Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor: A Quick Christian Guide for Relating to Latter-Day Saints144
Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor: A Quick Christian Guide for Relating to Latter-Day Saints144
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UNDERSTANDING YOUR MORMON NEIGHBORA Quick Christian guide for relating to Latter-Day saints
By Ross Anderson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Ross Anderson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMORMONISM: CULT OR CULTURE?
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Church of. Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have emerged into the national spotlight. Media from around the world featured the LDS Church in stories about the 2002 Winter Olympics. In 2008, the Latter-day Saints played a prominent role in California's Proposition 8 vote over homosexual marriage. Church President Thomas S. Monson has been named the most influential eighty-year-old in America. Mitt Romney ran for President. Harry Reid became the Senate majority leader. David Archuleta and Ken Jennings won fame on TV shows American Idol and Jeopardy, respectively. Glenn Beck gained a national audience as a political commentator. Stephanie Meyer sold millions of vampire novels. As the fourth largest denomination in the United States — and the richest per capita — the LDS Church has become a mainstream force, despite making up only about 2 percent of the American adult population.
Latter-day Saints don't just live in Utah anymore. By 1990 about 30 percent of U.S. Mormons lived outside the western states, due in part to increased mobility in America after World War II as well as ongoing missionary activity. Many Americans have encountered Mormonism through familiar images like missionaries on bicycles, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the Mormons' tightly knit families and clean lives. Almost half of all Americans actually know an active or devout Latter-day Saint. Most of us (71 percent) have seen Mormon ads on TV, and almost two-thirds of Americans have been approached by LDS missionaries at some time.
The Mormon people are very much like other Americans. They are about average in a wide variety of family attitudes and behaviors, overall happiness, marital happiness, and self-esteem. They are somewhat better educated, a bit more politically conservative, and slightly more favorable to minority rights and civil rights than typical Americans.
Yet, in other areas, Mormons are measurably different. They sacrifice significantly more than most Americans for their religious beliefs: they go to church more, give more, and serve more. They are more likely to be white. They have a lower mortality rate from cancer and cardiovascular disease. Of course, there are also major theological differences between Mormonism and the traditional forms of Christianity to which most Christians in America subscribe.
Some facets of Latter-day Saint life appear strange to outsiders. The private nature of temple worship, which is highly sacred to Mormons, conveys a secretive image. The public expresses some suspicion and fear about whether Latter-day Saints will use their organizational abilities, wealth, and political power to manipulate society for their religious goals. Some people are antagonized by the exclusivist claims of the LDS Church, which claims to be the only church on earth with the authority to act or speak for God. Americans are also confused about the relationship of the LDS Church to its polygamous history and to contemporary splinter groups.
MORMONISM AS A CULTURE
To be Mormon is far more than being a member of a particular church. Mormonism is an all-encompassing way of life. One prominent LDS scholar observes that "Mormons still think of themselves as a people as much as a church." Like Islam, Mormonism is not merely a set of beliefs but a complete identity. To belong to the LDS community entails a deep commitment to the shared customs, values, and lifestyle of the Latter-day Saint culture.
When I speak of "culture," I mean the particular ways of thinking, speaking, and living that are shared by people with a common past and identity. People who live in the United States partake of a unique culture that is birthed from our common identity as Americans. Even within America, smaller religious and ethnic groups have subcultures that are distinct from the larger whole. We don't learn our culture consciously but absorb it simply by being around other members of our group. Based on common beliefs and worldview, the Mormon culture — like any other — takes shape in patterns of language, in folklore, in organizational structures, in buildings and artifacts, in forms of art, in ritual and other shared experiences, and in expectations of how people will act.
Every culture expresses itself in unique vocabulary and language patterns. Mormons pray in a distinctive style, using common jargon and intonation. As John Sorenson notes, "Thousands of words, phrases, names and stylistic features have peculiar LDS significance," including common LDS euphemisms ("Oh my heck!"), words that describe LDS life ("ward" or "endowment"), and phrases that describe core features of the LDS worldview ("the pre-existence" or "second estate").
Every culture expresses itself in ritual. Latter-day Saint beliefs take shape through the words and actions of common rituals such as baptism, anointing the sick, priesthood ordination, the intricate rites of the temple ordinances, and unique LDS death and burial customs.
Mormon culture reflects a strong value of music, drama, and Dance. Mormonism's rich musical history includes the value of musical training in the home and traditional forms of sacred music using piano, organ, and choirs. The dominant form of drama in the LDS world is the pageant, like the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an outdoor spectacle that proclaims the themes of Mormon history and scripture in a tone of triumphant celebration. A small LDS cinematic industry produces films that depict the great stories of Mormonism or poke fun at LDS cultural quirks. Social dancing has always been part of Mormon social life, following precedents set by its earliest leaders. Public dance festivals are also popular.
