July 6, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 7: The process of becoming born again

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9

I have always thought that God looks at an unregenerated human being very much like a bucking bronco running about in a large, beautiful corral. Some colts are broken and ready to have a saddle on their back very early in life while others may grow old and gray before they can be tamed. Only God knows the time, place, and way to touch each person and He certainly won't do it before or after anyone is ready. (McCraney, pp. 104-105).
McCraney describes being born again as something unique to the individual and helpfully includes a list of characteristics one will develop through spiritual rebirth. Much of his description easily resonates with Latter-day Saint belief, though McCraney notes no similarities.

McCraney holds that spiritual rebirth leads to a stronger desire to gratefully praise God for blessings and a yearning to share the gospel. Desire for sin and worldliness decreases as strength to overcome temptations increases (pp. 112-117). Charitable acts resulting from being born again are prompted by God’s grace, causing the believer to bear fruit of good works. These descriptions are found repeatedly in LDS scripture.1 The entire Book of Enos in the Book of Mormon succinctly encapsulates both the process and result of being truly born again through grace, while still emphasizing Enos’s individual role in the process. After feeling convicted of his personal sins and acknowledging them by repenting with faith in the Messiah, Enos is filled with forgiveness, gratitude to God, and a powerful love and concern for others:
And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; … And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed… And I said: Lord, how is it done? And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen…wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. Now, it came to pass that when I had heard these words I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites; wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them… and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren, the Lamanites. And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to they desires, because of thy faith (Enos 1:4-11, emphasis added).
McCraney also addresses several of what he calls “myths” regarding the process of spiritual rebirth. For example, he holds it is false that a person must belong to a certain denomination or that a person must be “worthy” in order to be born again. These assertions deserve more careful and respectful contemplation than they receive in the book. (After hearing a young woman give a talk on living worthily to recognize the Holy Ghost’s promptings McCraney “had to actually pray for strength to refrain from attacking her well-intentioned ignorance after the meeting” (107-109). While LDS thought, as explicated through King Benjamin, would agree that people cannot become “worthy” or earn salvation on their own merits (see Mosiah 2:20-26), McCraney is conflating being born again with the LDS belief that worthiness is usually requisite for recognizing the continuing influence of the Holy Ghost.2

Another myth is that spiritual rebirth is always instantaneous. To the contrary, McCraney says declaring a time, date and place of a spiritual rebirth is like casting pearls before swine and that a moment of spiritual rebirth does not automatically make a person perfect; such a doctrine is “straight from the heart of hell” (pp. 106-107, 111). Born-Again Mormons, he asserts, have a decreased desire for sin and despite continuing mistakes, “peacefully see all people as failing in the flesh and, with patience and love, accept [other] born-again believers as forgiven works in progress” (pp. 111-112). One danger McCraney sees in believing a person automatically becomes perfect is in setting up unrealistic expectations. After his own born again experience he describes backsliding after neglecting to study the Bible, pray, or fellowship with other Christians (ie, non-Mormons).3 His failures were devastating; “[I] found myself in a far deeper spiritual pit that I had been before I ever knew the Lord”(p. 88). McCraney’s tendency to desire perfection carried over from his days as a believing Latter-day Saint, and some current Saints place so much pressure on themselves to achieve perfection they become exhausted, forgetting about the support offered them through the grace of Christ. Former LDS Church president Howard W. Hunter lamented this tendency:
It has always struck me as being sad that those among us who would not think of reprimanding our neighbor, much less a total stranger, for mistakes that have been made or weaknesses that might be evident, will nevertheless be cruel and unforgiving to themselves. When the scriptures say to judge righteously, that means with fairness and compassion and charity. That’s how we must judge ourselves. We need to be patient and forgiving of ourselves, just as we must be patient and forgiving of others.4
Another myth McCraney counters is that merely saying a simple sinner’s prayer produces spiritual rebirth. According to McCraney, such a prayer cannot result in being born again because no action on the part of the sinner can. In his view, God decides “when, how, where and if it will ever occur in the heart of one of His creations”(p. 105). Thus, the issue of human agency is ambiguous throughout the book. One might ask McCraney why God doesn’t simply cause all His creations to call on Him now. Whereas LDS doctrine openly and clearly includes grace and works, God and man, divine will and human agency in the process of salvation, McCraney insists it must be one or the other, but vacillates by claiming “Born-Again Mormons recognize salient arguments from both Calvin and Arminius and stand on biblically sound theology regarding salvation” without explaining exactly what that means or how it is possible (p. 152). His soteriology is logically untenable and presents a solid double-standard:
There is no act, deed, amount of money, service, work, diligence, ordinance, attendance, temple rite, testimony, or self-sacrificial offering of any kind that could ever take any part of restoring fallen humanity to the presence of God. I cannot emphasize this point too emphatically. Such faithless acts or attitudes aren't needed, aren't worthy, and would never meet the demands of perfect justice that God demands for sin and rebellion. Few human ideologies more readily mock God, religious or otherwise, than for human beings to think they could ever do anything to contribute to the suffering, sacrifice, payment, or atonement of sin Jesus gave on the cross. And yet it happens all the time (p. 30).
After removing human will from the salvation equation he later describes what one must do in order to be saved:
“First, resign yourself to the fact that you are a sinner...Next, ask out loud for Jesus to take over your sins and life...Tell God that you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life and that you turn your will and ways over to Him” (p. 116).
In order to be meaningful these actions would require the agency and action of the believer which is impossible from a Calvinistic stance that God saves His elect through irresistible grace; the entire process beginning to end being directly caused by God alone. McCraney makes no distinctions to reconsile free will with predestination or anything else. In short, he tells readers they can do nothing in order to be saved, and then tells them exactly what they must do to be saved. This double-standard is captured in one sentence: “We are not at all in control of the situation but we must relinquish control to God” (p. 105). I cannot see how it is possible to relinquish what one never possessed. McCraney must either openly state without exception that true salvation by grace can involve absolutely no effort, choice, or works on the part of the saved, or he must recognize that his disagreement of LDS doctrine is only quantitative, not qualitative. As David Paulson pointed out:
The idea of God asking that we do something before the fullness of his blessings is conferred is quite common in Christendom, even if it is believed that all he asks is that we accept Christ as our personal Savior.5
From an LDS view, the acknowledgement of individual agency makes a truly loving relationship between God and man possible wherein humans are more than mere creatures which God, in His mysterious wisdom, elects to save or damn. Humans are God’s children to whom He freely offers love and desires love in return. Certainly such a relationship seems to contradict the omnipotent, unmovable God of the creeds because there appears to be a limitation to the power of God. This limitation is beautifully and tragically represented by Jesus Christ’s lament atop the Mount of Olives overlooking the city where His own had rejected His offer of love: 
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added).
In his intensive study on Mormon thought, Blake Ostler describes the relationship between God’s grace, love, human works, and salvation:
Even though we do not earn or merit God’s love, it is revealed that God is loving toward us. It is not a matter of the works we have done to merit his love; rather, it is a matter of the kind of person God is. He is loving…Rather than mere vessels of clay, God has chosen to create us as children in His image. His love entails that He seeks our interests as His own and that, to the extent possible, he saves all who can be saved in the context of freely returned love.6
McCraney believes it is impossible (or at other times he frames it as simply difficult) for Latter-day Saints to actually extend love to God in this way. “More often than not,” he says, they "have difficulty turning their total heart to God because they are so accustomed to taking matters into their own hands…This is partly due to the theological idea…that Man is really good at heart instead of constantly prone to self-interest, pride, anger, and other evils of the spirit.” Because of this view, McCraney asserts, “there really is no good push, focus, or purpose for spiritual rebirth among the Saints. In the same vein, I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation of why Jesus said that we must be born-again, if we were born good or without a sinful spirit in the first place” (p. 106).

