Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dialogue with the Beehive: Critical Reflections on the McKeever and Johnson Christian Research Journal Article

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to a Christian radio program out of southern California which featured a strongly negative critique of one expression of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, specifically that involving the ministry of Standing Together under the leadership of Greg Johnson, and his public dialogues with Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. During the radio program the host mentioned there was an article on the subject that was recently released. It took me a couple of days, but I was finally able to secure the article by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson of Mormonism Research Ministry titled “The Bridge or the Beehive?: Mormon Apologetics in a Postmodern Age,” which appears in Christian Research Journal Vol. 30, no. 4 (2007). Since I have been part of this dialogue process for the last couple of years, and since I know the individuals engaged in it and its supporters, as well as many of those referenced in the article that are critical of it, I thought it appropriate to share my critical reflections on the Journal article.

To summarize the structure of the article, the authors introduce the topic with the mention of Darl Anderson, a Mormon who sought to develop relationships with Christian pastors and leaders in Utah as a means of neutralizing anti-Mormon sentiments, and then moves to five subsections. The first introduces the ministry of Standing Together and Greg Johnson. The second looks at Greg’s public dialogues with Robert Millet and considers the perspective of various critics opposed to these events. The third section then considers one of the fruits of Standing Together’s “relational approach” and does so in light of ongoing concerts over Richard Mouw’s critical comments about evangelical representations of Mormonism made in connection with Ravi Zacharias’s appearance at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in 2004. The fourth section discusses the LDS Church’s use of good publicity for public relations purposes, and the final section addresses the contrast between relational approaches to ministry among Mormons with confrontational methods.

I noted several positive elements in the article. First, the article appears in a leading journal of Christian apologetics by a national ministry, and this provides the potential to bring even greater national attention to the dialogue that is taking place. Second, the article also insightfully notes that an understanding of the practices and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints is necessary at both individual as well as institutional levels. In other words, balance is needed in understanding the teachings of the LDS Church as it is articulated by General Authorities, and it must also be understood in its various manifestations among the LDS people, whether at BYU or among its more rank and file population, including various expressions of “folk” Mormonism (for discussion of the diversity of LDS belief and expressions of folk Mormonism, see Richley H. Crapo, "Grass-Roots Deviance from Official Doctrine: A Study of Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Folk-Belief," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, no. 4 [1987]). Finally, the article is also helpful in summarizing some of the main concerns of critics of Standing Together and the Johnson-Millet dialogue.

However, even with these positive aspects I found much in the article with which I disagree, and the remainder of this post will address these concerns, beginning with two main problems. I will then move to consideration of various other issues.

The first main area of disagreement is one which colors the perspective of the article and therefore strongly influences the overall negative conclusion that the authors have of the Johnson-Millet dialogue. The controlling hermeneutic for the authors, like the counter-cult community of which they are a part, is the presupposition of a heresy-rationalist apologetic framework for an evangelical understanding and response to the Latter-day Saints. Evangelicals tend to draw upon a limited number of conceptual frameworks in relation to the new religions, and the most prevalent is the heresy-rationalist paradigm, or the contrast of the teachings of new religions with that of evangelical Christianity followed by a judgment of heresy and an apologetic refutation (see Philip Johnson, “The Aquarian Age and Apologetics,” Lutheran Theological Journal 34, no. 2 [December 1997]). From this perspective the LDS Church is little more than a heretical “cult,” which provides little room for additional perspectives, such as those which might be gained from broader theological reflection or consideration of the insights of cross-cultural missiology. The import of the assumption of a heresy-rationalist framework is that it lends itself more to debate and boundary maintenance approaches where doctrine is concerned, rather than balancing these concerns with other considerations which can take place within interreligious dialogue. The authors of this Journal article might have a different view of the Johnson-Millet dialogue if the framework for interpretation moved beyond the paradigm of the counter-cult community.

