Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Available for Purchase Through WIIS

The book Beyond the Burning Times has thus far been very well received by reviewers, whether Pagan or evangelical Christian. But unfortunately, securing copies in the U.S. has been difficult. As we work with the publisher in the U.K. to fix this problem, limited copies of the book are available for purchase through the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. They are available for $20 each, which includes shipping, which represents a savings of almost $2 over Amazon.com. Checks can be made out to "WIIS" and orders can be submitted to us at 358 South 700 East, Suite B356, Salt Lake City, Utah 84102.

In addition, I will be promoting the book at the upcoming Ogden Pagan Pride Day this weekend, and next month at the Salt Lake City Pagan Pride Day, through the circulation of press releases on the book. Copies of the book will be available for review as well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An LDS Perspective on Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate

Reactions to Evangelical and Latter-day Saint interactions in book form have been mixed, with many Evangelicals unhappy with How Wide the Divide? (especially in the countercult community), and early reviews indicating that they area also apparently unhappy with Greg Johnson and Bob Millet's recent book Bridging the Divide. From what little I've seen, evangelicals appear more satisfied with the interactions between Gerald McDermott and Millet in Claiming Christ, but is it possible that in a volume that makes Evangelicals feel more comfortable about defining the differences between Evangelical theology and that of the Latter-day Saints that we may have talked past our dialogue partners?

One of the blogs that I enjoy is Summa Theologica - Interfaith Dialogue, a blog that comes from "aquinas," a pseudonym for a thoughtful and articulate Latter-day Saint who is appreciative of Evangelical-LDS dialogue. In our exchanges he shared his impressions of Claiming Christ and I asked if he'd consider responding to a few questions concerning his thoughts. The result may be found below. A humble reading of the following interview will benefit Evangelicals as they consider how their efforts at communicating theological issues are perceived by others.

Morehead’s Musings: aquinas, I appreciate your support of Mormon-Evangelical dialogue, and I think you have brought some helpful considerations and commentary to this topic on your blog. In our recent email exchanges you have shared some of your thoughts on the discussion between Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott in the book Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Baker Academic, 2008) that I think will be helpful for evangelicals and Latter-day Saints to consider. Let’s begin with the general and move to some specifics. What were your general impressions after reading Claiming Christ?

aquinas: John, thanks for the opportunity to offer my thoughts on the book. One of my immediate concerns was the format. Before reading the book I thought the subtitle “A Mormon-Evangelical Debate” was chosen more or less for marketing purposes. I didn’t really believe Millet or McDermott would be interested in “debating” their beliefs. I was surprised when I saw that the book begins with one side giving an initial essay and the other side providing a “response” followed by a “rebuttal” by the initial author. While religious debates can be useful, in practice they tend not to enhance mutual understanding. They tend to play to the audience. The advocates are not trying to understand the other side so much as they desire to prevail on a certain point. Despite its appearance, I consider these debates to be less a species of interreligious communication and more a form of “spectacle” where the purpose is to communicate to one’s own faith group the superiority or validity of one’s beliefs in opposition to the religious other.

Readers of Claiming Christ (“CC”) should notice that McDermott is not really speaking to a Latter-day Saint audience, nor is he trying to present Evangelical views to Latter-day Saints in a winsome manner. He is writing for an Evangelical audience. He states in the introduction that his goal is to challenge Millet’s assertion that the Christ of the Latter-day Saints is essentially no different from the Christ as viewed by Evangelicals.1 In doing so, one might argue that McDermott is engaging in classic boundary-maintenance—the same paradigm that has dominated Mormon-Evangelical discourse for years. To be fair, however, McDermott urges Evangelicals to abandon stereotypes and caricatures of Mormonism and attempts to offer a more informed critique. Now, ironically, Millet doesn’t play the corresponding role of debater in this book. Readers should notice that Millet is not primarily writing for a Latter-day Saint audience for the purpose of demonstrate the superiority of Latter-day Saint belief, which would be his expected role. It isn’t until the second chapter that Millet explains, “My purpose ... is not to convince readers that they should walk where I walk; it is to invite them to stand in my shoes for a season at least, and then to be in a position to make a meaningful and informed assessment of LDS Christianity.”2

Throughout CC, Millet does not respond to McDermott by using apologetic arguments or by citing the leading works in LDS scholarship. Rather, Millet prefers to relate personal experiences, stories, narratives, and rhetorical questions to achieve his goal of inviting the reader to “stand in his shoes.” Well, you can imagine the result that naturally flows from these disjointed goals of the authors and the debate format of the book. At times I feel the authors really talk past each other. The book would have been stronger had the authors given more consideration to their goals, and also explained why they opted for the format that they did. From my perspective, the format of the book was a step backward. After ten years of progress since How Wide the Divide? (“HWD”) was published, I expected more.

Morehead’s Musings: You said in our email exchanges that you felt as if McDermott was not as familiar with Mormonism as he could have been, and that their exchange did not come across as a mutually interactive dialogue. Can you address these areas a little more and provide some specific examples of your concerns?

aquinas: I would like to preface my remarks by acknowledging that in any book of this nature neither Evangelicals nor Mormons will be completely satisfied. We learned in the aftermath of HWD that many Evangelicals felt that both Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson were unqualified to engage in such a project. Latter-day Saint and Evangelical scholars expressed their lament that Robinson did not inform Blomberg of certain studies, and did not cite such studies in his responses. Such comments are inevitable. From the limited Evangelical responses I have read, Evangelicals were disappointed with McDermott’s views on inerrancy, which I had not expected. I felt Evangelical critics would be pleased with the debate format.

My substantive concerns began in the third chapter. McDermott writes: “The Mormon Jesus is a different God from the Father; he is one of (at least) three Gods; he was a man who once was not God; his nature is the same as ours; he is one whose nature and fullness we ourselves can attain; and he does not transcend the cosmos.”3 My initial response was that this language could have come from any typical anticult work on Mormonism. I did not find the kind of effort at translating theological terminology that I found in HWD. Neither Millet nor McDermott spend much time defining the terms God or gods. Millet gives the impression that it is official LDS orthodoxy that God was not always divine when this only one interpretation of Joseph’s King Follett Discourse.4 Perhaps because of this, McDermott fails to appreciate traditions within Mormonism. In other areas, for example, McDermott seems to not be aware that Latter-day Saints draw a distinction between Paradise and Heaven,5 and fails to engage works by David Paulsen and Blake Ostler in regards to the Trinity, the canon, and creatio ex nihilo.6 On the other hand, Millet also fails to point readers to Paulsen or Ostler’s writings which is odd given McDermott’s decidedly philosophical focus.7 At times McDermott cites Robinson in HWD but apparently did not consult any of the important critiques of HWD, including Owen and Mosser’s significant response published in FARMS Review.8 Rarely does McDermott cite Latter-day Saint scriptures when asserting Mormonism teaches such and such, but instead prefers to cite from either Millet’s works or the Encyclopedia on Mormonism published by Macmillan Press.

