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. 

June 30, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 5: "They leave the Church but can't leave it alone"

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9. For an overview of the historical use of the phrase "they leave the church but can't leave it alone," click here.

“…the least egregious infraction of Church law is the failure to act LDS while the most serious action a member can take and the one that draws the heaviest retribution from defenders of the faith is speaking up about the Church, its doctrine, or its leaders in a critical way – or even asking questions” (McCraney, p. 69).
Because Mormons place a heavy emphasis on the power of testimony based on personal experiences with God, coupled with the testimony of others in a community of covenants with God, statements directly challenging beliefs can feel threatening and personal. Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion, described a tension within the LDS Church resulting from the paradox of simultaneous searching and certainty: 
Mormons are admonished to ‘get their own testimonies’ and not live by borrowed light. But immersion in a culture so saturated in the rhetoric of certainty inevitably produces the pressure to express, if not to actually possess, personal conviction; and it produces a socially reinforced confidence about those convictions.

Perhaps this explains in part the proclivity of disaffected Mormons to so frequently react with bitterness and feelings of betrayal. It explains why people can leave the Church but cannot leave it alone.1
Perhaps it also explains why it can be tempting for members to vilify those who actively or aggressively manifest antagonism or even simply doubt toward the Church. McCraney remembers having often heard “local leaders and higher [saying] 'They leave the Church, but they won't leave it alone'" (p. 63).2 He admits to not knowing the original source, but it is commonly said in reference to disaffected Mormons who publish criticism or actively attack their former faith.  It is not true in every case that one who leaves the Church will never thereafter “leave it alone.” Some are perfectly capable of ceasing Church activity without attacking it. Those who can't leave it alone often do so loudly, however. Many of the more vocal apostates can't seem to get over their apostasy. Some feel compelled to warn others about staying in (or becoming involved with) Mormonism. Some actively seek confrontation by ridiculing former friends and church members as McCraney did. The Internet offers a new avenue for apostates both outside and within the Church to anonymously criticize the faith of those who still believe, thus finding support without disclosing their true identity. There are entire online communities, “cyber-wards” of sorts complete with testimony bearing of the falseness of the Mormon cult (or the “Morg” as it is sometimes called) and even general conferences.3

Indeed, at times the feeling of hate is manifest when former believers vent about their former faith. As Eric Hoffer described in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements:
We always look for allies when we hate...Whence come these unreasonable hatreds, and why their unifying effect? They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others- and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. Obviously, the most effective way of doing this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do...Much of our proselytizing consists in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred.4
“Hate” here could easily be replaced with “hurt,” and Latter-day Saints should recognize there are former members who carry real pain resulting from alienation and loss of faith. Some carry the pain quietly, others more vocally. I don’t intended to paint all former Mormons as utterly miserable; some report the feeling of peace and release upon losing their faith, but some understandably continue to emotionally struggle.

Reacting to doubt with hostility, indifference, or accusations of unworthiness can be destructive to  testimonies as well as relationships. In light of how McCraney discusses his own drug and alcohol abuse, he seems to believe some Saints inevitably attribute apostasy to sin. He is quick to explain at the outset of the book that in presenting such an “unadulterated expose” he risks “jeopardizing the small amount of credibility more anonymous authors generally enjoy.” However, he emphasizes, the book includes these details in order to demonstrate that his spiritually-unfulfilled condition was the result of Latter-day Saint beliefs, which “produce religious people who may not have any idea what it means to really know, love, worship, or serve God” leaving them unhappy and unsaved ("Prologue").

While some Latter-day Saints may hold that those who fall away must have committed, or desire to commit, grievous sin, I believe such a view is too short-sighted. Certainly there is scriptural precedence affirming that various sins can lead to apostasy,5 but there is also abundant scriptural precedence asserting that, if such were invariably the case, no one would retain a testimony or remain in the Church: “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6), and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin and apostasy is a chicken-or-the-egg argument; the process is generally not an easily traceable, universal, or well-defined sequence.

Nevertheless, McCraney asserts that most Mormons struggle because they cannot live up to the expectations of the gospel. In the next section I will address his concerns for the "suffering Saints."  

Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Oxford University Press, 275. See also David G. Bromley’s The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements.

