Mormonism Obsessed with Christ

By Webb, Steven H. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Mormonism Obsessed with Christ


Webb, Steven H., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


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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.

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