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:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- Bowman appears to have based his conclusions on very limited source material: the outdated, poorly written “Gospel Principles” manual, written in 1978.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.)