An Appeal for Authentic Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue

An Appeal for Authentic Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue

Assistant Professor of Theological & Historical Studies, Salt Lake Theological Seminary
Executive Board Member, Institute for Religious Research

On November 14, 2004, well-known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias appeared in Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle. What might have been a remarkable opportunity for interfaith dialogue between Mormons and Christians was seriously damaged when Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, issued a controversial apology that seemed to portray Evangelicals as commonly bearing false witness against Mormons. Evangelicals present at the event, even some of those sitting on the stage, went away with the clear impression that Mouw was aiming his criticism at them and excluding only the small group of out-of-towners brought in by Greg Johnson’s ministry, Standing Together, which sponsored the event.

"I agree that some Evangelicals have certainly been unkind to Mormons ... But this does not characterize the attitudes and actions of most evangelical churches and ministries".

 

Let me make it clear that I agree that some Evangelicals have certainly been unkind to Mormons and have been guilty of inaccurately portraying Mormon beliefs. But this does not characterize the attitudes and actions of most evangelical churches and ministries, which is what made Mouw’s blanket apology inappropriate.

In the days following the event Ravi’s powerful preaching was radically downplayed, as Mouw and his apology moved to center stage. The LDS Church News carried an article entitled “Ravi Zacharias Speaks at the Tabernacle,” that dedicated more than a third of its three columns to Mouw’s remarks and only a single paragraph at the end to Ravi’s message. The official LDS Church web page reported the event as if Richard Mouw had been the main and indeed the only speaker at the event, making no mention of Ravi Zacharias at all. I include here the entire story as it appeared on the official LDS Church website (www.LDS.org/newsroom) on 29 Nov. 2004:

Evangelical Calls for Greater Understanding. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest in North America, spoke at Salt Lake Tabernacle November 14 during an ‘Evening of Friendship.’ At the event Mr. Mouw said, ‘I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. …We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.’

The story is accompanied by a photograph of Dr. Mouw along with a link to Beliefnet.com, where his entire remarks on that occasion are found under the heading: “‘We Have Sinned Against You.’ A leading evangelical speaks at the Mormon Tabernacle and says evangelicals have spread lies about LDS beliefs.”

Richard Mouw is credited with posting the remarks, but the introduction speaks of Mouw in the third person. In that introduction the Southern Baptists are specifically named as representing (apparently) the kind of thing Mouw was attacking in his remarks, despite the fact that South East Baptist Church was one of the sponsors of the Tabernacle event and its pastor, Mike Gray, was included among those seated on the stage.

It’s hard, in light of this reporting, not to view the LDS Church as somewhat self-serving in its backing of Ravi’s appearance. Acting as if it wished to engender good relations between Mormons and Evangelicals before the event (which was co-sponsored by the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Studies at BYU), the LDS Church seemed to quickly drop any interest in Ravi once it was over.

Some Christians in Utah were surprised and disappointed by the apparent bad faith reflected in the LDS Church’s post-event coverage; others, including myself, expected it on the basis of the conviction that, contrary to the belief and hope of many Evangelicals, the LDS Church does not appear ready for, nor does it seem really to desire, authentic dialogue with Evangelicals. What the LDS Church certainly does seem to desire is mainline respectability. It is clearly interested in finding room at its events for those Evangelicals who are willing to publicly disparage their own brethren and so to lend a hand to its own project of marginalizing (rather than interacting with) careful and credible critics like Jerald and Sandra Tanner, the Institute for Religious Research (IRR), and others. As such, the LDS Church appears to be interested in “dialoguing” only with Evangelicals who lack an in-depth knowledge of Mormon history and doctrine, and who are thus more likely to take at face value the representations of its PR people.

This was dramatically illustrated for me at the 2004 regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Association of Religion held at BYU. After the event Dr. James Wakefield and I were talking with another Evangelical scholar visiting from Fuller Theological Seminary. All three of us had presented papers. Suddenly a senior Mormon scholar and apologist very deliberately and ceremoniously reached his hand between Dr. Wakefield and me in order to introduce himself to the scholar from Fuller. He displayed no interest whatever in speaking to Dr. Wakefield or me, despite the fact that he had sat intently taking extensive notes during my entire paper, and also, that I had recently published an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought that had interacted with, and challenged, some of his writings.

Many pastors in Utah, including those supportive of the Tabernacle event, were deeply disappointed by Dr. Mouw’s apology. On December 3, 2004, some twenty-five pastors and other Christian ministers met with Standing Together director Greg Johnson to discuss the event. A number of those present (including myself) had come from ministries that had financially supported the event. Some had even been present on the stage during the event. There was, I think it is fair to say, a solid majority that felt Dr. Mouw’s apology was both ill-advised and inappropriate; a significant number of those present (again including myself) felt it was highly inappropriate.

After Greg Johnson had assured them that there had been no way to know beforehand that Dr. Mouw would make his unfortunate remarks, the gathered pastors naturally expressed surprise at learning that the faculty of Salt Lake Theological Seminary (SLTS) had communicated with Dr. Mouw in August 2004 and expressed concern that he avoid following the pattern he had established in writing and public events during the past few years of disparaging earlier Christian efforts to reach Mormons for Christ. Regrettably, Dr. Mouw ignored the SLTS faculty’s concern. Nearly all those present at the meeting understood Mouw’s accusation to be directed at ministers in Utah in general.