Apparently the saying was coined by Neal A. Maxwell in his 1979 book All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.), 108. Maxwell repeated the saying elsewhere, including several General Conference addresses (see “The Net Gathers of Every Kind,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, 14; “‘Becometh As a Child’,” Ensign, May 1996, 68; “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Ensign, May 2004, 44). The phrase is often conceptually tied with an account of Joseph Smith asserting that once someone has joined the Church they have left neutral ground forever (see Daniel Tyler, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 15 Aug. 1892, 492). Both the phrase and the story have since received a fair amount of notice in various LDS publications and General Conference addresses. For example, see Hyrum and Helen Andrus, ed., They Knew the Prophet, (1976) 53-55; Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet, (1991) 52-53; Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, (1996), 95; James E. Faust, “Enriching Family Life,” Ensign, May 1983, 40; Glenn L. Pace, “Follow the Prophet,” Ensign, May 1989, 25; Mary Ellen W. Smoot, “Steadfast and Immovable,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 91. For an extended discussion of this phrase, see BHodges, "They leave the Church but can't leave it alone," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, August 25, 2008.

Seth Payne's Sunstone presentation ("Purposeful Strangers: A study of the ex-Mormon Narrative,” 9 August 2008) notes some of the unique vocabulary these online communities have developed. These new phrases and names often reflect a “captivity narrative,” with names like “Reformed Former Mormons,” or using terms like “escaped” or “recovered” (Payne, pp. 2-3). It should also be noted, as Payne’s paper describes, there are unique strains of criticism coming from both secular and sectarian sides. McCraney’s approach is an interesting hybrid of each-- a rigid, fundamentalist approach to the Bible, but a naturalistic more secular approach to the Book of Mormon as an inspiring fiction, and Joseph Smith as a pious fraud rather than an evil and false prophet. 

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper and Row, New York, 1956), p. 88. I was promted to read Hoffer again when McCraney recommended his book several times: “Eric Hoffer, aka, the longshoreman philosopher, wrote an insightful but fairly despairing book titled, The True Believer...I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the psychology of people and their relationships to mass movements. Unfortunately, Hoffer is an atheist and can be quite acerbic in his approach to life...For every page of Hoffer, however, I recommend a chapter or two of the New Testament and some considerable time in earnest prayer” (p. 101, and p. 147 where he places Hoffer's work alongside Niccollo Machiavelli's The Prince and Christ's words in the book of Matthew). Hoffer’s approach is a remarkable and interesting one, especially because it often seems to make the most sense to any given reader in reference to the views of others.

For instance, see Alma 24:30 which states: “And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things” (see also D&C 93:38-39). I believe taking these verses universally is problematic, unless doubt or loss of faith itself is argued to be sin.

June 29, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 4: “The block on which the story was built”

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9

Latter-day Saints do not typically view Martin Luther as simply an “apostate” of Western Catholicism, but rather as a reformer who had some important insights for the faith of Christians.1 Does McCraney likewise offer any insights from which current members may benefit? In part 3 I described an overview of McCraney's account of personal apostasy. In the rest of the review I'd like to focus on some things Latter-day Saints might take away from McCraney's account. This approach was inspired by an account of a conversation with Joseph Smith.

Early Latter-day Saint Jesse W. Crosby recalled a conversation between Smith and a woman who had been offended by gossip spread about her by another member. Joseph reportedly “offered her his method of dealing with such cases for himself. When an enemy had told a scandalous story about him, which had often been done, before he rendered judgment he paused and let his mind run back to the time and place and setting of the story to see if he had not by some unguarded word or act laid the block on which the story was built. If he found that he had done so, he said that in his heart he then forgave his enemy, and felt thankful that he had received warning of a weakness that he had not known he possessed.” The prophet advised the woman to do likewise, and she admitted she believed there was some cause for the story. “Then the prophet told her that in her heart she could forgive that brother who had risked his own good name and her friendship to give her this clearer view of herself.”2

In that spirit, consider McCraney’s account. He believes that by following the guidelines of the Church he would have only appeared to be a good person on the outside, but “I also would never have been satisfied in my relationship to God had I simply plowed along in the soil of accepted LDS ways. Mormonism works for many people, but its operations are really no different than a well oiled corporation or a military operation. I was searching for an all out, life-changing relationship with God that could not be denied. Here Mormonism fails” (p. 70).

Without ignoring McCraney’s agency and personal responsibility, one can conclude that-- in some way-- Mormonism did fail him. The olive tree of the Church is beautiful, but upon close inspection one might see the scars where precious branches were broken off to be burned or grafted elsewhere.3 Despite its shortcomings, I Was a Born-Again Mormon offers Latter-day Saints the opportunity to better understand the feelings of one who left the Church, possible contributing factors to apostasy, and the reactions one might receive in doubting or leaving the Church.

In the last section of the review I discussed McCraney's view of himself as a Martin Luther of sorts for the LDS Church.

Hyrum L. and Helen Mae Andrus, comp., They Knew the Prophet, Bookcraft (1976), 144.

See the fifth chapter of the book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon.