June 19, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 2: The Exit Narrative

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney, I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9

"Admittedly, I have an agenda, but it is out in the open and aimed at bringing Latter-day Saints to the Lord by attacking erroneous doctrines and practices and not the physical Church they have grown to love” (Shawn McCraney, "Prologue," I Was a Born-Again Mormon).

Following his born-again experience, McCraney wrote two pieces for Sunstone magazine, published Born-Again Mormon, and participated in multiple Sunstone Symposium panels.1 He also spent two years training for pastoral ministry at Calvary Chapel School of Ministry and began hosting a television program called "Heart of the Matter." Currently he serves as pastor of Bible study groups in Logan and Salt Lake City called "Calvary Campus."2

In each venue he repeats the same message: his conversion experience and discovery that the LDS Church is not what it claims to be. He then calls for Latter-day Saints individually and the Church of Jesus Christ collectively to become "Christian" as his interpretation of the Bible would dictate. In so doing, McCraney frames his experience in terms common to "ex-Mormon exit narratives," as described in Seth R. Payne's 2008 Sunstone symposium paper.3 After studying a host of exit narratives written by former members of the LDS Church, Payne argued that many of them exhibit the characteristics of what one sociologist labeled the “captivity narrative."4 I Was a Born-Again Mormon follows the same pattern, echoing previous Evangelical critics who, as Payne describes:

“find the modern LDS Church subversive on mostly theological grounds. They reason that because the beliefs and practices of the Church are so beyond what could be considered traditional Christianity, that individual Mormons are in spiritual danger and that their eternal souls are in jeopardy. Consequently, these groups are generally formed [into] ministries to help 'witness to Mormons' about the 'real Jesus' in an effort to bring them out of Mormonism.”

Exit Narrative Characteristics:

Payne's interesting research of the concept of "apostasy," especially as related in narrative form, is an interesting lens through which McCraney's narrative can be viewed. Though the examples of exit narrative characteristics listed below are far from comprehensive, they indicate where McCraney follows the prototype quite thoroughly.

1. Establishing Credibility5
Listing credentials and Church experience is intended to legitimize the story, and McCraney makes certain to do so by telling readers he was “born in the covenant,” and was taught to always attend Church meetings, pay a full tithe, serve a full-time mission, attend BYU, and marry in the Temple (pg. 35). He lists an impressive number of Church callings and assures readers he has been “an observant Latter-day Saint for over forty years” several times, despite any periods of disinterest, inactivity, or his early childhood (pg. 38).

2. The Apology6
The narratives explain why the individual remained a member of the Church for such a long period of time, given the negative picture they paint of the experience in the present, and that they were unaware of certain historical or doctrinal controversies. Some explain they never felt a "spiritual witness" that the Church was true. McCraney definitely and repeatedly follows these patterns throughout the book. For instance, he explains his early membership as the result of being the child of Mormon parents (pg. 35). He recalls feeling "the Spirit" at Church meetings (pg. 56), but later equates Mormon experience with the Holy Ghost as nothing but human “feelings” that shouldn't be trusted. (pg. 333-334). Just as the typical ex-Mormon-turned-Evangelical narrative asserts, the Bible is to be given precedence over all else. (See, among a host of examples, pg. 183-184.)

3. Doctrinal/Historical Problems, or the “Laundry List”7
These points establish what former Mormons see as the obvious falsehoods of Mormonism. McCraney devotes much of his book to these issues, such as the alleged Mormon belief that “Mary was a virgin up until the time she had holy sexual relations with God Himself” (pg. 243) and that the Mormon promise of godhood is an “immensely pleasurable" thought for them "to entertain, helping them overlook the embarrassing mesmerism, myth, and magic in Church history" (238-239). According to McCraney, Mormons almost never talk about Jesus, a remarkable and false claim McCraney makes repeatedly (see "Introduction," pg. 260-261).

4. The Testimony, “Out of Captivity”8
Payne explains: “The final component of each of these narratives is an expression of gratitude for new-found freedoms or beliefs.”9 McCraney frames much of his personal narrative around feeling weighed down and trapped by false doctrine. After his release from captivity through his spiritual rebirth he now looks back at members who remain as being in the same captivity he is now free from. Most Church members are described as “tired, struggling, heavy, and dull” (pg. 285), drawn into the trap by “the most appealing humanistic religion on earth" (pg. 237). Mormonism shuns McCraney’s view of the fallen nature of mankind because he says it “violates the lofty self-esteem of most Latter-day Saints” (pg. 236-237). Relief is only found in becoming regenerated, as understood by McCraney’s interpretation of the Bible.

