Years ago the following quiz used to run in Writer’s Digest:
Which of these is wrong?
1. Eating raw chicken.
2. Dating your sister.
4. All of the above.
The quiz was an ad taken out by the Rollerblade company, reminding writers—both journalists and fictional story-scribblers—that Rollerblade was a brand name, not a generic term for in-line roller skates. It was a specific type of inline skate—namely, the type that was made by Rollerblade. “Rollerblade” was a registered trademark, a descriptor that should always be capitalized and followed by the generic referent “in-line skate,” and must never, ever be used as a verb. Did they mention that it was copyright protected? Well, it was. And is. They could still be running the same ad today, for all I know.
In business, brand-name matters, which is why companies take great pains to protect their trademarked names and slogans from casual misuse by writers, in the hope that such meticulous attention to detail will not be lost on the notoriously careless public, who routinely refer to all sweetened carbonated beverages as “cokes.” ::Shudder:: Kleenex says “bless you” for always remembering to say “Kleenex tissues.” Bic reminds us that there is no h in Wite-Out correction fluid. Some might say, “What’s the big deal, if Rollerblade becomes the generic for in-line skates? It just shows that they dominate the market.” But that’s not the point. The point is that Rollerblade wants to be the first name in in-line skating gear. It does not want some other company to become the first name in “rollerblading.”
Ask the makers of Aspirin, Cellophane, Thermos and Zipper what it means to have your trademark genericized. They will probably tell you it feels a lot like dating your sister.
Which brings me to the word “Christian.” Obviously, Jesus had already ascended into heaven when “Christian” was coined as a term for followers of Christ. No “inventor” of Christianity bothered to register it as a trademark because a) there weren’t any trademark registries in those days and b) it would have seemed kind of obvious back then that you either believed that Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ, was the promised Messiah and savior of the world, or you didn’t. What was to be confused about?
That’s essentially the position most Mormons take today. If you believe salvation comes through Jesus Christ, that makes you a Christian. QED. This definition of Christian is also good enough for most non-Christians. If a Muslim or Hindu casually asks you in conversation if you are a Christian, he is not asking for any more detail than whether or not you consider Jesus your savior. He doesn’t need to know if you believe in the Nicene Creed or which books of the Bible you consider canonical. It is as if he walked up to you and said, “Excuse me, I just got a paper cut. Do you have a Band-Aid?” You would not probably not reply, “Oh, sorry, I only have a Curad. Wait, I might have a Band-Aid in my other bag. No, sorry, that’s a 3M. I think there’s a Walgreens on the next block. They probably have Band-Aids.” No, that would be silly. The man wants an adhesive bandage. The likelihood of him having a specific preference, particularly in this situation, is slim. The Band-Aid company will not be happy, but they never need to know.
On the other hand, if an evangelical Christian asks you, casually or otherwise, if you are a Christian, he may very well be asking for more specific information than whether or not you consider Jesus your savior. Let us say that someone asks you for corn flakes, and you give them a box of Post Toasties. Those of unsophisticated palate don’t recognize a difference between Post Toasties and Kelloggs Corn Flakes. Some recognize the difference but don’t find it substantive enough to form a preference for one over the other. Others consider the Kelloggs brand the One True Corn Flake. Others of a more perverse bent actually prefer Post Toasties. The point is, you can’t just assume that Post Toasties will do when the requirement is “corn flakes.” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. You have to understand what the individual means by the term “corn flakes.”
When an evangelical Christian asks you if you are a Christian, he is not only asking whether you believe salvation comes through Jesus Christ but also whether you affirm specific doctrines concerning the Trinity and the nature of Christ. If you know what the heck he is talking about—and what your religion teaches–you will probably not be able to answer his question in the affirmative. This seems unfair from the Mormon perspective. After all, we believe that Jesus is divine, that his atoning sacrifice is the only means by which humankind can be saved, that following his teachings is the way to be happy—seriously, if that doesn’t make us Christians, then what are we? But from the evangelical (and other orthodox Christian) perspective, “Christian” is more particularly defined, and to accept the broader definition that Mormons (and some other people who don’t care so much about particular creeds and stuff) is to render the term less meaningful. They are trying to protect the brand name, even if they don’t have a registered trademark.
Is it fair to call Mormonism the Post Toasties of Christianity? Is it okay to call Post Toasties “corn flakes”? These are the issues that try our times.