Morehead’s Musings: You have also said that you found the dialogue between Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson more helpful in HWD. Why is that? And in anticipation of Evangelical critics of that book, is your appreciation for HWD due to perceptions that Blomberg conceded quite a bit to Robinson in that exchange?

aquinas: First of all, HWD was criticized because it allowed an articulate Latter-day Saint to describe Mormonism to Evangelicals. This was perceived as a kind of affront to the countercult movement, which has enjoyed a kind of monopoly of explaining Mormonism to Evangelicals. In addition, I believe it was criticized for the very fact that it wasn’t a debate but rather a conversation. In the words of one observer, it was hard to see how anyone can “win” a conversation, but apparently critics felt there were winners and losers in the conversation.9 In my opinion, HWD, despite criticisms, is still the core text, and best model, for Mormon-Evangelical relations. The goal of HWD was not defeating the opponent but rather seeking to understand the other in conversation. Blomberg wrote not just for an Evangelical audience but was realistically speaking to a Latter-day Saint audience, something that is rarely done.

The format of HWD was far superior to that in CC. The pattern of “Evangelical Position,” “Avoiding Mischaracterizations,” “Evangelical Misgivings,” and “A Positive Conclusion” was extremely helpful and worked rather well with the caveat that I believe Blomberg and Robinson felt that if they were to do it again they would title the sections Robinson or Blomberg’s Position rather than the LDS or the Evangelical Position.10 The headings themselves explained the goals of HWD. The goal was to explain misgivings about each other’s doctrine and explain how to avoid mischaracterizations. The footnotes for HWD were comprehensive, offered extended explanation and put readers in contact with a greater body of literature.

CC lacked this structure and organization, but it would have been easy to reorganize the essays under these headings. Furthermore, Robinson and Blomberg were responding to each other’s essay regardless of who went first in order and the Joint Conclusion allowed the authors to fully refine their understandings. In contrast, CC’s pattern of Essay, Response, Rebuttal, left little space for actual exchange. The chapters offered no joint conclusions. Without a better structure I wasn’t exactly sure where the authors were going with their essays, and the rebuttal and conclusion forever left the reader wondering what the other side really thought. There was always an unsettled and incomplete feeling to the endings. I really don’t understand why the authors would abandon the successful format of HWD.

HWD focused on a few core areas in four chapters. Perhaps, CC tries to do too much by tackling several more themes (8 chapters) but never giving any of the topics an adequate treatment. In many places it is repetitive and some of the chapters should have been consolidated. CC does cover issues that HWD did not such as the sacraments and church organization, and this was helpful but I didn’t really feel much engagement on point. In regards to topics like baptism for the dead, McDermott, again in my opinion, offers nothing substantially different than common arguments (i.e. “second chance” to repent theory).11 The chapter on the Book of Mormon was quite disappointing and superficial.

Morehead’s Musings: After the release of HWD there was considerable discussion by Mormons and Evangelicals. What were some of the responses, critiques, and dialogues that you saw in the aftermath of that book that you’d like to see built upon in Mormon-Evangelical dialogue?

aquinas: I think it is important that anyone considering writing a book of this type consult the literature. Much has been written on these topics. Indeed, one of Owen and Mosser’s main criticisms of Evangelical responses to Mormonism, which still has validity, was the lack of engagement with LDS scholarship.12 In addition, Latter-day Saint writers need to acquaint themselves with literature outside their area of expertise and cite it appropriately. Latter-day Saint authors need to be aware of various traditions within Mormonism where faithful Latter-day Saints may disagree and explain this to Evangelical readers.

One of the challenges of Mormon-Evangelical relations is overcoming the Evangelical reliance on the countercult movement for their understanding of Mormonism. This has led to a situation where Evangelicals are constantly skeptical of engaging with Mormons. Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion & philosophy at Wabash College, tellingly remarked that when discussing the positive impact that CC had on him with other theologians. They warned him “about the potential treachery of engaging Mormons in theological debate.”13 A pparently, “[p]art of the problem has to do with the complexity and secrecy of Mormon beliefs. Mormon apologists can pick and choose their beliefs, playing up or down ideas that others might find odd or offensive.”14 Whether one agrees with the validity of this perception, it still is the perception. However, with the effort of many people involved in Mormon-Evangelical dialogues, this situation is largely improving. Webb explained “I trust [Robert Millet] in part because McDermott trusts him, which is to say, the book worked wonders for me.”15 We must take advantage of the insightful material produced by these exchanges. For example, McDermott discusses the prisca theologie in his essay but actually failed to appreciate Terryl L. Givens’s contributions on the prisca theologie at “The Worlds of Joseph Smith” Conference held in 2005 (McDermott was at the same conference), which would have greatly enhanced understanding.16 Of course, because it wasn’t a discussion for the purpose of mutual understanding, but a debate where McDermott was arguing that the LDS Jesus is not the same as traditional orthodoxy, there may have been less incentive to explore these issues.

Morehead’s Musings: You appear to have reservations about whether theologians are best equipped to engage in the kind of dialogue you would like to see take place between Mormons and Evangelicals. Why is this, and what disciplines and perspectives might add important dimensions to the dialogue process in your view?

aquinas: I only mean to say that we should be interdisciplinary in our approach and understand the contributions of religious studies, intercultural communication, sociology, etc., in our interreligious dialogues. As one example, McDermott claims that Mormons believe that Jesus was merely a mortal or that he was no different than us, and yet he cites a Barna Survey that concludes that “the people most likely to describe Jesus’ life as sinless were those who attend Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches, as well as Mormons, while those least likely to view Jesus as sinless attend Episcopal, Catholic and Lutheran churches.”17 Now, McDermott needs to explain how Latter-day Saints, who have a theology that purportedly teaches them that Jesus is “no different from us,” empirically speaking, do not believe that Jesus is “no different than us.” In other words, theology should reflect reality. This is a devastating problem for McDermott in my opinion. We need to start using these sociological studies to “check” our theological conjectures.