His question can be avoided altogether once one understands that Latter-day Saints do not deny they are fallen and must wrestle with the flesh and yield to the Spirit, relying “wholly upon the merits of Christ” in order to put off the natural man through His grace (2 Nephi 31:19; Mosiah 3:19). McCraney is correct, and Saints should take note: when one believes they are self-righteously in no need of Christ’s grace they are unlikely candidates for having a soft heart toward God and their fellowmen, and are thus likely to overlook their need for Christ’s atonement.

In the next segment I will look at McCraney's explanation of why "anti-Mormon literature" generally fails.

LDS scripture is replete with admonitions to be born again. Those who are being born again are told they will “be filled” with charity, the pure love of Christ, rather than filling themselves (see Mosiah 2:4; Alma 38:12; 3 Nephi 12:6; Moroni 7:47-48.; Moroni 8:26). King Benjamin’s sermon in Mosiah 2-5 provides an insightful description of being born again. As David Paulson explained, “Latter-day Saints have consistently taught that it is not our works that save us, while simultaneously teaching that some of the blessings imparted by God’s grace…are dependent upon our complying with the conditions he specifies for appropriating that grace” (Paulsen, “Work, Worship and Grace,” FARMS Review 18:2 (2006) 108).

See 1 Thes. 5: 19; Jacob 6:8; and James E. Faust, “Did You Get The Right Message?” Ensign, May 2004.

Throughout the book McCraney repeatedly asserts that Mormons are not Christians. For a solid critique of this view, see Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders For a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints, and Eugene England’s brief but powerful essay “What It Means to be a Mormon Christian,” Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience, (Signature Books, 1984), pp. 173-190.

Howard W. Hunter, “The Dauntless Spirit of Resolution,” BYU Devotional, 5 January 1992, Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, p. 34.

Paulson, Walker, opt. cit., p. 97.

Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God (Kofford Books, 2006), p.384.


Anonymous said...

Well I just completed reading your seven part series and while I find some of your opinions unfair, I thank you for taking the time to review my efforts. You see, I am just a man. Regular guy without that much talent. But I have a passion for people knowing Jesus on a personal, regenerative basis. And the people I wrote that book for are my LDS family and friends who I love. I know there are Baptists and Methodists and all sorts of ists who attend "church" but don't know Jesus. But my heart is to the LDS and I will forever reach out to them.

Just a clarification, I do not think I could hold a candle to Martin Luther or ANY religious reformer for that matter. I just resonated to the man and his desire to know God, that's all.

It is painful, in some ways, to read your assessment of I Was A Born Again Mormon. I am a little embarrassed by the fact that I am not a good writer like Martha Beck. But I wrote my heart - my honest heart - and gave what I could give with what I have been given. I wished you would have at least seen that through all your work. Again, God bless you and may you worship Him and Him alone in Spirit and in Truth.

Shawn McCraney

BHodges said...

Shawn, thanks for stopping in and commenting. The review isn't over yet. :)

You note that your heart is to the LDS people, but having seen much of your work, and especially your television program, I believe you have a strange and abrasive way of showing your love, and strongly urge you to reconsider some of your worse tactics and arguments.

The comparison to Martin Luther comes from your comments regarding your intent to re-join the LDS Church and lead a sort of Reformation. You have explained this in several places, though it has been more difficult to piece that aspect of things together since your attempt to rejoin faltered and some information was removed from your website.

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