Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mormonism 101: The First Thing You Need to Understand

If all you knew about the Lutheran faith were some of the unkind criticisms of Martin Luther from his opponents ("he condoned polygamy!" or "he wanted to subtract whole books of the Bible!") or mischaracterizations of the theology, you would fail to grasp the beauty and meaning that many Lutherans find in their religion. The same applies to Catholicism, where the apparent mistakes of various popes and some of the problems of the past are dead-end streets that do not take us into the hearts and minds of faithful Catholics. That's not to say that the criticisms are without merit, but they are often worthless if one wishes to understand what Protestants and Catholics actually believe and especially what they experience in their faith.

This principle applies to the Latter-day Saints, of course. Based on the mischaracterizations of our opponents, some people think that being a Mormon requires complete abandonment of thought and mindless, unquestioning following of oppressive leaders. Some think that it has nothing to do with faith in Christ or worship or God, and is all about self-righteousness or perhaps just social programs.

Those who focus on the attacks on Joseph Smith or the caricatures of our faith created by critics miss the most basic aspects of the faith. They miss that "Mormonism" is about creating a living, joyous faith in Christ that can transform our lives into a daily walk with God. I want to emphasize the word joy. The most basic thing about the "restored Gospel of Jesus Christ" as taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that it brings joy and meaning to the hearts and minds of its followers. There is spiritual peace and joy coupled with much more intellectual satisfaction and meaning than one would ever infer from hearing the rants of the anti-cult professionals.

Yesterday in the once-a-month "fast and testimony meeting" that I attended, two teenage sisters, two newcomers to town, stood at the pulpit and shared their experience to a crowd of new friends. They told of the daily joy and peace they have been finding since their family began praying regularly and returning to activity in the Church. They explained how much better life is for them through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what I have experienced, and what so many of those I know have experienced.

My two years of sharing the Gospel in Switzerland and southern Germany greatly strengthened my personal witness of the power of the Gospel because it was like a laboratory setting in which I could see what the Church did for people. I could see the before and after states over and over again. The Gospel brought people joy, peace, and yes, even intellectual satisfaction as they could now resolve theological and philosophical puzzles, makes sense of this mortal journey, and understand who we are, where we came from, and why we are here. Biblical prophecies and patterns of history make more sense and the knowledge we gain gives us direction and purpose. The importance of families became more clear and through the Gospel, marriages were strengthened, family bonds were strengthened, and people had better, more wholesome lives. The teachings of the Gospel help people avoid addictions and many other dangers to body and spirit, and help people have healthier, happier, and more intelligent lives. Some don't - some have conflicts with fellow members or object to various teachings and practices, or find the demands on time in various callings to be too much and have negative experiences. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of those who are willing to take the Gospel seriously and live it find rich blessings, joy, fulfillment, and purpose.

Sincere, thoughtful Christians who learn and embrace the "restored Gospel of Jesus Christ" tend to find meaning and great joy in this route to following Jesus Christ and worshiping God--yes, the Jesus Christ and God the Father of the Bible--and if you don't understand this, you still don't know the first thing about Mormonism. But it's never too late to start learning.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can only agree with you partially. Mormonism is a particular mold and if you don't fit into it you really have no place there. It certainly does bring joy to many (albeit few compared globally). I was a Mormon for 40+ years (born into the covenant), served a mission, was very active and could even say I was on the A list. It wasn't until I "checked out" of Mormonism that I actually felt what true "Christ like love" really was. Never before would I have expected such elevated joy and happiness.

Again, it helps a good many people to better their lives but what the church leaves undisclosed is what is most damaging of all. If you know all the faults there are in the church and continue to practice Mormonism then I'm happy for you. You then "own" your faith. I "own" mine as well. I chose to leave and practice faith that made far more sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Then why is it that when I question a decision I am told that I must be in alignment with the brothern. I hate this! Is there no room to question? In are ward girls are not allowed to wear a swimsuit to Church water events. Not a bikini, a one piece swimsuit is not acceptable. Ask why and you get the standard answer. I believe the book of Mormon is true, the members are not. This includes the leaders. And to the previous comment I know all about the A list, I have been a councilor to the Bishop.

Anonymous said...