Morehead’s Musings: You provided two interesting examples for your plea that we move beyond apologetic frameworks, even those that are largely theological in orientation but still informed in some senses by apologetic concerns, and you spoke of the examples of the Church Fathers and C. S. Lewis. In your view Mormons and Evangelicals talk past each other in these areas as they make their cases apologetically. Can you discuss how you see this taking place with these examples, and we might move beyond our present forms of interaction to break new ground?

aquinas: I’m not sure it’s useful to bar Latter-day Saints from appealing to the words of other Evangelical writers or other Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis or from the writings of the early Church Fathers. The argument goes something like this: Since the early church fathers were not Mormon, then nothing Mormons quote from the early church fathers proves Mormonism. C.S. Lewis wasn’t Mormon, so C.S. Lewis is irrelevant to anything a Mormon has to say. Millet is utilizing the language of Christian thinkers and saying, “I can agree with this, this is what I am trying to say.” Millet is seeking out language which might convey his agreement in certain areas. In fact, this was already mentioned by Stephen Robinson in HWD, he writes, “When I read Clement or Irenaeus or C.S. Lewis and say, “There! That’s exactly what I believe,” Evangelicals usually answer, “No, that’s not what you believe at all.”18 Unfortunately, McDermott continues that tradition. McDermott explain in his public conversation at Roanoke College, “All [orthodox theologians] agree that we can never become gods ontologically. . . A recent study published by Oxford University Press has showed that the Greek fathers agree too, and that LDS scholars who claim the support of the Greek fathers for their view of deification cannot do so legitimately.”19

It isn’t that McDermott observation doesn’t have merit, but I hope that Evangelicals conversing with Latter-day Saints may come to see such language as an attempt to communicate. Perhaps this is an impossible request given the strong goals of boundary-maintenance in Evangelical apologetics. However, if Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals read the biblical data through different interpretive lenses, why should anyone be surprised if they read the early church fathers differently as well? It is clear, for example, that C.S. Lewis held to the traditional notions of creatio ex nihilo.20 Should this, however, automatically bar any Latter-day Saint from finding appeal in the words of C.S. Lewis, simply because Latter-day Saints do not hold to absolute creation out of nothing?

Evangelicals concerned solely with boundary-maintenance can always flash the creatio ex nihilo or the ontology card. But I do not think this is ultimately helpful for either Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints in dialogue. If Robinson or Millet is attracted to the language of the early Church Fathers or C.S. Lewis (even where real differences exist) it makes more sense to me to inquire more deeply into the appeal, rather than simply dismiss it as illegitimate.

Morehead’s Musings: This book presents an academic discussion of theological issues. But while such theological frameworks may appeal to Evangelicals who approach their faith and interactions with those of other faiths with this priority and framework in mind, it runs the risk of missing the mark in communicating meaningfully with Latter-day Saints. This is not to dismiss the importance of worldview and doctrine which are surely related to ethics and praxis, but what might be the (even assumed) frameworks that Latter-day Saints begin with, and how might Evangelicals begin from these starting points and then bridge the way to their concerns over theological discussion?

aquinas: This is a great question. If I may, I’d like to use the term metaphor rather than framework. We really need spend more time learning each other’s metaphors. I think McDermott “breaks” Latter-day Saint metaphors by projecting and imposing criteria and meaning from Evangelical metaphors. I’d like to offer three examples of this. Hopefully, this better explains what I mean.

First, McDermott makes the argument that the LDS Jesus doesn’t transcend the cosmos.21 The Latter-day Saint metaphor is that God creates by bringing order out of Chaos. Cosmos is order. Chaos is disorder, unformed the unorganized. God speaks to Chaos and it obeys. What McDermott really means is the LDS God doesn’t transcend Chaos because Chaos exists when God creates. I can see that point of view. But the metaphor only makes sense when Cosmos and Chaos are opposites. The metaphor doesn’t care or it doesn’t make an issue of Chaos pre-existing as a challenge to the absoluteness of God. The point is not who exists before: God or Chaos. The point is that it is God who is creating by speaking to the waters. The point in this metaphor is that God is God because of his creative powers. The Holy Ghost broods over the waters and brings forth heaven and earth from the primordial waters in Genesis. That is one example.22

A second example is the Latter-day Saint metaphor of the hidden, the fragment, the shard, the vestige, the remnant. Terryl Givens did an excellent job describing this view at the “Worlds of Joseph Smith” Conference.23 Mormonism emphasizes possibilities and potentialities, the recovery of truths and lost worlds, bringing forth hidden things to light.24 In the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Lehi was given a book to read. Angels read to Joseph Smith heavenly versions of a Bible that man does not possess. Nibley once spoke of the Temple as a kind of divine library or repository of all knowledge.25 The metaphor is that of non-finality and dynamism, ongoing revelation and an open canon. Here, I think McDermott “breaks” the metaphor when he claims that Mormons have creeds just like Evangelicals.26 It may be the case that Mormons make too much of their anti-creedal heritage, but my sense is that McDermott’s assertion that Mormons have creeds just like Evangelicals really masks some of these characteristics of Mormonism that I’m talking about. It also overlooks the function of creeds as understood by Joseph Smith, which he believed set up stakes, allowing people to accept only so much but no more.27

If you allow me to make a reference to popular culture, Latter-day Saints might watch the opening scene of The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring movie and imagine early Christian history when we are told: “History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge. . . Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” Given Mormon metaphor of lost worlds and lost truth, Mormons might experience a connection between this scene and an apostasy narrative where truths were lost over time.

Now, when I say this, it is my hope that Evangelicals might respond by saying, “Hmm, that is interesting, maybe there is something to that, maybe LDS do see the potential, the hidden, the fragment, truths that are pieced together that reveal hidden worlds, the remnant, and the ruin.” But sometimes I feel the reaction from Evangelicals is to quickly respond: “Tolkien wasn’t Mormon. Tolkien wasn’t teaching Mormonism, or the so-called Great Apostasy. This scene wasn’t from Tolkien, it was from Peter Jackson.” Perhaps another reaction would be to gather several Tolkien scholars culminating in a book arguing that Tolkien never believed in Mormonism. I’m perhaps engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but the point is that such a response would be not appreciating and understanding the metaphor.

This metaphor runs all through Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Joseph reveals things that are hidden. The Book of Mormon is still a sealed book. The Nephites come across bones and people in a distant land and wonder about their history. They discover twenty-four plates among the ruins and exclaim, “Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates.” Nephi speaks of more revelation to come, even a vision of the entire history of the world. Joseph Smith received a revelation of a fragment of the parchment of John. The Book of Abraham abruptly ends, without any sort of conclusion, suggesting to the reader that there is more that we simply do not have. Worlds burst on to the scene and then end abruptly. We are only given slices of visions here and there.

