Mark Twain famously joked about the Mormons, “Their beliefs are singular ─ but their wives are plural.” Since Twain’s day though, mainstream Mormons have officially renounced polygamy (as a necessary condition of statehood back in 1896). But one can still strongly make the case that the beliefs of the Latter Day Saints remain quite singular, one might even say fantastic. I will get into more specific details presently, but first it may help to explore the idea of fantasy as faith, an American phenomenon which is in no way intended to cast dispersion on denizens of the Beehive State. In fact most tenets of the Mormon religion are surprisingly rational when set against many newer cultish practices, both secular and religious, that have proliferated since the advent of the 20th century. Secular ideologies (cryonics, space alien cults, climate zealots, etc.) are now just as potent a force as religious ones (Scientology, Theosophy, etc.).
Imagination is the faculty that permits us to dream, to anticipate, and to fantasize which can be a very good thing. It permits one to recapture those childlike qualities and visions that too often get lost during the painful process of becoming adults. We all need a little Peter Pan effect to offset the sometimes grubby, seedy, even hurtful experiences that life imposes at times. Everyone loves a good story after all. And stories are great tools for teaching because they adhere to our memories better than cold, dry facts. Christ himself used parables, stories, to teach fundamental truths precisely because a good story appeals to and stimulates the human imagination.
The modern film industry has become one of mankind’s most successful and powerful purveyors of stories, both realistic and fantastic, and any psychologist will tell you that this has to do with the medium of film itself. Films simultaneously paint a picture using words, visual images, music, and sound effects with a forcefulness that has never before been possible. Film can create entire fantasy worlds that draw the viewer in so completely that what he sees and feels sometimes appears to be more real than his own personal experiences. The same is true of virtual reality computer games which offer a vicarious range of experiences more thrilling, sensational, and intense than anything the user could ever experience naturally. The danger is that under such a powerful influence there is a real danger that the viewer begins to substitute such fantastic sensations for reality itself. In other words, the imagination part of the human mind begins to dominate or even replace the reasoning faculty.
Real people, unlike super-heroes, don’t jump off of tall buildings or experience fiery explosions at close range and live. Younger minds don’t always draw such distinctions completely, however. Unchecked, the over-stimulation of the imagination and commensurate neglect of the reason indulged in through movies and video-games, can discourage a healthy, integrated application of one’s discerning mental powers, especially in the young. And yet the game and film industries continue to expose children to such rubbish. It isn’t so much the occasional exposure itself that is objectionable as it is the prodigious quantities of repetitive fantasy sex, violence, etc. being dumped out there for public consumption. A little candy is fine for kids, a steady diet of it can cause real damage.
Today we see countless numbers of young people obsessed with the idea that vampires or space aliens inhabit our world, and play some meaningful part in it, solely because they have experienced these fantastic things through the medium of film and electronic media. When imaginary things begin to replace rational thinking, or become a substitute for authentic human experience and interaction, one may safely say that fantasy has assumed the mantle of religious faith. Indeed it may even surpass the prescribed limitations of faith because faith is normally tethered to some rational underlying principle whereas fantasy requires no reason whatsoever to justify whatever it proposes.
This brings us back to the question of religious faith in general, and to the Mormon faith in particular. Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in a nation that is generally retreating from organized religion. In other words it is bucking the trend rather successfully having grown by nearly 50% in the past twenty years alone. This is a zealously “missionary” sect and the constant proselytizing efforts have paid big dividends for the LDS Church. Only the Jehovah Witnesses have experienced more growth over that same period. Neither am I trying to single out the Mormons as being overly cultish because this land of religious plurality has spawned many far stranger religious systems.
Mormonism stands out as a quintessentially American religion, a product of mid 19th century religious fervor. It typifies that spirit of freethinking that later imbued Christian Science, Jehovah Witness, Theosophy, and Pentecostalism among others. Classical Protestantism came from Europe but its American offshoots grew out of a Wild-West culture of personal political and religious autonomy. None of those experiments has attained a more unique identity than the Church of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. Its principal architects, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, were ultimately able to accomplish, using 19th century communications, what Hollywood and Game Boy needed 20th century media and high technology to achieve. They effectively presented a fantasy world so convincing that it has become, in the minds of millions, a reality tantamount to religious faith.
The central text underpinning the Mormon religion is the Book of Mormon which proclaims itself to be “another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Evangelical Christians, particularly those who relish baiting Mormons in acrimonious debate, invariably point to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians where the apostle states emphatically, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that one be accursed.” (Gal 1:8) But Paul does not stop there. Instead he pointedly repeats his admonition in order to impress its importance on the reader. “I say again, if anyone preaches a gospel other than the one you received, let that one be accursed.” (Gal 1:9) If one takes St. Paul at his word, it should be pretty obvious that any new pseudo-Biblical text that claims authority equal to the original New Testament by advertising that it is “another Testament of Jesus Christ” is precisely the sort of thing to which St. Paul referred ─ and condemned so forcefully.
In fact, the Book of Mormon is, more than anything else, a parody of the true Gospel. The question of its actual credibility will be addressed in Part Two of this essay. For the moment, it is enough to consider this 19th century text in light of the testimony of St. Paul, and also the letters of both Peter and John who insistently warned their flocks to beware of false teachers, prophets, and even anti-christs. (See 2Peter chapter 2, 1John 2:18-22; 1John 4:1-6; 2John 9-11; and finally Jude 5-8.)
The Mormon lure is that it represents a restored Christianity when in fact it merely parodies the authentic Christian message in certain respects, and departs from it in others. It presumes that Christianity became hopelessly corrupted and died out very early on, requiring God to “jump start” his true religion again, this time through the person of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s chief prophet. Yet such a reading of history would seem to contradict what Christ had solemnly promised his disciples, “And behold, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:20)
In spite of the Mormon claim to Christian pedigree, it has always fascinated me that this religion, while purporting to follow Jesus Christ faithfully, has totally buried any reference to the cross in its art, symbolism, architecture, and liturgy. One never sees this central Christian symbol of mankind’s redemption represented in Mormon literature nor in its temples or stake houses. Is that merely an oversight or is it meant to send out a different, albeit subtle, message? (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both Freemasons, so they certainly understood the value and power of symbols.)
As a final note, one of the more controversial Mormon practices has ever been the baptizing of ancestors and other non-Mormons by proxy. Mormon apologists explain this activity as becoming “saviors” to others. Apart from the pretense of playing God, (of which Mormons claim several, not just one) such a doctrine clearly implies,that it is possible, and even necessary, to “save” someone against that person’s own will. Yet not even God does such a thing because that would abuse our human free will. It seems the height of presumption to impose baptism on someone who lived and died centuries before under the assumption that they would not be saved until you came along, ex post facto, to deliver them from their sins. Such a belief indicates the presence of a serious “God-complex” to my way of thinking, but of course the Mormon religion also teaches that a man’s ultimate destiny is to become the “god” of his own planet (women need not apply), In that case maybe proxy baptism is just the training camp for future deification.
These are just a few of the problems that many Christians have regarding the Mormon faith. In part two of this discussion I will provide additional background into the strange etymology of Mormonism, paying particular attention to the Book of Mormon itself. I think that you will be fascinated by what you read, so stay tuned. And if two nicely dressed young missionaries park their bicycles on your front stoop, please invite them in to read this blog. Don’t be surprised if they don’t stay for cookies, however.
Fran Pierson +a.m.d.g.