Book Review: The Mormon Jesus

mormon jesusThis is the second in a series on John Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography.

The Mormon Jesus: A Biography is a delightful book—matching the personality of its author, historian of American religion John Turner. I remain fundamentally unconvinced of the book’s central claim and argument, and am personally ambivalent about it—though in that I’m surely in the minority amongst Mormons (rank-and-file and all the rest) whom I suspect will heartily cheer the book’s primary claim: Mormonism, taken as a whole in it’s historic trajectory, is patently Christian. That is, Mormonism is neither a new world religion nor a fourth Abrahamic religion, as is popularly claimed by some; rather, it’s a unique brand of Christianity like Protestantism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy.

 

Overall thoughts:

The warm reception that the book ought to enjoy amongst Mormons (er, at least the book’s central claim—some will be undoubtedly be upset by certain aspects of the book) highlights two central elements that I found most conspicuous.

First, the near-native fluency with which Turner both speaks and translates “Mormonese.” If one didn’t know better, reading Mormon Jesus would be like talking with another whose manner of speaking strikes one as almost imperceptibly off in a vague, indefinable way—and then having an “Aha!” moment upon finding out that they’re Canadian. Not only does Turner—a main-line Protestant—know Mormonism’s history, theology, and norms better than most Mormons, he likewise has a knack for regurgitating the lived experience of the Restoration.

Second, Mormon Jesus seems to signal the triumph of Mormon scholars in laying the foundation and setting forth the framework of Mormon Studies generally. Ok, hyperbole—it’s only one book. But here we have a non-Mormon religious historian who undertakes the fantastically ambitious project of articulating what Mormons consider to be the heart of the Restoration and their religious experience—Jesus. And who does he rely on as his guides to Mormonism? Mormon scholars. It’s not that non-Mormon scholars are absent—quite the opposite, one of the solid strengths of the book is its continual contextualization of Mormon claims and experience within the broader, non-Mormon context. Nor does Turner shy away from scholars critical of the Mormon project. But these simply serve as foils to the fact that here is a text by a non-Mormon scholar that fits comfortably alongside Bushman-style Mormon history[FN1] and Givens-style theology.[FN2]

 

Are Mormons Christian?

In declaring that the book’s argument doesn’t convince me, let me be clear: it’s not that I find Turner’s scholarship or style wanting. Quite the opposite. Rather, I think Turner’s conceptual argument is wrong, but wrong in the best kind of way—with great potential to move the dialogue forward, helping both skeptics and supporters of his claims.

As best I can discern, Turner offers several variations and elaborations on a central, historical argument: Judaism-to-Christianity is a different animal than Christianity-to-Christianity.[FN3] Here are the variations as I see them:

  1. Cultural Argument: ChristianityàMormonism does not look (Contra scholars like Shipps) like JudaismàChristianity. Culturally, Christians looked, talked, and behaved far more differently from 1st – 3rd century Jews than Mormons from Christians over the last two centuries.
  2. Self-Authorship Argument: Mormons claim and experience themselves as Christian. Notice that by two centuries out, Christians weren’t jumping up and down proclaiming ad nauseum, “We really are Jews!” (Despite my personal ambivalence on the question, I almost cheered at this argument: “Finally! Someone else who thinks that our own claims on this fact matter!”)
  3. Aesthetic Argument: We steal from and contribute to general (non-iconographic) Christian art (as well as share the American Christian biases about the art of Jesus). That is, both communities’ artwork resonates with the other’s religious preferences, values, and experience of Jesus.
  4. Structural/Religious Questions Argument: Mormonism as a religious project is structured via an attempt to answer the animating questions of Christianity (see especially pg 292).

I’ll say something about each of these. Largely, however, I’m unconvinced because I think that historical-cultural parallels and arguments are the least convincing kind when it comes to theological and spiritual-existential questions—which are the kinds we should be asking when differentiating types of religion. Note that we claim continuity and dispensational connection to things like the ancient Hebrew religion, New Testament Christianity, and Book of Mormon Christianity—any one of which on a historical-cultural level look far more different from us today than we do to historical or contemporary Christianity. As a universal point, religions require other measures. As a particular point, in order to be consistent as dispensationalist Mormons, I think we need to endorse a different measuring stick.

