Tuesday, February 13, 2007

John Bracht Interview: Perspectives on Mormonism - Part 2

Following is Part 2 of the interview with John Bracht:

MoreheadsMusings: You describe the anti-Mormon writers as "rarely comprehend[ing] the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith." Could you elaborate on this for a bit?

John Bracht: The anti-Mormon writers I was referring to were those in the “counter-cult” camp. I said they rarely understand the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith because they are mainly interested in proving it wrong. Put that on an individual basis. If I approach a particular person determined to prove his behaviour or views wrong, I may succeed in scoring points, winning the argument or confounding him, but that is all surface stuff. Surely what is more important is why he acts this way or believes those things. What is there in his background, upbringing, culture, experiences – good and bad, etc., that have made him the person he is and forged him intellectually and temperamentally? Most counter-cult folk approach Mormonism like that. You listen to the other guy only long enough to come back at him with your point, but you are deaf to the nuances of what he is saying or not saying. Mormonism is the most theologically-complex of all the religious movements to have had their origin in the United States. It is sophisticated at many levels. It has been constantly evolving and analysing itself and planning how best to market or present itself to the world. It has largely succeeded in creating an educated (opponents would unkindly say ‘brain-washed’) and articulate laity and in mobilising that laity in terms of mission, in ways that we Christians have seldom done. Jehovah’s Witnesses are another good example of that. You can’t accomplish that sort of thing without a sophisticated program of pedagogy and instruction at all levels.

In the 70’s and 80’s I read books by people who understood that complexity and sophistication – Mark P. Leone, Thomas O’Dea, Jan Shipps et al, and there are, happily, many more today, but the popular market is still dominated by the less perceptive.

MM: You also refer to the relationship between Mormonism and "traditional" Christianity as similar to Christianity's historic relationship to Judaism as "a reform and consummation." Why is this signficant, and what are its ramifications for evangelicals as they seek to understand and interact with Mormonism?

John Bracht: I think I have actually touched on this issue in my previous response when I said I saw in Fawn Brodie’s statement, the inspiration for another thesis. In many ways I have pursued that other thesis in my mind down through the years. It still fascinates and sometimes troubles me. I think the comparison between Christianity and Mormonism and Judaism and Christianity is a very significant one. I don’t know that it will appeal to all evangelicals, but there are some crucial elements in the comparison which relate to our approach to apologetics and mission. I’ve read a lot of Jewish texts from the 19th century when Jewish writers were far more polemical towards Christianity than they seem to be now, though the Orthodox and Lubavitcher movement are similarly active today. It is interesting how writers like Isaac Wise and da Silva, following in the tradition of writers like the 16th century Isaac Troki, so forcefully and meticulously set forth the Jewish case as against Christianity. Like the “counter-cult” writers of today, they tackled specific issues, exegeted scriptural texts in opposition to the Christian interpretations of those texts and hammered home the traditional Jewish understanding of God as opposed to what they saw as the Christian heresies about God. They are scathing in their exposes of Christian misrepresentation and ‘mutilation’ of scripture passages, using many of the same arguments against Christians, that Christians now employ against Mormons and other ‘cultists’. In one place Troki talks about Paul’s poor exegesis: “Scripture thus mutilated can certainly not uphold the fabric of human faith”. Ironically then, it is their polemical defence of the one God against our assumed three Gods, that sounds so similar to our defence of the One God (in Trinity) against the Mormons three actual Gods. They read a little like Reed and Farkas’ Mormons Answered Verse by Verse.

Today we have entered into a more sympathetic and productive dialogue with Judaism, even though in many respects, we still see ourselves in Brodie’s words as a “reform and consummation” to Judaism. Though there is obviously far more continuity between ourselves and Judaism than there is between ourselves and Mormonism, it is still instructive to see how the later or ‘daughter’ faith treats the other. In other words, we might better understand Mormon apologetics in relation to the Christian Church if we more sensitively analyse our own apologetic in relation to the Jewish religion. This is what Jan Shipps was saying when she wrote: “by paying close attention to what happened as the early Christian saints appropriated a vision of Israel’s past that could be ritually re-created to serve as meaningful background to the Christian story, it is possible to discern the pattern of reappropriation that allowed the Latter-day Saints to take as their own a vision of the past of both Israel and Christianity that now serves both directly and through ritual re-creation as meaningful background to the Mormon story” (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, p. 53).

