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What Mormons Believe (By Yet Another Person Who Does Not Seem to Know Any Actual Mormons)

A couple of weeks ago InterVarsity Press, one of my all-time favorite publishing houses, sent me a review sampler for its new release What Mormons Believe by evangelical writer Robert M. Bowman (no relation to Matthew Bowman, the historian who wrote this year’s outstanding Random House history The Mormon People).

Because this was an IVP book, I picked it up with great interest. IVP is known for doing thoughtful, well-researched books on a variety of topics, and striving for balanced evangelical scholarship. In the late 1990s, the press broke new ground with the discussion-based book How Wide the Divide?, in which an evangelical scholar and a Mormon scholar collaborated together to outline their theological areas of difference and common ground.

So it’s peculiarly depressing that IVP is the publisher of this disappointing “Mormon moment” snapshot, which actually widens that divide just a bit more.

Let me clear that it’s not anti-Mormon literature, though it does rely on the terribly researched exposé One Nation under Gods, which Bowman praises as “by far the best critical history of the LDS Church.” Oh, dear.

Unlike Abanes’s book, there are no glaring factual inaccuracies here. And aside from a very snide remark about the content of Jesus’ message in the Book of Mormon, Bowman’s tone is dispassionate. He doesn’t hurl the C-bomb (cult) or other nasty epithets.

My issue is that there is no nuance whatsoever. I see three possible reasons for this shortcoming:

  1. The book is exceedingly short. (According to my handy Kindle barometer, by the time I had bypassed the front matter to reach the introduction, I was already 5% of the way through it.)
  2. There seems to be a kind of unwillingness on the part of the author to track theological change over time (do Mormons today believe exactly what was taught in 1840 about God’s nature?) or allow for ideological diversity within the tradition. (Do all Mormons believe they will be gods of their own planets? I think not, but if it’s true, I'm calling first dibs on Pluto.)
  3. Bowman appears to have based his conclusions on very limited source material: the outdated, poorly written “Gospel Principles” manual, written in 1978. It’s the LDS Church’s own fault that it is still using curriculum that is so inadequate (a fact that Elder Marlin Jensen acknowledged and says is changing), but Bowman shares in culpability for not getting out more. When he discusses the “Great Apostasy,” for example, he cites the manual’s stark dismissal of most of human history and says it is rather ridiculous, and he is right. But earlier this year, prominent LDS scholars from around the world gathered for a conference on this very issue, and scholar after scholar concluded—at a conference paid for and held at church-owned Brigham Young University—that the traditional Mormon view of the so-called “Great Apostasy” is largely untenable.

In the final sections, Bowman offers a strongly worded refutation of Mormon doctrine—or at least Mormon doctrine as he has set it up as a strawman. Or a persyn of straw. Whatever.

Point for point, he oversimplifies what Mormons believe, then repudiates it with statements about what evangelicals believe. I was interested to see that some of his claims about what “all” evangelicals believe, and what is known biblical truth, would actually be challenged by some of the evangelicals I know (including a couple of friends who work at or write for IVP). He asserts that “not all human beings are God’s children” (huh?) and that “Christ’s atonement saves only Christ’s followers.” The wicked, Bowman states unequivocally, will suffer everlasting punishment and “derive no benefit from Christ’s atoning death.”

As I said, I know plenty of evangelicals whose views on atonement and resurrection differ from Bowman’s, but those human nuances are lost here. He doesn’t mention any fellow evangelicals with divergent POVs. And it goes without saying that there are no actual, flesh-and-blood Mormons anywhere in these pages, unless you count Mitt Romney, and you really can’t because it is a truth universally acknowledged that he is a robot.

Believe me, I am sensitive to the challenge of trying to write concisely and accessibly about a complex and changing religious tradition. When Chris Bigelow and I were working on Mormonism for Dummies, we encountered this problem constantly. But the way to attempt it is to consult multiple sources from several points of view.