"Not a bikini, a one piece swimsuit is not acceptable. Ask why and you get the standard answer"

I think you are talking about the wrong Church. Look at "for the strength of Youth" pamplet for some guidance.

Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about the wrong Church. Our young women can not wear any swimsuit of any kind to a Church water event. We have an annual canoe trip/water fight and they are required to wear T-Shirts and shorts over there swimsuits. This is not an exaggeration. When I asked why I was told that was the instruction from the Bishop. I asked him and was told that was the direction from the brothern and that we should not question this. I was once the 1st counselor in the Bishopric but asked to many questions. Now I'm on the B list and am not eligible for any major callings.

LuckyMatt said...

Mormons who are caught up in categorizing themselves as "A-list" or "B-list" Mormons are kind of missing the point of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think the only thing that matters is really that inner sense of peace that comes in knowing that you are square with the Lord--trying your best to be a disciple and letting His grace into your life to make up for your failings.

Yes, there are certain standards set by the Lord (through His servants) to promote our happiness--the scriptures are full of them; some are required for temple attendance; some of them specific to youth are enumerated in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet; some are special rules for full-time missionaries; and others might come from more local leadership at various times.

All of these standards, as well as the other commandments, are given to us to promote our happiness by wise leaders and an all-knowing Lord who happen to know a thing or two about true happiness.

I have never regretted following any counsel the Lord has given through His authorized servants--my life has only been enriched.

I'm not particularly interested in putting people in "A-list" or "B-list" boxes. In my experience, the ones most interested in categorizing (judging) their fellow saints seem to be the ones who are always complaining about the counsel and direction given from the Lord through His servants. Perhaps there's some guilt in knowing that you are living below your potential, which creates a need to look around and judge others--I don't know.

Living the gospel in the Lord's church has only brought me joy, peace, contentment, and blessings, both now and in the future, beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Anonymous said...

and it is the joy and peace that I concentrate on. It's just hard to watch all of the big callings get shuffled between the same group. Your right it's the peace and joy that I concentrate on and not being in the "in Crowd" at Church. I go to Church for me and my savior, not them.

LuckyMatt said...

The very best disciple of Christ I have ever known was a man who, for most of his life, never held any "prominent" church callings. He just quietly went about doing good, serving others, and being a stalwart example of honesty and integrity and Christ-like living.

That is what I want out of my life, and that is attainable by any member of the Church--in fact, I'm absolutely convinced that quiet service and humility is what is valued by the Savior, not a "resume" full of important-sounding callings.

I can assure you that those holding prominent callings (bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, apostles, and the like) would be absolutely thrilled to have congregations full of dedicated saints who are, above all, concerned with their personal relationships with the Savior and who follow His example of quiet, personal ministering and service--the kind that any disciple can do, regardless of calling or circumstance.

Life and progression are mostly what we make of them, and if we join with the Savior, He can make far more out of us than we can currently understand.

Anonymous said...

I loved going to church and that sense of community one feels there. I also just loved living the life of a Mormon. I did not think life could get any better. Served a mission, got better! Went to BYU, got worse. Ughh, then graduated from BYU and got better again. Became inactive and left the church, life got better again. Life is a journey, some people think there is nothing better in life than where they are at. They lack the contrast effect that shows them, how good things can be or how bad.
I wish all my LDS friends good luck in finding that joy in their lives.

Anonymous said...

This is silly! Of course you want the kids to wear shorts if they are boating, etc. Swimsuits under, etc. This is an example of the kind of thing that people explode out of context. I don't live in Utah, but I have 10 kids. I have raised my kids in the Church, and have my third one on a mission. I know there are people that struggle in callings. Heck, I've struggled in callings. But to take something like this and putting it out as a reason you have issues with the Church is ludicrous. A list, B list? I hope I am always on the B list--we work less. Give me the easy jobs--the ones I don't have to worry at night whether someone complained to someone and dropped out of the Church over. Jeesh. Pride is a terrible thing.

Creek said...

The LDS Church could greatly reduce the misconceptions about the church by making access to the church easier.

Yes, I know every LDS church says "Visitors Welcome" on the wall, but talking to really knowledgable church leaders is almost impossible. To become a member or even get information about the church, a nonmember must go through the missionaries. This has always been very disappointing for me. Frankly, their knowledge is very limited and they follow a script that is rather superficial.

