Embracing Our Peculiarity

UniverseThere’s a lot of buzz about our missionary work lately. The most obvious change, of course, is the age-requirement, and more specifically in allowing women to serve at 19. More has been written on the possible benefits of this change than I can touch on here, and it’s not my gist anyway. I want to talk about something else: I want to talk about the subtle shift in emphasizing not our unique Mormon-ness, but rather our basic similarities with broader Christendom.

On one hand, the impetus makes sense- we are the church of Jesus Christ- it says so on our name-tags, buildings, temples and all of our printed materials. We worship Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, and we take the Sacrament each Sunday in his name. But here’s the thing- we aren’t like every other Christian church out there, and when we specifically de-emphasize our very unique and substantive differences, we are short-changing ourselves and even the possible converts who are waiting for us.

Finding souls and converting their hearts and lives is the entire impetus of our missionary program. I’m a convert. I’m an adult convert, was married and had a child when I was baptized, and I’ve remained active for more than ten years. I hold a temple recommend and have a testimony- for the sake of argument, let’s say that I’m pretty much the Golden Ticket. I am a Mormon Success Story ™.

But here’s the thing— if the missionaries had spent their time trying to convince me how much like other Christian faiths Mormonism was, I never would have joined. I had looked into dozens of churches in my search, and they left me feeling as though something key, something really important, was lacking. It’s why I didn’t join any of those other churches. I am not assuming everyone is like me, but it’s safe to assume most people who might be entertaining taking the discussions know a little something about Christianity.

The cost of entry to every other Christian church is dramatically less than the cost of entry (and maintenance) of membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If all I was looking for was a belief in grace and in the comfort of Jesus being my Savior, any number of Protestant churches could have satisfied my seeking. It was the unique parts of the Restoration that actually made the rest of what I knew about Christianity finally make sense.

The gospel of progression, of choice and agency from the beginning, the idea of a deeply personal relationship with God the Father, the idea of Eve being a necessary agent of change and not a fool, the Savior being the literal Son of God, an open canon where change is a normal and healthy part of the religion, a cannon where God can still speak to his people, and where life didn’t end (or start) here… Those are the pieces that made the rest of Christendom finally fall into place for me, and made the high cost of joining this church worth it.

Without those things, I could ditch the restrictive clothing, grab an iced mocha and uncork a bottle of Zinfandel for dinner tonight. I could hold onto ten percent more of my earnings, not spend three hours every Sunday in church, and forget about pestering women every month who don’t want me to come by with a message. But… because of what I know, because of what I have experienced at key moments in key places, ditching those parts is simply not an option.

I worry about the people out there who are seeking, like I was. If we focus on ourselves as just another Christian religion and downplay the very vital and significant differences, then the cost of entry to this faith becomes a very real barrier.

Let’s embrace our Mormonism. When we downplay the parts that are different, we run the very real risk of alienating those who have expressed interest in us, making them feel like we pulled a ‘bait & switch’ carnival trick. Converts and those curious are going to find out we’re different. Let’s just own who we are, colorful parts and all. Yeah, it might seem a little odd at first, but what’s more odd is our reluctance to embrace openly our truths. We know we’re peculiar; we don’t need to be coy. We don’t have all the answers- but that’s the beauty of having the windows of heaven flung open…

It’s why I’m raising my children here, and why I wrestle with challenging obstacles and ideas. It’s why I don’t head to Starbucks on Sunday morning, and why my wardrobe looks provincial. It’s what I believe my God expects of me, and it’s why I stay.

Comments

  1. K Eversole says:

    Incredible testimony. Thank you for sharing! :)

  2. David Elliott says:

    Like.

  3. Louise Potter says:

    Love this so much!! Thank you for sharing!!

  4. Justin Williams says:

    Reminds me of Armand Mauss writing about assimilation and entrenchment. The pendulum swings between the desire to be accepted by the mainstream and celebrating what makes us distinct.

  5. Amen!

  6. Excellent post, I agree with you 100%. I love the fact that we aren’t like everyone else, the true church of Christ should stand out from all the others.