I don’t really want to pursue this one any further, except to say that in our study of effective mission and apologetics, we could profit from reading some of the current Jewish works on explaining their faith. And I mean, the full spectrum, from the “counter-cult” equivalents in books like Samuel Levine’s You take Jesus, I’ll take God: How to refute Christian missionaries, through to the more scholarly and sophisticated essays of Arthur A. Cohen’s The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition and on to the more culturally-sensitive works of writers like Prager and Telushkin’s The Nine Questions people ask about Judaism, Harold Kushner’s To Life!, Jonathan Sacks A Letter in the Scroll, or Shmuley Boteach’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism. Such works are all the more relevant to our approaches to mission when we remember Paul’s words to the Romans that “it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:18).

MM: You also include an interesting discussion on a common evangelical apologetic against the Mormon view of God that is used frequently as an evangelistic approach. You state that "when Christianity challenges the Mormon view of deity and seeks to 'expose' it, it challenges the Mormon psyche and threatens to undermine the Mormon's sense of identity and security. So much of what they are, is bound up in what He is, that it is not possible to criticise or ridicule the one, without deeply offending and wounding the other." Why is this sigificant in our interactions with Latter-day Saints, and how might (or should) it influence us in terms of change in our understanding and apologetic and evangelistic concerns?

John Bracht: I expanded on that point in Part 3.1 Definitions and Perceptions. I suppose this is where the empathy comes in to our dialogue with Mormons again. Simply analysing the Mormon view does not help us to understand why they believe it. It is not theology they are asserting, but rather an experience of relationship with the three persons identified as divine in the New Testament. We are missing this often. Their theology of God may be horribly wrong, but their worship of and devotion to God, is real and sincere. We think their “glorified man”, their God with a body demeans the Almighty, but their reverence for him remains intense. As President Hinckley once said: “I do not equate my body with his in its refinement, in its capacity, in its beauty and radiance. His is eternal. Mine is mortal. But that only increases my reverence for him.” In other words, God is no less glorious and awesome to Hinckley than he is to an orthodox Christian. For Mormons ‘Heavenly Father’ is the father of their spirits in an absolute sense, as well as the creator of their bodies and the material world. He is the ruler of the Universe. Jesus is the Saviour and Redeemer of the world. Of Jesus, Hinckley says: “I believe in him, I declare his divinity without equivocation or compromise. I love him. I speak his name in reverence and wonder. I worship him as I worship the Father.” You only have to listen to many of the hymns they sing about the Father and the Son to know that their devotion to him is unqualified.

The Mormon meta-narrative that moves from their pre-existent life in the spirit with their heavenly parents through to their testing time on earth and on beyond death into the Spirit World while awaiting the resurrection of the body that will lead them on to the Celestial Kingdom, is a powerful context for their lives. While Christians may be very vague about the before and after, Mormons express this sense of connectedness with a God who has shared their existence in the same way that Christians think of Christ as having shared our earthly existence. This generates powerful emotions. It may be in part, the power of myth, but it sustains them. To simply present them with the imponderable mystery of the Trinity, asserting that God the Father has no body but God the Son does – God is non-corporeal and corporeal at the same time, does not seem like a ‘fair swap’ to them. I think then that in our approaches to them, we must acknowledge this earnest devotion to God, and lead them gently to an orthodoxy that stresses the personal nature of a God who does not need to be of the same species as they are. Instead of only ridiculing the absurdities of an embodied Father-God, we must show them that God can still be intensely personal without having a glorified body. One of the ways I do that is to talk about Israel’s love affair with God. I cite the prophets and figures like David and the expressions of his devotions in the Psalms. I talk about the intensity of conviction experienced by the disciples following Pentecost, when they sensed the presence of Jesus who had been removed from them bodily but was present in an even more powerful sense through the Spirit. Mormonism has huge anomalies with its doctrine of the Holy Ghost versus Holy Spirit and drawing attention to those anomalies can really help here.

Part of this gentle approach must also include the respectful question, ‘Can the apotheosis of human beings, the elevation or exaltation of human beings to divine status, be taken seriously?’ Here you are starting at the other end. Instead of attacking the ‘Man Mormons call God’ you are asking them to tell you how they imagine they could ever be the kind of God they presently worship. Some of course won’t hesitate to tell you that they have no trouble imagining that! Upon this hangs the whole case for tritheism and polytheism. If we answer no, then there is no tritheism, only one God. And if there is only one God, if the incomprehensible Trinity really does reveal the true nature of God, then all of that dazzling Mormon Olympus quickly fades from the imagination. Then they may realize that the ‘Man of Holiness’ their Heavenly Father, who, because he is corporeal, resides on an incomprehensibly distant star near a place called Kolob, is really appallingly impersonal as opposed to the God of David’s 139th Psalm.

MM: You have written on Mormonism from other perspectives. Can you summarize some of your thoughts expressed in our article "The Americanization of Adam"?

