Mocking Mormonism is one of the last frontiers of verbal lawlessness to be untouched by the vigilante powers of political correctness. What other group is ridiculed equally by Christians and secularists—and not just any kind of Christian or secularist but the most fervent and hard core? Fervent Christians see in Mormonism a mirror distorting their own faith, reflecting an image strangely recognizable yet recognizably strange. Hard-core secularists think Mormonism is the best example of the strangeness and danger inherent in all religious belief. Deriding Mormonism pulls off the neat trick of making the devout and the godless feel as if they are on the same side.
I too used to think of Mormonism as little more than an exotic and abnormal addition to Christianity. When I taught Mormon history to my students, I emphasized its remarkable spirit of endurance, its organizational savvy, and the sheer scope of its religious imagination. Yet I regret to say that I did not try to hide my condescension.
I have come to repent of this view, and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else’s faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is. Mormonism is more than Christianity, of course—most obviously by adding the Book of Mormon to the Bible—and that makes it much less than Christianity as well. Nevertheless, the fact that Mormonism adds to the traditional Christian story does not necessarily mean that it detracts from Christianity to the point of denying it altogether.
After all, what gives Christianity its identity is its commitment to the divinity of Jesus Christ. And on that ground Mormons are more Christian than many mainstream Christians who do not take seriously the astounding claim that Jesus is the Son of God.
Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him. It adds to the plural but coherent portrait of Jesus that emerges from the four gospels in a way, I am convinced, that does not significantly damage or deface that portrait.
I came to this conclusion when I read through the Book of Mormon for the first time. I already knew the basic outline: that it recounts the journey of a people God led from Jerusalem to the Americas six hundred years before the birth of Christ. In America, they split into two groups, the good guys (the Nephites) and the bad guys (the Lamanites), who battled each other until there were no good guys left—except for Moroni (Mormon’s son), who buried the chronicles of their wars and then, in 1823, told a farm boy from upstate New York where to find them.
When I actually read this book, however, I was utterly surprised. I was not moved, mind you. The Book of Mormon has to be one of the most lackluster of all the great works of literature that have inspired enduring religious movements. Yet it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. There are many characters in this book, but they change as little as the plot. Nobody stands out but him. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). And not just Jesus: A whole gospel in all of its theological details—right down to debates about baptism, the relationship of law to grace, and the problem of divine foreknowledge—is taught to the people of the New World centuries before Jesus was even born.
Christians have long interpreted the Old Testament in terms of the New—reading Christ between the lines, so to speak—but Smith went one big step further. He replaced the figurative with the figure himself. The truth of Jesus is eternal, Smith thought, so it should not be surprising to learn that Christ was made known in times and places beyond our imagination.
Long before his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus was eager to reveal the most specific details of his future life and ministry. Nephi, for example, who is said to have written the first two books of the Book of Mormon and to have been part of the migration from Jerusalem, already knew all about Jesus: “For according to the words of the prophets, the Messiah cometh in six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem; and according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (2 Nephi 25:19). Likewise, a Nephite king named Benjamin declared around 124 b.c., “And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. And he shall be called Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:7-8).
Every page of the book prepares the way for its stunning climax, which is a literal appearance of Jesus to the ancient peoples of America. For Joseph Smith, the ascension of Christ after the resurrection makes possible his descent into the Americas.
Non-Mormons, of course, do not believe that Jesus visited the Americas, but why should they be troubled if Mormons tell stories about Jesus that seem far-fetched? Imagine the following scenario. Your family gathers at the funeral of your dearly beloved grandfather, a world traveler. Your relatives begin telling the familiar stories about his great adventures. Soon, however, you notice another group of mourners at the other end of the room. As you eavesdrop on them, you realize they are talking about your grandfather as if they knew him well, yet you have never heard some of the stories they are telling. These new stories are not insulting to his memory, though some ring more true than others. Indeed, this group seems to have as high an opinion of your grandfather as you do. What do you do?
Do you invite them over to meet your family? That is a tough call. Many of your relatives will dispute the credibility of these stories, and some might make a scene. Others who think the stories are true will feel left out—why didn’t Grandfather tell us? The funny thing is, though, that this other group knows all of the stories your family likes to tell about the deceased, and the stories they add to the mix sound more like mythic embellishments of his character than outright lies. Clearly, the two groups have a lot to talk about!
However you decide to handle the situation, there is no need for you to change your love for your grandfather. There is also no need for you to react to this other group’s love for your grandfather as if they are intentionally threatening or dishonest. Whether or not you decide to expand your family to include this group, you can still welcome them as promoters of your grandfather’s memory. And the more you love your grandfather, the more you will be drawn to discover for yourself whether these new stories make any sense.
Of course, Jesus Christ is not your grandfather, and the stories we tell about him are grounded in Scripture, not family lore. Still, the Book of Mormon raises a question for Christians. Can you believe too much about Jesus? Can you go too far in conceiving his glory? Let me answer that question by posing another. Isn’t the whole point of affirming his divinity the idea that one can never say enough about him? And if Smith’s stories are not true, aren’t they more like exaggerations or embellishments than outright slander and deceit?
I am not denying that the Mormon Jesus is different from the Jesus of traditional Christianity. Mormons connect the atonement more with the Garden of Gethsemane than with the cross, since they think that is where his greatest agony took place (Luke 22:44). The Book of Mormon places the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem, much to the delight of biblical fundamentalists who use such discrepancies to score debating points.
The most significant difference is that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was never purely immaterial. Smith developed his materialistic interpretation of the spiritual realm mainly after the Book of Mormon, but it is anticipated in that book’s most extraordinary scene. In an appearance to the unnamed brother of Jared, Jesus is so sensitive to the overwhelming impression of his corporeal form that he reveals only his little finger. Jared’s brother says, “I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood” (Ether 3:8). Later Jesus shows Jared’s brother his whole body, which, it turns out, is a pre-mortal spirit body, comprised of a finer material substance than anything known on earth.
Christianity has always affirmed the goodness of matter and the integrity of the human body, but Mormonism offers that Christian dogma gone mad. For Smith, Christ’s pre-existent form was as physically real as we are today. Christianity teaches that the incarnation happened in a particular place and time, but for Smith, taking Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”) very literally, the Son has always been Jesus. The body of Jesus Christ is the eternal image of all bodies, spiritual and physical alike. The incarnation is a specification (or material intensification) of his body, not the first and only time that God and matter unite.
The eternal embodiment of the divine is metaphysically audacious, and it explains why Mormonism is so inventive. Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato. Mormons are so materialistic that they insist that the same unchanging laws govern both the natural and the supernatural. They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.
By treating the spiritual as a dimension of the material, Smith overcomes every trace of dualism between this world and the next. Matter is perfectible because it is one of the perfections of the divine. Even heaven is merely another kind of galaxy, far away but not radically different from planet earth. For Mormons, our natural loyalties and loves have an eternal significance, which is why marriages will be preserved in heaven. Our bodies are literally temples of the divine, which is why Mormons wear sacred garments underneath regular clothing.
This should not be taken lightly. The Mormon metaphysic calls for the revision of nearly every Christian belief. Still, not all heresies are equally perilous. If Gnosticism is the paradigmatic modern temptation—spiritualizing Jesus by turning him into a subjective experience—Mormonism runs in the exact opposite direction. If you had to choose between a Jesus whose body is eternal and a Jesus whose divinity is trivial (as in many modern theological portraits), I hope it would be an easy choice.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College.