With regard to the specific arguments mentioned above, and in the order that I personally find as least to most compelling:

  1. Cultural Argument: how closely Mormon and Protestant (or Christian more broadly) cultures align is largely a matter of historical contingency and the worlds we inhabit. Christians after the first few decades were preaching to and living in primarily a non-Jewish world. This had a massive impact on how the looked, talked, behaved, and framed their message and self-understanding. The Council at Jerusalem wouldn’t have even happened had the 1st century Mediterranean world been as Jewish as the Euro-American world has been Christian. The same cultural point is true of Mormons, who have lived in and preached to a largely Christian world for two centuries. Hence Christians culturally appeared more different to Jews than Mormons do to Christians. Again, my point is that there are more substantive criteria for religious taxonomy than cultural appearance. In this sense, I think our critics (i.e., those who decry us as non-Christian) have a very important point: the question of Mormon Christianity revolves more around the nature of our Jesus than our devotion or zeal to the historical person of Jesus, or the centrality of our rhetoric concerning him.
  2. Self-Authorship Argument: Our claims are important, but they are also secondary to the theological facts. Again, much of our rhetoric and foot-stomping has more to do with our proselyting and public relations positioning than it does our theology. We are and always have been working to proselyte Christians (who are hostile to us for not being “Christian” enough). Had we transplanted the 1840s church to China rather than Mexico, our self-authorship claims (though not necessarily our theology) would be very different. What matters is not our invocation of Jesus, but rather what lies behind that invocation. Also, it’s important to note that there is clear code-switching taking place in our rhetoric. We make ourselves agreeable to our Christian neighbors, but we also often times cringe at the way they discuss and think about Jesus. It’s far more comfortable to sing Christ’s praises among ourselves than it is among Christians more generally. Some of this is superficial cultural difference. Some of it is substantive theological.
  3. Structural/Religious Questions Argument: I find this is a far more weighty and compelling argument than the other two. The problem is that there’s a sort of agenda-driven cherry picking that takes place here. Leveraging Turner’s Judaism-to-Christianity analogy, it would be easy to pick a similar matrix of religio-existential questions animating both Jewish and Christian traditions. Likewise by analogy, Republicans and Democrats both clearly fit within America’s trajectory of liberal, constitutional democracy. Fascists on the other hand don’t, even if there are overlapping political questions that each group is seeking to address[FN4]
  4. Aesthetic Argument: Turner’s chapter “The Great White God” was far and away the most persuasive for me. This is because I take art to be a deep expression of the conceptual and experiential elements of a given tradition. The overlap in Mormon and Christian artwork is undeniable. The argument here is persuasive on a visceral level as well. The aesthetic overlap makes one feel that one is in the same Christocentric world. It seems (and certainly has the potential) to religiously orient Mormons and Christians in the same way. I can’t help but feel, however, that there’s an analogy here to the linguistic code-switching I mentioned above. The artistic expressions in fact express a different theology and experience, even if as representations of a historical figure the two communities find similar works appealing. Additionally, there is an element of superficial culture at play in both (e.g., preferences with regard to race and masculinity).

None of my claims here serve as a positive argument that Mormons are a different theological species than the rest of Christianity; my point is just that Turner’s arguments, though creative and engaging, aren’t ultimately convincing. I think that a strong follow-up argument by those wishing to further Turner’s work, might be that our experience of redemption phenomenologically mirrors that of other Christians. But here I suspect that phenomenology, like theology, makes Mormonism it’s own species—and consequently such an argument would ultimately backfire. But maybe I’m wrong.

In closing, I can’t help but think of a paragraph in Patrick Mason’s recent book Planted: “To reduce Mormonism to what can be explained rationally or on the grounds set by any other religion is to render it something other (and arguably less) than what it is and claims to be. Mormonism is sui generis—that is to say, it offers its own unique set of questions and answers for the world that overlaps with but is not identical to any other set of questions and answers, whether those posed by modern science or creedal Christianity (46).”