John Bracht: I wrote the chapter, "The Americanization of Adam" at the request of my supervisor while completing my Master’s. He thought it would be a valuable contribution to his book on cargo cults and Millenarian movements. The main idea of the chapter is that no other religious movement has done more to sacralize America than Mormonism. Though today there is a much greater emphasis on the worldwide as opposed to a Utah-based church, it will never escape its roots and mythic context in America. In that sense Joseph Smith will always be an American prophet.

The book was published in 1990 and at that time I was saying, that in a sense unparalleled in popular thinking, America is the ‘promised land’. Its scriptures and particularly the Book of Mormon, make that an article of faith. It remains to be seen how that article of faith will be modified in the light of all the present controversy over the historicity of the Book of Mormon. In summary I wrote about the historic and geographic context of the Book of Mormon peoples, the Mormon ‘burden’ for the American Indian – they are the only group in the United States who have a theological view of the Indians; the significance of the Book of Abraham and the connection between the pre-diluvian civilization of Genesis, the fabled figure of Enoch and America, past and future. I wrote that transferring Hebrew concepts to new worlds and seeking to build the Kingdom of God on earth were hardly pursuits original to Mormons and cited some of the view of Puritans on eschatology, the partial Judaization of Protestant England and the gathering of Israel - Jewish and Mormon Israel. I commented on the fact that as Hansen put it, Mormonism, while claiming to be a world religion nevertheless sees its mission fulfilled “through a peculiar identification with American nationalism.” Most of the rest of the chapter dealt with the Mormon concept of ‘Zion’, the countdown to a literal millennium centred in North America and the prophetic events predicted to occur in preparation for the building of the New Jerusalem in Missouri and the second coming of Jesus Christ. These dreams of a present and future Zion, though somewhat muted today, are still very much a part of contemporary Mormon hopes and faith.

I concluded the chapter by saying: “They have always believed in what they could see and feel and create with their own hands, always judged heavenly realities by earthly models; always thought that if they worked hard enough, perfection could be achieved. They are the children of the gods and imagine that ‘nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them’ (Gen. 11:6)”.

MM: What would you like to see as positive developments in Protestant studies on Mormonism, as well as in apologetic and missiological engagement with this religion?

John Bracht: Well I think I am already encouraged by positive developments in Protestant studies on Mormonism as I said in my response to your third question earlier. There are two areas however, that I do feel strongly about and think could do with more attention.

The first is the Book of Mormon. When I was first becoming disillusioned with the LDS Church there were obviously a number of Christian texts which attacked the claims and historicity of the Book of Mormon. Today, we have this growing phenomenon where lots of Mormons no longer accept its historicity though they still believe in Joseph Smith and the truthfulness of the Church (you see this in Sunstone and Dialogue articles). When I was a young Mormon I remember the much-expressed affirmation that the Book of Mormon was the “keystone of our religion” and that a man could get closer to God by abiding by its precepts than through any other book. Though it was a keystone in terms of the claims of Joseph Smith to be a prophet, I don’t think it was ever the keystone in terms of what Mormons actually believed. All of that came from other sources. Ironically it might be regarded as a keystone again. By that I mean that if Christians spent less time trying to disprove it historically – we have several LDS allies assisting us there! – and more time examining its actual theology then we would discover that the book may provide blocks for the continued construction of our bridge to Mormons.

I have often contemplated writing my own edition of the Book of Mormon in which I simply edited out every historical and cultural reference which placed its context in Ancient America. The next step would be to organize it into a kind of systematic theology of early Mormonism and call it something like “The Writings of Joseph Smith”. Then we would be able to see that there really is a lot in it that is familiar and acceptable to Christians in terms of our beliefs. Since we should always be looking for common ground and seeking to understand each other in the other’s terms, this could be a very useful exercise. Perhaps someone has already done it? I don’t know. Perhaps we can’t do it because of copyright, but there is nothing to stop us spending more time writing about its theology.

My second area of concern would be Joseph Smith. I see the popular anti-Mormon market falling short of effective apologetics in its treatment of Joseph Smith. Fawn M. Brodie’s book No Man Knows my History gave me a statement that I have built on in much of my speaking and writing on Mormonism. She wrote: “Joseph Smith’s was no mere dissenting sect. It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism: that is, a reform and a consummation.” In the midst of writing my thesis I saw in that statement the inspiration for another thesis, but my supervisor cautioned me, for reasons I did not then understand, not to pursue that line of thinking. But it was Brodie who, despite her very effective expose of the prophet himself, yet revealed that the source of his power was in his person “and the rare quality of his genius” which was in his imagination rather than his reason. She called him a “mythmaker of prodigious talent”, observing that “the myths he created are still an energizing force in the lives of millions of his followers.” In some small way, I sought to touch on that energizing force in my treatment of the Mormon doctrine of God.

