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Talking with Mormons
An Invitation to Evangelicals
By Richard J. Mouw
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2012 Richard J. Mouw
All right reserved.
Chapter One Tabernacle Apology
On Sunday evening, November 14, 2004, I stood behind a podiumin the center of the platform at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. My assignment was to welcome the standing-room-only audience of both Latter-day Saints (LDS) and Protestant evangelicals who had gathered for what had been billed as "An Evening of Friendship" between the two communities.
The idea for the event originated when my good friend, the Mormon theologian Robert Millet, called to tell me he had found out that the evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias was going to be speaking in Utah, and Bob wanted to invite Ravi to speak at Brigham Young University as well. If Ravi agreed to the visit, Bob said, it would be good if I'd be present to introduce Ravi by way of framing the event as a next step in our ongoing Mormon-evangelical dialogue. I liked the idea a lot and promised to do what Bob was asking.
A few days later, Bob called again. He had checked the idea out with the LDS leadership and they had expressed willingness to make the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City available for Ravi to speak about "Jesus Christ: The Way, the Truth, and the Life," with both evangelicals and Mormons invited to attend. That sounded even better to me, and I was pleased when Bob soon informed me that Ravi had accepted the invitation. With the approval of the LDS leadership, he was asked simply to set forth the basic message of the Christian gospel—with the only stipulation being that he not engage in any anti-Mormon polemics in his presentation.
Ravi came through beautifully on the appointed evening, and it was a thrill for me to be able to participate in the program. My only regret was that, in the aftermath, my own introductory remarks, lasting a mere seven minutes, came to dominate the news reports, drawing some angry criticisms of the whole evening from some evangelical quarters.
Here's what stirred up the storm. I apologized to Mormons for the way we evangelicals have often treated them. Having engaged in serious dialogue about doctrinal matters with some Mormon scholars for the previous six years, I said, I continue to believe that we disagree about matters "of eternal importance." At the same time, however, I was "now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community"—to the point, I added, of sinning against Mormonism.
I'm not going to defend that apology here. It simply stands as I stated it. But I do want to explain why I am minded to reach out to Mormons in a conciliatory way. Some of us from the evangelical community see ourselves as having reached a new stage in our relationships with Latter-day Saints. We've been involved in extensive dialogue for more than a decade now; and together, Mormons and evangelicals, we have been going out of our way genuinely to listen carefully to each other, trying to get a clearer understanding of what the real differences are between us.
And we are all agreed that there are indeed some big differences. I am not a relativist who believes anything goes in theology. I care deeply about what I take to be the basic issues of life, especially when it comes to questions like "Who is God?" and "What does it take for a person to get right with God?" And I can't get far into a discussion of those questions without talking about Jesus as the heaven-sent Savior who went to the Cross of Calvary to pay the debt for our sins and, having been raised from the dead, ascended to the heavenly throne from which he will someday return to appear on clouds of glory. I believe those things with all my heart, and I believe them because they are taught in the Bible, which is God's infallible Word to us, telling us all we need to know about God's will for our lives.
Those are the kinds of things we talk about together—Mormons and evangelicals—in our friendly exchanges. To be sure, the discussions have had their ups and downs. Sometimes we evangelicals think we and the Mormons are very far apart, and then there are other times when it appears that we're not quite as far apart as we had imagined. We want to keep pushing our Mormon friends to help us better understand their answers. This isn't just a matter of being nice to Mormons. It's really about being obedient to God. He has told us not to bear false witness against our neighbors, and it is important for our own spiritual health not to misrepresent what our Mormon neighbors believe.
I'm not going to give any kind of detailed account here of the substance of our dialogues. Several excellent books have been published in recent years that show evangelicals and Mormons actually engaged in friendly but probing exchanges. This short book offers some personal reflections on what has been going on. I provide them in part to respond to some criticisms that have been aired about our endeavors. But even more, I hope what I say here can at least do a little bit to change the atmosphere in Mormon-evangelical relations. I'm under no delusions about putting all of the evangelical worries to rest. But I do sense a need to provide some explanations about why some of us see this endeavor as important to pursue.
