Sunday, November 15, 2009

Joseph Smith Jr.: Possibilities Beyond the True/False Prophet Dichotomy

How should evangelicals understand Joseph Smith Jr., founding prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Typically, with their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and the idea of true prophet vs. false prophet, evangelicals have tended to view Smith through the lens of heresy. While such considerations should not be discarded by evangelicals, they might also be understood as limiting in terms of what we might understand about Smith himself as well as the Mormon faith he helped initiate.

A helpful volume is available that provides additional interpretive possibilities. It is Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Neilson & Terryl L. Givens (Oxford University Press, 2009). This is a multi-contributor volume that attempts to move beyond the true/false prophet dichotomy. As noted in the Introduction:
One challenge in assessing the historical importance and relevance of Joseph Smith's thought has been related to the difficulty of moving beyond the question that arrests all conversation - the question that asks whether Smith was a prophet or fraud. These essays are rich in evidence that a variety of interpretive strategies can bypass this question in order to explore Smith's influence, historical impact, parallels with literary figures, and situatedness in new religious contexts. In addition, at least three of the essays directly address the challenge of transcending the insider/outsider schism in Joseph Smith studies (Maffly-Kipp, Mouw, and Hudson); their authors propose their own solutions.
Evangelicals will most likely be interested in Richard Mouw's contribution to this anthology with his chapter "The Possibility of Joseph Smith: Some Evangelical Probings." Here Mouw takes his cue from a late nineteenth century work by Herman Bavinck, described by by Mouw as "a staunch defender of Calvinist orthodoxy." Writing to fellow Calvinists about the need for openness in considering Islam, as well as other non-Christian religions, Bavinck wrote (as cited by Mouw):
In the past the study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics. The founders of [non-Christian] religions, like Mohammed, were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, and accomplices of the devil. But ever since those religions have become more precisely known, this interpretation has proved to be untenable; it clashed both with history and psychology.
Mouw was surprised by Bavinck's views. He writes,
Bavinck's observation that Islam has "become more precisely known" is even more poignant now than when he offered it in his nineteenth-century context. For one thing, we have come to understand better Islam as a system of thought. In the early days, Islam was seen primarily as a political and military threat--a circumstance wherein it is always tempting to demonize one's enemies. If, however, we are given an opportunity to study and dialogue with the other group's actual teachings in a leisurely manner, we must wrestle with the question of how those teachings have actually inspired deep commitments in the lives of sane people who sincerely accept their teachings.
Mouw goes on to argue that Bavinck's approach provides precedent for Christians in the more positive analysis of non-Christian religions. Moreover, Mouw argues that this same approach can and should be applied by evangelicals in their assessments of Joseph Smith Jr., thus providing broader interpretive possibilities.

For those evangelicals willing to accept such a posture, this volume provides a number of interesting insights into Mormonism's origins for reflection. For example, Mouw notes that Smith's theology "emerged in an environment shaped significantly by the high Calvinism of New England Puritanism." Catherine Albanese notes the metaphysical influences in Smith's culture in the form of hermeticism and Swedenborgianism. Richard Brodhead places Smith's conceptions of prophethood in the context of "forms of prophetism in the American 1830s." Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen suggest that "an essential distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism -- [is] the blend of the numinous and the mystic" in poles of experience. And Laurie Maffly-Kipp encourages the exploration of the LDS Church's temple rituals not only from the perspective of Masonic influences, but also "as a radical protest against the philosophical premises of Protestant revivalism."

In the opinion of this researcher, while evangelicals should not jettison the true/false prophet dichotomy within certain theological frameworks, this should not be understood as the only context in which to evaluate or understand Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Broader interpretive possibilities exist that will enrich our understanding of the origins, development, and continuing appeal of Smith and his teachings. Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries provides evangelicals with a template and possibilities that enlarge our views of a worldwide religion, and the faith of our neighbors and friends.


DMI Dave said...

Your comments are very timely, John. I've just been reading through my copy of the book this week. I think these essays show that Rough Stone Rolling has moved the discussion of Joseph Smith up a couple of notches, now engaging Smith and his novel contributions rather than simply minimizing or dismissing him.

Surprisingly, the essays seem to show new and unexpected ways to approach Joseph rather than some sort of emerging consensus in the wake of Bushman's book. At the very least, it shows there is a lot of interesting discussion and analysis that can be done without having to confront or engage LDS faith claims as such (which, until recently, was generally in the foreground of any discussion of Joseph Smith).

Clean Cut said...

I appreciate this review. As one interested in interfaith dialogue and seeing things from the "other" perspective, this book sounds fascinating.