July 7, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 8: The Failure of Anti-Mormon Literature

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9. It's a long one.

By no measure can Born-Again Mormon be considered “anti-Mormon literature” as I have purposefully omitted anything that attacks the Church through its unique history or the failures of its founders (McCraney, Introduction, no pg. number).
During McCraney’s loss of faith he reports having delved into various books critical of LDS history and doctrine, but in attempting to share the “damning” evidence he found most members uninterested. McCraney then “recognized some inherent difficulties with most anti-Mormon literature. First, it does not lead to anyone's feeling good about themselves (relative to the religion), and since most people generally only want to feel good about that to which they give their time and allegiance, it is highly ineffective to attack Latter-day Saints in this way. Second, I came to see that most genuinely anti-Mormon literature has been written to embarrass the Church and its members, so as a means of discovering absolute truth it is inferior. Finally, anti-Mormon literature (films, videos, presentations, websites) generally does as much to unify the Saints as to destroy them. Certainly there are casualties from the stuff, but more often than not, Latter-day Saints, finding themselves under attack, rally to the banner of the cause.1 In light of all these dynamics, I ultimately concluded that most anti-Mormon efforts would not be a tool the Lord Jesus would resort to or approve of. If I was going to get to know Him, Mormon or not, it would have to be through other means”(pp. 60-61). Based on his own experience McCraney has valuable insights for other ministries seeking to save Mormons, though as will be shown, he does not fully follow his own advice.

Critics who attack the Book of Mormon are wasting their time, he declares:
For reasons still unclear, most writers who attack the authenticity and/or origins of the Book of Mormon do so on some of its more inconsequential aspects and fail to see the book for what it really was intended to be: a second witness of Jesus Christ. And while thousands of books, articles, and pamphlets have attacked the Book of Mormon, its author, and its origins, most of them go to great lengths to prove it false through comparative studies that are inconclusive, subjective, and generally not very important to people who join or remain active in the Church...what they all fail to understand is that it is not facts or true academic research that makes people accept the Book of Mormon, but it is their desire to find, know and please God; their desire to do good; their desire to belong to a worthy cause that overwhelmingly guides their religious live and families (pp. 174-175).
This is an astute recognition; Saints generally believe a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon is more important than material proofs in the form of archeology or otherwise. Still, in spite of this admission McCraney attacks the authenticity and origins of the Book of Mormon on some of its more inconsequential aspects and fails to investigate the book for what it really was intended to be: a second witness of Jesus Christ. He spends pages 150-177 and 187-208 claiming the Book of Mormon is the product of Joseph Smith’s environment, imagination, and the King James Version of the Bible.2

Another problem McCraney found with much of the anti-Mormon literature he read was its being too far-fetched:
Anti-Mormon authors tend to depict young Joseph Smith as indolent, lazy and oriented toward get-rich-quick schemes. These characterizations are unfair since the majority of all teenage boys are typically lazy, indolent and interested in get-rich-quick schemes[!]...[H]ad he actually lived up to even half of the character assassinations leveled at him, it is doubtful that he would have had any followers at all. It's time for anti-Mormon writers and speakers - if they are truly to be considered Christian - to take another approach in enlightening Latter-day Saints (pp. 121-122). 
In spite of this admonition, McCraney spends pages 119-148 directly borrowing material from Grant Palmer, Dan Vogel, D. Michael Quinn, and Craig Hazen describing Joseph Smith as a well-intentioned fraud. McCraney’s account completely demonstrates a preference for naturalistic explanations, though he relegates a few other LDS viewpoints to a directive footnote. People can compare his summary to the writings of “Dean L. Jesse [and] Jim Allen”[sic] (p. 146).

McCraney appears to believe his approach is something new. Perhaps it is, as far as many Evangelical criticisms are concerned:
Born-Again Mormon is not a regurgitation of early LDS history or an expose on the life and times of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell, or any other significant LDS figure of the past. I do discuss the early life of Joseph Smith but omit anything that could be considered an ‘anti-Mormon attack.’ I only recount those circumstances which I believe contributed greatly to the make-up of the man ("Introduction"). 
Why did McCraney include so much “damning” information on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon if he felt such an approach was ineffective in other anti-Mormon literature? He says such information is included to keep people informed in their faith. However, McCraney defines faith as independent of- and reliant upon- natural evidence, whichever best suits his case at any given time (pp. 183-184). “No group or person is truly making a choice or exercising faith when she or he avoids the facts of a matter,” he explains. “They are only choosing to believe what they want. It is imperative that every Born-Again Mormon search for himself or herself all that he or she can find about the Church, its history and its doctrine before they decide to reject it, re-embrace it, or attack it. Factual evidence is there, Saints of Latter-days, but it must be sought, sorted, admitted, and understood in context and ultimately digested before anyone can deny or accept the truth that the Church proclaims” (pp. 141-142).

