April 25, 2011

Review: Robert L. Millet, "Modern Mormonism: Myths and Realities"

Title: Modern Mormonism: Myths and Realities
Author: Robert L. Millet
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Christian Apologetics
Year: 2011
Pages: 124 + appendix, bibliography, subject index, scripture index
ISBN13: 978–1–58958–127–2
Binding: Softcover
Price: $14.95

"Life is much, much too short to spend our days either attacking those who are different or exhausting our strength and resources defending our own point of view...I have come to know, through both painful and sweet experiences, that building friendships and nurturing relationships is vital in coming to settle doctrinal differences" (99).
So writes Robert L. Millet, who has spent the past decade conversing and writing specifically, though unofficially, with Evangelical Christians about the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While "readily admit[ting] that there are doctrinal differences between Latter-day Saints and more 'traditional' Christians," Millet is troubled by those who claim Mormons are not Christian and hopes for a more "broad and inclusive vision" of Christianity" (xv). In his new book Modern Mormonism: Myths and Realities Millet hopes to model a respectful "Bible based discussion" by approaching eleven "key issues" he has frequently encountered as objections to the LDS faith (xvii).

Millet begins each chapter with a paragraph outlining a "key issue," objections or perceptions from Christians regarding LDS teachings. He then offers various scriptures, quotes, and personal stories in order to clear up misconceptions while scoping common ground for dialog:

"In this short work, I have not dealt with all of the doctrinal differences between traditional Christians and Latter-day Saint Christians but have chosen instead to focus on the critical matters that I feel get at the heart of what it means to be Christian. Virtually anyone can highlight differences and construct walls between faith traditions, but it takes an unusual effort and a heart open to truth to be able to talk calmly and intelligently and respectfully about those differences and even seek to discover areas of agreement" (100).

Millet's emphasis of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the LDS Church is apparent from the two epigraphs preceding the Table of Contents: Joseph Smith's assertion that the "fundamental principles" of the LDS Church concern the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and current Church President Thomas S. Monson's testimony regarding Christ's suffering in Gethsemane and death on the cross. Perhaps to stem the frequent assertion that Mormons are "'changing' their doctrinal views regarding Jesus Christ so as to move more smoothly into mainstream Christianity" (xv) Millet concludes the book with an appendix of "The Testimony of Latter-day Saint Leaders on Jesus Christ," which contains a testimony of Jesus Christ from all sixteen LDS prophets from Smith to Monson.  

Based on the chapter issues the book appears to be directed largely towards an Evangelical Christian audience rather than towards Latter-day Saints: 1. A Finite God, 2. Not Christian, 3. Contradicting the Bible, 4. Feelings, Not Facts, 5. Disdain for Other Churches, 6. Denying the Fall, 7. Ignoring the Cross, 8. Works Righteousness, 9. Universal Salvation, 10. Usurping the Divine Throne, 11. No Eternal Security.

Throughout each chapter he employs LDS scripture and General Authorities to emphasize the Christian elements of Mormonism according to what Evangelicals might look for. (I would quibble with a few of his source descriptions, as when he repeatedly prefaces Lectures on Faith quotes with "Joseph Smith taught," see pp. 13-14, 62, 85, 96, etc.) He often makes use of various other Christian thinkers and groups (C.S. Lewis, Lee M. McDonald, the Fuller Theological Seminary, Craig Blomberg, Max Lucado, etc.) to implicitly argue that differences amongst other Christians signal the appropriateness of including Mormons under the Christian umbrella, and to seek common ground with other Christians.

Translation between these similar-but-distinct worldviews can be a precarious business. Millet employs some vocabulary that will likely fly under the radar for Mormons but stick out prominently for Evangelicals: "It is God's sovereign right to speak beyond what He has spoken already," Millet writes regarding the expanded LDS scripture canon; the word "sovereign" is theologically loaded (22). At times, such language seems to "Evangelize" LDS belief: "Redemption and reconciliation come through the finished work of Jesus the Christ," emphasis on the "finished," which bears directly on various atonement theories (52).