The second major concern in this article is the unfortunate mischaracterization of the differences and disagreements between those evangelicals engaging Latter-day Saints as one of “relational or confrontational” approaches. Not only is this framed as a needless dichotomy, but it is also stated in a way that does not do justice to the broader perspectives involved. First, just as those engaging in heresy-rationalist apologetics can be exhibit the qualities of being relational or confrontational, so can those using a more holistic and missional approach. Therefore, it is not accurate to frame this dialogue in terms of being in essence a disagreement over being relational or confrontational. Second, the main issue is the need for a critical reassessment of our theology of the religions and intercultural engagement and whether it appropriate to continue to use the heresy-rationalist approach or whether it is more beneficial to consider cross-cultural missiology and its insights in the development of a new paradigm. With this question in mind those supportive of various forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, including those engaged in by Standing Together, would opt for a more reflective theology of religions that incorporates various expressions of interreligious dialogue where the emphasis is on incarnational mission approaches that emphasize relationships, but which also at times may include elements of a properly contextualized apologetic and aspects of confrontation. With this insight in mind it is clear that it is unfair and inaccurate to refer to the so-called relational approach as resulting from those who are “hypersensitive to offending individuals.” It’s not a matter of hypersensitivity, but it is a matter of appropriate sensitivity within the context of a fully orbed theology of religious and cultural interaction.

Beyond these major concerns I noted several minor issues that are problematic. But while several were noted, in the interests of brevity I will only comment on a select few.

First, unfortunately, the authors begin their article with a negative assumption about the intentions and character of Robert Millet. As noted previously, the article begins by referencing the work of Darl Anderson, a Latter-day Saint who attempted to “neutralize” anti-Mormon sentiment by drawing close to pastors and Christian leaders. The authors assume the same thing is taking place with Millet, and while caution should be exercised between representatives of these two faith communities with a history of distrust and hostility, as Leonard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20, no. 1 [Winter 1983]) states with reference to his fourth and fifth commandments of interreligious dialogue, “Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity,” and further, that “each participant must assume a similar complete honesty and sincerity in the other partners.” Again, while this is indeed difficult for members of these religious communities on either side of the divide, nevertheless as John Saliba has stated on Christian dialogue with the new religions, “To presuppose that their motives are dishonest and/or insidious would imply a rejection” of Swidler’s Decalogue (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 [Winter 1993]), and in my view this follows from the limited perspectives of viewing Mormonism through the lens of cultism which then fuels mistrust and assumptions of dishonesty.

Second, while the authors claim that being relational and civil are important virtues in Evangelical-Mormon engagement, they give the impression that one of the main criteria of appropriateness and effectiveness in ministry is whether a given audience is offended. They cite several instances in Paul’s ministry to this effect in an endnote, but curiously, while quoting Acts chapter 17 they neglect to reference Paul’s contextualized speech for the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers as he dialogued at the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-52. Neither is there a reference to other biblical texts that exemplify a sensitive cross-cultural dialogue, such as that found in John 4 with Jesus’s exchange with the Samaritan woman. The authors of this article have engaged in selective citation of Scripture which appears on the surface to support their case but does so at the expense of a balanced consideration of the relevant biblical testimony. This is unfortunate in that other biblical texts could have been cited that exemplify cross-cultural engagement and contextualization and which demonstrate their relevance to the issue of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Third, there are a few references to and quotations from Ross Anderson, a pastor at Wasatch Evangelical Church to the effect that he takes issue with the philosophy of Standing Together, and feels that the form of dialogue they are engaging in is not supported by the New Testament. I know Ross and count him as a friend. We’ve had some interesting and profitable exchanges on interreligious dialogue by email, and I am familiar with the copy of his “Caveats in Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue” document that the authors cite to highlight Ross’s theological concerns. In response I would note simply that I disagree with him here, as do other scholars, such as those associated with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. (See for example, Terry Muck’s two articles, “Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue,” JETS 36, no. 4 [December 1993], and “A New Testament Case for Interreligious Dialogue?,” ETS paper presented in November 1993.) While dialogue and evangelism can indeed be linked, dialogue is not illegitimate if the two are not connected, and several scholars have noted that there are other important facets connected with interreligious dialogue, including understanding, self-transformation, and even a greater understanding of one’s own religious tradition gained in contrast with that of another, as so carefully articulated by Gerald R. McDermott in Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (InterVarsity, 2000).