My wife and I have met with missionaries three times (in three different states). They all seemed hesitant to get away from their script. It's like they speak from a teleprompter and cannot answer serious theological questions. The last missionary we spoke with was simply an arrogant jerk, and I told the bishop of the local ward. We've also tried getting LDS friends and coworkers to speak with us, but they seem to have the attitude that proselytizing (sp) is the sole responsibility of the missionaries.

I live in Utah, and I know Mormons are wonderful people and the church has a lot of great qualities. However, the "process" of accessing the church could be improved.

Bookslinger said...

Creek, I feel your frustration. I agree with you that members (too often) brush off investigators onto the missionaries, and the church doesn't advertise access methods outside of missionaries.

Your statement, "... even get information about the church, a nonmember must go through the missionaries" just isn't true.

Granted, the access is not advertised well enough, but it's there.

There is tons of stuff available free on www.lds.org, and www.mormon.org.

www.lds.org has free copies (HTML and PDF) of over 30 years of Ensign magazines, and all the manuals, the investigators Sunday School Manual (Gospel Principles), the priesthood study manuals, and the RS study manuals, plus lots of church-produced ancillary books, such as "Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, parts A and B". And "Latter Day Saint Women, Parts A and B."

Also, if you're willing to spend a few dollars, non members can purchase literally ANYTHING available to members through www.ldscatalog.com, including the missionary discussions. (But no temple garments or books reserved for Bishops and Stake Presidents)

Past missionary discussions were sold to the public too. They never ask you if you are a member, and never did, even before the days of internet ordering.

Plus the Youth Sunday School manuals can be purchased, (and might be available free online). And I know that Seminary (teen) and Instutute (college students) manuals are sold at www.ldscatalog.com. I've bought all the Institute manuals.

There's really nothing that members are expected to know or believe in that's not available free at www.lds.org or printed copies for sale at www.ldscatalog.com.

You can get "Journal of Discourses" free online, and read some of the far-out things Brigham Young and Parley Pratt talked about. Just remember that stuff from "Journal of Discourses" is not "binding" on members.

The only "binding" things on members today are basically canonized scriptures, and things from the first presidency.

And if early church history is your thing, you can get the 7 volume "History of the Church" (covering 1820 through 1847) from Deseret Book.

So the idea that you _have_ to go through missionaries to learn what Mormons believe (or are supposed to believe) is just wrong.

But if you want to get baptized, then yes, you do have to invest in the 7 lessons and give the right answers in the interview. But even the interview is "open book", and the missionaries tell you in advance what the interview questions are. You can even read what the questions for baptism and temple recommend interviews are in "Preach My Gospel" and in "Gospel Principles" online.

Creek said...

Bookslinger,

You make a valid point that there are tons of resources for information on the church. I've studied about a dozen websites (Jeff Lindsay's are excellent) and about 3 months ago I read "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder" (got it from the BYU library). I also watch a lot of interesting shows on BYUs TV network to learn about the church.

My point was that actually talking to someone from the church is difficult without getting referred to the missionaries. If I have questions from the websites and books and TV shows, I have to ask a 20-year old who is very limited in knowledge.

Bookslinger said...

Creek,

Part of the frustration may be that the LDS church doesn't really have a completely fleshed-out and "binding" theology that most older Christian churches do.

Outside of the "Gospel Principles" manual and the canonized scriptures, there's precious little in terms of doctrine and theology that is "binding" on the members. If something is not in those publications, and hasn't been uttered by the first presidency (or repeatedly spoken by the Apostles) at General Conference in the last 10 years or so, then it likely comes under the heading of "may be true, but it's not required".

It's quite all right to go about building an intellectual understanding of Mormon doctrine/theology. But it honestly shouldn't be the basis of one's conversion. Church leadership wants investigators to have a Spirit-borne testimony, a spiritual experience or communication from God, that plays a part in a true change-of-heart.

If one's conversion is based on one's own intellectual analysis of doctrine and theology, that's actually a less firm foundation, and one that is more susceptible to re-assessment, re-interpreation, and quite frankly, better "salesmen" from other belief systems who can make a better or more persuasive presentation or argument.

In my opinion, that's probably why the church leadership focuses on relatively untrained 19/20 year olds, before they grow up into good "salesmen" or "convincers".