In other words, McCraney’s book offers nothing new aside from his personal experiences and memories which tend to constitute his stronger (though largely unverifiable) points. I believe readers would have been better served had McCraney focused more on his personal experiences while encouraging others to similarly improve their own relationship with God.

Instead, in speaking out against LDS dogmatism, McCraney merely introduces his own Evangelical dogma as a substitute. Further, the majority of the book is clouded with borrowed or flawed interpretations of LDS doctrine and history either directly explained by McCraney or couched in remembered conversations. Distorted LDS views are then compared with McCraney's interpretation of the Bible.

Despite its flaws, I Was a Born-Again Mormon is also an interesting and instructive critique of obstacles that could keep any believer from experiencing what McCraney calls “authentic Christianity," though the exact definition of what that refers to is debatable. The book also provides valuable insights from one who lost faith in the Church of Jesus Christ. Although his view of the Church doesn’t align with much of my personal experience therein, I believe readers can fruitfully take McCraney's perspective at face value- if it is approached as being "true to McCraney" from his own perspective.

In what follows I will approach the book as a means of examining religious apostasy through McCraney’s eyes.


Neither of these articles make reference to his experience of being born again. See Shawn Aaron McCraney, “Unthinkable!” Sunstone, 120:18-19 (Nov. 2001). A year later he wrote a letter to the editor called “Alternate Subculture,” Sunstone, 125:2 (Dec. 2002). His participation in Sunstone symposia includes “On the Verge: Will Mormonism Become Christian?” (paper) 2004 Salt Lake Symposium, 14 August 2004; “How 'Christian' Should Mormonism Strive to Be?” (panel), 2004 Salt Lake Symposium, 14 August 2004; “The Difficult Balancing Act of a Born-Again Mormon,” (paper) 2004 Sunstone Symposium West, April 17, 2004, Claremont.

Calvary Chapel School of Ministry is associated with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California. "Heart of the Matter" is an hour-long call-in show started in 2006 on KTMW-TV20. McCraney is much more brash and passionate on television than in his book. For instance, in one episode McCraney donned what was supposed to be an American Indian costume with a wig, bandana, and face paint, in order to discuss the Mountain Meadows massacre. See http://www.hotm.tv/ for archived episodes (accessed 10 August 2008).

Seth R. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers: A study of the ex-Mormon Narrative,” paper delivered at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium, 9 August 2008. An mp3 of the presentation can be purchased here. Payne has published a version of the paper at http://www.mormonstudies.net/pdf/strangers.pdf.

See Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," pp. 10-11. Payne argues that the LDS Church structure can result in all three prototypical participant "exodus roles": the “Defector,” akin to a generally inactive member, the “Whistleblower,” a dissatisfied defector who may remain somewhat active but makes some noise, and the “Apostate,” who “undertake[s] a total change of loyalties by allying with one or more elements of an oppositional coalition...[the narrative serving to document] the quintessentially evil essence of the apostate's former organization” (Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 6).

Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 18. The image is "there goes the sun," by Sam Brown, explodingdog.com, 13 January 2009.

Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 19.

Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 24.

Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 27.

Payne, "Purposeful Strangers," p. 27.

June 17, 2009

Shawn McCraney's "I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity"

I've recently been working on a review of Shawn McCraney's book, I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity. New York: Alathea Press (self-published), 2003 (reprinted with modifications in April 2007). 358 pp. plus index, $9.99. During the summer of 2009 Shawn added a .pdf download of the book on his website here

The following is part 1 of the preliminary draft of my review including parts that hit the cutting room floor. The rest of the review to follow in sections. See Part 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. The published version is now available from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at BYU in their Farms Review. The editors gave it the title "Stillborn: A Parody of Latter-day Saint Faith," although I requested a different title. In publishing, the saying is true: "you can't always get what you want." Thanks, Rolling Stones!

Part 1 - Introduction

“Can a Latter-day Saint experience spiritual rebirth? Will Christians and Latter-day Saints ever unite? Why does anti-Mormon literature generally fail? How can someone tell if they’ve been born-again? What is the theological basis for LDS beliefs? Discover some of the best answers to these questions and many more in the pages of Born-Again Mormon” (Shawn Aaron McCraney, I Was a Born-Again Mormon, back cover. Hereafter the page number is cited in the text).
One afternoon in 1997 while driving to pick up his daughter from gymnastics practice, Shawn McCraney happened upon a Christian radio station. He was feeling desperate and angry, struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol,1 having difficulty keeping a steady job and sustaining his marriage. He had lost his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over a decade earlier, and had also “lost all connection to the God [he] once longed to know,” though he continued participating in the Church while searching elsewhere for meaning and peace. At this point of crisis a simple radio sermon on sin and rebirth by pastor Charles Stanley convinced him he had been a sinner since birth, and that he could do nothing to merit a place in God’s Kingdom.

