July 2, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 6: Believing Mormonism

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.  

“In my 40 years of being an observant, active, and even faithful member of the Church, I have rarely, if ever, heard any Latter-day Saint lay claim to the constant, unconditional, promise of spiritual rebirth. Having experienced it myself, and having a real under-standing[sic] of exactly how it is manifested in the inner and outer life of Man, I am more than convinced that there are far too many Latter-day Saints needlessly suffering under the thumb of religious indoctrination, faulty theology, and legalistic ideas of what God expects of her or him” (McCraney, p. 115).
Technically, McCraney is correct, in that there are far too many Saints needlessly suffering under faulty theology and excessively legalistic ideas of what God expects. Even one is “too many.” Still, McCraney’s description of LDS belief is frequently nothing but a straw man, albeit a straw man some members of the Church may still be placing in their own theological gardens.1 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has pleaded with members to avoid constricting beliefs which overlook the Savior’s promises:
[On] the night of the greatest suffering that has ever taken place in the world or that ever will take place, the Savior said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. … not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). I submit to you, that may be one of the Savior’s commandments that is, even in the hearts of otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints, universally disobeyed.2
More Saints might do well to keep in mind Zenoch’s declaration: “Thou art angry, O Lord, with this people, because they will not understand thy mercies which thou hast bestowed upon them because of thy Son” (Alma 33:16, emphasis added). McCraney pinpoints the suffering of Mormons as occurring among members who misunderstand the nature of humans, Christ, and the atonement, believing they can and must work their own way to perfection. To McCraney, LDS doctrine is “based on the logical premise of the universal balance.” According to this view, sin tips the scale toward damnation while righteousness tips the scale toward salvation. So in LDS thought, McCraney posits, “the supreme sacrifice of Christ becomes unnecessary since positive behaviors and deeds have the potential to do the ‘balancing’ required by God.” Latter-day Saints “have arrogantly taken the duty of justification (or payment) for sin upon themselves…and either purposefully or inadvertently reject God’s perfect offering for human sin” (pp. 13-14).

In a parable McCraney created, the Latter-day Saints view Jesus as the head janitor of a “large and beautiful school” where most students make outstanding efforts to avoid making messes and are “so diligent, in fact, that they scrub their own desks and floor at the end of every day.” Filthier students who wish to avoid embarrassment “usually try to clean their own mess up before anyone else at the school sees it.” Sometimes they succeed, but other times they make the mess much worse in the attempt, and this is when “Jesus the Janitor is called. Of course He quickly shows up and graciously cleans away the entire mess…but there are a whole bunch of conditions attached to His service to ensure that the mess will be removed entirely” (pp. 261-262).

McCraney makes a point to emphasize that most Mormons probably try to look righteous on the outside, conforming to societal norms in order to fit in or look better than others. He overlooks the fact that Mormons also believe motives behind behaviors actually matter. In LDS thought, admonitions to base actions on “real intent” indicate underlying motivation can have a large impact on an outcome:  “behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such. Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift” (Moroni 7:6-10). These verses echo Christ’s warning that doing ones alms before men results in a person already having their reward. That reward can include being seen of men (see Matt. 6:1-6). McCraney sees many Mormons receiving the reward of exhaustion. Certainly the flawed approach described in the janitor parable can result in stress, depression, and resignation for some, or pride and hypocrisy for others. For McCraney, such an approach resulted in all of the above, ultimately leaving him spiritually stillborn. That there are Latter-day Saints who misunderstand various aspects of the gospel and thus needlessly suffer under incorrect and damaging false doctrine is evidenced by a host of conference talks, magazine articles, and books which clarify that undue emphasis on either grace or works is out of line with the doctrine of Christ. 

For example, just months before McCraney had his own born-again experience, Elder Jeffery R. Holland reached out to him, and to all those “who are carrying heavy burdens and feeling private pain, who are walking through the dark valleys of this world’s tribulation. Some may be desperately worried about a husband or a wife or a child, worried about their health or their happiness or their faithfulness in keeping the commandments. Some are living with physical pain, or emotional pain, or disabilities that come with age. Some are troubled as to how to make ends meet financially, and some ache with the private loneliness of an empty house or an empty room or simply empty arms.” Elder Holland’s message was simple: “In the world we shall have tribulation, but we are to be of good cheer. Christ has overcome the world.”3 Holland does not assert that Saints are to overcome sin and sorrow on their own. In the LDS view, being yoked with Christ ties one to a light, easy burden, though some pulling is still required on the part of the faithful (Matt. 11:28-30). Trying to pull the load alone, or largely alone, quickly results in excessive pride or spiritual exhaustion.