While much of the book speaks to Evangelicals he also directs comments to fellow Latter-day Saints, including a few one-liners responding to frequently-heard LDS proverbs: "What does it mean, therefore, to 'work out [your] own salvation' (Phil. 2:12)? Certainly not to attempt to do it by ourselves...No, it means to pray and trust in the Lord God as though everything depended upon Him, and also to work and labor as though everything depended upon Him!" (71). He also cautions Latter-day Saints about being overconfident, glib, or flip about the faith of other Christians (39-40).

Millet speaks rather representatively regarding Mormon thought as he attempts to outline "to the best of my ability what I believeand more important, what I believe Latter-day Saints believeon certain key issues" (xvii). Thus he has a tendency to overlook internal development or diversity amongst Mormons. For example, while discussing the atonement n the section "Ignoring the Cross," Millet seems to allow for different interpretations of the atonement aside from the penal substitutionary theory, though that seems to be his preferred lens. He does this by noting that "like the rest of the Christian world, [Mormons] cannot rationally comprehend the work of a God...The Atonement, the greatest act of mercy and love in all eternity, though real, is, for now, incomprehensible and unfathomable" (59). He does not explain that many Mormons might understand or describe Mormonism differently than he does. He seems to favor a sort of "common sense" Mormonism which adheres closely to his selected scriptures and General Authority quotes. Quotes from the past from say, Brigham Young or Joseph Smith are used if they support a current view of LDS doctrine, but Millet doesn't spend time going over Mormon developments or alternatives. This might be one reason some Evangelicals have suspected Millet of dissembling.

Perhaps above all, Millet hopes to encourage believers to dialog with charity and respect. He cites the biblical injunction that believers should "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have," but he adds the less-cited remainder of that injunction: "But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15, NIV, emphasis Millet's, p. 99). Millet believes personal relationships built on more than questioning will infuse conversations with more love and concern. He doesn't always succeed (as when he says Mormons "do not worship the Bible," implying that some other religionists do, p. 21) but he makes a very good effort. Especially considering the fact that he faces criticisms from multiple directions; from Evangelicals who see him as covertly Evangelicalizing LDS doctrine to Mormons who see him capitulating to Evangelical categories. He seeks participatory, constructive dialog more than reactive or aggressive response. Whether one agrees with his theology or interpretations, one can still appreciate his cultivation of atmosphere.

In one of his most interesting sections, "Disdain for Other Churches," Millet confronts the common view that Mormons and their leaders teach that "all Christian churches, teachings, pastors, or theologians are false and corrupt" (33). Rather than accounting for the LDS apostasy narrative or acknowledging some of the more aggressive quotes from past leaders, Millet offers conciliatory quotes from assorted General Authorities emphasizing the goodness of other religions. He then makes an argument for the inspiration of non-LDS voices, most prominently that of Billy Graham, whom Millet found to be "a good man, a God-fearing man, a person who had felt called to take the message of Christ to the ends of the earth...I was struggling to control my emotions, sensing profoundly that God had worked wonders through this simple but submissive North Carolina preacher" (35).

This is more than a simple call to be nice to each other. Millet marshals a few LDS leaders to back him up, including Orson F. Whitney, who wrote: "God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, to [sic] arduous for one people" (35-36). Millet believes more is at stake when fellow Christians argue than loss of good feeling: "Far too often we allow doctrinal differences to deter us from fruitful conversation, enlightening discussion, and joint participation in moral causes. This must not be" (36).