In the interest of pointing out much better sources for understanding this “Mormon Moment,” here are two books by evangelical Christians who have taken the time to understand Mormonism as a multifarious religious tradition and not a caricature:

  • Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons. The outgoing president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena offers brief thoughts on a “third way” for evangelicals to engage with Mormons—not by apologetic denunciation (Bowman’s approach) or ecumenical attempts to ignore important theological differences and all sing Kumbaya together, but by sustained dialogue with actual Mormons who can still fog a mirror. (See my review here.)
  • Carl Mosser, Francis Beckwith, and Paul Owen’s The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement is ten years old, so the “latest defenses” claim of the subtitle isn’t quite true, but this remains a well-reasoned evangelical response to Mormon belief claims. (Oddly, Bowman cites this in his notes; would that he had followed its example.)

Topics: Faith, Beliefs
Beliefs: Mormon


  1. It’s always disappointing when someone writes a book as an expert when they only have an outsider’s visibility.

    I’ve actually heard that “not all human beings are God’s children” idea from a christian recently too- what a foreign concept for me. In my friend’s view, you are only a child of God/Christ/the trinity when you’ve been “saved”. And it makes a bit of sense when you realize that the mormon perspective on premortal life is unique- what DOES make one a child of God, if you only exist because Adam and Eve screwed up and created bodies which create more bodies and we all exist just to glorify God… kind of weird to think about.

  2. Great response, Jana. But one significant correction: Pluto is no longer a planet. wink

  3. This is unfortunate, but not totally surprising in that Bowman, and his Institute for Religious Research, draw upon a countercult paradigm of heresy-rationalist apologetic analysis. In this model the views of the new religions are viewed primarily as heretical systems of belief, and the evangelical response is one of doctrinal contrast and refutation, followed by philosophical critique of worldview. In this approach there is little room for allowing for diversity of thought, or the idea that the new religions, like all religious traditions, should be taken seriously and respect as not only diverse, but also as traditions in a constant state of development over time. Nevertheless, the “third way” of dialogical evangelicalism now utilized by a growing number of evangelicals, holds promise for the future and may supersede the apologetic paradigm still dominant within evangelicalism. Here’s to hoping that IVP returns to its previous standards of publishing on Mormonism, dialogue and theological analysis.

  4. Jana (and others) you should check out the recently published anthology on Mormon thought I just edited. Some of the most intelligent theological commentary by Evangelicals and other Christians on Mormon thought you’ll read (in my unbiased opinion!)

  5. Jana makes some excellent points, but her critique of evangelicals not being up to speed on Mormon beliefs cuts both ways. Protestant, Catholic (cat. 1996) and Eastern Orthodox all teach what the Bible, particularly the New Testament, declares: While all humans are creations bearing the stamp/image/impression of God (Gen 1), we are by nature children who deserve wrath (Eph 2:3; Isa 64:6). It is only those who have faith in Christ who are given the new birth (John 3), become children of God, transcend creatureship by adoption into God’s family, and who are heirs that may call on God as “Papa”. (John 1:12-13; Gal 3:26-28; Gal 4:1-7; 1 John 3:2; Matt 5:9; and Romans 8.) Any creedal Christian who says otherwise denies the teachings of the Bible and the confessing Church.

    Yet as for atonement theory, it differs a little in how it is emphasized among tradition families. While Eastern Orthodox emphasize a healing/victor model, the Western church generally emphasizes a penal substitutionary model. Both models are drawn from the New Testament, but emphasized differently in the traditions. All these traditions confess that Christ died for the world so that those who believe might be saved (John 3:16). Nevertheless Calvinist/Reformed Protestant traditions often emphasize that God predestinated some to salvation and others to damnation—and as such the atonement was limited to those who were elected and predestined to salvation. Naturally this latter doctrine has been divisive among other Protestants and anathema among the Catholic/Orthodox.