The preacher rhetorically asked: “If you can do it on your own, why haven't you?...Because you can't.”

McCraney recalls feeling dumbfounded because as a Latter-day Saint he believed the obeying the gospel meant “living the right way to earn our place with God,” but now realized for the first time in his life he “really, truly needed” Christ. He offered a sinner’s prayer, admitting his sinful state and asking Christ to come into his heart. While waiting outside the gym for his daughter, McCraney said nothing metaphysical or tangible immediately happened so he prayed again telling the Lord he would wait for a response. Suddenly his mind flashed back to several events in his life showing he had not been an “authentic Christian” as a Latter-day Saint, but now felt like a new person whose life would never be the same. Despite continuing to attend LDS services, McCraney slipped further from the Church of his youth, feeling alienated from his fellow Saints until finally requesting excommunication in 2002 (71-79, 89, emphasis in original).

McCraney said it became his goal “to use my personal failures as an unregenerated Latter-day Saint (and my experience in becoming a born again Christian) to help illustrate some of the inherent problems faced by members of the Church who love Mormonism but need more to thrive spiritually than the rites, demands, and culture it provides.” In order to “introduce Latter-day Saints to the God-given gift of spiritual rebirth [and to help] Born-Again believers appreciate and support positive aspects of the LDS Church while simultaneously (but politely) rejecting any doctrine or practice contrary to biblical truth and authentic Christian beliefs,” McCraney undertook to write Born-Again Mormon. Since “most Latter-day Saints have no idea what spiritual rebirth actually means and therefore, having never experienced it, can only deny its reality and/or describe it as false,” McCraney saw a “universal need” for the book.

Finally, it was written for those still “spiritually yearning about their place with God; who silently question many of the doctrines, practices, or cultural expectations present in the Church today, but who remain active out of fear, personal comfort, and even family continuity” (See “Mission,” Prologue, Introduction).

Born Again Book, Again: Friendly Fire
Born-Again Mormon was first published in 2004 and a second edition, re-titled I Was a Born-Again Mormon, appeared in 2007. Perhaps the largest difference between editions is reflected in the addition of “I Was” to the title, reflecting his excommunication between editions. McCraney explained the change should “clear it up for whining Christians and cynical LDS that I am no longer a member of the church - but the title retails[sic] the idea that I was born-again WHILE in the LDS Church.”2 McCraney’s book has been harshly criticized by other Christian ministries who actively proselyte against the LDS Church.

Despite endorsements from several Evangelicals including Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and Professor Craig J. Hazen of Biola University,3 it appears that criticism by various evangelical “counter-cult” ministries led to changes in the second printing.4 Ed Decker (of "The God Makers" fame) explained:
I have exchanged emails with Shawn .. but be very very cautious.. When you claim to be a born again Mormon but still bow at the altar of a man/god who lives with his many wives on the planet near the great star kolob and your jesus is the brother of lucifer and was voted on to be the savior by a council of gods... and you make no public stand on these essential differences... God is NOT being served here. If he did make such a stand, he would not be a Mormon, He would be excommunicated. He is there to be used as an example of the Mormons being just like Christians..someone who is born again and also a Mormon...Bless him.. but he is going to get burned ... and that is before judgment.. Pray for him by all means.. support him with $$ by no means. He may sound very much like a real born again person and I don't suggest he isn't but he is making perfect landings at the wrong airport.5
Glenn Evans, of the Institute for Religious Research, claims that “McCraney’s syncretism of Christianity and Mormonism . . . does not give a balanced or accurate view of either Christianity or Mormonism.” Despite making many of the same objections to the Church of Jesus Christ that McCraney makes in his book, Evans wonders “whether [McCraney] is correct in thinking that a person can be saved by placing their [sic] faith in the Jesus Christ presented by the Mormon Church.” Though McCraney criticizes a straw man of the “Mormon Jesus” at length, Evans still finds McCraney much too Mormon.6