  7. Wonderful testimony, Tracy – and I agree with everything you say.

    Having said that, just to add my own perspective:

    1) My daughter is serving a mission right now in Germany – and she is teaching all of the things you mentioned loving so much (every single thing). She isn’t teaching a new, watered down version of Mormonism, different than I taught almost 30 years ago. She is teaching the same concepts and principles – but she can dig in and tailor what she says to each person.

    2) I don’t want our “folklore” taught by the missionaries. I don’t want much of our current culture taught by the missionaries. I want them to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, including the unique aspects of Mormon theology – and they are. I have no quibble whatsoever with the missionary discussions that are in Preach My Gospel that my daughter is teaching – and I absolutely am a bit envious that my kids get to teach in a very different way than I had to when I served and said the same memorized words, in the same order, to every. single. person. I. taught. My daughter gets to rely on the Holy Ghost to help her teach individuals about the Gospel and the Restoration in different ways, not teach the exact same lessons to widely diverse people.

    3) I want all of the unique gems of our theology to be taught in ways that make as much sense as possible to those who are listening – and, often, that can be done better by using Biblical passages they already say they accept than to focus exclusively on the Book of Mormon. Our relationship to our Heavenly Parents is a perfect example. It is rich in the Bible and, essentially, non-existent in the Book of Mormon. Teaching it from the Bible through passages Christians supposedly already accept (even if they don’t understand them) isn’t sacrificing our teachings in any way. In fact, I see it as strengthening and emphasizing those teachings even more than I used to be able to do.

    4) There is a lot of stuff from our past that you, I and most people here don’t want taught. We’ve moved on from much of it, and we all celebrate and thank God for that. Being unique and being similar (and, in some cases, exactly alike) are not mutually exclusive – and I believe it’s worth letting go of some “uniqueness” if, in fact, I believe that those unique things are not eternal and, in some cases, even are damaging and not of God – and I know most people here agree with that. I don’t mind at all much of what we have jettisoned in my lifetime, even as I share your concern that we not jettison what I see as the wonderful aspects of our peculiarity.

    That’s not an easy balance to strike, and it never will be accepted unanimously by our membership, since we all see things slightly (and even radically) differently.

  8. My thoughts exactly. On a number of occasions I have had people ask me, “What makes your religion different than others?” It is a great question and we should all have an answer ready to give. If we feel embarrassed to share what is unique about our beliefs and practices, others will sense that and they will not ask us anymore. People generally respect confidence.

    I had a mission companion who had a rule of thumb, if she was talking with someone about the church and didn’t know what to say next then she would start talking about Joseph Smith. I adopted that myself. I liked how this approach didn’t pander to those we talked to. There is a time and place to build on common ground, but we should never be ashamed to embrace our distinctness.

  9. Also, the first concepts the missionary lessons cover are about Heavenly Father (including that he has a body of flesh and bones) and our relationship to God, prophets, the apostasy, the Restoration, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Jesus and the Atonement, faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, Priesthood, etc. There are more differences than similarities in those lessons.

    Sincere question, since I would like to know how everyone feels about it:

    Exactly what would you want the missionaries to teach that they aren’t teaching now?

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    I agree in part and disagree in part with your well written post.

    I agree that there are unique aspects of our faith that should be emphasized and celebrated (although i am not sure that my list would be the same as yours.). Yet i am grateful for the increaed emphasis on our status as a deeply Christian Church that has a great deal in common with our fellow Christians. When we veer away from a Christo-centric approach to worship, then we rob ourselves of the celebration of the most precious of all religious truths, i.e., the atonement of Christ. Moreover, the heightened focus on Christ allows us to better see Him as our Examplar, a role that refines us in ways that allow us to serve our brothers and sisters with a Christly love. These are, in my humble belief, the essentials, and I for one am grateful for the increased focus on Christ.

  11. “When we veer away from a Christo-centric approach to worship”

    The question is only half answered by emphasizing Christ. The Mormon Christ veers significantly from Orthodox conceptions of Him. The question has to address whether or not the Christ that is taught has salvific power, which is to say one must ask if He really exists as taught. For instance, you could say that Antonio Parr is the name under which we are saved, but if then if you ascribed my personality to Antonio Parr … who exactly would one be believing in? Clearly, both our faith and our knowledge are incomplete, and these two things cannot be separated in order to valorize faith. Part of what we believe may be true, part incomplete, part utter nuttery. Hence faith has to be progressive into increasing truth to have any value, at all. To paraphrase Joseph, ‘they is no saving power in believing in nuttery.’