Unfortunately, Dr. Mouw’s disparaging remarks towards his fellow Evangelicals at the Tabernacle are not the first example of this kind of behavior in an event sponsored by Standing Together. The difficulty is that Evangelicals associated with that ministry have developed unhealthy, lopsided relationships with Mormon apologists. Several years ago I came up with a name for this “evangelistic strategy” – the “Pander/Slander” method: “If you want to pander to the Mormon apologists not ready for real dialogue, the cost is going to be a willingness to slander the Christian brethren that went before you.” Anyone who has read How Wide the Divide? by Evangelical Craig Blomberg and Mormon Stephen Robinson, a project spurred on by Standing Together’s Greg Johnson, will have noticed that Mormon scholar Stephen Robinson very quickly wraps himself in a cloak of victim privilege and makes sure Blomberg understands he is going to regard any challenges to his idiosyncratic expressions of Mormon doctrine as persecution. He acts, in other words, as a victim-bully. Once the book was out there, anyone who criticized Blomberg for not challenging Robinson’s evasions was denounced by Mormon apologists. So the cloak of victim privilege was thrown over the shoulders of Blomberg too. So also now with Richard Mouw and Standing Together.

In saying this I must stress that Craig Blomberg is an excellent scholar and the fact that he behaved in a more scholarly and gentlemanly manner than Robinson did in that exchange should surely not be held against him.

As early as 2002 I cautioned Greg Johnson against belittling earlier Christian efforts at reaching Mormons as a way of buying credibility with Mormon apologists. In 2001 I similarly cautioned Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, two of the editors of The New Mormon Challenge, a work with a Foreword by Richard Mouw, in which he again declares himself “ashamed” of fellow Christians who have labored in the field before him.

Acting, in my view, with similar lack of good faith in relation to the publication of that book, the Mormons first pretended to be supportive of the project and then quickly panned it afterwards as just another anti-Mormon effort. Not only so, but after promising to appear at a public book-launching event in Salt Lake City (The New Mormon Challenge Conference), the major Mormon participants cancelled out at the last minute, leaving only the idiosyncratic Mormon maverick lawyer-theologian-apologist Blake Ostler to represent the Mormon side. When the FARMS Review of Books came out with its take on The New Mormon Challenge in the winter of 2002, one of its authors, Louis Midgley, quoted one of the principles set out in Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley’s 1963 “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book” against the book’s editors:

"A benign criticism of your predecessors will go far towards confirming your own preeminence in the field. Refer gently but firmly," Nibley admonishes, "to the bias, prejudices, and inadequate research, however unconscious or understandable, of other books on the subject." It should be noted that Mosser and Owen began their venture into Anti-Mormonism with an essay in which they neatly positioned themselves to come to the rescue of the evangelicals overwhelmed by the "new Mormon challenge," by doing what previous writers have lacked the skill and knowledge to accomplish.1

Midgley’s comments are interesting. Prior to the release of the book, FARMS had singled out Mosser and Owen for high acclaim as if they were the only Evangelicals that ever deserved the name “scholar,” even at the time when neither had his doctorate. It had even re-released and praised the article Midgley now damns as “anti-Mormon.” More than a year before this review I warned Mosser and Owen that they were being used and that all the apparent friendship and support the Mormon apologists pretended to be giving them then would suddenly vanish the moment they ceased being useful. I had hoped I was being too cynical, that there might have been a glimmer of something real in the Mormon apologists’ relationship with Mosser and Owen. Sadly, my fears subsequently appear to have been confirmed.

Mosser and Owen are fine scholars who should not be condemned for being naïve. They are young and it is surely forgivable that they would have wanted to assume that the trusted leaders of a religious organization that claims to represent Jesus Christ on the earth would act with greater ethical integrity in its relationship with outsiders. Alas, we must all live and learn.

In any case, The New Mormon Challenge did represent an important bluff caller. For a long time previous to its release Mormons had been complaining that no one with scholarly credentials had critically and carefully interacted with their scholarship. My own position on that question was that it was incumbent on nobody to interact with the work of Mormon apologists until they produced something of real scholarly significance that could stand on its own outside Mormon circles. I had read a good deal of it and found that in the areas in which I had particular expertise, their work was, with a few exceptions, appallingly inadequate. The New Mormon Challenge at least provided exactly the scholarly interaction the Mormon apologists wanted, and yet since its release they have shown themselves to be as disinterested in real interaction as before. Their only long-term interest seems to be with Evangelicals who, lacking a sufficient understanding of their teaching, will pander to them without challenging them with anything deeper than broad allusions to “serious differences that divide us.”

With Dr. Mouw’s most recent apology at the Tabernacle, I am concerned that Standing Together will become fixed in its commitment to a strategy of disparaging earlier efforts to reach Mormons. If this appearance is correct, it is not a healthy development.

Dr. Mouw’s troubling comments at the recent Tabernacle event have damaged not only his own credibility among ministers in Utah, but also the credibility of the leadership of Standing Together. This is regrettable because their role in fostering Evangelical-Mormon dialogue is an important one. Many Christians in Utah and elsewhere would long for an apology on the part of Dr. Mouw to Utah pastors and mainstream Evangelical ministries to the LDS community affected by his comments. This is especially so in view of his planned participation in a Joseph Smith bicentennial event at the Library of Congress event in May 2005. Robert Millet at BYU has had a leading role in planning this event and the non-Mormon scholars who are participating in it have apparently been carefully hand-picked for what they will not say rather than for what they will say. We should be very troubled if Mouw insists on offering another one of his blanket apologies at that event, although I am concerned that he may very well do so.

Meanwhile, I would urge those at BYU and the Library of Congress who are planning the May 2005 Joseph Smith Bicentennial event to include the participation of legitimate Mormon and non-Mormon scholars whose work is not necessarily “faith promoting.” My desire as a representative of the latter group is to participate in dialogue that is not only respectful, but also authentic.



Note

1. Louis C. Midgley, “Faulty Topography,” FARMS Review of Books, 14.1-2 (2002): 148. 

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