A third example, which is probably more of a different paradigm, is the clash of the role of evidence and faith. For Mormons, evidence can never create a testimony ex nihilo. At best, evidence might support a pre-existing testimony but can never create one out of nothing. Evangelicals, it often seems, claim they put their trust in the scientific evidence and objective proof that Christianity is true. The Gospels, they argue, are historically reliable and provide the best proof that Christianity is true. Mormons simply cannot accept that faith and belief come from objective evidence and proof, otherwise what would be the difficultly in accepting the claims of Christianity? This is the opposite of faith for Latter-day Saints. Faith is the evidence of things not seen. Bushman articulated well these ideas in his autobiographical work On the Road with Joseph:

Mormons wonder why all Christian don’t understand that we believe in the Book of Mormon on the basis of a spiritual witness. It is very hard for a Mormon to believe that Christians accept the Bible because of scholarly evidence confirming the historically accuracy of the work. Surely there are uneducated believers whose convictions are not rooted in academic knowledge. Isn’t there some kind of human, existential truth that resonates with one’s desires for goodness and divinity? And isn’t that ultimately why we read the Bible as a devotional work? We don’t have to read the latest issues of the journal to find out if the book is still true.28

So one of the reasons this doesn’t make sense for many Latter-day Saints is that it excludes a lot of people from having a viable and valid witness of the truth. It excludes all the early Christians who never had any archeological proof of the Old Testament. It excludes children from having valid witnesses of truth. It excludes elderly men and women, who may not be up on the latest scholarship and academic knowledge.29 It is simply difficult to believe Evangelicals who say their witness is based on scientific evidence and rationalism. As Bushman says, we think they believe as we do, but they do not. But perhaps this fits our respective paradigms. For someone who believes God has revealed everything that has given us complete and final truth, everything is in a final version. What else is there to do but look at all the truth? However, for someone who believes more is coming, and more will be revealed, we can’t wait until all the facts are in to decide whether to believe. We have to believe in something, even tentatively; otherwise we will never be able to have faith.

One of the problems with the debate format is that it doesn’t tend to encourage this kind of exploration into each other’s metaphors and paradigms, which is really necessary for significant understanding.

Last of all, if Evangelicals want to reach Latter-day Saints they should spend more time thinking about what is good, edifying, uplifting about Evangelical theology and doctrine and conveying that to Mormons. This is supported by the Mormon mission—to seek out the virtuous, lovely or praiseworthy. It is an article of the Mormon faith. The concept of goodness is one that Richard Bushman has tried to articulate to his audiences. In the Book of Mormon narrative, Lehi speaks of tasting the fruit of the Tree of Life. The prophet Mormon says that he “was visited of the Lord, and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus.” Joseph Smith talked about how the doctrines taste good to him.

Evangelicals, in my experience, sometimes misunderstand Mormons who talk about taste. They generally reduce this concept to that of flavor, and that this runs afoul of a kind of post-modernist, relativist position that you might like chocolate and I might like vanilla and thus we only have our preferences on which to rely. This is not what Latter-day Saints mean by tasting truth. It is not a preference or a flavor; it is taste at its deepest level. In the Book of Mormon account, Lehi didn’t measure the fruit of the tree of life, or merely look at it, or hold it, or prove its existence by argument or by archeological means, he tasted of the fruit, which was sweet and desirable to make one happy. It’s difficult to communicate taste to another person, it must be experienced. We can taste beauty and goodness in our lives.

As I said before, often the Evangelical position resists the notion that truth is contingent on beauty and goodness because it seems too subjective and post-modernist. Things can appear to be good and appear to be beautiful, but it doesn’t make it so, goes the argument. However, my sense is that Latter-day Saints simply won’t respond to this. The gospel must taste good or it is not true. The metaphor correctly understood I feel will be extremely useful to Evangelicals trying to communicate with Mormons.

Morehead’s Musings: aquinas, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book. I hope that the conversation can continue on this blog and your own, and that these exchanges contribute something positive to Evangelical-LDS dialogue.

aquinas: I hope to offer a more extensive review on my blog at some point. Lastly, I want your readers to know that while I have offered criticisms of CC, these criticisms come from a desire to see the dialogue improve and to continue. If anything else, some of my concluding thoughts after reading CC was “We need to keep talking!” I want to thank Professor Millet and Professor McDermott for sharing with readers the results of their communication and for contributing to the continuing conversation.


1. Claiming Christ, p. 8.
2. Claiming Christ, p. 54.
3. Claiming Christ, p. 64.
4. See Ostler, Blake T. “Bridging the Gulf.” FARMS Review 11.2 (1999): 103-177.
5. Claiming Christ, p. 212 “Even if baptism for the dead were permitted, there is nothing in scripture making baptism essential to any heaven. Quite the contrary, in fact; the good thief on the cross, who was not baptized, was told by Jesus that he would be in Paradise with him that very day.”
6. Blake T. Ostler, “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo,” in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast- Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen),” FARMS Review 17.2 (2005): 253–320; David L. Paulsen and R. Dennis Potter, “How Deep the Chasm? A Reply to Owen and Mosser’s Review,” FARMS Review 11.2 (1999): 221–264.
7. See Claiming Christ, p. 9. McDermott writes, “A third difference between this book and Blomberg and Robinson’s is that this one is more theologically oriented. Both Robinson and Blomberg are scripture scholars, first and foremost.”
8. Connelly, Matthew R., Craig L. Blomberg, Stephen E. Robinson and BYU Studies Staff. “Sizing Up the Divide: Reviews and Replies,” BYU Studies, 38/3 (1999):163-190; Mosser, Carl and Paul Owen, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation” [including Appendix: Hellenism, Greek Philosophy, and the Creedal “Straightjacket” of Christian Orthodoxy] FARMS Review 11.2 (1999): 103-177. Mosser and Owen’s article was significant because it was the first time Evangelical scholars had been published in FARMS Review.
9. See William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, “The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation),” FARMS Review 11.2 (1999): 178–209.
10. Craig Blomberg. “How Wide the Divide? Eleven Years Later, Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation.” Denver Seminary’s Women’s Forum, Feb 27, 2008.
11. Claiming Christ, p. 209.
12. Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” Trinity Journal 19.2 (Fall 1998): 179–205. “Third, currently there are (as far as we are aware) no books from an evangelical perspective that responsibly interact with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings.” P. 181.
13. Stephen H. Webb. “Review of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate – By Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott.” Reviews in Religion and Theology, 15. 3 (July 2008) pp. 426-429 (4).
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Terryl L. Givens. “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude,” BYU Studies 44.4 (2005): 55-68. Republished in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John Welch. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006).
17. Claiming Christ, pp. 63, 71.
18. HWD, p. 209, ft 16.
19. Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott. A Public Conversation on “The Mormon Jesus” given at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, on September 20, 2005. (audio marker 12:43-13:15).
20. See Evan Stephensen, "The Last Battle: C.S. Lewis and Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30.4 (1997): 43-69. Stephensen explores Robinson’s usage of Lewis. See also Jordan Vajda, "Partakers of the Divine Nature": A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002). In his chapter “Theosis and Exaltation: In Dialogue” Vajda explains: “The aim of this chapter is to begin to clarify why Professor Robinson would find an equivalence to his belief in exaltation in the doctrinal writings of patristic authors as well as why his belief in an exact parallel would be challenged by his non-LDS friends.”
21. Claiming Christ, 75.
22. Mircea Eliade’s discussion of the cosmos and chaos could prove beneficial here. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987; orig. pub. 1957).
23. Terryl L. Givens. “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude,” BYU Studies 44.4 (2005): 55-68. Republished in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John Welch. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006).
24. Ibid., 60.
25. Hugh Nibley, “The Genesis of the Written Word,” New Era, Sep 1973, 38. Reprinted in Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless: Classic Essays of Hugh Nibley. (Provo: RSC, 1978) 101-27 and Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present. CWHN 12. Don E. Norton, ed., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992): 450-490.
26. Claiming Christ, 19.
27. Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook. (eds). The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1980): 256.
28. Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Gregg Kofford Books, 2007): 15.
29. See for example the personal anecdote given by Robert L. Millet. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” a BYU-Idaho Devotional given January 27, 2004. Millet’s story has been published in his books Getting at the Truth (2004) and A Different Jesus? (2007).