This is a theme to which he returns in the conclusion of the book. Millet believes Christians who wrangle about doctrinal minutia risk missing out on common causes to relieve suffering in the world (a theme I'd be interested to see Millet approach more fully):
"If various religious faiths allow doctrinal differences to separate them and if they are thereby unable to marshal their forces against vexing problems in our societymoral and spiritual evils about which there is unquestioned agreementthen Lucifer, the father of lies, will have won a victory. And we will find ourselves grieving over why we allowed prejudices and littleness of soul to prevent us from adorning ourselves in the "whole armor of God" and contending manfully against "principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world" (Eph. 6:11-12)" (100).
Like Millet's other publications, this book is much more devotional than academic. Millet avoids rigorous distinctions and terminological nitpicking. While I believe such things have their place, Millet seems to be trying to improve relations as much–if not moreso–than promoting theological specificity. Mormons might object to his selective use of scripture and General Authority quotations while Evangelicals might take issue with his use of C.S. Lewis or the Early Christian Fathers. But Millet's clear and approachable prose and sensitivity to the possible entanglements of inter-religious dialog are most useful in directing Mormons and Evangelicals towards more reasoned and charitable discussions about their faith.

Citing a poetic/prophetic prayer written by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Millet hopes to encourage humility in the faith of believers who ought to recognize the magnificence of God compared to their own limited visions:

help us not to hide in our churchy words;
when we worship, let us know and feel that there is
        always something new,
something fresh to see of you.
Do not let us forget that you will always have
       more to give us,
more than we could ever guess.
       Amen (101).


the narrator said...

FYI, the book is currently available at Amazon for 25% off.

BHodges said...

the review is currently 35% off.

dltayman said...

Is Millet attempting to defend and explaining a broad 'Mere Mormonism', or are his observations more focused on one specific approach to Mormonism (IE, Highly conservative over a more liberal understanding, etc)?

BHodges said...

Millet doesn't change much regarding how he explicates LDS doctrine in this book compared to his others as far as I'm aware. aquinas would be the one to ask about that, but I don't think he's read this one yet. In his section on the atonement he does seem to allow for different interpretations of the atonement aside from the penal substitutionary theory, though that seems to be his preferred theory. He does this by noting that "like the rest of the Christian world, we cannot rationally comprehend the work of a God...The Atonement, the greatest act of mercy and love in all eternity, though real, is, for now, incomprehensible and unfathomable" (59). Still, he does not explain that many Mormons might understand or describe Mormonism differently, he seems to favor a sort of "common sense" Mormonism which adheres closely to his selected scriptures and GA quotes. A GA quote from the past, BY or JS, etc., is used if it supports a current view of LDS doctrine, but he doesn't spend time going over Mormon developments. This might be one reason some Evangelicals see Millet as dissembling, or not being particular enough in how he describes Mormonism.

Michael Taylor said...

I honestly have a hard time with Millet in general. I feel like he's very well-intentioned and sincere (he at least seemed that way in a conversation I had with him at BYU), but kind of going along with what Blair said, I think he presents a unrealistic picture of Mormonism. By ignoring historical doctrinal developments and diversity of belief within the tradition he puts himself in the tradition of Mormon Theologians who would like to decide every question and create a seamless Mormon theology and then pretend that it was always the only Mormon theology. Additionally, instead of directly answering sincere questions about Mormon theology he often circumvents the real question. Did anyone hear his interview on "Speaking of Faith" for example? Of course it is hugely important to build bridges of understanding while also trying to present our faith in the best light possible (we don't need to stoop to the level of the critics when talking about ourselves), but aren't there better ways of doing this? And if so, what are they?

WVS said...

Millet's approach certainly won't speak to all Evangelicals or all Mormons and both have dark patches that are difficult to reconcile in themselves and with each other. I like that Millet has been making an attempt. And he is right in suggesting that theological jargon/formalisms should take a back seat to common cause, I think. Naturally there will be many who disagree for what they see as solid reasons. Those causes however, may be divisive in themselves perhaps. Not sure how far this goes, but it is interesting. Thanks Blair. Great review as usual.

Thomas Parkin said...

Things that I'd prefer to discuss with Evangelicals than theology: Disneyland, Hockey, cats.

BHodges said...

Hockey cats?

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