Book Review: Richard J. Mouw’s Talking With Mormons

cover mouwLast week, popular Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias returned to Salt Lake City to address Mormons and other Christians from the Tabernacle pulpit. Back in 2004, Zacharias’s historic Tabernacle address was overshadowed in the news by Richard Mouw’s controversial introductory remarks. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, issued an apology to Mormons on behalf of evangelicals who he said had sinned against Mormonism by misrepresenting their beliefs and practices. Over the past decade, the evangelical (Calvinist) Christian has continued to dialog with various Mormons in order to promote better interfaith relationships. During the last two presidential elections he became one of the many go-to sources for news outlets seeking soundbites on evangelical views of Mormonism. He’s taken a lot of heat for this within his religious community–early on being told that he didn’t know Mormons well enough and so would easily be deceived by them, later being told he had become too close to Mormons to have a clear view of their dangerous heresies.

His new book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is an effort to educate the evangelical community about his ongoing work with Mormonism.  

As suggested in his 2004 apology, Mouw believes the atmosphere of Mormon/Evangelical interaction has too often been toxic and infused with polemical pollutants. He hopes to clear the air by example. The book is largely conversational; Mouw says deep theological engagements aren’t the focus of this volume. Instead, he describes his interactions with several prominent Mormons–from BYU professors to an apostle–and exhibits some of the fruits of these discussions. The bulk of the book tackles three questions evangelicals frequently raise about Mormon perspectives: Whether they believe in the “same Jesus,” what they believe about the authority of the Bible, and what is the role of Joseph Smith as a claimed prophet. He argues that these examples suggest that the divide between Mormons and evangelicals may not be as wide as they think. Perhaps the book’s most repeated plea is for evangelicals to cease entering the conversation believing they already understand what Mormons believe.

Even though the book is framed as an invitation to evangelicals, Mouw makes his motivation clear by affirming his desire to change Mormonism to align more closely with his own Calvinist perspective; it’s evident he does not see a need for evangelicals like himself to adjust their own theological perspectives in exchange. The main “invitation” here is for evangelicals to first seek to understand Mormonism more fully, and second, to help shift Mormon views closer to those of evangelical Calvinists. How can they accommodate this shift? Although Mouw frequently employs confrontational warfare imagery in his description of the ongoing dialog, he encourages evangelicals to try harder to understand the religious impulses of Mormons themselves, to understand how they respond to “the hopes and fears of all the years”—common human concerns:

The shift here is from an agenda shaped by the question ‘How do we keep them from taking over our world?’ to one that emerges when we ask ‘What is it about their teachings that speaks to what they understand to be their deepest human needs and yearnings?’ (80).

Doing so will allow evangelicals to offer alternate perspectives, or to encourage a shift in Mormon emphasis, toward a Calvinist model of faith that focuses on the sovereignty of God and the utter depravity of humans.

Mormons will probably benefit most from Mouw’s comparison of Mormonism’s open canon to the function of creeds in Protestantism and the magisterium of Catholicism. (There is much to chew on in this section that I can’t cover in a review.) Evangelicals may benefit most from Mouw’s plea to recognize the possibility that “a person can fall far short of a robust theological orthodoxy and still be in a genuine relationship with Jesus” (99). He goes as far as suggesting that evangelicals can, if they look for it, discover “revealed truths” in Mormon scripture and teachings, but stops short by affirming such truths will not give correction to, but only affirm, things evangelicals already believe (79-80). He tries to overcome the age-old “prophet puzzle” of whether Joseph Smith was a liar, lunatic, or prophet, by imploring evangelicals to focus on the “content” of Smith’s teachings as opposed to scrutinizing his character (79). This means Smith might have taught some inspired things evangelicals could appreciate. Mouw recognizes this is not the most popular position to take toward Mormonism. He even explicitly avoids naming names on his Acknowledgements page because he doesn’t want to incriminate people who might be viewed with suspicion for sympathizing with a Mormon sympathizer. He also issues frequent reminders that he has serious non-negotiable disagreements with Mormon theology.

Will Mouw’s project be successful in terms of changing Mormonism? He paints a picture for evangelicals of what he sees as Mormonism’s increasing internal diversity on theological matters. He believes this diversity will result in a “Nicene moment” when theological boundaries will have to be set more firmly by the Church’s leadership, and he hopes his proximity to the Mormons will really pay off at that point (60). If this particular scenario seems a bit far-fetched, Mouw’s sincere apology on behalf of evangelicals for misrepresenting Mormon beliefs and his effort to understand Mormons on their own terms will hopefully encourage evangelicals to be more careful in their discussions about Mormonism, as well as encourage Mormons to return the charitable favor.

____________________________________________

(See also BYU law professor and evangelical Christian David Dominguez’s interesting review of the book in BYU Studies here.)

