Monthly Archives: August 2012

Are Mormons Christians? Witherington says no.

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Ben Witherington recently posted the following essay on Patheos: “Why Mormonism is not Christianity– the Issue of Christology.”  It seems a perennial Evangelical claim, that, unfortunately never seems to actually engage Mormon response.

There he gives six reasons why he believes Mormons are not Christians.  While I have enjoyed Professor Witherington’s biblical scholarship, I’m afraid his understanding of Mormonism is inadequate.  I’ll examine each of his six claims. Continue reading

Mormon FAIR-Cast 104a: Temple Worship Fireside, Introduction, pt. 1

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Bryce Haymond of TempleStudy.com hosts this first in a series of on-line fireside discussions of the book Temple Worship: 20 Truths That Will Bless Your Life, by Andrew C. Skinner. Bryce is joined in this discussion by Frederick M. Huchel, Gary N. Anderson, Steve Reed, and Tevya Washburn. This discussion was conducted live on August 5, 2012 through Google’s Hangouts on Air. It was streamed live on TempleStudy.com, where the video can also be found. A rough transcript of the discussion can be found here. In this session, the participants discuss such things as what details about the temple can be discussed outside the temple, and the temple as a model of the universe.

Andrew C. Skinner is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, was dean of Religious Education and the first executive director of BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He holds master’s degrees in Biblical Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and European History, specializing in Judaism.  He is the author or co-author of over 100 publications.

Ben Witherington on Whether Mormons Are Christians

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So, over at Patheos Ben Witherington has a blog post titled “Why Mormonism Is Not Christianity–The Issue of Christology,” which you may read here. I’m familiar with Witherington from his articles in Biblical Archaeology Review (I’m a subscriber), which I generally enjoy. But I suppose it should come as no surprise that I thought this blog post was weak sauce.

In general I didn’t have too much of a problem with his catalog of differences between Evangelical and Mormon thought. It is true that Mormons reject an ontological Trinity (he poisons the well by characterizing this position as “polytheism”); it is true that Mormons believe in an embodied God (I wonder whether he realizes how many people historically he just kicked out of Christianity by making this a standard); guilty as charged on our rejection of biblical inerrancy.

But I was surprised at his lack of historical sense and sophistication. He portrays Mormonism as evolving, which is certainly true, but he is blind to the evolution of thought over the centuries in historical Christianity. He cites the historic policy of the priesthood ban, and while I personally think we deserve to take our lumps over that, he doesn’t seem to be aware that the original Mormon policy was an (unfortunate) importation of Protestant biblical thought into the Church (there is a case where if we had been a little less Christian in the 19th century we would have been better off!). He seems to think we are somehow dissembling by calling our meeting places “churches,” and he notes that we don’t have crosses gracing our buildings, apparently unaware of the largely Puritan, low church origins of our Church. As religious history, I was not impressed by his treatment.

He grants that many Catholics and Orthodox are Christian; I wonder how they feel about this supposed magnanimous judgment on his part. I can’t help but wonder whether Catholics and Orthodox might wonder who appointed him the arbiter of who qualifies to be reckoned a Christian. He also allows that many Mormons would pass the test of being decent and honest and loving human beings. Magnanimous indeed.

Here’s the thing. I know what he’s trying to say, and I actually agree with him. From his Evangelical perspective, being Christian is tantamount to being saved, and most Mormons are not saved according to Evangelical theology. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is his throwing around the word “Christian” without bothering to define it, but just assuming his narrow Evangelical definition. Because out in the real world, that is not the way people understand the word “Christian.”

christianos is a partisan of Christ, just as a Herodian was a partisan of Herod or a Caesarian was a partisan of Caesar. And that is the way the word is understood outside of the Evangelical bubble from within which Witherington is writing. To the person on the street, a Christian is someone who believes in Christ, that he is the Son of God, he lived and died, atoned for the sins of the world, the third day arose again, and dwells in yonder heavens at the right hand of the Father. For most of the world, Christian is a broad generic category of history and culture and belief, not a narrow club for the saved per Evangelical dogma.

Elsewhere I have shared the following (true) story, which illustrates well why simply calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian is inherently misleading. A family with several young daughters used to live in my ward. This family was friendly with a neighbor woman, who would often babysit the girls. As Christmas was approaching, the woman gave each of the girls a Christmas gift, which turned out to be a coloring book featuring Jesus Christ. The girls enjoyed the gift and colored the pictures.

Some time later this woman came to the family’s home, ashen, and apologized profusely for having given their daughters such a gift. It turns out that the woman had just learned at her church that Mormons are not Christian, and therefore she of course assumed that she had committed a grievous faux pas in giving the girls coloring books featuring a deity their family did not believe in.