McCraney stresses the importance of unity among “biblical Christians” but grants that “divergent opinions on the small stuff are allowed in the body of Christ—as long as the core beliefs are maintained” (p. 221). Though evangelicals tend to talk about unity on essentials among various denominations they assume make up the body of Christ, the criticism McCraney has received from some Evangelical ministries indicates an undercurrent of disagreement on important aspects of faith.7 For example, McCraney’s belief that a faithful Latter-day Saint can be born again—that is, in an evangelical sense—and remain in the Church of Jesus Christ, has been questioned by Eric Johnson from Mormon Research Ministries. Such a possibility represents “the complete antithesis of biblical orthodoxy. This idea is just as strange as Paul recommending that new Christians continue worshipping at the Temple of Dianna [sic] while simultaneously fellowshipping in a Christian community.” Though Johnson grants that McCraney has been regenerated, he asserts the book itself is “untried, unprovable, and even sometimes unbiblical. I think he needs to revisit the very idea that it is possible to be born again while remaining Mormon. This idea makes no biblical sense at all and should be rejected as a plausible evangelistic strategy.”8

Such friendly fire appears to have prompted changes in the second edition. McCraney still defends his position that an active Mormon can be born again (according to his Evangelical definition) and that a born again individual can remain in the church, but he toes a harder line regarding what happens when a Mormon is truly born again: they either cease membership in the Church or continue attending only to help others become regenerated.9 McCraney grants that he has “an agenda”—one that is “out in the open and aimed at bringing Latter-day Saints to the Lord by attacking erroneous doctrines and practices and not the physical church they have grown to love” (Introduction, p. 6). In both printings McCraney quotes Walt Whitman, “The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.”10 He explained this quote is employed to “tell readers not to take every line as absolute fact but to take the drift of the book seriously.” Because the drift matters more to McCraney than exact details, he explained “mistakes are not a concern for me. I don't mind imperfect work. I am imperfect therefore so will my work be imperfect.”11 In that light, McCraney does not attempt to fully substantiate his doctrinal or historical explanations of the LDS faith and the book is not intended to be an academic approach. Instead, I Was a Born-Again Mormon consists of McCraney’s own opinions on LDS doctrine and practice substantiated by his own personal experiences, generally expressed as foregone conclusions. His use of Walt Whitman's quote indicates that the drift of I Was a Born-Again Mormon was most important to the author. Thus, in the rest of this review I will note only a few smaller errors, fully address a some larger issues, and discuss McCraney’s overall approach by focusing on lessons members of the LDS Church can draw from McCraney's experiences.

Next: Part 2- The Ex-Mormon Exit Narrative


In an excerpt from an interview with John Dehlin of MormonStories.org, McCraney clarified that he was not addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol, but that he only abused them:

Shawn: Someone wrote a critique against me at FARMS on my book and said I was addicted to pain killers and vodka. I was not. In fact, I say in the book, I wrote, I used them to dull the pain of my doubt and not believing in the church, being married in the temple to a wife who did, my children saying 'I wanna go to the temple' you know, and that conflict and tension was too much for me. And so I began to secretly abuse, when I could find times alone, vodka, or hydrocodone, or whatever, never addicted...and [Hodges] said I was addicted, and that it threatened my job and my marriage, and that's just not true.

Dehlin: You used them, but not...

Shawn: Yeah, yeah...

(Transcript from "Mormon Stories # 126: Shawn McCraney 'Born Again Mormon' Pt. 1," see this post for the full correction.)

Thus, use of the word "addiction" was a mistake according to Shawn. He did not tell Dehlin that he has characterized himself as an addict in the past. See my clarification here. Mentioning Shawn's struggles with these substances was not an attempt to discredit McCraney, but to review his experiences as related in the book itself. Affording it this much space in a footnote makes the issue seem larger than it is intended to be in the review, but I wish to clarify for the record what McCraney's own account depicts. Here is the relevant excerpt from McCraney's book:
[p. 87] When I was thirty-four, in a desperate effort to ease the pain of my cankered soul and the crumbling of one trusted golden calf after another, I turned to secretly abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. I never took them as part of my daily life but instead saved them for times of deep reflection as a way to numb and self-medicate my pounding pain. Cautious and deceptive, so as to not expose Mary or daughters to my failing ways, I would look for spans of alone time where I could inebriate myself [p. 88] without being caught. Sometimes this meant drinking half a bottle of vodka right before going to bed, or loading up on Hydrocodone before a long drive. Instead of helping me, these deceptive acts exacerbated my impulses toward self-destructive behavior. The depths to which I had inwardly sunk cannot fully be described by words...[p. 89] Desperate and angry, and quickly losing all consideration for everyone around me, I was a spiritually, emotionally, and socially broken man. I'd given away more good jobs than I can count, broke the heart of my trusted friend and confidant Mary, and turned from most of my life-long friends. I got to the point where I was willing to accept anything that could change my sinful, unhappy condition to one of peace. Anything, except what had failed me in the past. I suppose that is why I ultimately looked to substances.
(Shawn Aaron McCraney, I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity, New York: Alathea Press, 2003, reprinted with modifications in April 2007,  pp. 87-89.)

