Friday, November 22, 2019

Bushman on Mormonism

I recently read Richard Lyman Bushman's primer, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. It was the first time I've read literature on Mormonism in quite a while. (Mormons often prefer the label "LDS", but I'll go with Bushman's term here.)

I've studied Mormonism off and on, but moreso back in the day. I used to focus a lot on the holes and difficulties within its doctrine, archaeology, history, etc. But then, I realized the truism that a professed faith does not fit easily into a box-- and that religions and denominations are only general labels. If group X believes ABC, you still need to know what the person believes, who self-styles as a member of group X-- in order to have a useful conversation. If you look at survey data, about 25% of Mormons have conventional, conservative Evangelical views. (This is about the same as Catholics and twice as many as Episcopalians. As I've quipped before to those who are concerned about Mormonism being a cult: if they're a cult, what are the Episcopalians?!)

So, my more-recent efforts were in trying to understand and find common ground. To that end, I enjoyed two books by two pairs of theology professors (one Evangelical; one Mormon) to talk about similarities and differences: How Wide the Divide and Claiming Christ. I had a Mormon colleague who read the book with me-- and was in Bible study with me at school-- leading to an interesting and useful dialogue. And really, the bottom line starts with salvation by God's grace. So, my focus has turned to defining key terms clearly and trying to determine whether one believes they're saved by faith or works.

Bushman is a practicing Mormon, so the treatment is sympathetic but reasonably objective. (Then again, how objective can any work like this be-- or be perceived to be?) If you're looking for that sort of thing, Bushman's book seems as good as any other. But if your goals are evangelism and conversation, I'd recommend one of the other two books.

What did I find of interest (or to quibble about) in Bushman's book?

-He cites the founding miracles of Mormonism as "equivalent to" the resurrection of Jesus (2). As he notes, this will inevitably cause controversy. Uhh, yes!

-He says that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were commanded to be polygamous (3). Although one can make decent biblical arguments that concerns about polygamy are over-stated, I don't know of any support for his particular claim here.

-He is "puzzled" by the "charge" that Mormons are not Christians. But this charge is inevitable--as the flip side of the Mormon claim to greater revelation, to be the one true church, etc. Catholics and Church of Christ have the same problem: if you see yourselves as the only ones or clearly the "best" ones, then the others will obviously see you as deluded, a heretic, or at best, a misguided legalist.

-He compares Joseph Smith to Luther and Alexander Campbell (4-5). He describes the latter as a "rival", which I hadn't heard before. But there is at least some reason for this claim, given the proximity in time frame and Campbell's similar claim to restore/return to original/true Christianity.

-He sees Smith as equivalent to the original biblical prophets, in receiving revelation from God (5). But then he describes Smith's work of "translation" (19-22), which is not equivalent to how the prophets operated. Their books combined direct words from God with their own writing under the Spirit's inspiration. The closest he comes to describing the biblical understanding of its own formation is when he claims that Smith "freely edited the words written under inspiration", presumably inspired by the Spirit (25-26).

-I was a bit surprised to read that the execution of the tithe is interpreted by the member (40). I've heard a range of "enforcement" levels on this-- from looking at W-2s to simply asking a question. (Apparently, this is not a matter of "membership", but being a member with full standing and access to the Temple-- "temple recommend".) In any case, it's an interesting example of what economists call a "public good"-- where people can "free ride" off the contributions of others. Churches have trouble here, since you can go to a church without contributing anything. But Mormons work around that by saying that you're not a member if you don't tithe (with some level of enforcement).

-It was interesting to read his account of the necessity of the priest to have authority behind the required sacraments (49-51). I don't remember reading that in such stark terms before.

-Bushman covers important ground in traditional areas of interest: the three levels of Heaven along with the few people who would end up in Hell (75-77); the theological thought (albeit weakly covered here) and the practical logic behind polygamy and the eventual reversal on that doctrine (86-91); the legalistic practices with hot beverages and alcohol (104-105); and as his last topic (!), the historically awkward position on African-Americans and the priesthood (110-112).


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home