Fourth, like many evangelicals utilizing a heresy-rationalist approach, the authors seem intent on holding Mormonism’s feet to the fire of its orthodoxy as defined by the General Authorities. Thus, Robert Millet’s views are suspect. While we should surely consider the official teachings of the Church as defined by the General Authorities, we must also recognize that the LDS Church is not a monolithic entity, and there is great diversity of belief among its members, including a strand of belief that has been called “Mormon neo-orthodoxy.” Emphasis on one expression of Mormon belief at the expense of the others, particularly that being advocated by an LDS academic, is a mistake, but it is one that has been pointed out previously by evangelicals like Carl Mosser and Paul Owen in the past. Apparently it will take time before the diversity of the Mormonism (like all religions) is taken seriously by counter-cult critics.

Fifth, as mentioned above, one of the subsections of this article raises continuing concerns over Richard Mouw's comments at the Salt Lake Tabernacle critical of evangelical efforts at responding to Mormonism. While it might be agreed that Mouw's comments painted with a broad brush that unfortunately tarred every evangelical ministering among Mormons, this event took place three years ago (might it be time for mature Christians to move on?), and it would seem unfair to ignore the significance of the main purpose of the event (Zacharias speaking in the Tabernacle) while focusing on the unfortunate comments, and then using this one aspect of it to dismiss the entirety of the event sponsored by Standing Together.

Finally, and this is a minor point, the authors take exception to Standing Together and its opposition to the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith DVD that received mass distribution earlier this year. This is strange in that Standing Together did not take a public stand against this DVD. I was the evangelical who took the lead on this and I did so because the product was highly problematic. In my view, as explained in a previous blog post, this DVD was not of much value to either Latter-day Saints or evangelicals. Better resources are available to assist both religious communities in their understanding of their differences and similarities. For these reasons it seems curious that these authors attempt to impugn Standing Together, and its dialogue process, in regards to a troubling apologetic DVD.

All the above is not to say that the Johnson-Millet dialogue is perfect (no effort by flawed human beings is), or that it cannot benefit from critical reflection. For example, I will be presenting a workshop at the National Student Dialogue Conference in connection with my workshop at Salt Lake Theological Seminary that will consider the heresy-rationalist framework that brings critique to the dialogue and how we might move beyond this to better the dialogue process through reflection on the history of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Surely any effort can be improved, and this experiment in interreligious dialogue is no exception, but to bring such sweeping and unbalanced critique to it as these authors have done as to suggest it is completely illegitimate and inappropriate is unfair and inaccurate.

The authors close their article by stating that they “believe the Bible allows for a wide variety of approaches and certainly agree that a respectful demeanor is essential.” This is good to hear. Hopefully they will consider the approach advocated by this author and my respectful critique to be essential, or at least permissible. I hope so, but I'm skeptical. They and others sympathetic to the counter-cult paradigm have exhibited little ability to fairly understand and represent the growing cross-cultural missional paradigm, or various expressions within it, including some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. Perhaps this time will be a promising exception.

I have great appreciation for the Christian Research Journal, and consider Elliot Miller, its Editor-in-Chief a friend and colleague, but this article was not up to the journal’s usual standards of journalistic balance. The Journal has not exactly been on top of addressing the cross-cultural missions paradigm to new religions (as evidenced by their failure to review Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach [Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004], even though the book won the 2005 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs), and their unfamiliarity with relevant theological and missiological considerations related to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue is evident in this article. I hope that in future issues the Christian Research Institute allows a response to be published in the interests of balance, but until then, my meager thoughts will have to do.


Anonymous said...

Interesting critique.

I've noticed that a number of the concerns you express seem to involve rather common problems that underly many evengelical Christians' efforts. Or I should say that at least my own experiences would suggest they're rather common.

John W. Morehead said...

I agree with your assessment as a result of your experiences, Jarred. Many of these concerns in my critique over evangelical-Mormon dialogue could also be found in evangelical approaches to other new religious movements.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John, for your balanced and judicious insights. I just finished the CRI article myself and concur entirely with your critique.