  6. Dang, I was hoping for Pluto….it is the only planet safe from all the robots:)

  7. There seems to be an ongoing market among Evangelical Christians for books that explain “Why Mormons are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!”  I contrast this with the utter lack of a market among Mormons for books that explain “Why evangelical Christians are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!”  Or Catholics, Orthodox, Mainstream Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.  If a Mormon wants to learn about another religious tradition, they are willing to go to something written by a member of that tradition who tries to explain his or her beliefs to people unfamiliar with it.  Apparently there is a desire among a substantial number of Evangelicals to have someone filter Mormon beliefs and present them only after they have been decontaminated and pasteurized and comprehensively labeled as heretical.  Heaven forbid that they might be allowed to look reasonable or even attractive. 

    One prominent example of such books is Mormon America, by the Ostlings. It is a little softer pedaling the traditional Christian denunciation of Mormon heresy, and carries a substantial amount of data about Mormonism, but holds it at arm’s length.  The authors take us to a Mormon Sunday worship service, but tell us that it is boring, without describing the communion service or even the topics addressed by the speakers.  They go to a session of the worldwide General Conference, but it too is categorized as uninteresting, without naming the leaders who spoke, the topic of their messages, or quoting anything they said.  They introduce the actual top leaders of the Mormon church in a single footnote near the end of the book, offering no insight into how a major religion is led by people who had first succeeded as businessmen, university presidents, attorneys, a nuclear engineer, and a world renowned heart surgeon. It is Mormonism Reveiled, not Revealed.

    Such books always strike me as leaving the readers with a great mystery:  How can such a poorly constructed, downright amateur religion be so attractive to so many people, including people in their own Evangelical denomination?  After having the authors carefully kill, dry and pin the beetles of Mormon heresy to a board, and display them in a poor light, Evangelical readers are unable to understand how attractive the living, flying version of Mormonism with wings outspread, that Latter-day Saints experience fresh, can attract and hold them, and bring others into their fold. Such books cover Mormonism, but with an obscuring veil.

  8. Jana, I understand that NBC News “Rock Center” is devoting a full hour to a report on Mormons tonight (Friday, August 23), including an interview with Joanna Brooks.  We look forward to hearing your take on how well the producers do in this effort.

  9. Can you please provide a citation to this conference at BYU on the great apostacy? And can you tell me how it has been challenged?

  10. Another Mormon propganda piece.  Mormonism is a cult.

  11. “persyn of straw”

    Tee hee!

  12. From reading a great deal of the life of Joseph Smith, I am convinced the man was a fraud and a charlatan, not a “prophet of God.”  I still believe Fawn Brodie wrote the best book ever about him.  I also deplore Mormon doctrine on the inferiority of women.  No argument an dissuade me that they don’t feel women are “less than.”  But, of course that is true of most fundamentalist religions.

  13. Judith, if I believed Fawn Brodie’s book, I’d think Joseph Smith was a fraud, too. Most reputable non-Mormon scholars who are familiar with her work seem to agree that it is fraught with errors. Try reading primary source material about Joseph Smith, and Mormon canonized scripture. You may be surprised at how the Holy Spirit moves you and changes your perspective. And if you think that Mormon doctrine teaches the inferiority of women, you are certainly misinformed.

  14. The other day there was a post here from Jana that had a link to the BYU conference on the apostasy, but it is gone now.  Where did it go?

  15. A Jardine,

    Below is the comment from Jana that included the link you referenced. We had to restore it and another comment from a backup because of a technical error. Sorry about that.—Dave, RNS web developer


    Janna—Pluto IS still a planet. It is.

    If you’re interested, I compared my journey through the four stages of grief about Pluto’s demotion to many Mormons’ disenchantment with faith in a talk earlier this year:

    As you can see, I have not yet reached the final stage of “acceptance.”


    And Collin—here is a link to the BYU Daily Universe’s write-up of the conference. According to the article, all of the papers are being gathered into a book.

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