 

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Footnotes:

  1. Note: he’s critical of Bushman’s apologetic tangents.
  2. In saying this, I don’t wish to mislead anyone. Turner bluntly portrays certain aspects of our history in cringe-worthy fashion (e.g., Brother Brigham’s doctrine of blood atonement). But his dedication to full contextualization means even these sections feel comparatively gentle.
  3. These arguments are worked out primarily in the Introduction, Chapter 9, and the Conclusion, though they run as a theme throughout. Also, my sketch of and response to these arguments are necessarily shorthand. I think it’s a very complicated question and I acknowledge that my comments in blog format are too concise to appropriately address them.
  4. This is one reason why we all ought to be disturbed by this year’s “Republican” nominee for President.

8 comments for “Book Review: The Mormon Jesus

  1. I’ve not read Turners book, but how much of the divide is really just the old metaphysical differences over creation ex nihilo and divine simplicity? It always seems to me most of these “is it the same Jesus” end up hinging upon “is it the same God” only transported to the doctrine of two Natures.

  2. James: I’m not completely persuaded that “theological” or “existential” ways of defining religion are more important than historical or cultural ways of defining it – particularly because I’m less than convinced that Mormonism is well defined theologically enough to make the argument work, and more, I’m not quite clear on what the difference you’re seeing between ‘culture’ and ‘theology’ is. Put another way, I’m not sure that 1) Mormonism’s Christology is well defined enough to point out precisely the ways in which it’s distinct from Nicean Christology, and 2) that the difference matters more than the day to day experience of Mormons in the pew.

  3. I find it somewhat strange that a review of a book that is premised on the very notion of “the Mormon Jesus [having] a history of change and variety over the course of the church’s nearly two-hundred year history” (p. 5) ignores that historical development altogether, collapsing all of Mormonism into some sort of static theology that exists beyond the historical context in which it was born, subsequently developed, and currently exists.

  4. Reading the Mormon Jesus now. About a quarter way through. It staggers my mind how informed Turner is on every nuance of Mormonism. When many members can’t even be bothered to read the Book of Mormon (they read the Ensign instead), what would compel a non-believer to gain such a thorough understanding of it?

    Anyway, just to be clear, The Mormon Jesus is a fantastic read so far.

  5. Matt, I’m not sure I’d say Mormonism’s Christology isn’t defined so much as I’d say what Mormons care about with respect to theology and particularly Christology is simply quite different from the heyday of traditional Christian theology (say from Augustine up through the Renaissance). Mormons just don’t care about metaphysics (and for good reason) so metaphysics is amazingly ill defined in Mormonism. The strain that comes closes is that Pratt-like theology that survives and gets given process or existentialist like thrusts. Yet it never really is significant in any way.

    What Mormons care about with regards to Christ seems to be practical things he does. He makes is so we can be forgiven and changed. He has a place in our theodicy of development via the council in heaven. He’s the practical ideal we are supposed to be striving for in terms of our own personal development. None of the metaphysical concerns of traditional Christianity really matter much.

    About the closest to a real debate about Christology is the debate about whether the atonement was primarily on the cross or in the garden of Gethsemane. One could argue that in Mormon thought that is kind of a weird arguing via history rather than metaphysics over whether the atonement is primarily about substitution or about experiential knowledge.

  6. Christopher J: I suspect my post has mislead you. Turner does a fantastic job as a historian, showing various developments and shifts through the years. I think that despite himself, he still sees things through a bit of a Protestant lens (e.g., he sees a lull in our focus/emphasis on Christ in the latter part of the 19th century; whereas I see an emphasis on aspects of our notion of Christological salvation that don’t mean anything to Protestants — priesthood, temple, sealed families, etc.). But in the book he does a great job showing historical development. Have you read it and still find him at fault here? Maybe you could be more specific.

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