Now in this story the woman understood the claim that Latter-day Saints are not Christian the same way the vast majority of people would, as meaning that they do not believe in Christ. This is because she naturally applied the public definition of the word to her pastor’s words, not some narrow, undisclosed private definition.

We can see by this story the mischief that results from the semantic legerdemain of calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian. The fact is, they are Christians in the generic sense of the word, even if, from an Evangelical point of view, they are theologically in error and unsaved (i.e., being a Christian is not necessarily tantamount to being right). I personally would have no difficulty with certain shorthand distinctions that would make clear that Mormons neither are nor claim to be creedal or orthodox Christians. But to say they are not Christians at all without such a modifier is to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of their beliefs.

Cross-posted at BCC

Mormon FAIR-Cast 103: Does DNA Research Disprove the Book of Mormon?

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Why do some people claim that DNA research proves that the Book of Mormon is not historical? Are they right? In this episode of Religion Today, which originally aired on KSL Radio on August 5, 2012, Martin Tanner interviews Dr. Ugo A. Perego about what we can conclude about the ancient inhabitants of American based on DNA research and what we cannot conclude.

Dr. Perego received a BS and a MS in Health Sciences from Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) and a PhD in Genetics and Biomolecular Sciences from the University of Pavia (Pavia, Italy) under the mentorship of Professor Antonio Torroni. During the past decade, he has given nearly 200 lectures on DNA topics relating to population migrations, ancestry, forensics, and history (including LDS history). Ugo has also authored and co-authored a number of publications, including the recent: “Joseph Smith, the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis” (in Craig Foster and Newell Bringhurst’s The Persistence of Polygamy, 2010); “The Initial Peopling of the Americas: A Growing Number of Founding Mitochondrial Genomes” (in Genome Research, 2010); “The Book of Mormon and the Origins of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint” (in Robert Millett’s No Weapon Shall Prosper, 2011); “The Mountain Meadows Massacre and “Poisoned Springs”: Scientific Testing of the More Recent, Anthrax Theory” (in International Journal of Legal Medicine, 2012); and “Rapid Coastal Spread of First Americans: Novel Insights from South America’s Southern Cone Mitochondrial Genomes” (in Genome Research, 2012).

Ugo is married to Jenna and they are the parents of four boys and a girl. They live in Rome, Italy.

This recording was used by permission of KSL Radio and does not necessarily represent the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of FAIR.

The Book of Abraham and Continuing Scholarship: Ask the Right Questions and Keep Looking

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The Book of Abraham continues to be a hotly debated book. Critics of and apologists for the Book of Abraham continue to sound forth their judgments on the fraudulence or authenticity of this controversial scriptural work. There does not seem to be any end in sight for this controversy. With the survival of some of Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papyri – ostensibly the source of the Book of Abraham – critics have, in the words of Hugh Nibley, been “endlessly dinning into the ears of the public that what was written on that small and battered strip of papyrus prove[s] beyond a doubt that Joseph Smith [is] a fraud because he thought it contained the Book of Abraham, whereas it contains nothing of the sort.”[1] The most recent salvo aimed at thrashing Joseph Smith’s interpretation of these documents comes in the form of a respected Egyptologist publishing his highly critical material with a press known for being, at times, extremely hostile towards Mormon orthodoxy. This Egyptologist’s conclusion? “Except for those willfully blind… the case is closed.”[2]

That seems to be it for the poor Mormons.

Well, maybe not.

Continue reading

Misquoting Science

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I had a chance to share few thoughts about the current status of DNA research in the Americas at the recent FAIR LDS conference in Sandy, Utah. The title of my presentation was “Book of Mormon Genetics: A Reappraisal” and it began with a slide showing a quote that appeared in the June 2012 issue of Sunstone magazine:

“Unfortunately, Vinson has not kept up with advances in population genetics, where scientists like Theodore Schurr (University of Pennsylvania) now utilize nuclear DNA (SNPs), which no longer leave open a possibility that a small, successful and genetically unique group could be introduced into a larger population without detection. According to the scientists, Native Americans are exclusively Siberian. There is no longer anywhere for a successful population of Middle-easterners to hide in the Native American family tree. (Zegura et al., ‘High-Resolution SNPs,’ Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2004.)”

The purpose of this blog post is to provide a written source of what I said at the beginning of my presentation pertaining to this quote. My goal is not to attack anyone in particular, but to promote greater awareness about poorly developed statements that may have the appearance of being professional and objective, but in reality are loaded with errors and biased misconceptions. Continue reading

Mormon FAIR-Cast 102: What Can We Learn from The Dead Sea Scrolls

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What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? What do they have to say about Christianity? Do they prove that the LDS Church is true? Do they prove that any other church is false? In this episode of Religion Today, which originally aired on KSL Radio on May 27, 2012, Martin Tanner introduces the history behind the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and discusses their importance to the Christian and Jewish faiths.