    One can say “Jesus” until one is blue in the face. Still, ‘many will cry unto Him Lord, Lord … haven’t we done this and that, homed orphans and raised gardens and civilized savages, in your name … then He will profess … you never knew me.’ Correct understanding, one might call it knowledge, precedes saving faith, as is taught in many places. Also, ‘many will say lo here is Christ, or low there. Believe none of them.’ I consider this great advice.

    In short, I appreciate the by now decades old emphasis on Christ, as well. But if true aspects of His nature are lost (by individuals) in the process, well, it surely is at best a mixed bag.

  12. Shouldn’t it be “canon” instead of “cannon,” or am I missing a subtle literary intention?

    In any case, I agree we are peculiar, but I don’t like how that sometimes translates to peculiarity as an end in and of itself. (e.g., “the world” watches TV on Sunday, therefore we won’t)

  13. Antonio Parr says:

    Thomas Parkins wrote:

    ~The Mormon Christ veers significantly from Orthodox conceptions of Him.~

    There are differences, to be sure, but they need not be as significant as you suggest. When I am with my main-line protestant friends, or my Evangelical friends, or my Catholic friends, and when we speak freely of our acknowledged dependancy on Christ as Redeemer, and our shared sense of wonder in Him as the light and life of the world, there is a spirit of unity and worship present that I find very, very satisfying. The divide does not feel so great at all, which I think is a good thing.

    Similarly, when Latter-Day Saints gather together and talk of Christ and rejoice in Christ and teach each other to look to Him as source of our salvation, then there is a sense of unity and worship that lifts me up and helps me to abide in Christ.

    The rest is all incidentals.

  14. Ah, a peculiar people indeed. The son of our ex-stake president stood and bore testimony of casting bullets in his front yard in a very liberal town. Is that peculiar?

  15. But, Thomas, we are a step closer to him than the main liners. He is “our older brother.” The main liners think we are the created, that he is the creator. He and we are different in substance. Does this not give you a little pause when talking to our Christian cousins?

  16. Antonio,

    You’re the problem I was waiting for. Congrats. ;)

  17. Antonio Parr says:

    RW –

    Nope.

    Thomas –

    Glad to oblige!

  18. Great post. We are different and that’s why I’m a member.
    However, in a world that is increasingly atheist and nonreligious, I am finding that I have far more in common with moms in Christian church families than the other adults around me. I have recently had an opportunity to become friends with many active Christian families and since I don’t have many Mormon peers, it is awesome to be able to spend time with people with whom I have so much in common!

  19. Excellent post. I think we should abesolutely embrace the differences as well as the similarities. Course, I also think we should embrace our history, including the parts we don’t like or are embarrased about.

  20. I wasn’t suggesting de-emphasizing Christ- not any time, or anywhere. In fact, I explicitly say we claim (everywhere) to be the Church of Jesus Christ. This is all well and good. But I think we need to be clear that our understanding of who Jesus Christ is is different that the creedal/protestant Christian churches. We are Christian, but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to us that it does to other faiths.

    I don’t at all support the teaching of folk doctrine, pet doctrine or of the conflation of culture with doctrine- and I know even deciding what is “doctrine” in Mormonism is a sticky wicket. (I actually think the taming of folk hobby-horse issues is a good side-effect of Correlation.) However, there are clear and substantive ways in which we are not like other churches, and if we embrace ourselves, it’s a good thing. When we gloss over the things about us that are different, (and we couch it in the ‘milk before meat’ language) it can make a person feel misled.

    The Restoration and the differences it brings are the whole reason *why* I joined this church, and not the countless others I could have chosen.

  21. Really nice post, Tracy. Strong agreement.

  22. melodynew says:

    I love your perspective, Tracy. And that you found truth in this peculiar place. The comments are helpful too, especially the “pendulum” concept. I think this is a legitimate point. But I personally feel our attention to finding similarities between ourselves and other faiths, then making those things known to the rest of the Christian world, serves the same purpose as owning our uniqueness: declaring truth as we understand it. Thanks for writing this.