LDS author Stephen E. Robinson recounts how watching his wife break down under the pressures of trying to be a good member of the Church led him to write the widely popular books Believing Christ and Following Christ.4 Perhaps, Robinson implies, if his wife really believed Christ, that is, believed what He actually taught, she would not suffer as much as she had. She would realize Christ is there to ease the burden, not make it heavier. Both books were published during the time McCraney describes himself as reaching out for a relationship with God. In Following Christ, Robinson bluntly states:
[Protestants may] mistakenly suppose the Latter-day Saints are working to be saved, and, unfortunately, so do some of our own people…if we focus too much attention on the final accomplishment of our eternal goal, on becoming someday what our Father is, it is possible to undervalue or even overlook Christ’s saving work, to glorify our own efforts instead and feel we are ‘saving ourselves.’5

One can almost hear McCraney heartily exclaim: “Hear, hear! If only LDS leaders would say the same thing!” Indeed, there is plenty of material for quote-miners (LDS or otherwise) to demonstrate that Mormons believe their personal works will save them. Such proof-texting completely overlooks the “grace” side of the coin in LDS thought. McCraney views any recent LDS emphasis of grace as evidence that the doctrine of the Church is shifting, rather than representing a resurgence of emphasis for a doctrine which the Church has taught since 1830. While grace and works in LDS thought have been emphasized differently at different times by different leaders, both have always maintained a place in LDS soteriology in relation to the atonement of Jesus Christ. Given all that LDS leaders have said regarding both grace and works, it will not do for critics like McCraney to claim that Mormons disbelieve in the atonement of Christ, or that they are taught to independently perfect themselves.6

McCraney rightly notes that Latter-day Saints typically differentiate between “salvation” and “exaltation” (32). Salvation is ultimately granted to nearly all of God’s children through the grace of God, and includes resurrection and an eventual degree of glory- a quality of eternal life suited to each individual. Exaltation is thought of as the highest possible degree of glory resulting from both God’s grace and the individual agent’s response thereto. LDS scripture is clear that the entire opportunity and process is unequivocally contingent upon the atonement of Jesus Christ and His grace. In contrast, McCraney explains his view: “To Born-Again Mormons, salvation means living with God in heaven. End of story. Granted, Born-Again Mormons acknowledge that God will award different ‘crowns’ based on the works of the regenerated spirit involved, but these works are recognized only because of what people do after they are spiritually born again, and not before”(32). Perhaps these “crowns” could be seen as a parallel to the LDS concept of degrees of glory, though McCraney makes no connection and is not clear if the works of a regenerated spirit depend upon the agency of the individual. McCraney views LDS conditions for exaltation as mere items on a checklist or meaningless acts meant to appease God’s justice. By doing enough good, people compensate for the bad they do- an approach which McCraney calls “the old, ‘try and please Dad’ trick” (102). This “universal balance” theory was denounced in Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ October 2000 General Conference address “The Challenge to Become”:
[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts--what we have . It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts--what we have . It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.7
McCraney ironically utilizes the same scripture Oaks, Robinson, and others have employed to demonstrate that human works are involved in the process of salvation when he explains:
We must also remember that Jesus said, ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (Matt 7:21-23)’ The fruits or “works” Jesus was speaking of were the fruits of Love that exude from those that have been spiritually born again. They do not necessarily mean a preponderance of earthly accomplishments and deeds that can be tallied and recorded (p. 323).
LDS scripture agrees that good works unto salvation are fruits of love prompted by God, and are not mere items on a checklist. In fact, LDS scripture warns against such hoop-jumping which constitutes placing one’s trust in “dead works” while “denying the mercies of Christ" (see Moroni 8:23, which refers specifically to the “dead work” of infant baptism).

In the next section I will talk more specifically about the idea of being "born again" as understood in LDS thought.

Other straw men in McCraney’s book include the supposed Mormon belief that certain laws predate God (pp. 229, 231), and that Joseph Smith taught monotheism, then binitarianism, then a plurality of Gods. “Check my facts,” McCraney insists (pp. 265-266). These facts can be checked in Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulson, “Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review 13:2, 109-169. Literally dozens of other straw man arguments are found throughout the book.

Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘Come unto Me’,” Ensign, April 1998, p. 16.

Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘The Peaceable Things of the Kingdom’,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, p. 82.

Regarding his wife’s struggles, Robinson explained: “We realized, after talking together, that Janet was trying to save herself. She knew that Jesus is an adviser and a teacher. She knew that he is an example, the head of the Church, our Elder Brother, and even God. She knew all that, but she did not understand His role as the Savior” (Robinson, “Believing Christ”, Ensign, April 1992). A recent survey of 303 LDS teachers and scholars ranked Robinson’s Believing Christ as the tenth most important book in LDS thought (see Arnold K. Garr, “Which Are the Most Important Mormon Books?” BYU Studies 41:3, pp. 35-48). While I do not fully subscribe to some of Robinson’s views, I believe both books are fruitful and informative works. Interestingly, McCraney’s book is very similar to Robinson’s in approach (though from a technical standpoint the divide is wide). Both contain newly-minted parables explaining various aspects of the gospel, interwoven with personal stories. Both repeatedly identify the same problems in LDS thought, though Robinson attributes them to the misunderstanding of true LDS doctrine while McCraney presents the misunderstandings themselves as true LDS doctrine. Most interesting is their similar description of what McCraney calls “religionists” and Robinson calls “religious people.” Such people are described as “relying on the rule-based approach” to the gospel, resulting in being spiritually dead while merely going through the motions (see Robinson, Following Christ, 135). Religionists “organize sin into a hierarchy” to help themselves feel better by being able to judge those who commit worse sins than they. Their approach is entirely rule-based (see McCraney, p. 11). Other LDS books addressing the atonement, faith, grace and works in LDS thought include (among many) Bruce C. Hafen’s series The Believing Heart, The Broken Heart, and The Belonging Heart and Robert Millett’s Within Reach. One of the more rigorous accounts is Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God.