Harold Bloom in his The American Religion similarly noted that “there had to be an immense power of the myth-making imagination at work to sustain so astonishing an innovation . . the Mormon prophet possessed that quality (charisma) to a degree unsurpassed in American history . . . one’s dominant emotion towards him must be wonder. There is no other figure remotely like him in our entire national history, and it is unlikely that anyone like him ever can come again.” I don’t think too many anti-Mormon writers feel any sense of wonder when they talk about Joseph Smith! What I am trying to say here, is that just as we approach Muslims sensitively in the way we talk about the Prophet Muhammad, we must show Mormons that we have some measure of respect for their founding-prophet. It is easy enough to discuss his errors, his failures, his radical departure from the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints”, but we cannot escape the enormity of his religious genius and legacy. We must regard Mormonism as we regard him. We cannot understand one without the other. This is why I titled an early seminar booklet I produced, Mormonism: Magnificent Illusion. It is indeed an illusion in so many ways, but one which deserves the adjective.

So what I would urge here is a serious reappraisal and acknowledgment of the things the Prophet Joseph Smith got right! Everybody is so clear about what is wrong with Mormonism that they seldom pause to acknowledge what is right about it. The great benefit of this exercise is that it will help us reflect on our own theology and practice and be more willing to admit that we haven’t always and still don’t always get certain things right in our faith and practice. The fact that he got some things right may suggest that Mormonism is not totally bereft of God’s grace or inspiration and that they may have some lessons to teach us. Now there’s a challenge for the counter-cult folk! We always look for signs of God’s grace working in the Mormon Church, encouraging reflection and change and reform of certain practices. But what if that grace was present even at the beginning, expressing itself in forms and beliefs that we need to take further note of?

I’m not going to go into detail here about what I think Joseph Smith got right, but I can suggest the following: Hans Kung once offered three criteria by which the orthodox theologian can distinguish between “powerful and weak, good and bad interpretations of the Christian message.” He spoke of a development in keeping with the Gospel which should be encouraged, a development outside the Gospel which can be tolerated, and a development contrary to the Gospel which must be condemned. If you apply those three criteria to Mormonism they can be very helpful, e.g. what is to be encouraged, tolerated or condemned? But this is a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways and can wound Christianity as it does Mormonism. The fact that we have such enormous diversity and disunity in the Christian world testifies to the difficulty we have dealing with or understanding those criteria.

MM: John, once again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Given the unique perspective of your masters thesis I hope it can be updated and find a publisher in the United States as an academic book so that its insights can benefit others.


Rick Meigs said...

Oh my, what a great interview! Very insightful and it will be, I hope, beneficial in dealing with my Mormon friends.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Excellent interview! I actually printed out both posts to read them better. Mr Bracht hits on some really good points. One area that concerns me is where he suggests that common ground between Mormons and evangelicals can be found in many teachings of the Book of Mormon. While I agree the commonalities are there, I disagree about the validity of many of these points. I'm convinced that young Joseph Smith Jr was bothered by the lack of evangelical Christianity in the Bible, including the Old Testament, and so he wrote the Book of Mormon and his Inspired Version of the Bible. He originally believed that the "plain and precious truths" missing from the Bible were clear points of evangelical theology, and it was only later that he altered this slightly when he began to incorporate Freemasonry and a good dash of imagination to his new religion. I have a brief post up on my blog about this, for whatever it's worth. I need to develop the idea out a bit more. http://igneousquill.blogspot.com/2007/01/plain-and-precious-truths.html

John W. Morehead said...

Adam, thanks for sharing your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this interview.

I suppose we may have disagree about the concluding thoughts Bracht presents on what he'd like to see out of Protestants in regards to Mormonism. You acknowledge that there is more common ground between evangelical theology and that expressed in the Book of Mormon, and this is an indicator of the quick and radical evolution of LDS theology between the publication of the book and Smith's death. The troublesome areas you note are largely those that developed post-Book of Mormon publication, although this is not to say that the theology of the Book of Mormon dovetails completely with what many evangelicals would be comfortable with.

Bracht's point is to find an area within LDS culture that we can find common ground upon and then draw upon this for further dialogue with the LDS community. Given the commonality of theological ideas between those of the Book of Mormon (and early LDS theology) and that of evangelicals, why not consider what Bracht suggests? It just might prove a promising way forward.

As to the other elements, I agree that the culture of Smith's time and his experiences included various elements that were drawn upon in the development of Mormonism, and elements such as hermeticism are often neglected by evangelicals who focus almost exclusively on Moronism as a heretical form of Protestantism rather than an expression of Christian esotericism. How might we consider important influences such as these, not only in the origins of Mormonism and temple rituals, but also in contemporary expressions of folk Mormonism as well as eclectic Mormons who combine active LDS praxis snd beliefs with aspects of esotericism?