  23. Angela C says:

    Other Mormon doctrines that are unique and appealing: that God is flesh and bone, that we existed as intelligences with God and agreed to participate in the test of mortality, that we have heavenly parents, that revelation will continue to evolve our doctrine as we understand more, that people worshipped Christ anciently before he atoned, that we are entitled to personal revelation, that families are sealed to each other and the human race, that God is an exalted man, that we can become exalted like god. Many of these things are woven in to the lessons, but when we align too much with the evangelicals we are selling ourselves short and not fooling them anyway.

  24. Amen, Tracy. I agree with every word of your last comment, as well.

    “when we align too much with the evangelicals we are selling ourselves short and not fooling them anyway.”

    That is my main concern, as well. With my own perspective, if we are highlighting our similarities with the more mainline Protestant denominations, I don’t mind – since I see almost all of those similarities as theological in nature; if we are highlighting our similarities with evangelical denominations, I do mind – since I see almost all of those as cultural and, in too many cases, in opposition to our unique theology and the Gospel of Jesus Christ I read in the descriptions of his ministry.

  25. Antonio Parr says:

    Angela:

    Respectfully, much of what you refer to is foreign to readers of the Bible and the Book of Mormon and modern General Conference addresses. As such, one must wonder how essential they are to our salvation.

    My personal hunger is to be a part of what Christ was saying and doing while he walked this earth, and, to that end, I feel that His teachings during His mortal ministry, found in the Bible, as well as the Book of Mormon’s unabashed celebration of Him and His atonement, are where we should be focusing our time and attention.

    (I am not suggesting that we should be trying to somehow morph ourselves into modern evangelical culture, which, although has much that is wonderful, often misses the mark when it comes to recognizing that the call to Christ is a call to discipleship, something that our Church emphasizes with such beauty and devotion. I am also not suggesting that any of the authors of prior posts in this thread do not stand for Christ. Since this post touches on the focus of our teachings, I simply wanted to add my .02 with respect to my own preference and priorities.)

  26. Antonio Parr says:

    And by way of postscript, I agree that there is much that is unique about Mormonism that we should celebrate and shout from the rooftops, not the least of which is the Plan of Salvation, something in which I find great comfort and inspiration.

  27. Cool post.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    In my GD class today we talked about what a scandal the Vision with its three degrees of glory was at the time it was revealed, but also how appealing and compelling it is, encompassing the merciful aspects of Universalism but, by positing multiple heavens instead of just one, solving the problem of a need for atonement and the perceived need for a motivation for humans to lead a moral life. Frankly, I think it’s brilliant.

  29. “Respectfully, much of what you refer to is foreign to readers of the Bible and the Book of Mormon and modern General Conference addresses. As such, one must wonder how essential they are to our salvation. ”

    What you are really referring to here is a heavily Christianized interpretation of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and the frankly appalling lack of vision and imagination that characterizes the majority of what we get in General Conference. Furthermore, your argument is strangely focused in the present. In the future, when a different set of ideas are communicated in General Conference, what will be the status of the ideas that are emphasized now? Or, do you believe that the church has reached a kind of pitch perfect historical moment that cannot be exceeded? That all change to this point has been learning, but all change past this point must be apostasy?

    What is essential to our salvation is that we learn. Joseph: ‘man is saved only as fast as he obtains knowledge.’ We often try to distinguish understanding and apostasy as if they sat at two ends of a single line. In fact, they occur simultaneously. The church is perpetually apostatizing, even as it learns. The trick is in finding grounds on which to measure which is happening on any given point at any given time.

  30. Kevin, I wish I could have been in that lesson. You must be an exemplary teacher, and I share your opinion on the brilliance.

  31. Antonio Parr says:

    Sorry, Thomas, but I disagree. What is essential to our salvation is that we ~love~.

    By this shall men know ye are my disciples … Unto the least of these … As I have loved you, love one another … Greater love hath no man … For God so loved the world …

    Etc.

    That is the Gospel, and that is why we should talk of Christ and rejoice in Christ and teach our children of Christ, all with a fervor and passion as if our very lives depend on Him, which, of course, they do.