This recording was used by permission of KSL Radio and does not necessarily represent the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of FAIR.

Note that the first part of this recording has been lost.

Mormon FAIR-Cast 101: Dan Peterson takes questions

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Dan Peterson takes questions from callers who both support and oppose the Church on this live interview with Mills Crenshaw that appeared on K-Talk radio on July 31, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brother Peterson answers questions about the Book of Abraham and a variety of questions about the Book of Mormon, including ones pertaining to DNA studies, Mesoamerican and Near-Eastern archaeology, and Joseph Smith’s production of the Book of Mormon.

A native of southern California, Daniel C. Peterson received a bachelor’s degree in Greek and philosophy from Brigham Young University (BYU) and, after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo, earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Peterson is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and founder and the editor-in-chief of the University’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI). He is a past chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and, until very recently, served as Director of Advancement for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. From 1988, when he founded it, through mid-June of 2012, he edited the FARMS Review, which was renamed the Mormon Studies Review in late 2011. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics, including a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Eerdmans, 2007). A former bishop, Dr. Peterson served in the Switzerland Zürich Mission, and, for approximately eight years, on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He currently serves as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in his home ward. He is married to the former Deborah Stephens, of Lakewood, Colorado, and they are the parents of three sons.

This recording is posted here by permission of K-Talk Radio. The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of FAIR or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Why I Still Choose To Believe

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There are many paths by which we might return to God, or so some would claim. “Organized religion is not necessary” they might say, “and is too prone to abuse by those who would use it to control their fellow man.” Others who disbelieve in God entirely think it is but an opiate to the masses, or a delusional pacification into a state of peace by promising something that will never come in this life. I am aware of such arguments, and yet I am a decided member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes, I believe!

This last week, FAIR (www.fairlds.org) concluded two days of conference addresses by faithful Latter-day Saints who look deeply into issues that trouble the faith of some and which challenge their choice to believe. These individuals did not shrink from the controversies, but exercised faith as they looked at controversies and critical questions in order to provide faithful answers for those who struggle. It was something of an academic pursuit, seeking to “negate the negatives”, or eliminate reasons to disbelieve. These individuals have looked closely at that which might destroy the faith of others, and yet they believe!

The topics were myriad. Joshua Johansen spoke of his personal struggles with attraction to men, but how Church standards of morality served him as he sought the same blessings we all desire – that of an eternal family. Neylan McBain spoke of the challenges facing women in a Church governed by patriarchal principles amidst a world that eschews anything but direct equality of practice and opportunity. In so doing, she highlighted both the struggles and the principles of cooperative conduct between men and women that are so central to a gospel life.

Brother Darius Gray shared insights on the rich heritage of black Mormons throughout the history of the restoration.

Dr. John Sorenson spoke on evidences of Book of Mormon culture within the Americas, and evidences of ancient Americas in the Book of Mormon. Royal Skousen shared insights that reflect and support the authenticity of the historicity of the Book of Mormon as found in the original texts.

Brother Brian Hales shared insights on the moral strength of Joseph Smith during the development of the practice of polygamy, and Ugo Perego disabused notions of DNA studies serving to condemn the historicity of the Book of Mormon. This was just the first day of a conference of believers!

Brother Jack Welch shared evidences of authenticity of the Book of Mormon through the poetic use of Chiasmus, an ancient device used to reinforce and emphasize specific teachings. Brant Gardner addressed a criticism of directions in the Book of Mormon, and turned the argument around into an evidence of its authenticity.

Dr. John Gee spoke of the Book of Abraham, and gave insights against criticisms that would claim the translation by Joseph Smith was fraudulent. Don Bradley shared insights on the lost 116 page manuscript and the likely role the lost record played in the temple worship of the Lehites. Hartt Wixam reviewed the history of the defense of the faith from the earliest modern efforts, and Dr. Dan Peterson reviewed his vision of the role of faithful defense in progressing the kingdom, and in so doing announced a new publication known as “The Interpreter” which will serve to provide academic insights to the defense of the Church. This concluded two days of spiritual uplift from knowledgeable believers.

For the first time in FAIR history, a non-member, Rosemary Avance, shared insights on the parallel process of de-conversion, and how that can help inform us in our desires to help those who leave us for various reasons.

All it takes is a simple foray into the online world to learn that critics of the Church abound with arguments that seek to chip away at the faith of some. For the past 14 years, I have worked from within FAIR to help provide needed answers, and in so doing I have been made aware, I suppose,of virtually every argument one could concoct for losing my faith. I doubt anyone could come up with an argument I have not heard of, looked into, or am not intimately aware of. And yet I believe!

