Wednesday, July 25, 2012

FAQ: Are Mormons Christian?

Short answer:

Christian? Yes. Protestant? No. Decent? We try to be. 

Unpacking the question:

Given that Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the persistence of this question is a little perplexing. We are thinking and talking about Jesus all the time: how can so many people continue to ask whether we're Christian or not?

My current theory is that the question sticks around because it's actually trying to measure three different things: 
1) Is Jesus your religion's central figure?
2) Is participation in your church effectively interchangeable with participation in other mainstream Christian faiths?
3) Are you guys good people? 

The threefold nature of the question makes it difficult to answer. Because "Christian" has been synonymous with "morally good" over most of the history of the English language (as in the phrase "that wasn't a very Christian thing for you to do"), and because Europeans and Americans have a long history of casting Mormons as depraved, the question is socially as well as religiously awkward from the start. Because Protestantism has long been suspicious of any religious deference to figures other than Jesus and the text of the Bible, the question about Jesus' centrality in our faith is far more of an uphill battle than it should be. And because most Protestant churches view themselves more as Christian organizations than distinct faiths, they can misread our assertion of a Christian identity as meaning something other than we intend it to.

Long answer:

Do Mormons believe in Jesus? 

Jesus is absolutely and unequivocally the central figure in our faith. We are blessed in his name, baptized in his name, buried with his name engraved all through our dormant synapses. We pray in his name numerous times every day of our lives. We try to think about what he taught as we choose how to speak, how to act, how to respond to others' actions.

And that alone makes us Christian, however our specific practices or beliefs may differ from those of another church or individual believer. As it happens, we do share most core beliefs about Jesus with most other Christians. We believe in Jesus as divine, as Messiah and Son of God. We believe that his atoning sacrifice is the central and decisive moment in human history. We believe literally in his Resurrection and victory over death.

We differ with many on other points. We don't feel an attachment to any of the traditional creed statements. We place more emphasis on Gethsemane while others focus more on the Crucifixion. We believe in our prophets and apostles as Christ's special messengers while others believe in their popes or their patriarchs or their interpretation of the Bible and the Bible alone. Maybe that makes us unorthodox Christians, or even bad Christians, but it's misleading to jump from the truth that Latter-day Saints have some different beliefs about Jesus to a claim that we don't really believe in him. 

One Caution: the Parable of the Two Americans

Two athletes meet at a restaurant during the Olympics in London. 
"Where are you from?" says the first.
"America," says the second.
"I'm from America, too," says the second, and he laughs. "But which country in America do you represent?"

When Latter-day Saints say we are Christian, we aren't claiming our church is interchangeable with other Christian churches. But some people will interpret it that way, the same way many U.S. Americans forget that millions of people from the Americas don't carry U.S. passports.

Many Christians, particularly from Protestant denominations, seem to see different churches as though they were different states in a single nation. It's not usually considered an international marriage for an Ohioan to marry a Pennsylvanian, and it's not usually considered an interfaith marriage for a Presbyterian to marry a Methodist. 

But it is an interfaith marriage for a Methodist to marry a Mormon. We may share a continent, as it were, with other Christians, but we are more like an independent republic with its own language, history, culture, and government than we are like another state in their union.

This can cause problems. Because Latter-day Saints have a country-continent model for understanding how different denominations relate to the body of Christianity as a whole, we aren't bothered when they don't accept our baptisms. But when we say we are Christians and others hear us with a state-union model for understanding how individual denominations relate to Christianity as a whole, they may be offended when we don't recognize baptisms they performed. If someone expects Mormon faith to feel as close to their faith as Colorado culture feels to Oregon culture, they will almost certainly get a major culture shock instead. And instead of saying, "Mormons are a unique kind of Christian," they may jump a step and say, "I thought Mormons were Christian like us, but I was wrong." (After all, much like some citizens of the United States, some Protestants have a difficult time remembering that anything exists beyond their borders.)

So I can understand why some Protestants get confused about whether we're Christian. But that doesn't mean I like it. Who are they to tell me where I live? Especially if in the process, they are suggesting that I'm a bad person.

The connotations of "Christian"

For most of the history of the English language, the adjective "Christian" could be used either to identify someone's faith. But since most English-speakers were Christians and didn't need identifying by nominal religious affiliation, it became common to use "Christian" to describe someone as possessing positive Christian virtues such as generosity, humility, piety, or a strong service ethic.