Comments

  1. Mouw had a great comment about authority and Mormonism in BYUS a while back.

    “It is important to underscore here the way in which the Mormon restoration of these ancient offices and practices resulted in a very significant departure from the classical Protestant understanding of religious authority. The subtlety of the issues at stake here is often missed by us Evangelicals, with the result that we typically get sidetracked in our efforts to understand our basic disagreements with Mormon thought. We often proceed as if the central authority issue to debate with Mormons has to do with the question of which authoritative texts ought to guide us in understanding the basic issues of life. We Evangelicals accept the Bible alone as our infallible guide while, we point out, the Latter-day Saints add another set of writings, those that comprise the Book of Mormon, along with the records of additional Church teachings to the canon- we classic Protestants are people of the Book while Mormons are people of the Books.
    This way of getting at the nature of our differences really does not take us very far into exploring some of our basic disagreements. What we also need to see is that in restoring some features of Old Testament Israel, Mormonism has also restored the kinds of authority patterns that guided the life of Israel. The old Testament people of God were not a people of the Book as such- mainly because for most of their history, there was no completed Book. Ancient Israel was guided by an open canon [of scripture] and the leadership of the prophets. And it is precisely this pattern of communal authority that Mormonism restored. Evangelicals may insist that Mormonism has too many books. But the proper Mormon response is that even these Books are not enough to give authoritative guidance to the present-day community of the faithful.The books themselves are products of a prophetic office, an office that has been reinstituted in these latter days. People fail to discern the full will of God if they do not live their lives in the anticipation that they will receive new revealed teachings under the authority of the living prophets. – Richard Mouw, “What does God think about America?” BYU Studies, 43:4 (2004): 10-11.

  2. Also, thanks for the review!

  3. I enjoy your reviews, Blair. Thanks.

  4. Ben, he makes the same point about authority on pp. 62-63 and thereabouts. It’s a strong articulation and he doesn’t spend time pushing back against it, he leaves it as is.

  5. European Saint says:

    Thank you for the excellent review, Blair. I was pleased with the vast majority of quotes I saw from Mouw during the Romney campaign(s).

  6. Meldrum the Less says:

    We Mormons are not exactly people of the Books. We are really people of the Prophet. He can change the meaning and the interpretation of the Books. This is not a minor point of defining which Books to include. This is fundamental and drives Biblical literalists and wild. It is incorrect to imply that a passage in the D&C is going to trump the living Q. of the 12.

    We have an unfair advantage over the evangelicals. Their agenda is to bring people to Christ, now go join whatever church you want, within reason. All we have to do is convince them that we are genuine Christians, (at which we often fail), then we should be fine by them.

    But our agenda is nothing less than converting all of them and thus destroying them as a movement (and saving their souls). We will accept nothing less in the end. They can never come to complete peace with us unless we move away from Mormon exclusivity and concede their path may also lead to heaven.

    As far as tools and tactics go, such as better music, prayers, sermons, lessons, and youth programs, etc., the evangelicals have much we could emulate to our betterment. Correlation set us back about 50 years in this area and it is not trivial.

  7. Thanks Blair. Always good.

  8. I like that this conversation is happening, and that there is a general thrust to understand one another, rather than only to change. As always, your reviews are stellar, BH.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Great review of what sounds like a pretty interesting book. Interesting bit about the possibility of a great Mormon council,

  10. Christian J says:

    Blair, this is a great summary. Thanks. You hinted at this a bit, but I think intends to be a conversation among Evangelicals – with the hopes that Mormons will eavesdrop. In other words, “our goal is still Orthodox Christianity, but our approach is not only divisive and dishonest, its hugely unproductive.”

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the review.

  12. Thanks for the review. I have been a part of this dialogue process and have watched things from afar too with the positives as well as the controversy. I wrote a brief review of this for Fuller Seminary’s “Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue” journal and could only hint at areas for critique and discussion. I think the time has come for some self-reflection and critique on the dialogue with an eye toward improvement. Two areas stand out for me: the need to discuss differences in civility and not only commonality, and to hold our disagreements in peaceful tension. The second is the need to pursue a grassroots form of Evangelical-Mormon engagement that involves relationships, hospitality, joint service, as well as conversations. How might we step back and reflect critically as religious communities so as to build on the foundation?

  13. John, good questions. Also, I saw the trainwreck over in the Amazon reviews for this book where a certain person is trying to argue on each individual review. Yeesh.

  14. “How might we step back and reflect critically as religious communities so as to build on the foundation?”

    Maybe a great first step would be for both sides to sincerely and seriously embrace the robust and intentional pluralism afforded by the 232+ years of living within this Constitutional framework, a framework that harnessed our philosophical heritage in the English and Scottish Enlightenments into the continuity of respected and stable political institutions (legislature and judiciary, chiefly). Doing this, neither “side” would view the other as any “less” American or deserving of human dignity and fundamental rights by virtue of not being the “true” Americans that this Christian nation was supposedly meant exclusively for (according to that narrative).

    But the Evangelical dialogue often seems to proceed from a mythical position that America is and always was “really” by and for creedal Christians such that only conservative Evangelical Christians are real Americans. And, sadly, Mormons seem to have begun following this example, if not in their dialogue with Evangelicals then in their broader political polemics in the Culture Wars, rather than enshrining and promoting the true pluralism of which we are among the primary beneficiaries — a fact that we have somehow managed to collectively forget in our rush to make bedfellows out of Evangelical Christians on certain political issues that appear to have been identified as key in the Culture Wars. But what if the Culture Wars are manufactured and unnecessary — what if religious people can preach Christ and righteousness without seeking the hand of the state to lend force in promoting that message through engagement on one “side” of the Culture Wars?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,437 other followers