Anonymous said...

I’m glad that people are looking into John 4 in relation to Mormonism. I’ve had this in the back of my head for quite some time. We need to recognize that Samaritanism was a cult of Judaism as Mormonism is a cult of Christianity.

Jesus didn’t focus on her heresies. He didn’t even take the bait when she tried to get him to. He went past her false doctrine right at her heart and showed her that she was in need of living water. That didn’t mean that her heresy was unimportant, it just wasn't of ULTIMATE importance.

I think there definitely is a place for MRM and Utah Lighthouse. I have no doubt that they both lead people out of Mormonism and into authentic Christianity. But just looking at the numbers, the vast majority of people who we convince to leave Mormonism leave Christ as well (something like 80%). Similar to Lewis’ description of those that followed the false-Aslan in “The Last Battle”.

I think Standing Together is in a unique position to possibly convert Mormonism rather than just Mormons. I’m rooting for them. It would be a huge success for the Kingdom. That being said, I think that Standing Together needs the pressure traditional counter-cult ministries provide on a different front. It’s not likely Greg will get very far with his “Hey I’d like to help” if someone isn’t on the other side making the LDS church say “uh oh, we may need some help.”

John W. Morehead said...

Tim, thanks for your comments. I think they are largely positive, but I would have some minor disagreements.

First, I think it is inaccurate to think of Samaritanism as a cult of Judaism. They were related religio-cultural groups, and no doubt both considered the other to be heretical, but to impose evangelical definitions of "cultism" is inaccurate.

Second, I find it problematic to consider Mormonism a cult of Christianity. For one, the term "cult" is pejorative and variously defined. I prefer the academic term new religious movement. Beyond this, while Mormonism has some relationship to the Christian tradition, and yet teaches things at wide variance with it historically, it can be understood as a heretical sect of Christianity, but also a new religious movement that is very different from the three main branches of Christendom, as scholars like Irving Hexham have argued.

As to the alleged successes of countercult methods, while I frequently here how great this is the reality is that this is merely anecdotal. No formal surveys or research has been done to discover how or why people left their Mormon faith for traditional Christianity, atheism, Paganism, or anything else. But I think you are correct in noting that many times tearing down the Mormon faith, or worldview annihilation as I like to call it, often makes more atheists than assists in transition from one faith to another.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this helpful and informative critique. I listened to the radio show as well, most likely the same one, and was interested in the contents of the article mentioned.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderfully crafted response to the CRJ piece. Thank you for continuing to offer a voice of sanity and sobriety in the midst of the hysterical rhetoric which tends to dominate evangelical/Mormon discussions. The typical "apologetics" paradigm simply cannot account for the fact that Jesus acknowledges the Samaritans worship the true God, though not in spirit and truth (John 4:22-23); Acts 10:31-35 teaches that God acknowledges the piety of sincere people outside the Church; Paul acknowledges the genuine religiosity of the Athenians as being offered to the same God proclaimed in Christian preaching (Acts 17:22-23); and elsewhere sees no reason to avoid commending the Jews for their genuine zeal for the true God whom Christians worship (Rom. 10:2), though they lack a proper understanding of the ways of God. The Bible is not afraid to commend true religious sentiment and experience outside the realm of the kingdom of Christ, but such facts fall on deaf ears in the "counter-cult" community.

Anonymous said...

So how effective is this new technique?

John W. Morehead said...

Anonymous, who said it was new? And how are you defining "effective"?

I wonder whether you adopt a counter-cult perspective where one of the criticisms is that this is allegedly new and therefore supposedly superior to other interactions with LDS. Of course, LDS-Evangelical dialogue has been going on for some time, but this expression of public dialogue is new I believe. But regardless of whether it is or not we must consider whether it is appropriate as a means of engaging other human beings for a variety of reasons.

And are you defining success by the "conversion meter" as counter-cult folks often do? If so you might consider a braoder framework for analysis. Dialogue has a connection to proclamation, but is broader than conversion, so it is inappropriate to consider it as merely a means to the end of conversion.

We need to expand our conceptual categories and possibilities where such dialogue is under consideration.