Times have changed. The importance of the word Christian as a faith-identifier has increased, and the term can carry a lot of negative overtones now as well as the positive. But it's one thing for Anne Rice to say on her own that she wants to follow Christ but not to be a Christian anymore and quite another for someone to tell a religious person that he or she isn't a real Christian.

And some of the people who say Mormons aren't Christian fully intend to imply that Mormons don't have the positive attributes traditionally associated with followers of Christ. (You can usually separate the confused from the spiteful based on whether their arguments for why Mormons aren't Christian paint us as simply different or as frightening and weird.)

Now--there are Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, and atheists who do a better job than many Christians at emulating Christ. And there are certainly Mormons who are unrepentant jerks or liars or cheats, and who therefore do a pretty shabby job of "being Christian" in the Christian virtues sense. There are moments, quite frankly, when I'm not really a Christian in the Christian virtues of love and kindness sense. But broadly speaking, do Mormons act according to the virtues Christianity prizes?


There is strong statistical evidence of Mormon selflessness. As a population, we tend to donate more of our time to service than others do--a University of Pennsylvania study of American Mormons suggests we serve as much as seven times more than the national average. We also donate money and goods at above-average levels to the church and to charities in the community.

We seem to have particularly taken to heart Jesus' teaching that children matter in the kingdom of heaven. A recent Pew survey of American Mormons reported that 80% of us said that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life, while only 50% of the general American population said so.

And we do seem particularly prepared to make sacrifices for the gospels sake, whether the sacrifice is a small as two years away from digital media and friends for young millennials who serve missions or as great as life itself for martyrs like Rafael and Jesucita Monroy.

When it comes to living according to Christianity's professed values, most Latter-day Saints join countless others of many faiths or of no faith who do their best to make goodness the center of their lives.

Do we believe in Jesus? Yes. Do we have our own unique traditions for worshiping him? Of course--and we are not ashamed of them. Do we act like he would have us act? We try.

And that's what I mean when I say we are Christian.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Win Tickets to the Future Dinner

Yesterday, I mentioned the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" fundraising dinner with guest of honor Eric James Stone to be held at my home in Pleasant Grove this Saturday night.

Since then, generous donors have offered to sponsor tickets to the dinner for two people who are interested, but don't feel able to purchase tickets on their own.

If you would like one of these sponsored tickets, we invite you to send a question you'd like to ask Eric at the dinner to everydaymormonwriter at gmail dot com before 9 a.m. Thursday morning. We''ll then compile a list of the questions and send them to Eric to select two winners, and send the winners their tickets Thursday night.

(If you'd like to purchase a ticket on your own, you may still do so through Paypal on the Everyday Mormon Writer contest page.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest

It has been:
192 years since the First Vision
182 years since the organization of the Church
165 years since the arrival of the Saints in Salt Lake Valley
122 years since the transition out of polygamy began
97 years since the first call for Family Home Evening
76 years since the establishment of the Church welfare program
57 years since the dedication of first temple in the eastern hemisphere
45 years since the first General Conference TV broadcast outside the U.S. & Canada
34 years since the 1849-1978 restrictions on the Priesthood were lifted
19 years since the organization of the first mission in India
9 years since the translation of the Book of Mormon into Zulu
1 year since the announcement of the General Temple Patron assistance fund
3 weeks since my daughter was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church

There were nearly a thousand Genesis-years from Adam until Noah. A few verses between Joseph and Moses cover roughly four hundred years. There were around seven hundred years between Isaiah and Jesus.

Compared to those numbers, the two hundred years from the Restoration to the present seem so small.

Then again, it took the Israelites forty years to get across the fairly small Sinai peninsula between Egypt and the promised land. Scholars estimate there were seventy-five years or so between the birth of Jesus and the time the Gospel of Mark was first written down.

Compared to those numbers, the handful of years since the Restoration feel unbelievably fast.

But is that partly because we're living them? What will these first two hundred years look like another two hundred years from now? 

I'm running a contest for short stories and artworks that depict Latter-day Saints during the 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd centuries. My hope is that we can get past narrow, shallow, and myopic conversations about the Church today if we use our imaginations to think about what the gospel has meant to people in different times, places, and cultural contexts from the past, present, and future. Which parts of Mormon experience have changed and will change? Which stay the same?