Two New Reviews: Beyond the Burning Times

Two new reviews have surfaced on Beyond the Burning Times (Lion, 2008), written by Pagan reviewers.

The first comes from Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wildhunt blog in a review posted at Amazon.com:

A milestone in Christian-Pagan dialog, August 21, 2008
By Jason Pitzl "Jason Pitzl-Waters" (Urbana, IL) -
I think I can whole-heartedly state that this is the best book of its kind (so far), and should be read by as many Pagans and Christians as possible. It represents a quantum leap forward in Pagan-Christian relations. I'm very pleased that Gus diZerega was chosen to represent a Pagan perspective and treated as an equal. His history of interfaith work, and deep understanding of Pagan theologies, makes him a perfect representative. Obviously, as a Pagan, I agree far more often with Gus than I do with Philip, but that is to be expected. I appreciated Philip Johnson's calm and even-handed responses to Gus, and his love-centered view of the gospels. There were a few instances where each"talked past" the other, but I suspect that is a normal hazard of such dialogs. If you are a Pagan with Christian relatives, this is a great "first book" to give them. Likewise, if you are a Christian trying to understand a Pagan friend or relative I would urge you to turn to Beyond the Burning Times before heading to some of the more sensationalistic Christian-penned works.
This second review is by Michael Gleason and it was posted on the Earthwise Yahoo! group. One correction is in order in that Philip Johnson is in fact a conservative evangelical, not a liberal Christian:

This book is going to make everyone uncomfortable, and that is a good thing. It will force both Pagans and Christians to confront what they think they "know" about the other side of the debate. Neither side is composed entirely of "virtuous" or "nasty" individuals.

Gus diZerega (a Third Degree Gardnerian, with a Ph.D. in Political Theory) and Philip Johnson (a liberal Christian) engage in a give-and-take dialogue on topics ranging from the nature of spirituality to nature, and on to Paganism, Christianity and the Culture Wars. There is an abundance of courtesy evident throughout this book. The dialogue shows that it is possible to be on opposite sides of this divide and still remain civil while considering the other side's position.

Of course, Mr. Johnson's positions do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of all Christians, just as Dr. diZerega's do not represent all Pagans (or even all Witches). Regardless, these two gentlemen show the best of their respective belief systems.

It is impossible to read this text without encountering ideas that force you to look at your own beliefs. Whether that confrontation leads you to change your thinking is irrelevant. The examination is the important aspect. This book should be read by every Elder (Pagan and Christian), every Priest (ditto), Priestess and Minister.

I hope, and expect, that it will lead to some interesting discussions at inter-faith gatherings. Such discussions should lead to better understanding and more tolerance among members of such groups.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Summary Thoughts: New Book Generation Hex

I have been interacting quite a bit with the Pagan community over the Internet in promotion of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Hudson, 2008), and as a result, one of my Pagan contacts asked me if I was aware of a new book by Dillon Burroughs and Marla Alupoaicei titled Generation Hex: Understanding the Subtle Dangers of Wicca (Harvest House, 2008). I had not heard of the book previously, and after contacting Marla and the publisher they graciously sent a review copy.

Generation Hex is a volume addressed to an evangelical Christian audience, and it is divided into two main sections, the first addresses "What is Wicca?", and the second moves to a response with "What Should I Do About Wicca?". The first section of the book involves nine chapters that address why evangelicals should be concerned about Wicca, its popularity, its origins, teachings and practices, its concept of the divine, female involvement in Wicca, the story of a former Wiccan turned Christian, and its concern for the environment. The second part of the book includes six chapters and a frequently asked questions section.

This book incorporates several positive features, including the authors' interviews with Wiccans as part of the research process for the preparation of the book, a recognition that many Wiccans and other Pagans have had negative experiences with Christians and churches to which Christians should be sensitive and self-critical, and a desire to move beyond and correct stereotypes of Wicca perpetuated by Christians. Yet despite these commendable aspects I found several elements in the book problematic.

Sensationalistic marketing
The marketing for the book, as reflected on the back cover, presents the volume as "an eye-opening expose of Wicca," a sensationalistic way to describe a treatment of a spiritual pathway that is open to examination by anyone interested in talking to its practitioners, reading their books, or consulting the growing body of academic literature on the topic. Since an expose is unnecessary, this sensationalistic tone used by the publisher fuels the tabloid-nature of evangelical treatment of new religious movements and detracts from the credibility of the volume.

Problematic use of demographic data
As Generation Hex sets forth its initial case as to why Christians should care about Wicca it does so by pointing to Wicca's increasing popularity. The book states that, "Studies confirm that Wicca is the fastest-growing religion in America. By some estimates, it will become America's third-largest religion by 2012 (after Christianity and Judaism)." In order to substantiate this claim the authors cite Wiccan author Phyillis Curott to the effect that there were "between three and five million Wiccans [living] in the United States by the end of 1999." The authors' use of demographic data is is fraught with difficulties in that the claim that Wicca is the fastest-growing religion, poised to be the third largest in the U.S. by 2012, can be traced to a press release by evangelical writer Steve Wohlberg. I have addressed this topic previously, but Wohlberg's press release makes the case for Wiccan growth by mere assertion, with no demographic studies cited to support the claim. In addition, Burroughs and Alupoaiccei include an endnote reference to this sidebar that points readers to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey which estimates the Wiccan population at 307,000. Even if this statistic is on the conservative side, it comes nowhere near the number need to justify Wohlberg or Curott's claims as to the numbers of Wiccans in the United States. Unfortunately, Burroughs and Alupoaicei have engaged in a poor use of demographic data and whether it is intended or not, it will paint an inaccurate and alarming picture for evangelical readers.