If you’re having difficulty with an analogy that requires you to empathize with corporate America, let’s consider a more vulnerable class of people, the Jews. “Jewish” is both a religious and ethnic descriptor. You can convert to Judaism and thereby become Jewish, or you can be descended from Hebrews and be Jewish by default. Where it gets tricky is when you’re Jewish and convert to Christianity. Generally speaking, Jews aren’t keen on “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jews” representing themselves as Jewish when they are really Christian. This seems unfair to the Jew for Jesus, as his ethnic heritage hasn’t been altered by his religious belief, and also to the Messianic Jew, who keeps the Jewish law and probably feels he is at least as entitled to be a Jew as that Bernie Leibowitz cat who eats bacon for breakfast every morning and helps his shiksa wife put up the Christmas tree each December.
It’s telling, however, that even a person like Michael Medved, who generally believes in calling people by the appellation they have chosen for themselves (even to the point that he calls Mormons “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” God bless him), seems, as an orthodox Jew, to bristle at the term “Messianic Jew.” Jews have historically been defined—and persecuted—on the basis of being “not Christian”; is it therefore any wonder that they take exception to people who emphasize their Jewishness to the point of omitting a most salient fact of their identity that separates them from “traditional” Jews, i.e. their Christianity?
I didn’t come up with this Jews for Jesus: Jews:: Mormons: Christians analogy. I heard it from Dennis Prager, who is Jewish and doesn’t necessarily hold that it’s a perfect analogy, only that it seems to accurately reflect the way Christians view Mormons, as appropriating a term that is arguably misleading, given the substantial differences between our religion and theirs.
It’s foolish to argue that the differences between Mormonism (or, if you prefer, “Christianity as understood and practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) and normative Christianity are insubstantial. If that were the case, we wouldn’t require already-baptized Christians (of the normative Christian tradition) to be rebaptized when they joined our church. If the differences are enough to require a whole ordinance, perhaps they’re also enough to require a change of terminology.
The problem is that when Christians demand that Mormons stop describing themselves as “Christian,” they leave us with no good way to acknowledge what is at the core of our theology, which is—sorry, Christians—Christ’s atoning sacrifice. All of the weirdness—the pre-mortal existence, the three distinct (and physical) personages of the Godhead, boy prophets digging up gold plates in the woods, strange and mysterious undergarments—none of it means anything without Christ. None of it has ever meant anything without Christ. So when someone asks us, “Are you a Christian?” what should we say? “No”? Really? Or “Yes, but…”? But what? “But I belong to a cult of Christianity?” I don’t see that tripping off the tongue either.
Perhaps, we might argue, since it’s those “traditional” Christians who want to restrict the definition of Christianity, it should be incumbent upon them to use the modifiers. But I for one don’t object to using a modifier myself. I’ll happily refer to myself as, say, a “Mormon Christian.” (Heaven knows it’s a heckuva lot less cumbersome than “member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which wears me out just typing it). I mean, maybe I don’t want unsuspecting persons assuming that I believe in the Trinitarian God, either. (Harumph!)
How long have Mormons been trying to convince the rest of the world that we’re a Christian religion? Putting Jesus on the cover of the Book of Mormon hasn’t worked. Enlarging a portion of our logo hasn’t worked. Acting perplexed about the whole issue (“What? Didn’t you notice the big JESUS CHRIST in our name?”) hasn’t worked. The reason none of it has worked is that none of it has addressed the real problem that Christians have with Mormons, which is that we don’t believe the same things they do about the nature of God. These are differences that can’t be reconciled because we ourselves don’t want to reconcile them. If we did reconcile them, we would cease to be Mormons. So why are we knocking ourselves out to get other people to change their definition of “Christian” to accommodate us? I think the last thing we want is to be seen as indistinct from traditional Christianity. So why should we not at long last surrender and re-emphasize those differences? It should pacify those evangelicals who wish to protect the Christianity (TM) brand and simultaneously serve as a big “Suck it, haters!” to those who think we’re trying to steal their identity when we’re really only trying to steal their converts.
Q. Are you a Christian?
A. Yes, I am a non-traditional/restorationist/non-conformist Christian. Please note that I am not, repeat, NOT an evangelical Christian. (I mean, they’re nice people and all, but their beliefs are seriously messed-up.)
Are you feeling me?
I solicit suggestions for our new modifier(s) from Mormon and non-Mormon Christians alike.