How does one eternal gospel look when refracted through the countless human moments it comes to life in?

If you're interested in writing, you should take a look at the contest rules. Even if you're not interested in writing, you might enjoy some parts of my discussion with Wm Morris on A Motley Vision or my interview with myself on By Common Consent. You can also contribute to the prize fund, should you feel inclined to do so, on the Everyday Mormon Writer contest page.

If you live within reasonable driving distance of Utah Valley, you can also purchase a ticket to a fundraising dinner either this Saturday or September 1st at my home. Both dinners will feature an elaborate Indian feast (two appetizer courses, three main dishes, mango lassi to drink, and dessert) plus a guest of honor with special experience writing about religion in the future or the past.

At the dinner this Saturday, the guest of honor will be Nebula Award winner Eric James Stone and the main topic of discussion will be imagining Mormon experiences in various futures. At the September 1st dinner, the guest of honor will be playwright Melissa Leilani Larson, who was interviewed along with me on the BBC, and the main topic of discussion will be history and faith in storytelling.

I am sort of a snob (to say the least) about writing craft, and I am routinely impressed by work by both Eric James Stone and Melissa Leilani Larson. These are bright people whose work is blessed by deep empathetic connection to their characters and by a contagious admiration for people in their struggles for dignity and goodness. So if you are close enough to come and able to contribute the $40 for a ticket, I hope you'll consider joining us for one of the dinners. I will be very surprised if it isn't an extremely fun, memorable, and thought-provoking night. And I'd love to have a few of my blog readers there.

Correction: the original, 1 a.m. version of this blog post incorrectly identified this Friday as the date of the "Future Dinner" with Eric James Stone. The correct day is actually this Saturday, 28 July, and the text has been updated accordingly.  

Update: generous donors have offered to sponsor tickets to the Future Dinner this Saturday for two people who are interested, but don't feel able to purchase tickets on their own. I've posted instructions on how to win the complimentary tickets if you're interested. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012


After my last post, Lobbie made the following comment about obedience: 
I was listening to NPR interview one of the nuns in the middle of the Catholic Church scandal, and the interviewer asked her what she thought it meant "to obey" since that was one of their covenants. The nun said that "obey" was rooted in the Latin word for "listen." She then talked about the importance of listening to God and the needs of those around you as a part of that obedience. It made a light go on in my head. Even w/in the church we sometimes get confused with the worldly idea of obedience meaning we don't even think about what's being asked-we just do it out of fear or intellectual/emotional laziness. To me that's not really listening, that's the following blindly thing. To listen is to really take in what's being said and try to hear and understand-and that it's a process of understanding/listening that comes in the doing of what we hear being asked. That to me is an essential part of a cooperative community.
I thought that was a beautiful thought when I read it yesterday.

And then today was one of those days where one thing reminds me how many people are giving up on the gospel and another thing reminds me of how easy it is for someone to make a serious mess of their own life and the lives around them once they decide to "free their minds" and throw humility and responsibility out the window.

So today I went back and re-read Lobbie's comment because I needed it. I needed to know that the quiet, insistent vision of a different way of relating is still alive.

And as I read, a verse from Sikh scripture came to my mind:
By listening: dive deep into an ocean of virtue.
By listening: become a true scholar, become a real saint.

By listening: even the blind find the path.
By listening: even things beyond touch can be grasped. 

O Nanak, the faithful are forever in bliss!
By listening, pain and sin are erased.
We need people who live the gospel so that they can teach generations yet to come how to build lives around quiet moments of listening to the divine. People who understand that even in the moment before God appears, the harmony of a simple grove of trees is already sacred. People who treat the food they eat and the hands that prepared it as living messages to be grateful and giving.  

People who: 
Let go of pride.
Let go of resentment.
Let go of the clamor around them.

And listen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reflections on Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon"

I must admit that I've had a soft spot for Walter Kirn since he decided to follow the Mormon Lit Blitz on Twitter. But even though I'm prejudiced in his favor, you should still trust me when I urge you to read the entirety of Kirn's recent New Republic piece, "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon."

After you have read it, you may come back and read the rest of this post. If you want to--the Kirn piece is really plenty of good reading for one day.