Misinterpretation of popular culture
As the authors continue their discussion of Wicca's popularity, like many evangelical writers touching on the topic, they devote an entire chapter to the alleged role of the Harry Potter novels and films in the rising interest in Wicca. (Elsewhere in the book they share similar concerns over television programs like Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and even the Disney film Hocus Pocus.) One of the chief concerns for these authors is the "disturbing witchcraft-related spiritual themes". Unfortunately, Burroughs and Alupoaicei repeat the hermeneutical error of many evangelicals writing on Potter which results in a misinterpretation of Rowling's works. As C. S. Lewis noted, a writer draws upon diverse sources in the non-fictional world in order to create a fantasy world. These sources may include folklore, myth, legend, and even religious elements. However, these elements take their meaning from within the story in the context of the fantasy world as defined by the author, not with reference to their external sources. With this interpretive principle in mind, turning to the Potter stories it is clear that Rowling has created a contemporary fantasy story involving a myth of witchcraft similar to the fairytale depictions of the witch from times past, an archetypal figure with no connection to real Wiccans in our neighborhoods. If evangelicals want to be taken seriously beyond their subculture they will have to exercise more caution in their engagement with fantasy media, and they will have to exercise even greater caution in their attempts at connecting the dots to new religious movements.

Wiccan Ritual and Belief
As the authors consider Wiccan teachings, much like their concern over Potter-mania, they also mention their concern over Halloween and its allegedly dangerous influences on American society. More careful reflection on the historical and cultural development of Halloween, and its present expressions in American culture, would have revealed the secular nature of this increasingly popular holiday, and its lack of connection in any serious way to the teachings and practice of Wicca. This misinterpretation of Halloween represents another hermeneutical error in properly interpreting an aspect of popular culture.

Also in this section of the book the authors present a "quick-reference guide" on Wicca's "core beliefs," which are then presented in summary form in relation to the categories of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, sin, salvation, angels, and the afterlife. Burroughs and Alupoaicei would have assisted their evangelical readers in this section by noting that Wicca is more properly construed as a spirituality involving ritual rather than belief at its core, and this is not mentioned in relation to the quick-reference guide, or in the later chapter on Wiccan belief. In addition, when discussing some of the beliefs found among Wiccans, in order to understand Wicca from an empathetic perspective of a Wiccan practitioner, it would have been helpful for the authors to discuss Wiccan beliefs using their terminology and priorities for belief rather than those of the evangelical. Granted, this book is written for evangelicals, however, it must find a way to accurately communicate the essence of Wicca in ways recognizable by Wiccans for evangelical outsiders.

Completely overcoming stereotypes
One final concern I had about this volume was its hesitancy to move completely beyond stereotypes of Wicca. As noted above, the authors do point out many of the stereotypes associated with Wicca and they seek to provide a corrective, but they don't accomplish this completely. For example, in a chapter where the authors discuss the surprises they encountered in their research for the book, one of the authors (Burroughs) addresses one of the surprises he encountered in terms of alleged links between Wicca, Satanism, sexual promiscuity, and child abuse: "I've found these assertions to be unfounded (at least in mainstream Wicca)." I italicized the last portion of the quote to draw attention to the issue I'm raising here. While Burroughs was pleased to discover that Wicca does not engage in the worst of its stereotypical associations, nevertheless, for Burroughs this appears to be the case with "mainstream Wicca," which appears to leave room for non-mainstream or underground Wicca, whatever those may be. A similar hesitancy to move beyond stereotypes occurs earlier in the book when the authors dispel the myth that Wiccans worship Satan. The authors correctly assure us this is not the case, and yet they include the additional notation that "Most Wiccans don't believe in the existence of Satan." My emphasis, again, but most? I have yet to encounter a Wiccan who does, and to leave this door open a crack represents yet another example of a hesitancy to completely dismiss the stereotypes about Wicca that evangelicals all-too-frequently frequently perpetuate, apparently even in books designed in part to do just that.

I really wanted to find this book more helpful for evangelical readers in its presentation of Wicca, especially with Ron Rhodes describing it as "a true jewel of a book" in the Foreword. In my view, while this book represents an improvement over many evangelical treatments of Wicca, Paganism, and other new religions, its shortcomings overshadow any positive elements, and for these reasons I encourage evangelicals to consider other materials for their understanding of Wicca and interactions with its adherents.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Review of Beyond the Burning Times

Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has written the first review of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Hudson, 2008) by an evangelical Christian. As Blomberg concludes his review he writes:

"No one can fairly accuse this book of perpetuating these culture wars [previously discussed in the book]. Both writers are remarkably kind and calm in their discussion of each other’s views. Some readers will no doubt wish that Johnson had in fact been a bit more forthright or pointed in his rebuttal of some of diZerega’s points, even while remaining considerate and accurate in his writing. But for a pioneering venture of this kind, fraught with the potential for so much misunderstanding, erring on the side of too much civility should scarcely be seen as a weakness!

"As a surfer of the web and its many religious and philosophical blogsites, I can attest that there remains far too much rhetoric by Evangelicals and their critics that is simply downright nasty, badly misinformed or both. The medium I suppose encourages that, since there are few mechanisms for adequate accountability for people who consistently display these traits. This alone remains a key reason why truth seekers must continue to read peer-reviewed books as the main basis of their information and reflection on important issues that face us as humans. The internet can supplement but it dare not provide the foundation for our beliefs. I strongly recommend this book and urge anyone interested either in understanding historic Christianity or Paganism better or in viewing an exemplary model of what Richard Mouw has called 'convicted civility' in action to read this book. And if there are any readers of this review who have neither of those interests, one might reasonably inquire as to why they do not!"

The review can be found on the Denver Seminary website here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

New Resource Addresses LDS Concerns Over Personal Deity

In my previous post I mentioned an interesting exchange at the Sunstone Symposium as Latter-day Saints reacted to a paper on narrative and interpersonal considerations related to traditional Christian conceptions of God. Latter-day Saints feel that the transcendent and immaterial understanding of God in traditional Christian theism represents a remote God who is wholly other, a far cry from the personal and embodied God of Mormonism. From the LDS perspective, as John Bracht noted in a recent exchange with me on this topic, God's love in traditional theism seems deficient, and our conception of God "connects with humans at no meaningful point."

Some time ago I interviewed Bracht on his very helpful M.A. thsis that touches on these issues. We discussed this in a two-part series with the first part found here, and part two here. And in a recent development, Bracht has agreed to allow the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies to offer his thesis as a resource for purchase through Lulu.com. The manuscript, titled Man of Holiness: Mormon Claims for a Personal God, can be previewed and ordered at our Lulu.com online store at this link.

Bracht's manuscript comes with the following recommendations from both sides of the divide:

“I know of no treatment of this topic anywhere in the literature that is as systematic and well-informed. It is much more complete and comprehensive than anything I have read or could even imagine reading. There is no question in my mind as to its originality, synthetic achievement and overall accuracy.”

