that Mormons have in mind is someone else altogether. The Mormon reaction is incredulity. The Christian retort is exasperation. Rinse and repeat.
     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   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.
     But it is the Southern Baptists who have garnered the headlines this week from their convention in New Orleans.  First, they have nominated their first African-American as President of the Convention.  There seems to be widespread enthusiasm for Rev. Luter, and it is hoped this will help counter the image of a church founded in the slavery controversy and described as being "as white as a tractor pull."  Along those lines, the delegates voted to allow the use of the name "Great Commission Baptist" in lieu of "Southern Baptist," if so desired.  No one asked me, but I do not think this will catch on.  When my former church's true-believers used to describe themselves as "New Testament Christians," this was usually met with eye-rolls.  In their common culture, everyone knew what each church represented, regardless of the name they tried to use.  Maybe this will have some traction in their mission fields.  And, it can be seen in the light of the on-going non-denominationalization of this and other Protestant sects. 
     Then, there is a brewing in-house SBC squabble between the Calvinists on one side, and the Arminians on the other, with accusations of semi-Pelagianism being batted about.  If the headlines can be believed, there are even accusations of heresy in the wind.  The fear of creeping Calvinism is behind it all.  Nothing leaves me colder than Reformed Theology, so one of the great side-blessings of Orthodoxy is that we absolutely do not have a dog in this fight.  
     The Southern Baptists certainly had a full plate this week, as they even debated the "Sinners Prayer":
    I'm convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we've sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life....Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, 'accept Jesus into your heart' or 'invite Christ into your life'? It's not the gospel we see being preached, it's modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls."
     Even though this observation comes from one of their Calvinist ministers, I share his concern.  At the heart of it all seems to be a gnawing realization that there simply has to be more to it than what they have made of it.  And that may be a hopeful sign indeed.     


123 said...

That's interesting, I grew up with 'theology' and had to memorize all sorts of Bible passages and explanations of the Trinity (based on the Nicene Creed). It was front and center in the faith of the little Lutheran denomination I grew up in. Most any WELS Christian would know this stuff, especially if they went through its parochial schools like I did.

What did set me apart was jumping into Luther's Works (especially Bondage of the Will and some of the other 'named' works, rather than his exegesis, even his Table Talk - it's fund see if you can tell when he's had one too many beers). Later, I worked my way through the Book of Concord and some dogmatics, and Chemnitz is pretty good, too. My classmates in Christian Day School never did that, except the ones who went to seminary or became parochial school teachers.

Steve Robinson said...

I found it interesting that one of Joseph Smith's co-founders was from the church of Christ.

Kirk said...

I know that there are Mormons and conservative (or fundamentalist) Mormons. I've wondered whether there are liberal or "progressive" branches of the LDS. Is there such a thing as contemporary Mormon worship services? Are there any Mormon mega-churches? If they want to "go mainstream," then they need to jump on the contemporary/mega bandwagon.

Samn! said...


There are actually many Mormon denominations, some of which are liberal. After the death of Joseph Smith, his movement broke into two main groups, those who followed Brigham Young who became the mainstream LDS church and those who followed Joseph Smith III who formed what is now called the "Community of Christ" church, which is sort of liberalish compared to the LDS. But there are dozens of breakaway groups of all kinds of orientation--