There have been many responses to the historical interpretation McCraney advances and I join him in encouraging all Latter-day Saints to be well-informed on the history of the Church. But such investigative rigor, according to McCraney, need not apply outside of Mormonism, especially in regards to the Bible:
Some people might argue that the same examination should occur when considering the tenants of Christianity. But the comparison is not a good one. As mentioned earlier, the Bible stands firmly on a foundation of historical, genetic, and linguistic proofs and supports while the Book of Mormon, the keystone to the LDS faith, stands on nothing. Informed belief is good. Ignorant belief is merely an extension of ignorance (p. 344). 
It is unclear how the continued existence and verifiability of the city of Jerusalem proves the resurrection of Christ, or other Biblical miracles. Still, throughout I Was a Born-Again Mormon all of the Bible’s claims are foregone conclusions solidly verified, as is McCraney’s remarkable claim that nothing in the Book of Mormon indicates ancient origin.3 Questioning the Book of Mormon is imperative, but doing the same in regards to the Bible is evidence of a fallen, unredeemed nature:
Born-Again Mormons study the Bible and trust solely in the truths it provides the world…When people from the alleys of higher criticism attempt to discredit the Bible and shake believers loose from its fruitful bows, we see it as an attempt of the unregenerated to impose their limited views on the human soul (pp. 219-220).
Finally, to McCraney's credit, he aptly recognizes that some anti-Mormon material is extremely offensive to active Latter-day Saints when it ridicules LDS temple rituals. While drawing parallels between a dream by Joseph Smith Sr. and the Book of Mormon, McCraney stops short, explaining “there are parallels to other LDS rites practiced today which, out of respect, will not be mentioned here” (p. 135). McCraney respectfully steers clear of discussing the temple in detail, other than hinting at ties to masonry (p. 210), claiming temples are no longer needed for Christians (p. 218), and that certain unexpressed changes were made to the ceremony in 1990 (p. 259).

Thus, McCraney's views of anti-Mormon literature are confusing, and he ends up indicting himself on several counts. Most notably, McCraney's television program, "Heart of the Matter," often flies in the face of what he describes as ineffective methods he would never attempt. In one recent episode, McCraney donned a homemade American Indian costume with an old bandana, feathers, and silly clown-like face paint, in order to discuss the Mountain Meadows Massacre. His brash and combative behavior on television stands in stark contrast to his professed desire to proselyte Mormons in ways Jesus Christ would approve.

As Brigham Young once stated: “If you let us alone, we will do it a little more leisurely; but if you persecute us, we will sit up nights to preach the Gospel” (Journal of Discourses 2:320). An interesting description of the reaction some members of the Church have to anti-Mormon literature and criticism is found in Michael R. Ash’s book Shaken Faith Syndrome (FAIR, 2008).

McCraney goes on to state: “…the Book of Mormon is no more threatening to Christianity than any biblically based piece of fictional literature, and no less impressive in its claims of Jesus Christ as Savior of the world…No, it cannot in any way be considered holy writ or canon. No, it is not the work of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas…But Born-Again Mormons place [it] on the same shelf as any work of fiction that seeks to exalt Jesus as the author of human salvation.” The rub, McCraney explains, citing Dan Vogel’s Making of a Prophet, is that instead of admitting he wrote it to solve the religious controversies of his day, Joseph Smith lied about having received it from God (see pp. 175-176).

According to McCraney, “the Book of Mormon has yet to find one single linguistic, historical, genetic, or geographical material support. In fact, there have only been material discoveries that refute Book of Mormon claims” (p. 184). For “authoritative insights into recent scientific findings,” he sends his readers to a deeply flawed DVD entitled DNA versus the Book of Mormon, created by Living Hope Ministries. For reviews of the film, see FAIR’s topical guide of review points at http://www.fairlds.org/apol/ai195.html and also a number of essays on DNA issues and the Book of Mormon in FARMS Review 15/2 (2003) and 18/1 (2006). McCraney avoids any mention of scholarship that puts the Book of Mormon on a solid footing geographically, archaeologically, linguistically, culturally, and so on. For one convenient source that covers much of this ground, see Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002). On the discovery of the name NHM on altars in southern Arabia that date to Lehi’s time and corroborate the historicity of the place-name Nahom in the Book of Mormon, see S. Kent Brown, “‘The Place Which Was Called Nahom’: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 66–68; and Warren P. Aston, “Newly Found Altars from Nahom,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/2 (2001): 57–61. For a review of archaeological findings over the past fifty years that increasingly support the historicity of the Book of Mormon and that augur well for future discoveries, see John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Relics,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2006): 38–49. In stating that “the Church, in association with Brigham Young University, has an entire department called [FARMS] ...that has, on occasion, been consumed with the idea that it can present and/or locate infallible material proofs that will somehow legitimize the Church’s claims on the historic [sic] veracity of the Book of Mormon” (p. 182), McCraney falsely implies a skepticism on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ and BYU.


Steve Smoot said...

I have very little patience for people who claim that there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon, as McCraney has. It is just intellectually lazy to claim that because then you don't have to address those things that contradict your assertions. Likewise, I have little patience for people who assume that the Bible has somehow been "proven" by archaeology. I would hate to see McCraney having to tackle the works of William Dever or Neil Asher Silbermann, for example, when confronting the true status of current biblical archaeology.

