The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) aren't happy with this book. They have issued what reporter Bob Mims of The Salt Lake Tribune describes as "a clear, if muted, rebuke" of the Ostlings, even as they acknowledge that the authors made a sincere effort to be fair-minded and comprehensive in their portrait of Mormonism. As LDS authorities see things, the Ostlings have brought a "secular approach to a spiritual subject," resulting in what they consider an unbalanced account of Mormon realities.
I wrote a cover blurb for the book after seeing the galleys because, despite the worries at Salt Lake City's Temple Square, it strikes me as a marvelously balanced study of one of the fastest- growing religions in the world (from about 1 million adherents in 1950 to nearly 11 million today).
Furthermore, as evangelical scholars of Mormonism Carl Mosser and Paul Owen have shown, evangelicals have a lot of catching up to do on current Mormon thought. The title of their essay from the fall 1998 issue of Trinity Journal sums it up: "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" The Ostlings' book is an excellent place to start to correct this pattern of neglect.
Evangelical assessments of Mormonism have typically utilized one or more of three strategies: we have attempted, on historical and literary grounds, to challenge the "revealed" character of The Book of Mormon; we have argued, often with a rather simple doctrinal checklist, that Mormonism is a radical departure from traditional Christian orthodoxy; and we have denounced Mormonism's spiritual rites and practices, some times by alleging occult influence.
As the Mosser-Owen essay noted, these approaches have not kept pace with Mormon scholarship; so our efforts, however well-intentioned, often come across to people who are aware of the larger Mormon story as misinformed and inept. The Ostlings' book—written by a couple who have impeccable evangelical pedigrees (he once worked for Christianity Today, and she has taught at several evangelical colleges) and solid journalistic credentials (the book grew out of a cover story that he worked on when he was a senior editor at Time) tells this larger story in an engaging and informative manner. They pay much attention, for example, to the complicated Mormon history of dealing with polygamy and racial issues, as well as to LDS church structures and missionary programs.
The Ostlings also instruct us about key theological issues separating Mormon thought from classical Christianity. For example, while Mormons have a well-run educational system, they make no provision for a trained clergy. This means, as Brigham Young professor Stephen Robinson emphasized in a recently published exchange with theologian Craig Blomberg, that since the LDS "have no professional clergy to keep our theological language finely tuned," it is understandable that Mormon theological "terminology often seems naive, imprecise, and even sometimes sloppy by evangelical standards."
This deficiency is being addressed aggressively by a generation of "lay" Mormon scholars who are studying theology at major universities. Some of them, like Robinson (a Duke Ph.D.) are in the good graces of LDS leadership, while others, especially those who write for the "liberal" Mormon journals Dialogue and Sunstone, cause much turmoil in Mormon circles with their revisionist explorations.
Still, it is not wrong of us to insist that some key Mormon teachings are incompatible with the essential teachings of historic Christianity. Mormons want to insist, of course, that theirs is the only true form of "restored" Christianity. In his account of his First Vision, Joseph Smith said God had made it clear to him that the classical creeds and confessions of the Christian tradition were "an abomination in his sight" and that those who professed the historic teachings "were all corrupt."
Mormonism's intentional departure from classical Christianity is nowhere more obvious than in Lorenzo Snow's oft-quoted formula: "As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become."
Both God and people are, in the Mormon worldview, unfinished beings. Most Mormon revisionist efforts still operate within a framework that assumes a finite deity and a self-perfectible human person. The Ostlings discuss these emphases at length, and they also helpfully append some key passages from Joseph Smith's seminal "King Follett Discourse," perhaps the clearest statement of how Smith saw Mormonism as departing from historic Christian teachings about God and human nature.
One mildly hopeful sign, however, is the interest among some contemporary Mormon thinkers in preserving some semblance of the "omni-" attributes of God. While they do not claim to abandon Joseph Smith's teaching about God's nature, they do suggest a "practical" or "functional" sense in which God can be thought of as, for example, omnipotent and omniscient. One factor at work here seems to be a desire to bring Mormon thought, at least on some level, into closer conformity to Pauline thought.
Evangelicals can hope and pray that some new spiritual undercurrents are at play in this modest concession. The question of God's attributes is not, after all, a matter of mere intellectual concern. Classical orthodoxy was formulated, with a clear eye on the Scriptures, as an answer to a burning spiritual question: "What would it take to rescue sinners like us from the mess into which we have gotten ourselves?"
Mormon teachings draw heavily on the kind of optimism about human potential that was widespread in the latter half of the nineteenth century. That sort of optimism seems less attractive in our own time, and this may be one factor stimulating some Mormons to explore new thoughts about the human condition.
Despite our great differences with Mormonism, we must be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God may be at work amid the contemporary Mormon ferment, convicting people of sin and pointing them to the healing stream that flows, not from Hill Cumorah, New York, but from the cross on Calvary's mountain.
This is a good time for evangelicals to think creatively about how we can better engage Mormons in conversations about the deepest issues of the human condition—and how better to point them to the amazing "love that drew salvation's plan." Richard and Joan Ostling have provided us with a wonderful resource for getting started on this important project.
Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
See our recent interview with Richard Ostling about Mormon America, which ran on ChristianityToday.com February 9.
The same day we ran the Ostling interview, we ran three related stories on Mormonism: "A Peacemaker in Provo | How one Pentecostal pastor taught his congregation to love Mormons," "The Mormon-Evangelical Divide," and "Mormons, Evangelicals Tangle Over Web Site"
Mormon America: The Power and the Promise is available at Worthy Books and other book retailers.
A review of the Ostlings' book, Mormon America, was recently published in Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture. The review was written by two practicing Mormons.
Ostling's cover story on Mormonism, "Kingdom Come," from the August 4, 1997 of Time magazine, is available online.
HarperCollins's page on Mormon America includes an excerpt, a description, and blurbs.
The New York TimescalledMormon America "a long overdue primer on one of the fastest-growing religions in the world" and the Ostlings "diligent referees of Mormon fights past and present."
For more on Mormonism and Evangelical-Mormon relations, see our June 15, 1998 cover story, "Mormons on the Rise | Southern Baptists Take Up the Mormon Challenge."
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickWorship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.