McCraney, e-mail to the author, 20 August 2008. Another important difference is a large omission. The second edition repeatedly refers readers to a list of “Recommended sources” at the end of the book, though it has been removed and can only be found in the first edition. The included list of “LDS books” appears to have been borrowed; references therein refer to newspaper articles and obscure LDS tracts that have no bearing on the book. McCraney’s text does not interact with most of the selections he recommends that I have personally read. My thanks to Robert Durocher for providing me with a copy of the first edition.

Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California is where McCraney received ministerial training, (see Introduction). Craig Hazen, a professor at Biola University, has also endorsed Brigham Young University professor of religion Robert L. Millet’s A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).

“Counter-cult” ministries are generally based on conservative Protestant views which seek to marginalize religious groups they find heretical. For one overview, see Louis Midgley, "Anti-Mormonism and the Newfangled Countercult Culture (Review of The 1996 Directory of Cult Research Organizations: A Worldwide Listing of 752 Agencies and Individuals by Keith Edward Tolbert and Eric Pement)," FARMS Review of Books 10/1 (1998): 271–340.

Ed Decker, “Comments from those who minister to Mormons regarding Shawn McCraney’s ministry,” 17 October 2006, Maze Ministry (accessed 8 April 2009), capitalization and punctuation in original. Evidently, Decker did not know McCraney had been excommunicated.

See Glenn Evans, “Born Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity,” IRR.org (accessed 8 April 2009). IRR (formerly "Gospel Truths Ministry" is a counter-cult group focusing largely on Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. The direct targeting of specific religions by counter-cult groups deserves further comments, but is beyond the scope of this review. I am reminded of a statement by C.S. Lewis: "I think we may accept it as a rule that whenever a person's religious conversation dwells chiefly, or even frequently, on the faults of other people's religions, he is in a bad condition." See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963, (HarperOne, 2007) p. 209.

For an introduction to the sometimes radical differences among evangelicals, even on what constitutes a core belief, see Louis Midgley, “On Caliban Mischief,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): xi–xxxv.

Eric Johnson, "Review of I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity, by Shawn McCraney," Mormonism Research Ministry (accessed 2 November 2008). For more reviews from various Evangelicals, see 4witness.org/ldsnews/bornagainmormon.php (accessed 13 August 2008).

In the first printing, McCraney says the result of a Latter-day Saint’s emotional rebirth “in terms of worship, fellowship, or membership is between the regenerated soul and the Lord” (Introduction, first edition, p. 2). In the second printing he adds: “From my experience, however, I am fairly certain as to where He will lead every believer in the end.” He further adds: “[we do] not make an issue of what church a reborn-Christian attemds [sic]. This being said, we do acknowledge the importance of hearing the Word of God taught in a worshipful setting, and recommend that all believers ultimately choose to belong to a religion that feeds them spiritually—that is, through the hearing of His divine Word” (Introduction, second edition, p.6). To the claim that he wrote Born-Again Mormon to support “those born-again Saints who might choose to remain active in the Church while working to bring other members . . . to the Lord” (ibid.), McCraney has added in the second printing, “Admittedly, this is a far-fetched concept. But the Lord sometimes works in mysterious ways” (ibid.).

McCraney has replaced an original explanatory dash with a comma. Though he does not cite the source, he is quoting a line from Whitman’s poem “Shut Not Your Doors, &c,” from Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass.

Shawn McCraney, e-mail to the author, 20 August 2008. McCraney’s own experiences generally cannot be verified though he occasionally adds a footnote indicating exact times and places. For example, he footnotes a sacrament meeting talk with which he disagreed: “Huntington Beach 1st Ward sacrament meeting, October 26th 2003, 9:42 a.m.” (p. 109). Elsewhere he cites “President B. Miller, Huntington Beach California Stake, November 4, 2003, 8:45 p.m.” (p. 228). McCraney also decided not to include page numbers in the first edition. The second edition includes page numbers and a larger, more readable font, though most of the typographical and factual errors were perpetuated. Despite not being concerned with mistakes, McCraney’s second edition Prologue asserts “in the name of the Lord whom I love, follow, and trust I give my word that everything I’ve written is true.” I take this as an assurance that McCraney does not intentionally include falsehoods.