I also think his comments, if they can be called that, on FARMS is likewise absurd. Infallible proofs? Geez, this guy obviously has no idea what he is talking about and I'm sure has never read any FARMS material.

Great review series, Blair. But I still don't know why you were so, ahem, nice to McCraney. This is softball stuff while you belong in the big leagues.

;0) -Grin-

ricke said...

I appreciate all the work you have put into this review. I hope your work can be archived so that it is available later on. Have you considered posting it at the FAIR site?

BHodges said...

rick- this is the rough draft of a review that is pending publication.

Aquilifer said...


This has been an excellent series. I confess to being really bewildered by McCraney's approach. Based on your excerpts from his book, I never would have guessed them to have been written by the same person I've seen ridiculing Mormons and their beliefs. He argues for an alternative Evangelical approach to Mormonism, but then falls prey to the very mocking he condemns.

I recently listened to a podcast of Van Hale's radio show where McCraney was a guest, and his aggressive, sarcastic, and mocking tone was little different from what I've heard from many other Mormon "outreach" ministers. Same with some excerpts I've seen from his show. It certainly doesn't seem to be the work of someone who calls for a revised, civil form of preaching to Mormons.

Similarly, I've read an older Sunstone piece where he lays into the dogmatic views of a teen in a seminary class (rather condescendingly, IMHO), with his point being that we should move past pridefully clinging to dogma so that we can truly forgive. But now he embraces a brand of Evangelical fundamentalism that accepts nothing less than the absolute infallibility of the Bible while buying into the faulty argument that archeological support of the Bible's geography somehow verifies Christ's resurrection. He's merely traded one set of dogmas for another. Such contradictions are very puzzling to me.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Aquil. I am rather surprised at the contrast between McCraney's book and his behavior on tv and the radio. As a member of the Church he tended to be brash as well, he recounts throwing a Bible at a Born-Again Christian, for instance. And yes, the Sunstone bit you refer to is mentioned earlier in a footnote, a strange piece. Stay tuned, there is one more installment to be posted tomorrow.

Andrew S said...

I am generally fascinated to see ex-Mormons who convert to other Christian denominations (as McCraney has done) then start to talk about evidence and proof for the Bible as opposed to the Book of Mormon. McCraney stereotypically falls into this idea trap that suggests that the Bible is "safe" historically, whereas the BoM is this well-known void. That's interesting.

As per McCraney's seeming bipolarity regarding using anti-Mormon tactics, I don't think he's really trying to achieve the same results with them. For example, it's one thing to use an attack. It's another thing to use an attack as an attempt to get someone to change their faith. So, I haven't read the book, but I imagine that when McCraney points out what he perceives a flaws in the church, these aren't necessarily his arguments for why someone should be born-again. These aren't his arguments for why any Mormon should convert, and he's trying to tell other evangelicals that these shouldn't be their arguments, either.

This doesn't mean that he doesn't believe these things...he's just pointing out that these aren't the way to reach the goal of "deconverting" a Mormon.

BHodges said...

Andrew, that is the strange thing. McCraney talks about the importance of convincing Mormons to become born-again, and says "anti-Mormon" tactics are ineffective, and "not the Lord's way." Then he spends a good deal of time in the book making similar "anti-Mormon" arguments, and he does even more so on his television program.

Aaron said...

Hello Blair,
I really love this series you have done in relation to Shawn McCraney. He gets under my skin at times in a very negative manner. However, I like your more calm approach to dissecting Shawn McCraney's book (as this can lead LDS members to understand why people leave the Church). This recent article caught me off guard though. Shawn argues against the methods of most anti-Mormons (which I agree with his reasoning on why it isn't effective) and than feels free in the same book to use anti-Mormon reasoning. Why the contradictions? I noticed on his show how offensive he comes off as and how he ridicules some of the LDS callers (even though I agree some of his LDS callers have said very uncalled for things).
I have to agree with you that his attitude now can be related to the incident where he threw the Bible into the face of a born-again Christian... abrasive and self-righteous in attitude. I would think that if being a born-again Christian is the only true path to Christ and provides as many changes in one's life as Shawn claims, that there would be a huge shift in his exterior attitude. Yet, I find none. I have no doubt in my mind that Shawn has a strong testimony of Christ, but I due doubt that his becoming an evangelical Christian has had any real significant impact on his life except to turn his abrasive attitude towards Mormonism.

BHodges said...

Evidently for Shawn, the changes included lessening his feeling of hypocrisy, as he had focused so much on outward appearance as a Mormon. Further, he evidently kicked his drug habit though it isn't clear if he still drinks alcohol. So there are some good aspects to his conversion experience. On the other hand, the constant harping of Mormonism (and saying it is motivated by love) is really curious. I agree with you it is quite odd that he decries certain anti-Mormon behavior while actually doing some of the same things. In regards to his TV show, it started after much of the book had been written, I believe, so he had adjusted to that format and it brings out his personality more than the book does, it seems.

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