Yesterday, I had the delightful opportunity to have lunch with a long-time friend, a devout Christian, I haven’t had a chance to talk to (beyond Facebook) for years. As we chatted, I found myself saying that the Mormon faith probably “has more teeth in its mouth” regarding obedience to commandments, and she nodded agreement. At the moment (and certainly afterward), I wondered if, in saying this, I hadn’t fed into misconceptions about Mormonism. Had I reinforced the idea that Mormons think we earn salvation by works, or via compliance to commandments? The question got me thinking about how many ways its possible for Mormons and Christians to miscommunicate. While this blog is not about LDS doctrine but LDS culture, it should certainly address ways people who are different, and yet share so much in common, understand one another. So I’m creating a regular feature, which I call Bridges in honor of Chaim Potok’s discussions about using literature as a bridge to help differing cultures understand one another. This is my first such post.
Before I begin, I will reiterate what I’ve written in the About section of this blog. This is not a place for doctrinal warfare or campaigning. I have no interest in converting anyone, nor do I have any interest in the efforts of others to convert me away from Mormonism. Quite frankly, that ain’t gonna happen. So lets all just assume from the outset that we are what we are, religion-wise, that we are happy and satisfied with what we are, and that God loves us equally simply because we are His sons and daughters. Instead of seeking to prove our side is correct, lets work toward understanding one another better. Before the post closes, I’ll explain, to the best of my ability, how the LDS view of the Bible influences us individually and collectively, all with the hope that we improve our understanding of one another. Please remember that the opinions I express are mine alone and cannot be taken to represent the many minds of the millions of other Mormons. Likewise, I will always remember that there is no single Protestant or Christian (or Not Mormon) way of looking at this or any other topic. That said …
With a lead-in like I’ve crafted here, you’d expect me to focus on the grace v works issue, but I’m going to put that aside for another time. As I pondered last night, I decided to begin the Bridges section with something even more basic–and, in my experience–contentious: The in/fallibility of the Bible. Mormons don’t expect the book to be infallible. Many Christians do.
I will, at some point, discuss the definition of Christianity, but because I don’t tend to think the way the majority of Mormons do about the definition, I won’t do that today. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I will use the definition of “Christian” that I once read in the religion section of the Dallas Morning News. Its been a several years since I read that article and I didn’t keep ite, but basically it argued that, to be considered a Christian, a person has to believe a specific set of things, namely: 1. Jesus is Lord and Savior, 2) Salvation comes from belief in him (by grace) and not by works, and 3) The Bible is the word of God and, as such, is infallible.
So, to some, Mormons lose out on the label “Christian,” largely because of #3. The LDS often point to a list of what we call the Thirteen Articles of Faith, written by Joseph Smith in response to a newspaper’s petition that he clearly outline what Mormons believe. The eighth article states: We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
That statement–that we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly–can be offensive to those who believe the Bible is inerrant, and I sense sometimes Mormons are oblivious to that fact. I think, particularly if a person is raised hearing the eighth article of faith from the cradle up, the potential conflicts in the Biblical text seem so obvious that no right-minded person could not see it. This ideology, as I’ve observed, can be as bothersome to some Christians as it is to Mormons when Protestants suggest any right-minded person must see that the Bible teaches there will be no other scripture than the Bible. We–Christians and Mormons–get caught talking past each other as we feebly attempt to convince the other of our position.
Most of us–people of all faiths--aren’t interested in being convinced, in being changed or converted, but we are interested in one another. So Protestants out there, please understand this: Mormons do, in fact, believe the Bible to be the word of God. We look to Christ for salvation. We strive to follow his teachings and commandments as recorded in the Bible. The Bible is regularly quoted in our official church settings and in our homes. Our lifestyle is what it is because of the Bible. The culture we have built around our faith is brimming with the same biblical ideas and verses yours is. If someone tried to strip our Bibles from us, we’d come out swinging just as you would.
But there may be ways that our caveat “as far as it is translated correctly” make us different from those who firmly believe the Bible is inerrant. For instance, our faith is not challenged when the gospels don’t harmonize; We see the hand of man in any “disharmony,” and I, personally, feel relieved that God allows humans to make mistakes but still uses us as his instruments, and that mankind can find much to be inspired by even when there are flaws. Furthermore, the LDS faith allows for biblical stories to be allegorical, rather than strictly non-fiction. It’s true that I have known some Latter-day Saints who are literalists–the earth was made in six days (or six thousand years), Job was a real person, the parables literally happened–but I, and many others LDS, are not literalists. (Please see italicized note at end.) My literary background probably makes me a little more willing to understand the teachings of the Savior and the prophets as often allegorical because I’ve had the experience of writing truth through fiction. Sometimes the truest things we come across–the greatest truths of life–we discover when we read fiction. So for me, to say the Bible contains some fictions (allegories) is not the same as saying it is not true. If I and other writers have the ability to capture a truth through fiction, certainly our God can do that as well.