Mark P. Leone
Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of Maryland

"In this monograph, John Bracht has set forth a compelling answer to a question people often ask about the Latter-day Saint view of God: How can anyone believe that? Well, there are millions who have embraced the Mormon view of God and it is about time that some of us on the outside of the movement try to understand the "why" question of Mormon views. John Bracht's work is perhaps the best I've read yet in terms of empathetically wrestling with the key distinctions between the LDS and the traditional Christian view of God. Essential reading for those who want to learn how to engage adherents to new religious movements in an effective, thoughtful manner."

Craig J. Hazen, Ph.D.
Professor of Comparative Religions and Apologetics
Director, MA Program in Christian Apologetics
Editor of the Journal, Philosophia Christi
Biola University
La Mirada, California

“John Bracht’s thesis is a fundamental text on the Mormon doctrine of God. It presents a systematic, comprehensive and original approach to the subject, refreshing in its insights, and in sharp contrast to American evangelical polemical treatments. It would be ideal for it to be widely circulated, and so I have no hesitation in recommending it to a wider readership.”

Professor Garry Trompf
Studies in Religion, University of Sydney

“Serious efforts to understand Mormonism in a non-confrontational, non-polemical way are few and far between. In this book the author, John Bracht, has drawn together a multitude of LDS sources in order to demonstrate differences between Mormonism and ‘traditional’ Christian views on the nature of God and the Godhead. While most LDS readers would no doubt disagree with some of Bracht’s conclusions, they would at least have to admit that he has paid a price to grapple solidly with the available evidence and has done so in an irenic and dignified manner. This is a work worth engaging.”

Robert L. Millet
Professor of Religion, Brigham Young University

On another publishing note, those interested in reading my thesis on Burning Man Festival, the alternative cultural event held annual in connection with the Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, can preview and ordered by following this link.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Reflections on Sunstone Symposium

The last couple of days I have been attending the Sunstone Symposium held in Salt Lake City. This year's theme is of great interest as Sunstone representatives try to understand Mormonism in light of "The Spirituality of the Rising Generation." The first plenary speaker who kicked off the symposium was the noted sociologist Wade Clark Roof who spoke on "Generations and Religion: Subtle Changes and Unresolved Challenges." His presentation focused on the significant impact of cultural differences between generations such as Boomer, Buster, Gen X and Millennials, and how this impacts the spiritual quest. One of the more interesting facets of his discussion was his citation of a survey some four years old among Latter-day Saint youth which demonstrated a large percentage who believe that the LDS Church is true but that there are also many other valid spiritual pathways. In addition, large numbers of LDS youth accept the validity of reincarnation. While the LDS Church does better than other religious groups in resisting interest in the elements of the broader spiritual quest of the rest of culture, nevertheless, this survey was a reminder that boundaries between religious organizations and cutlure are poreous, and the LDS Church faces the same challenges as other religious institutions. Missing from Roof's presentation, however, was a discussion of tendencies in generational mindsets to be found beyond generational boundaries. For example, Gordon Lynch in his book After Religion: Gen X and the search for meaning, has discussed the possibility that Gen X is best understood as a mindset that transcends age boundaries. But even with this missing dimension in Roof's discussion his presentation was likely eye opening for many in attendance, a largely older group of Latter-day Saints.

Another interesting presentation was a paper delivered by James Wakefield, professor of New Testament and theology at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. The paper was titled "Narrative Approaches to Understanding the Trinity/Godhead." Wakefield sought to move beyond philosophical discussions of God's substance involved in much of tradtional Christian theology in relation to trinitarianism, and instead to focus on a narrative and relational discussion of God as Father, Son and Spirit. One aspect of this relational consideration is love between the persons of the godhead. The respondent to Wakefield's paper was John Walsh who raised the critique that due to traditional Christianity's conception of God as disembodied this leads to a view of divine love that is illusory or deficient. By contrast, Walsh held that the LDS conception of God as embodied lends itself better to a realistic concept of divine love and relationships. Walsh's view was echoed by at least one Latter-day Saint in the audience during the question and answer period, in fact, strenuously so in a close to heated exchange.

This issue struck me as curious since I have never heard it articulated by Latter-day Saints before. Therefore, I toss this out to my LDS readers for feedback. Do you feel that the traditional Christian conception of God as a disembodied person somehow makes the concept of love and inter-personal relationships less coherent than the LDS concept of an embodied God? If so, how widespread might this belief be among LDS? And how do you see the LDS view as holding to a more coherent view in bringing together God's personhood and love?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Craig Detweiler Interview: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century

At the last Sundance Film Festival one of the people I was privileged to meet was Craig Detweiler. He led a group of film students from Fuller Theological Seminary out to Sundance in order to interact with film, and while he was here in Utah he also participated in a conference Salt Lake Theological Seminary held on theology and film. Craig is co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute and associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller. He has written scripts for Hollywood films, and with John Marks, he has produced the dialogical documentary Purple State of Mind. John is also the author of several books, including A Matrix of Meanings, which he co-authored with Barry Taylor (Baker Academic, 2003), and a new book titled Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (Baker Academic, 2008).

Given my appreciation for Craig's contribution to A Matrix of Meanings, I eagerly read through his new book, and he recently made some time to discuss it.

Morehead’s Musings: Craig, thanks for scheduling some time to talk about your new book. For me, I appreciate your theological commentary in the book in terms of what take out of various films in different genres, but for me and for a lot of evangelicals perhaps some of the more important things to consider are what you have to see not only the theology we see in the films, but the foundation and methodology you put forward as you come to film. I think many times evangelicals are light in terms of having a solid theological and cultural foundation for interacting with film, so I think it will be helpful for evangelicals to consider what you have to say in these areas.

In the book you describe one of the purposes for the volume as “an effort to reunite what the Enlightenment separated: beauty, goodness, and truth (in that order!).” In your view, have evangelicals so emphasized the truth issue that it may have come at the expense of beauty and goodness, and maybe other facets?

Craig Detweiler: One of the virtues of evangelicalism is trying to connect faith to the contemporary context. It is great when we’re right in step with the historical moment, and it’s problematic when we’re behind the times. During the Enlightenment era it was important to emphasize truth claims and to be able to argue and defend the faith in a scientific era. But we became wedded to a logical expression of the faith, almost like a “logical seminary” rather than a “theological seminary.” But now that we’re in an artistic age full of metaphors and imagination, we find ourselves behind the times and having to play catch up. So we need a more imaginative, beautiful and creative way to talk about God and interact with film, art, music, literature, etc.

Morehead’s Musings: Let’s talk a little bit about that catch up. In your book you cite some interesting statistics, with some 20 percent of Americans experiencing spirituality through media and arts, including film. In what ways are evangelicals playing catch up in developing a theology that addresses art and culture?