Chapter Two Adolescent Encounters
War of Words
I was just entering my teens when our family traveled by car to California from our home in a town near Albany, New York. On the way we stopped in Salt Lake City and did the standard tourist thing, visiting Temple Square. Our seventh grade class had already learned a little bit about Joseph Smith and Palmyra in our required unit on New York State history, so I found the idea of a visit to the Mormon "Zion" mildly interesting. My interest turned to fascination, however, as we left Salt Lake City and headed further west.
In the backseat of our car I sat reading "Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story," a pamphlet summarizing the official version of the Mormon founder's First Vision narrative. For me, the most intriguing part of the story was his description of his state of mind just before his account of the visitation that he claimed to have experienced. As a fourteen-year-old boy, he reported, he was so distressed by "the confusion and strife among the different denominations" that it seemed "impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong." The Baptists were arguing with the Presbyterians, and each in turn had their own debates with the Methodists. Everyone was intent upon proving their own views to be the right ones and the others riddled with error.
I found especially gripping Joseph Smith's poignant expression of despair: "In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?"
In the midst of his despair, Joseph discovered the passage in the Epistle of James that says, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
It's no exaggeration to say that I felt like I had discovered a friend. Here was someone who understood my own confusions and yearnings, feelings that I had been reluctant to express to the adults in my life—and even a bit fearful of admitting to myself.
Some family background. My father had given his life to Christ in his late teens, under the influence of a fundamentalist ministry. Meeting my mother, who was of solid Dutch Calvinist stock, exposed him to Reformed Christianity. For a while he maintained his Baptist convictions, although he gradually moved in my mother's direction theologically. Eventually he studied theology and was ordained as a minister in the Reformed Church of America. Having made that move, he was fairly zealous in his defense of infant baptism, as was evident in what seemed tome as a child to be his endless (albeit always friendly) arguments on the subject with his brother, a Baptist pastor.
My impression of those debates was not unlike the experience described by the young Joseph. My dad and my uncle were each passionately sincere in their views about baptism. And each was skilled at appealing to the Bible in support of his views. Yet they disagreed, and the disagreement seemed incapable of being resolved. This disturbed me. How could I know —really know—whose view was the correct one?
I had become a bit of a theological debater in my own right. I had many Catholic friends around the time of our visit to Temple Square, and I would often challenge their views about going to the priest for confession and about Mary and the pope. Some of those friends were fairly articulate. I never convinced them of anything—nor did they force me to change the views that I was defending. In my private thoughts, however, this bothered me. Who was I to say that I had the "right" theology and theirs was simply wrong?
So when Joseph Smith described a time in his life as a young teenager when he was simply bewildered by "this war of words and tumult of opinions," his story resonated with me in the deep places. His teenage questions were mine as well: "Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?"
I was not tempted to believe Joseph Smith's account of being visited by the divine Persons and angels. But, frankly, if an angel had happened to visit me with some clear answers, I would not have refused to listen.
"You're Not Even Trying to Understand!"
Two years after our visit to Salt Lake City, I sat through a series of Sunday night talks given by a popular speaker named Walter Martin on the subject of "the cults." By this time our family had moved to New Jersey, and I had a small group of Christian friends in the large public high school I was attending. Several of them were members of the Riverdale Bible Church, and they were excited about the series of Sunday evening lectures Martin would be giving at their church.
Walter Martin was not as well known in those days as he would be after 1965, when he published his influential Kingdom of the Cults. But he was already a dynamic speaker who could stir up an evangelical audience with his engaging sharp-witted critiques of Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists. (This last group he would later remove from his list of dangerous cults.) For his Riverdale talks he took on a specific religious movement on each of four successive Sunday nights: Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons. I made a point of attending the whole series.
The sessions were widely advertised, and the small church was packed for each of the evenings. Martin was an effective rhetorician, and I was captivated by the way he made his case against non-Christian groups. He had a fine one-liner, for example, about Christian Science: just as Grape Nuts are neither grapes nor nuts, Mary Baker Eddy's system of thought is neither Christian nor science.
On the evening of his talk about Mormonism the atmosphere was electric. A dozen or so Mormons were in attendance, and they sat as a group near the front of the auditorium. We had seen them walking in, carrying their copies of the Book of Mormon. It was clear that they had come armed for debate, and Martin was eager to mix it up with them. He was in top form for his lecture.
