April 27, 2011

Review: Jonathan Wright: "Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church"

Title: Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church
Author: Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Christian History
Year: 2011
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 9780151013876
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $28.00

Jonathan Wright believes the majority of modern folks in the western world are less likely than ever to believe "religious heresy" exists as something worthy of pursuing. Belief in heresy, he says, is today's heresy; a theological no-no in a pluralistic society. Without lamenting the lack of literal witch hunts, Wright fears we might forget "the creative role that heresy has played" in the history of Christianity. "Oddly, heresy was one of the best things that ever happened to orthodox Christianity" (8). To keep the (metaphorical) flame of heresy alive, Wright "utilize[s] the history of heresy as an extraordinary prism. It shows us what happens when a fledgling, persecuted faith turns into a politically sanctioned, world-girdling religion; it takes us deep inside the engine rooms of Christian power; and, above all else, it reveals just how fascinating, supple, and boisterous Christianity has been" (12).

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is a "primer" on the subject of religious-dynamism-through-heresy. Wright has a doctorate in history from Oxford University but wrote this book for a popular audience. Here he forgoes meticulous source-grinding in favor of an entertaining, sweeping narrative containing stories of various heretics and their followers from the time of the early Christian Church up until (approximately) Vatican II in the 1960s.

At the same time Wright hopes to dispatch some popular (though historically useful) myths. Above all he counters those who "construct a narrative of heresy populated by heroes and villains: the nasty, ingenuity-smiting church versus the plucky, freethinking heretics" (9). A closer look at the records, he says, cautions us against this simple vision of brave freethinkers who stood courageously against tyrannical ecclesiastical authorities. It prevents us from passing "Olympian judgments" on the past (296). By showing the historical situatedness of various heresies we might be more cautious with our own accusations.

Beginning with the growth of Gnosticism in the early Church the book follows various individuals and movements deemed heretical by the emerging consensus of Christian authority.

Early Heretics:
Wright bypasses the eminently contestable origins of the Christian movement and begins his tale of heresy in the time of Ignatius, who was martyred about 107 C.E. Ignatius's letters to the disparate Christian communities shortly before his martyrdom consistently call for unity amongst believers, "that you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same concerning the same thing...Use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different ind: I mean heresy" (15). But the idea that one unified Christianity arose with a single, self-evident Xtian message is a distortion. "The period of the early Church was actually one of the most befuddled and contested in Christianity's history" (17). Two "heretical" groups, the Gnostics and Marcionites, call into question the smooth unity.

Marcion posited an evil creator god who created the fallen world and a good god who sought to save it (23). This was similar to the varying views of so-called Gnostics, a group which Wright qualifies as non-distinct  (29). The views they promulgated and the responses they received demonstrate the power of imagination and syncretism in constructing or defining heresy. Wright sees heresy in this context as more a convenient construct since believers were still working through beliefs.

As is common throughout the book, Wright follows these and other stories with a historiological meta-discussion of sorts, discussing how various historians have viewed these developments. Different views emerged, from the "imposition" of orthodoxy by the emerging Church, to the view that a "nascent orthodoxy" emerged as truth kept winning out over error over time (45). 

Church and State:
This story became more complicated once Christianity merged with Rome under Constantine and heresy took on a whole new potency: it became a political as well as religious crime (49). Laws were being constructed, such as the Theodosian Code, whereby heretics might be beaten, fined, or judged insane (56). Unsolved mysteries, like the identity of Christ (human or divine?) were hashed out in councils where compromises were reached and outliers were labeled as heretics. A "political mechanism for responding to heresy, for imposing religious conformity" was developed, and this was "bad news for heresy" (67).

Several questions emerge which Wright hears echoing down the years of Christian history. 

First, was it right to coerce faith? In the wake of complaints by Donatists who did not appreciate the church/state merger and objected to the use of force to compel orthodoxy, Augustine responded that the rules and enforcement were proper because "The rules which seemed to be opposed to them are in reality their truest friends" (75). Wright fails to hone in on the debate between proper belief and proper action (doxy/praxis) but he points to the question that bothered many of the faithful: What of the good heretic? "God intentionally allowed such men to lapse into heresy in order to test the resolve of the faithful" (79). 

The second recurring theme is the way believers hedged about the blind spots: beware the weaknesses of human understanding versus the incomprehensible majesty of God. Pride would be the sin of the heretic. 

The third thorny issue became even more vital when it was tied to state power and social cohesion: what beliefs make one a Christian? (5) "There were those who sought to limit the number of essential Christian doctrines and practices," and Wright even reminds us of the handy term for this move: adiaphora (10). 