The first thing I want to say about the article is that Walter Kirn's attitude of charity is something we could all learn from. He didn't have to be nice. He surely had some bad experiences he left out, and he didn't have to put all those positive details in. As someone who chose to leave a "suspect" faith a long time ago, our culture allows him to be as bitter or as flippant as he wants. The victimized, bitter route is one many people would reward with sympathy. The flippant, superior route is one many people would reward with laughter and respect. But to be articulate about the unique value of an unpopular group? He risked getting called out as sentimental at best, or even as a collaborator with a sinister Mormon agenda.

His charity is brave, because he can only be charitable by making himself vulnerable. By admitting he respects people his friends laugh at. By admitting that for all his intervening sophistication, there's still a Mormon part of him: "Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down."

The second thing I wanted to say is that Kirn seems to understand that you can't separate the good fruits of the gospel from the hard trunk that nourishes them. I've seen other liberal former Mormons point out that our Church, though often considered deeply conservative, excels at core liberal values of cooperation and caring. But many of them have turned around immediately to bemoan that such a wonderful community is blighted by a backward authoritarianism or irrational beliefs. Kirn doesn't--and I think it's because he recognizes that without our stories, and without our willing obedience, the communitarian culture couldn't exist.

A secular democratic culture values debate above all else. And in many cases, debate is good. It gives us much better science, for instance. If people didn't get so emotionally caught up and socially entrenched in their positions, a culture of endless debate might also give us better policy decisions.

But if you are set on making your arguments and getting your way and not accepting alternatives unless they align closely with your opinions, it may become difficult (as Kirn observes) to do something as simple as share a single TV show with a large group of people. Our fierce independence turns easily to isolation. We can debate, yes, but we can't always cooperate if no voice is authorized to say when the heated debating phase is done.

It seems to me that someone who's willing to accept the Book of Mormon on God's word (rather than on their own understanding and only after comprehensive evidence) will also be more likely to serve on nothing more than God's word (rather than insisting on a cost-benefit analysis before committing to help). It seems to me that someone who's willing to follow a prophet or a bishop or a parent will have an easier time getting a job done than someone who takes extreme pride in their right not to be told by anyone what to do. 

Kirn seems to suggest that a person who can live with perplexing doctrines patiently is also equipped to listen to a desperate, damaged soul in patience and with a readiness to reach out. (It's easier to reject problematic teachings, maybe, but it's also easy to abandon problem-plagued people.)

Many people have seen the beauty in Mormonism's cooperative culture. Reflexive, active love is a sweet fruit. But the trunk of the tree is an organized humility that's easy for many to deride as blind faith or groupthink. That's our secret, I suppose--obedience and duty nourish love. A heart that's willing to believe and to belong is also more willing to act when aid is desperately needed.

Walter Kirn presents himself as someone who chose independence over humble service. Who asserted his right to publicly reject beliefs because he also wanted the right to reject the radical responsibilities Jesus yoked his followers with. But I admire him for telling the truth about the great gospel experiment when he could easily have praised the fruits and trashed the tree.

So thank you, Walter. And: we miss you, Brother Kirn. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A thought on spiritual experience in fiction

In ancient Greek drama, a common climax was to have an actor playing a god flown onto the stage with a special effects machine to solve the other characters' problems.

If you were actually in a Greek theater and actually saw a man with a really cool, brightly colored mask appear to fly through the air, the spectacle may have been enough to take away both your breath and your sense of story logic. The convenient miracle might have seemed perfectly acceptable.

But on paper, the deus ex machina moment is pretty underwhelming. If the story makes us feel the deep nobility of human struggle, it's disappointing just to have a solution handed down from a god. And so today, young writers are often taught to avoid any convenient solutions from the outside.

But where does that advice leave a religious writer whose actual life experience involves the active influence of the divine? How do you balance a desire to depict life-changing spiritual experience with traditional cautions against the deus ex machina?

A fourteen-year-old's talk on the Holy Ghost just before my daughter's confirmation on Saturday gave me what seems like a good answer: in life, revelation is typically the beginning rather than the end of a story. Because for every prompting of the Holy Ghost that comes, there's an immediate human question: how will you receive it?

The culmination of your spirituality doesn't come when you feel God, but when you find your own way to live in accordance with that experience.