It is not that I am ignorant of the thorniest issues. It is not that I am delusional or under the influence of a religious brew of mind numbing barbiturates that remove my ability to reason clearly. It is not that I am afraid of losing my family, or the association of friends that causes me to ignore facts that should destroy my faith. It is not that I have confused emotion for spiritual confirmation, and I have therefore confounded tear jerking sentiment with spiritual confirmation. No, it is none of these things. And yet, I believe!

No, my belief is a choice. It is a deliberate action borne of faith. While I am aware of those things that might challenge faith, I have decided to believe! I don’t do it by ignoring some questions that for me may remain unanswered, but I believe despite the fact that I do not, as yet, have all the answers!

A sentiment was expressed in 2005 by Wendy Ulrich, a Ph.D., M.B.A. and psychologist, who spoke at a FAIR conference just like the one that just concluded. She said “In my experience, neither critics nor apologists for the Church do much to convince me whether or not to believe. Debates, analysis, and scientific evidence may alternately undermine or support my beliefs, but belief itself is a choice.” She later stated, “If God can ask the brother of Jared, who has heard His voice and seen His finger, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?”, then certainly we also have a choice to believe or not, regardless of our previous spiritual experiences or our intellectual skills. We believe because we are trying to learn object constancy with God, to trust that He is still there even when we cannot feel Him, and that He will tell us the truth, even when it seems improbable.” As described by Sister Ulrich, I have sought such object constancy with God, and I have found Him! Yes, through my choice, I have come to persist in my belief!

When the Church initiated its support for Proposition 8, my personal experience with my older brother (who was among the first 500 individuals in the Unites States to die of AIDS) caused me to want to shrink. I did not want to step into the controversy, and would that the Lord would take such a cup from me. But He did not. I was therefore forced to confront my loyalties, and to work through my thoughts and feelings. My answer did not come from reason. It did not come from an angelic visit, or some religious conviction that allowed me to lay aside my fears. In the end, I simply chose to follow the counsel of the 15 prophets, seers and revelators who asked me for my efforts. Through that submission of faith, I received personal revelation that assured me that my actions were correct. My heart filled with compassion for all individuals involved, and despite my support for Proposition 8, my compassion for those who sought to legalize same sex marriage was actually heightened greatly! No, it wasn’t that I got some great answer that convinced me to change my views.Rather, I chose to believe! And the answer came after my choice.

I could provide you with other examples of similar subjects that were not immediately comfortable to me. Among such a list would be polygamy, why some members of African descent were denied access to the priesthood for a time, and questions around issues of gender participation. In admitting this, I do not want you to suppose that all such issues threaten my faith in the Church, or that they caused me to question my previous choices to believe.

Rather, these issues were among those for which I had not yet achieved a degree of comfort that allowed me to think “this poses no issue for me”. But in each instance, I nevertheless chose to believe, and that choice guided my actions. It was after I actively followed the consequence for my choices that the insights and evidences came that supported my choice. So, despite my having ongoing questions, I still believe!

Why I choose to believe is, in a way, quite simple. Having been raised in a religiously agnostic but intellectually rigorous environment, I discovered that the paradigms I had operated under did not satisfy me, nor did they serve to direct me or develop me in my moral choices in life. It was not until I sought after divine influence and power in my life that I felt myself change.

In short, I felt like the people of King Benjamin and to declare with them “Yea, I believe all the words which [I was taught concerning the restoration of priesthood power and the principles of exaltation, and eternal family unity]; and also, I know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in me, or in my heart, that I have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Yes, because of the change the doctrines of salvation and exaltation have had on me, I believe!

But it does not stop there. No, I have continuously tried the Lord through my obedience, and experienced affirmation after affirmation that my choices to believe are good. I have had rich experiences that transcend emotion, that reach beyond coincidence and defy nature, which testify to me that it is good for me to believe. So, I choose to believe!

Yes, I know all the reasons to not believe. I have even been put off by the actions of leaders, had my feelings hurt by a member or two, and had the world try to drag me into practices that seem enticing. I have read all the secular teachings that challenge belief in God, and all the criticisms that challenge belief in the restoration. I am aware of probably every reason that exists to abandon my faith, and yet none of that has the power to dissuade me. No, I have seen too much, I have persisted too long, I have experienced too much change, too much affirmation, and too much personal development from the simple act of submission by choosing to believe.

I invite you to join with me. If you are faced with things for which you don’t yet have satisfactory answers, hold to those things for which you do in fact have answers and let them bolster your strength to persist. Strive for understanding for the things where you don’t yet have satisfaction, and seek it by first choosing to persist in your belief so that, through the corresponding actions that naturally follow, you may eventually receive the affirmations and understanding you seek. Persist in patience, knowing with an assurance that I can most certainly give you is true, that the answers are there, and they will indeed come. All it requires is for you to choose to continue to believe!

If you are interested in reading the full remarks of Wendy Ulrich and her thoughts on “Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience” you can find her FAIR presentation here