But our understanding that the Bible is not an inerrant, solely fact-based text also opens the LDS culture up to science in ways that leave some of other faiths uncomfortable. While some LDS are staunch creationists, they are this because they are less familiar with what our faith teaches and have been influenced by the wider devout religious populations in the US. And yes, some higher-ups in the LDS church have spoken, in decades past, about the evils of evolution, but no LDS church president has ever, while president, said anything more than, essentially, when God made man, he made man. In fact, one of Brigham Young’s most sage teachings was that, if anything is true, it is part of our religion, regardless of where it comes from. If science discovers truth, it is part of our religion. If art discovers truth, it is part of our religion. He taught this many times and in many ways, but I’ll share with you two quotations from the Discourses of Brigham Young that rank among my favorite:
Our religion is simply the truth. It is all said in this one expression—it embraces all truth, wherever found, in all the works of God and man that are visible or invisible to mortal eye (DBY, 2).
Our religion measures, weighs, and circumscribes all the wisdom in the world—all that God has ever revealed to man. God has revealed all the truth that is now in the possession of the world, whether it be scientific or religious. The whole world are under obligation to him for what they know and enjoy; they are indebted to him for it all, and I acknowledge him in all things (DBY, 2).
So the LDS belief that the Bible has some errors creates a group of people who are forgiving and compassionate because we understand that fallible people are the instruments of God. It helps us be less afraid to try to serve him. Furthermore, this belief may be the force behind the creativity of our people. Emphasis tends to be paid to the business-like aspect of Mormon culture and I’ve read several national articles over the past few years that point to the managerial structure of the LDS church (specifically how it uses a lay clergy) as fertile training ground for the disproportionate-to-the-population success of LDS people in business and politics. But creativity is vital to worldly success as well. From the outset, the LDS are allowed to accept the foundational stories of our religious training as expressions of not only inspiration and faith, but of creativity. Lastly (for this post anyway), the success of LDS people in the scientific fields (and in the writing of Science Fiction, I’d add) exists, in large measure, because our understanding of the Bible allows for–no, encourages–exploration in the science. If the story of the creation of man can be faithfully seen as allegorical, we are free to press for more knowledge through scientific measures. I had wonderful geology professor at Brigham Young University. He responded to students who had been taught that evolution is a great evil by saying (and I paraphrase to the best of my ability), “There are two records written about the creation of the earth and of mankind. One record is in scripture and the other is in the earth. We don’t understand either completely and so we study both. Each will teach us about the other.” Our approach to the Bible, then, makes for a body of people who are striving to better understand, better harmonize, God and science. We believe, ultimately, these two records will say the same thing. Our approach to the Bible does not require we abandon science for religion, or religion for science. We are a people who anticipate knowledge that is to come, believing, ultimately, all truth is given us by God.
People of other faiths, particularly evangelical Christians, may not ascribe to our caveat about the Bible. And that’s perfectly fine. But I hope, after reading this post, those who don’t agree will, at a minimum, reconsider any feelings of condemnation they may have toward us, any sense that we are being ignorantly led, or blinded, any feelings of pity that may be harbored and begin to see how this belief has helped our culture be broader than some give us credit for. The LDS belief in the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” has not robbed us of any of the testimony of Christ. It has, as I see it, opened the Mormon culture to many positive things and made believing in Christ easier. I suspect many people of other faiths share our sentiment, even if they or their leadership, don’t put it into words as boldly as the Latter-day Saints. I spoke to a Christian mother whose son was, at the time of our conversation, attending a divinity school in the area. Though their faith is Baptist, her son, in his quest to become a minister, was being taught ideas and a Biblical history that challenged her notion of the Bible’s infallibility. She admitted what he had shared with her challenged her faith, and she marveled that his faith not only continued in the face of this new knowledge, but bloomed. I completely understand this. Seeing the Bible the way the LDS do does not inhibit faith. Rather, it gives faith space to grow.
Note: Since publishing this post, I’ve been reminded that many LDS people claim they are more literal about the Bible than those who claim the Bible is in errant. They point to specific passages that Mormons do, in fact, consider literally while those of other faiths don’t see it this way. But I reject the claim that Mormons are more literal in an overall sense. But because I’m not interested in wading into murky doctrinal matters, I will let it go at that.
The ideas and opinions here are solely mine and admittedly sparse considering the breadth of the topic. I, in no way, speak for the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As always, I appreciate feedback, but one last reminder–no doctrinal warfare! I express these views in the hope of building bridges, not to create a battle zone. Feel free to comment here or on FB. Questions are always welcome. Thanks for reading!