Mormonism has a rich folklore. The most common folk stories reflect themes that Latter-day Saints find most important, like the pioneer past. Mormon folklore also encourages faithfulness by rooting the Saints in a cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Latter-day Saints express their underlying values through physical objects and symbols, such as the image of the Salt Lake Temple, the beehive, and the angel Moroni. They use art to illustrate historical events and religious stories central to their message. One of the most common themes in LDS art is the "First Vision" of Joseph Smith, which began his prophetic mission. Mass-produced consumer objects, such as Book of Mormon action toys and Mormon-themed T-shirts, reinforce the Mormon cultural identity.
As with any group, these various cultural expressions serve to identify insiders versus outsiders. One example is the popular CTR ring. CTR stands for "Choose the Right," a theme reinforced in the LDS children's program. Intended as a reminder to make good moral choices, CTR rings make Latter-day Saints instantly recognizable to each other, creating a bond of common identity. A number of Latter-day Saint customs have a similar role as cultural boundary markers. The Word of Wisdom, which prohibits alcohol, coffee, and tobacco, identifies Mormons to outsiders and communicates one's standing inside the LDS community. Many Saints hang photographs of a temple, or of the current LDS Church President, on the walls of their homes. Even wearing apparel from Brigham Young University identifies people as part of the group.
SHAPING THE MORMON IDENTITY
The cultural identity of Latter-days Saints has been powerfully shaped by shared historical experiences. The trek of the Mormon pioneers to Utah in 1847 is central to the sense of Mormon "peoplehood." Stories of the pioneer journeys are recounted often to inspire pioneer-like virtues in contemporary Mormons. The journey is interpreted by Latter-day Saints as parallel to the exodus of Israel in the Bible, confirming the Mormon claim of being restored Israel. Pioneer Day is enthusiastically celebrated — especially in the West — with parades, rodeos, carnivals, and religious ser vices that commemorate the day the Saints arrived in Utah.
Pioneer virtues and skills are maintained in contemporary values and practices. Many LDS women still practice quilting, sewing, canning, and other crafts that connect them with the lives of their forebears — crafts that also reflect the self-reliant pioneer spirit that is alive and well in Mormonism today. Mormons help each other out during times of need as a way of fostering self-sufficiency and expressing self-reliance — just as their forebears did.
Another part of the historical legacy that shapes Mormon identity is persecution. The reason the Saints fled to Utah was, in part, to escape persecution. The persistent memory of wrongs committed against them wherever they settled can translate into a persecution complex. Latter-day Saints can bear the mantle of the persecuted minority quite readily, and they are often sensitive to criticism and intolerant of critics.
People enter the LDS cultural community in two ways: by birth or by conversion. Converts become integrated into their new identity by first embracing the LDS message and then by assimilating into the lifestyle and cultural ethos of Mormonism. Birthright Saints, by contrast, typically move through a succession of stages or events that reinforce their sense of belonging to a unique people.
The first of these formative events is the blessing of infants. In the weekly Sunday gathering, the baby is brought before the congregation, encircled by priesthood holders, and given a name and a blessing; this event marks the child's initial inclusion in the faith community. Most LDS children are then baptized at the age of eight, which is considered "the age of accountability." Children are baptized by total immersion, by someone holding the LDS priesthood (a family member if possible). Following baptism, the child receives "the gift of the Holy Ghost," bestowed by a priesthood holder placing his hands on the child's head and imparting a verbal blessing and prayer. The child is then confirmed as a formal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Adult converts to Mormonism go through baptism and confirmation in the same way, often being baptized by the missionary who converted them.
For male children, the LDS identity is further reinforced by initiation into the priesthood. Latter-day Saints understand the priesthood as "the authority to act in the name of God." The LDS priesthood has two levels. Aaronic Priesthood is available to worthy boys once they reach age twelve. At adulthood, young men typically advance to the Melchizedek Priesthood, which confers greater authority. Priesthood reinforces a man's position, roles, and responsibilities as part of the faith community.
During their later teen years, Mormon youth of both genders are encouraged to seek a patriarchal blessing. As a once-in-a-lifetime event, the patriarchal blessing is a personalized prophecy given in a private ceremony by a priesthood leader specially ordained for this role. Such blessings typically include general promises about future events, along with encouragement to live a worthy life. Patriarchal blessings are usually shared only with family members and are privately treasured and pondered for insights into life circumstances and future events.