  32. Being able to love as God loves is the end result of a long line of learning that culminates in love. Think of the metaphor of the Iron Rod and the Tree of Life. The ability to love doesn’t happen just because one tries to love, talks about love, or says Jesus loves a lot. It is a gift, but one we that are not prepared to receive. We glimpse it, at times, nothing more. It doesn’t happen only because one serves. It requires a very difficult process that involves things like facing truth (reality), It expressly has nothing to do with religious strategies for avoiding knowledge.

  33. Oh Thomas, in my life, that had been so very, very true. Difficult to realize and learn, but so critically and vitally important.

  34. Geoff - A says:

    I agree with the original post. I have another question about the missionary approach. Missionaries in our home regularly promise we will have answers to prayer.

    When you read the histories of some of the prophets, for example David O Mckay did not receive a confirmation that this was the Church of Jesus Christ until near the end of his mission, others I’ve read not until they were about to be called as apostles, and yet the missionaries are promising people they will have their answer here and now.

    I have prayed for years for that confirmation, while being a faithful member. How many people turn away because they do not get the here and now answer they are promised?

  35. I wonder if part of this tension is the difference between public affairs and missionary work. Public affairs emphasizes any positive media, which, naturally tends to emphasize cooperation and partnering with other churches, and naturally, will create a sense of emphasis on similarities. But the emphasis on similarities described in the OP does not, in my experience, come from the missionaries, which is why I found the comments a bit puzzling that if the missionaries had emphasized sameness, the OP may not have been as interested. I find it puzzling because I don’t see the missionaries doing that now. Maybe this is a case of regional differences between missions?

  36. Publius says:

    Only Mormons can love as God loves? Yes, that’s certainly going to be a doctrine peculiar to the Mormons (if it is, in fact, doctrine). Should we put it in the first discussion? Maybe we could license the rights to “No One Can Love You Better Than Me” from Eric Woolfson’s estate for our next media blitz.

  37. Excellent post, Tracy. It reminds me of a talk given several years ago by our ward mission leader, where he asked us what sort of people we were most likely to share the gospel with–what sort of people we thought would “make good Mormons”–and he pointed out that we overlook a lot of people because they are so different from us culturally. The people who we think look like that would “make good Mormons” but are happy in their Christian church are actually pretty unlikely to want to become Mormons. It’s people who are looking for something different who we have most to offer to.

  38. Publius, since nobody here has made that claim . . . Seriously bad misreading of comments going on there.

    Amen, madhousewife. I believe the worst part of “member missionary work” tends to be the insular reach of such work – thye tendency of members to want to hunt with a rifle (find the perfect investigator) instead of fishing with a net (cast a net into the water and follow up with whoever is interested, regardless of who that is – and cast the net into water not being fished by every other member). The worst part of claims that missionaries should be doing nothing but service and not doing “finding activities” (like knocking on doors, as inefficient and hard as that is) is that those actions often are the only way some people can hear about the Church, since most members aren’t going to reach them in some way.

    We need to see everyone as an important, valuable child of God and be willing to get to know them well enough to know what they need – and I am nowhere near that standard.

  39. Amen, Sister! I hear you loud and clear. It’s the unique things about the LDS church that keep me coming back for more. I believe one of the central issues is PRIESTHOOD ORDINANCES. We’ve got a fulness of restored priesthood power to revive and keep the ordinances alive. It’s exciting to find ways that we connect with good people across the globe; in addition to this, it’s our uniqueness & peculiarity (segullah) that sets us apart and welcomes the world in.

  40. zbbrown2000 says:

    The high school I attended in the 90s was right across the street from a large mormon church, and a number of my friends attended there. While an undergraduate, I rented a room from a friend who had converted to mormonism (he married a byu graduate, the misssionaries were frequently over, and other congregation members were over at times as well). I would go to worship services and other church activities from time to time. Also, I’ve served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the army has this bizarre and demoralizing practice called the ‘battle buddy’ system. For six months of basic training and subsequent vocational training, I could go nowhere without a fellow lower-enlisted soldier. This practice was maintained during two years of deployed soldiering life as well. My heart goes eternally out to mormons on mission. Given that I have such extensive experience with being around so many members of the church and rarely attending actual worship services, practicing the rituals, or believing the doctrine, I might as well be a fourth generation LDS member. I’ve actually been a member of the Baha’i Faith for over a decade, and the same generalizations can be made about the baha’i faith community can be made as well (excluding the battle buddy system).

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