Once the talk pointed this out, I realized the principle is everywhere in the scriptures. If the Book of Mormon were structured like Greek theater, it would open with a long sequence of Lehi in a decadent Jerusalem searching for goodness which would end with a god showing up and showing Lehi the light. But the Book of Mormon starts with Lehi's first vision and then goes on to ask how he's going to live it out. And opening with the divine is far stronger than closing with it.

Or consider the story of Alma. You could write a play where young Alma fights the church and does bad things and his father worries until--cue the angel--divine interference simply solves the core inter-generational problem. But the Book of Mormon doesn't tell the story like that. Scene one ends with an angel: the rest of Alma's long saga is about where that experience takes him and how he deals with the painful and difficult situations his choice to become a prophet later land him in.

In the Book of Mormon, revelations don't end our problems. They launch our journeys.

So sure, in a relatively agnostic era, where even many people who believe in God don't really believe he talks, it may be tempting to treat God as the surprise and to try to show spirituality by giving readers a sense of the guidance or comfort it provides.

But people don't read to see people change without effort, and the Bible doesn't teach that belief in God solves anything on its own.

I am a very religious person, but I think I would be disappointed by a story that starts with a young man puzzling over what to do with his life and ends when a revelation shows him what to do. I'd be interested, though, in a story that starts with something like: "On October 18th, 2008, the voice of the Lord came to Felix Hernandez, saying: go to grad school, my son."

We deserves stories that show the richness of revelation and the unique setbacks and triumphs people experience through deep religious commitment.

Will taking this structural cue from the scriptures help us write them?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

R.I.P. Andy Griffith

When people here ask where I'm from, I tell them Columbus, Ohio--though the truth is that my hometown was less the 1.8-million person Columbus metropolitan area than the village of my LDS ward. It was the people in Riverside Ward who surrounded me and set my expectations for life, who both served my family and provided us with opportunities to serve. It is their faces I remember when I think of "home."

So even if we live in big cities or their suburbs, I think all Latter-day Saints have some vested personal interest in seeing people talk about small communities with some respect. Because ridicule of small communities will easily spill over into ridicule of our way of life.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a link in Rod Dreher's recent meditation on Mayberry. I think many of the ideas he discusses speak to life in a ward.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Freedom and Faith

Because Wednesday is the 4th of July, yesterday's testimony meeting mixed the usual expressions of faith and gratitude for God with expressions of gratitude for our country and our freedom. A brother who had lived in countries under military rule spoke briefly. A sister mentioned her specific gratitude for the families of those on military tours or between military tours right now. Another sister said something about the country's early years and her later immigrant ancestors.

And then a boy, probably about nine years old, got up and bore his testimony about how Jesus died for our freedoms.

I think he was just confused...and who can blame him on the week when George Washington keeps coming up in testimonies that end in Jesus' name?  But hearing our most sacred story confused with the much less significant story of the American revolution did make me wonder whether we should be more careful not to mix patriotism and piety quite so casually--even in July--if only for the sake of our children.

I'm grateful for his strange little testimony, though, because it got my mind and heart going. When the next testimony was all about our American freedoms, I found myself thinking about many of the things people have done with those freedoms and feeling really sad. Because I realized: Jesus dies for our freedoms all the time. But not the way a revolutionary dies to make freedom possible. No: Jesus dies to carry the burden of the ways we use our freedoms to make a mess of our lives and the lives of others.

I am certainly grateful to live in society that values freedom--but I'm not sure how much of a value freedom has in and of itself. After all, our culture of freedom has led to widespread drug use and high rates of divorce as well as to healthy religious diversity and genuinely constructive innovations. Our Constitution protects the willful distortions of pornography as surely as it protects the speaking of truth.

So just as the bishop was about to stand up and close the meeting, I stepped up to bear my testimony that I'm grateful to live in a free country--but still more grateful for a God who guides me as I exercise that freedom. And to testify that in a culture that says I should do what I want, I'm grateful for covenants that bind me to what's important and right.

So on this 4th of July, I'll be thinking about the tragedies as well as triumphs of a nation built on the slippery notion of freedom.

And I'll be praying for my country,
where a twentieth of the world's population consumes a fourth of the world's energy,
where people pursuing their own kind of happiness fuel other countries' narco-wars,
where parents abandon children to go off in search of themselves,
where we try to buy meaning on the marketplace instead of reaching it in our relationships.
Yes, I'll be praying that we can heal our two-edged freedom by finally learning restraint.


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