Craig Detweiler: Christians have been at the forefront of art making and patronage throughout history. The Renaissance, to some degree, was influenced by churches underwriting artists to create beautiful and timeless images. Unfortunately, we got out of that business, and have been more suspicious than embracing of images. So we have to reclaim our neglected history, our forgotten roots, and get back to a more fully orbed faith that understands the power of both word and image. Not only does the Gospel of John talk about “In the beginning was the Word,” but in Paul’s letters Jesus is spoken of as “the image of the invisible God.” So we have two different ways of describing Jesus which is not an either/or, with one privileged over the other, it’s a both/and approach to art, faith, life, and film.

Morehead’s Musings: As you’ve tried to articulate that for evangelicals have you discovered something of almost a knee-jerk reaction that with a new emphasis on image and art that this somehow will compromise and overbalance to the neglect of text?

Craig Detweiler: With Protestantism founded on sola Scriptura, it’s tough to start talking about the power and primacy of images. We don’t have sola pictura in our tradition. But I think that what my book is describing is trying to give theological categories to the ways people are already experiencing life and film. The emerging generation has been raised amidst big screen televisions, computers, and video games, and so an image-centered experience is common and everyday. So now I’m looking for a theology that connects to how they already experience life. And I’ve been please to discover that with people like Balthasar and Moltmann there are already theological exemplars that already done some of this hard work.

Morehead’s Musings: One of the things that I found very helpful in your book in the development of this theology that you are putting together is when you discuss a neglected aspect of theology for Protestants, and that is general revelation of God in culture. Perhaps even a pneumatology of the Spirit present and active in culture before the church even arrives on the scene to join the Spirit in what he is doing. Why do you think Protestants have tended to neglect or downplay that aspect of theology?

Craig Detweiler: Special revelation is a much more bounded set. It’s comfortable and in some ways easier to talk about special revelation with God speaking through Scripture across history. It’s very containable, definable, and the vast majority of seminary and theological education focuses upon that. General revelation is in some ways a boundless set, it looks for God outside the lines, playing the margins of both society and where we might expect him to show up. I think special revelation of Scripture includes many examples where God shows up in surprising ways. In fact, we’re constantly challenged to have eyes to see and ears to hear may be speaking and moving. But it’s tricky business. It requires a great degree of discernment and a great degree of faith that we will not be deceived, but that the Spirit of truth will reveal what we need to see, hear and understand. I think you have to credit the charismatic and Pentecostal renewal in forcing us to focus on the Spirit and concentrating on pneumatology, maybe a neglected side of systematic theology. In some ways I think we’re just beginning to get a “handle” on a very uncontainable subject, which is the working of the Spirit across the ages and cultures. If we go back to Genesis it was the Spirit of God who was hovering over the waters, and from the beginning the Spirit has been liked to creation and creativity. So in an artistic age we’re going to need a much better understanding of imagination and inspiration or as I say in the book, “in-Spirit-ation.” Artists may call it the muse, and Christians may call it the Spirit, but I think it’s the same movement.

Morehead’s Musings: Another aspect that I was pleased to see in your book was your theological interaction and dialogue intercultural studies. For too often, I think, the theologians have been having their dialogue and missiologists have been having theirs in isolation from each other. There’s not enough of a constant two-way dialogue between theology and culture. In the book, as a result of your practice of bringing these two areas together, you call for “an audience-driven, receptor-oriented methodology” as a means of Christian interaction with film. Can you tell us a little about what this means, and how does your interaction with the Internet Movie Database rather than the American Film Institute’s choice of top films fit into this process?

Craig Detweiler: With general revelation I like to think in terms of general audiences. Of God speaking to anybody, anywhere, and anytime. In the Internet era we actually have a much greater possibility of hearing from the far corners of the globe. Anyone with access can weigh in on the Internet Movie Database. And I’ll grant you that we’re not there yet in terms of the Internet being a completely democratized reality, there are still information and access gaps that need to be filled, but we are far closer to being able to cull opinions from people regardless of age, education, or access. So I think in this highly democratized era, the age of the specialist who kind of lords their training over others is starting to vanish and crumble. To me, the Internet Movie Database is a great way of almost adopting a more scientific approach to film criticism, or at least the international “Gallup poll” if you will, of people’s cinematic opinions. So I’ve decided to focus on this kind of aggregate opinion that is emerging that may run counter to certain critics who are used to controlling the situation. Some segments of the church are very authoritarian in their orientation, but I think the church at its best empowers people to have a voice and to make a difference in their local community, and I think that’s exactly the spirit behind the Internet Movie Database.

Morehead’s Musings: You’re ready for possible criticism from the professional critics.

Craig Detweiler: That’s it. I’m really saying let’s listen to the common person and their perceptions and just as in the Bible God often spoke through people who were unexpected, perhaps the same kind of thing is happening today.

Morehead’s Musings: On a personal note, can you share whether there have been any personal surprises as you have watched films and something jumped out at you where you heard God speaking through it and you never would have experienced that ahead of time?

Craig Detweiler: There’s a funny example in ladies night out with Sex and the City and people who go order cosmos and get dressed up. Everyone expected the film to be sexy and snide, but nobody expected the film to actually be about forgiveness. That was just not on anyone’s agenda. And yet that was the theme as to how these friends managed to stay in community despite things that had been said and done.

Another place where I was shocked and thrilled was in a film called Frozen River that opens this summer and which won the Sundance dramatic grand pride for best film. It’s set along the U.S.-Canadian border, and it’s about women who have been on the margins of society struggling to get by as single moms resorting to the smuggling of immigrants who are coming into America to pursue the American dream. So you have people who the American dream is not working for helping other people come in to access that dream. In the midst of all of this frozen tundra there is a Christmas backdrop, and you realize that as this smuggling of refugees mirrors what was going on with Jesus. He was a refugee who’s family was on the run, was threatened and fleeing persecution. So a story that ostensibly that had nothing Christian in its makeup or intent is helping me see the Nativity story in our times, and what Jesus might “look like” and where I might see Mary and Joseph protecting a baby in the twenty-first century. I had the privilege of actually interviewing the director, Courtney Hunt, and asking her about that, and she said she didn’t see that when she was writing it, but she acknowledged that it showed up in the creative process. So that is general revelation and the Spirit’s moving and inspiring us and taking us places we didn’t expect, and perhaps revealing things we may have forgotten or never seen.

Morehead’s Musings: Anything else you’d like to add about the book?

Craig Detweiler: I hope the book will be helpful to professors, students, pastors, and small groups. It is set up as a study of various genres, you can read it as a study of auteurs, or you can read it as a cultural and thematic analysis. You can interact with it in a variety of ways. It is a fun and surprising and unscripted journey into discovering where God may be speaking here and now.

Morehead’s Musings: I’m sure it will serve a lot of people in different venues very well. I hope you continue to produce more volumes like this.

Craig Detweiler: Thanks, John. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. And I appreciate your clear and in-depth read on it.