During the discussion period, an articulate young Mormon explained that Martin had misunderstood Mormon teachings regarding atonement and salvation. Martin was not willing to yield an inch, and what began as a reasoned exchange ended in a shouting match. The young Mormon finally blurted out with deep emotion: "You can come up with all of the clever arguments you want, Dr. Martin. But I know in the depths of my heart that Jesus is my Savior, and it is only through his blood that I can go to heaven!" Martin dismissed him with a knowing smile as he turned to his evangelical audience: "See how they love to distort the meanings of words?" I am paraphrasing the preceding from a memory reaching back over about five decades, but I can still hear in my mind what the young Mormon said next, in an anguished tone: "You're not even trying to understand!"
I came away from that encounter convinced that Martin's theological critique of Mormonism was correct on the basic points at issue. But I also left the church that night with a nagging sense that there was more to be said, and that the way to let it be said was captured in the young Mormon's complaint: both sides had to try to understand each other. I hoped the day would come when I could do something to make that possible.
I've often thought of those two teenage encounters—my reading Joseph Smith's First Vision account and witnessing the exchange between Walter Martin and the young Mormon—as what really pushed me toward the study of philosophy. For one thing, the teenage Joseph Smith's question about how we can decide who is right in "this war of words and tumult of opinions" has always been high on my own intellectual agenda. On countless occasions, when I've listened to someone appeal to an inner feeling of certainty about the truth of some Christian doctrine, I have been inclined to ask, "But suppose a Mormon said that same kind of thing about an inner 'testimony' to the truth of the Book of Mormon?"
The Mormon man's poignant complaint to Walter Martin "You're not even trying to understand!"—also had a lasting influence on the way I have approached disagreements about the basic issues of life. I've tried hard to understand people with whom I disagree about important issues, listening carefully to them and not resorting to cheap rhetorical tricks. Not that I've always lived up to that commitment. But it has regularly guided me in my philosophical and theological endeavors.
Moments of Healing
There's nothing I can do about the anguish of the young Mormon who, on that Sunday evening in my teenage years, pleaded for Walter Martin at least to try to understand. But our present Mormon-evangelical dialogue does at least reduce the anguish of some present-day Mormons.
Take the young woman who emailed me to tell me how moved she was when she read about the event in the Mormon Tabernacle—so moved, she said, that she wept for several minutes. In high school, she told me, her best friends were a couple of evangelical Christians. Surrounded by much secularism, they regularly talked together about their faith in Christ, and they frequently prayed together at lunchtimes in the cafeteria. But then her friends heard a guest speaker in their evangelical church denounce Mormonism as a Satan-inspired religion. The next time they were together, her friends told her they wanted nothing more to do with her. She was devastated—the most traumatic experience in her teenage years, she reported. To read about an evangelical apologizing to Mormons for sins committed against them was for her a moment of healing.
Another case, this time a middle-aged woman. She and her husband approached me after a talk I had given on a university campus. They were Mormons, they told me, and they wanted to express appreciation for the dialogue, which they had read about. "My wife wants to tell you why this is so important to us," the husband said.
She was silent for a few moments, holding back tears. Then she began. She had seen a sign in front of an evangelical church in their neighborhood, inviting women to a weekly Bible study group. "I've always wanted to learn more about the New Testament," she said, "so I started to attend. And it was wonderful!"
After the fifth weekly session, the group arranged to have lunch together, so they could learn more about each other's lives. During that time she shared with them for the first time that she was a Latter-day Saint. Suddenly, she said, the other women were noticeably cool toward her. A few days later the leader phoned to tell her that the other members had decided to ask her not to attend any longer. "I have felt so wounded," she said to me. "All I wanted was to study the Scriptures with other women who love Jesus! It means a lot tome to know that some people are working to make it possible for us to have fellowship together."
Chapter Three Beyond "Countercult"
I know the approach of the "countercult" people well. I think I've read, for example, everything Walter Martin wrote about Mormonism and other "cults." I once even shared a platform with Martin, when we both spoke at a conference in Denver on the "New Age" movement. Dave Hunt—who wrote Unmasking Mormonism and coauthored The Godmakers—also spoke at that conference. Hunt insisted that C. S. Lewis's writings were infected with "pagan" ideas—he even encouraged Christian bookstore owners to stop selling Lewis's books. That was yet another occasion that reinforced my discomfort with the ways evangelicals often deal with other religious movements.
Excerpted from Talking with Mormons by Richard J. Mouw Copyright © 2012 by Richard J. Mouw. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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