For young men and women, serving a proselytizing mission for the LDS Church socializes them into their LDS identity in a powerful way and prepares them for a lifetime of participation in the LDS community. In preparation for a mission or as part of a temple marriage, Latter-day Saints are introduced into the ritual of the temple through a rite called the endowment (see chapter 6).
The temple experience is one of the most potent ways that the worldview and values of Mormon culture are strengthened. Temple rites underscore the differences between the LDS Church and other faiths, reminding people of their unique identity in the universe and in God's eternal plan.
Finally, an individual's cultural identity as a Mormon is shaped by a variety of reinforcing activities built into the pattern of weekly life in the Mormon community. Members regularly observe baptisms and priesthood ordinations. They sit in weekly lessons and discussions about their history and beliefs. They often share with each other public affirmations of their convictions about the LDS Church and its most important claims.
DIVERSITY AMONG THE SAINTS
Even though we can demonstrate that Latter-day Saints are a tight-knit group sharing a common culture and identity, there is a great deal of variation within the broader Mormon culture. Latter-day Saints speak of themselves as being either "active" or "inactive." (Inactive members are called "Jack-Mormons," although no one knows the origin of this label.) Even among active Mormons, some are "true believers" and others are closet doubters. Members born in the Church are different from converts. Mormons living in the LDS heartland of Utah are different from those living in other places, where Saints are in the minority. Often the younger generation sees things differently from older generations.
Furthermore, Mormonism as defined by LDS Church leaders and authorities is often different from how it is lived out by average members. Mormons represent different "cultural constituencies" — segments of the LDS population that define the meaning of their church membership in different ways. For some, their experience revolves around the temple, while others find their primary identity in congregational activities. Others see themselves as merely "cultural Mormons," who appreciate their LDS roots but no longer find meaning from participating in the LDS Church.
INTERACTING WITH YOUR NEIGHBOR
Tradititonal Christians need to be careful about stereotyping our Latter-day Saint neighbors. We can't assume that we know a person fully simply because we have identified him or her as a Mormon. Each of us has a number of social identities. In different situations, the Mormon identity will be more or less prominent, and for some people the Mormon identity is stronger or weaker than for others. We can never assume that what is true of Mormon culture in general applies fully to each individual, nor can we assume that what is true of one group member is true of them all 42 We can identify the most common values and experiences of Mormonism in general, but we can never know how those norms are lived out by individual members until we get to know them personally.
If Latter-day Saints are a distinct people sharing a common cultural identity, this calls for traditional Christians to interact with the Saints in a new way. In the past, Christian churches and ministries have focused most of their attention on LDS beliefs and doctrines. Significant differences divide Mormonism from historic, biblical Christianity on a number of fundamental issues that cannot be dismissed. Yet, Latter-day Saint experience and identity goes far beyond what they believe. A young woman once asked me, "If I come to your church, do I have to stop being Mormon?" I said, "No." I understood that she was not talking about beliefs. She was asking if she had to abandon her cultural heritage.
When we limit our engagement with Mormonism to comparing truth claims, we ignore much of what matters to Mormons themselves. In large measure, the assumption has been that Latter-day Saints can be converted to the biblical gospel by convincing them, through rational arguments and proofs, that they are wrong and we are right. The problem is that people make spiritual decisions based on many other factors besides rational evaluation.
Most Latter-day Saints don't become Saints because of doctrinal considerations. They may find the belief system satisfying, but the reason they became Latter-day Saints is as likely to be relational or emotional, or simply by the circumstances of their birth. By emphasizing debates about beliefs, we treat Mormons as little more than disembodied heads, rather than as whole persons embedded in an all-encompassing culture. We need to understand and evaluate Mormonism as a culture that shapes not only the doctrines but the very identity of its People.
Excerpted from UNDERSTANDING YOUR MORMON NEIGHBOR by Ross Anderson Copyright © 2011 by Ross Anderson . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Mormonism: Cult or Culture?....................11
2. The Mormon Worldview....................23
3. The One True Church....................33
4. Life in the Local Congregation....................45
5. Families Are Forever....................57
6. Sacred Space....................65
7. Latter-day Saint Piety....................73
8. Us and Them....................81
9. Joining and Leaving....................91
10. Won't You Be My Neighbor?....................99
APPENDIX A Should I Vote for a Mormon?....................111
APPENDIX B Are Mormons Christians?....................115
APPENDIX C Resources for Further Study....................121