Throughout these tumultuous times Wright sees heretics as crucial to Christianity. Heretics "proposed alternative ideas about the nature of God, Christ, mankind, and the church. The articulation of such alternatives was what made heresy seem so dangerous" but it "compelled the leaders of the earliest Christianity to clarify and enforce their vision...Christianity needed its heretics every bit as much as it needed its saints and martyrs" (80). He also reminds readers that oftentimes the ecclesiastical establishment would rather reclaim the heretic than lose them: "From the perspective of the ecclesiastical establishment, to kill a heretic was to fail" (2). 

The Balance:
Wright follows this pattern through the rest of the book, introducing readers to colorful heretics from medieval times through the emergence of Protestantism, to Enlightenment philosophy and the emergence of the idea that humans have an individual right to believe what they believe (which he sees as the result of long-standing pragmatism as opposed to emerging as a virtue in and of itself). Oftentimes the heretics would turn the same charges on others just as happily (as is the case with Luther and Calvin). He also underscores the idea that being labeled orthodox or heterodox sometimes depended on the historical circumstances and chance, as when Francis of Assisi received ecclesiastical approval for ideas very similar to his near-contemporary Peter Waldo, consigned to the category of heretic (294). 

Wright also points out the constructive, if inaccurate, use believers have made of history, especially during the so-called Reformation when Protestant thinkers pointed to heretics of bygone ages as the keepers of the true Christian flame, their birthright as opposed to the fallen official Church. In the face of such self-supporting histories along comes Wright, who invokes that hated opponent of ideological history warriors: nuance. That same tool is used in discussing our great Pilgrim forefathers who sought, not universal religious freedom, but their own freedom of religion even to exclude heretics. John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Jefferson, Madison, Quakers, and Baptists, Mormons and Catholics, Emerson and Thomas Parker, Catholic modernists and Vatican II all play a part in the concluding narrative of "American Heresy" and "The Polite Centuries" in Wright's concluding chapters. In these latter years heresy still exists, but now it warrants "harsh words, the arched eyebrow aimed at a theological adversary, perhaps the loss of academic tenure" (289).  Largely gone in many parts of the world are the mass book-burnings and capital punishments. Eventually, what Wright calls "ecumenicism of everyday relations," helped prompt more rigorous philosophical defenses of toleration (225). 

Modern Times:
Today we're more ready to remember the "cruelties and crusades" depicting the worst excesses of religion in the face of heresy Wright notes, but we ought not forget the "cathedrals and cantatas" produced by heresy as well (294). While other better narratives on individual heretics may be available compared to his book, Wright indicates the motive behind his construction: "The history of Christian heresy should make us think long and hard about how human beings construct their belief systems and how they react to those with whom they disagree. It should make us interrogate our ways of analyzing that process. It should be a battlefield and no one should emerge unscathed, and that includes me" (295, emphasis Wright's). The excess, he notes, is not the whole story. "Confronting the past on its own terms is much more difficult, but a little humility goes a long way" (296).

Thus, because heresy is dynamic and can ultimately be constructive, Wright concludes the book with a call to embrace its existence: "We should have a few heretics and purveyors of orthodoxy in our lives, and we should relish the possibility of being a heretical or orthodox thorn in someone else's side...in the places that really matter" (302). "So yes, please, send in the heretics. Don't bother. They're here" (302). In this brave call I think Wright overlooks some of the real heartache felt by some of today's perceived heretics, as when a family breaks apart or a friend is lost. He also overlooks still-existent extremism that results in real violence in the world (although his story demonstrates how heresy and social/political considerations often go hand in hand—a welcome but unexplicated corrective to those who don't understand why a derogatory cartoon can spark violence). Wright calls for further comparative studies looking at Islam, Judaism, and an even deeper look at various Christianities (293). I would add that another study could explore how "heresy" has shifted to the university, workplace, and even the political sphere. His limited use of Mormonism—to juxtapose the American ideals of religious liberty with the reality of on-the-ground persecutions—shows the sometimes-problematic nature of such a sweeping, popular overview. After describing the Missouri extermination order he ends on an unfootnoted ominous phrase: "more tragic still, the Mormons themselves proved more than capable of inflicting violent outrages on their opponents" (275).  

Above all, Wright's book of poignant tales, rafts of caveats, and confusing and difficult theological disagreements is a polemic against quiet conformity and authoritarian squashing. "What we should avoid [in thinking of heresy] is any concept of an ethically nourishing, millennia-long moral conflict in which individual freedom was pitted against authoritarian repression. The terms of such a narrative (and the outrage it provokes) are our own. If we adopt it, we run the risk of promoting an unhelpfully triumphalist perspective in which our moral assumptions (every bit as contingent and historically determined as those of our forebears) are mistaken for superior inevitabilities: stupid old them, we might say, and wonderfully evolved new us. This really won't do" (11-12).

If you're looking for an easy story of heroes and villains or good versus evil, you won't find it in Wright's book. You might find a little bit of both in yourself as you read, though. That's what really makes this book worth reading.

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).