Robinson, Following Christ, pp. 69-70.

For a brief review of the doctrine of grace in LDS dialog since Joseph Smith, see David L. Paulson and Cory G. Walker, “Work, Worship, and Grace,” FARMS Review 18:2 (2006) 83-176. One of McCraney’s underlying themes is that the LDS Church continues to become “more Christian,” and his mission is to help spur that development forward. While the Church has ceased emphasizing many speculations of early Church leaders, theological developments of Christianity in general provide an insightful foil to shifting emphasis in LDS doctrine. See Truman G. Madsen, “Are Christians Mormon?” BYU Studies 15:1 (1974), 1-20; David L. Paulsen, “Are Christians Mormon? Reassessing Joseph Smith’s Theology in His Bicentennial,” BYU Studies 45:1 (2006), p. 35-128. Some have argued a "neo-orthodoxy" movement in the Church which emphasizes a more "Protestant" notion of grace. O. Kendall White argues for this notion in Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Signature, 1987). Louis Midgley challenges White's account in his review, "A Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy Challenges Cultural Mormon Neglect of the Book of Mormon: Some Reflections on the 'Impact of Modernity,'" FARMS Review 6:2, pp. 283-334. Put simply, grace and works have always been included in an LDS outlook, though different leaders have sometimes emphasized one over the other. There seems to be no serious movement toward a truly Protestant doctrine of the nature of man and God's grace.

Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 32–34. 


Kent (MC) said...

Really this is a fantastic series you are doing. I was speaking with my wife about "casting our burdens on the Lord" last night and how we actually go about doing that.

I mentioned to her that for me I see casting my burdens on the Lord and yoking myself with Christ as being the same simple act of faith. It is leaving my projects, desires, plans, etc. in Christ's hands and committing myself to His work as it is revealed to me. It is a submission of my will in a sense, to His.

Obviously, stress and burdens are good for us in moderation; they teach us compassion and help us sacrifice for others. For me we don't have a choice about being burdened in this life, just which burdens we will choose.

Blair, do you think that carrying heavy, debilitating burdens is the result of pride or not? Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden light.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Kent, you're likely the only one actually reading the whole dang thing! :)

In terms of burdens, I think as Mormons we expect "trials" and so forth as a part of mortality. We call it "the test," and a "probationary state." It isn't the garden of Eden, it is the "lone and dreary world," while on the other hand we believe Christ is available to help bear the load. There is an interesting paradox between God's command to Adam that by the sweat of his brow he would get his bread, and Christ's instruction to "consider the lilies of the field." I am still trying to reconcile these views. I am currently relying on the old Ecclesiastes bit about seasons for every purpose under heaven, etc. but it seems there must be more to it than that.

You mention pride, and I do think that is one possible burden we are all carrying around to some extent. The nastiest thing about pride is that we have a really hard time recognizing it in ourselves.

Robert Boylan said...

Good work, Blair. I read the book a few years ago, and found it annoying beyond belief.

Jared said...

Grace and works can be task masters to those who are seeking to follow Christ.I've concluded that thinking in terms of grace and works is counter productive. It makes our burden heavy.

The message of the scriptures is to accept and follow the doctrine of Christ. The doctrine of Christ doesn't mention the terms grace and works.

The doctrine of Christ can be stated as follows:

1. Faith in Jesus Christ
2. Repentance
3. Baptism for remission of sin by proper authority
4. Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost

All of the above steps are designed to put us in a position to acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost.

The problem that McCraney observed, and stated well, is what happens when members forget to seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost and strike out on a program of pulling themselves up by their "boot straps". This leads to the problem that Brother Robinson addressed in his books.

Members need to keep their eyes focused on fulfilling their baptism covenant and acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost--then they will be taught what they need to do. Nephi puts it this way:

For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. 2 Nephi 32:5

Keeping the commandments doesn't sanctify followers of Christ! Fire and the Holy Ghost sanctify followers of Christ!

The question we should be asking ourselves is: do I have the Holy Ghost? The way to know if you have the Holy Ghost is by the manifestation of the Spirit. What are the manifestations of the Spirit? Obtaining answer to your prayers in the ways the Lords outlines in the scriptures. D&C 8,9,46 and etc.

Everything depends on acquiring the gift of the Holy Ghost.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Robert. Though I don't say it right out, this was the worst book on Mormonism I have ever read. At least Deb Laake and Martha Beck were good writers.

BHodges said...

Jared, thanks for piping in.

Floyd the Wonderdog said...

I'm reading the blog-series too. My conversion was so dramatic that I've called myself a born-again Mormon since the early 70's.

BHodges said...

Cool, good to hear, Floyd.

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