I don't think we want missionaries "selling" people on the idea of converting. That's not the point. I think the church leadership honestly wants converts who believe the foundational claims of the church's authority (and of the existence of God, the atonement of Christ, etc.) not because of intellectual studies or arguments, but because of personal spiritual revelation.

Not that there's anything bad in intellectual understanding, but that it should not be the main basis for conversion. Because intellectual understanding, and intellectual committment is more easily swayed or turned aside by the constant bombardment of "salesmen" for other ways of thinking.

In my reading, I would say that for adults, once you've gone through "Gospel Principles" and you want more and deeper stuff, then read the Institute manuals.

Those manuals are centered around the canonized Scripture. There are 2 OT manuals, and one each for NT, Book of Mormon, D&C, and Pearl of Great Price. Those are also what are called "correlated" material, meaning published by the church since 1960-something, which essentially means it's semi-official. Institute materials are not "canonized" and not necessarily "binding", but it's the closest you can get.

By not having a huge set of "binding" doctrine/theology, it's actually kind of liberating, and opens the gospel up to lots of levels of understanding, bringing the gospel to a wider group of people. The gospel _should_ be simple, shouldn't it?

I think it's also a good way to prevent people who are more advanced or mature in gospel understanding from trying to force things onto others who have less understanding or who aren't ready to receive the deeper stuff. The system lets people learn on their own as they are ready, while the church just keeps on teaching the basics.

Kimberly said...

Creek, I think if members aren't comfortable answering your questions, they'll refer you to missionaries with the reasoning that "they do this all the time; they'll answer better than I can."

The problem is, if you ask questions beyond what the basic lessons teach, it's sink-or-swim for the missionaries. When I was studying with them, I felt like they were learning with me. Luckily, since I was single at the time, they needed a local member to accompany them. The members they picked were always very knowledgeable and were great at answering my dicier questions. And if they still couldn't give me an answer, they had one by the next week. I loved that we were all gaining something from our discussions.

Perhaps if the missionaries led lessons in a study group-type setting, with a mix of members and nonmembers, for people that have advanced beyond the basic lessons? That would be nice.

Tony said...

Kimberly, I think you have a point. It shows that, at least I know for my own self, I need to make more of an effort to teach with the missionaries. Member missionary work has power in it, and can seriously assist the full-time Elders just like in situations like yours. I too had quite a few questions as I investigated. I have been a convert for about two years now, and have since learned so much, through both my own study and thirst for knowledge and the knowledge of others.

It's a great thing to have members come along to the missionary discussions. I hope there is more and more emphasis placed on it as time goes on, though there surely already has been.

Tony said...

Oh, and this whole thing about swimsuits, it sounds more like something that your Bishop felt was needed for his ward. Personally, in our stake, when we went to the beach the girls were just expected to dress modestly in such one-piece swimsuits, which they did. So, be careful not to make sweeping generalities is all, and try not to be overly critical of the leaders. They aren't perfect, and they could use a little patience, love and support.

Perhaps it's just my perspective as a convert, but just thought I'd throw in my two cents.

Mormanity said...

Creek, so sorry you're having trouble getting the help you need. Isn't there a Ward Mission Leader or someone in the stake there that has responsibility to help with missionary work? They ought to be able to help you better meet your needs. Or you can come out here to Zion 2.0 in Wisconsin!

I would also suggest attending some ward events and getting to meet people so you can find a few people who can be helpful. Agree that some missionaries really aren't helpful - such a mix - but wait a few weeks and new ones should be in their place.

Brad said...

Jeff, you make a good point about not accepting the stereotypes, myths, and criticisms (whether valid or not) about various religions when forming your opinions of them and the people who are members.

I have heard many of my LDS friends tell me this same thing whenever something untoward about the Church is reported in the news. They remind me that Bishops, Stake Presidents, and even Apostles and Prophets are fallible and make mistakes, so don't judge the "truthfulness" of the Church based on the failings of individuals.

To be honest, I have been "investigating" the Church for two decades - I am married to an active LDS woman - and this argument is getting very old.

Mormonism was started and built upon the foundation of the idea that ALL other religions are false, have no authority from God, have distorted and ruined the true ordinances from God, and are all "an abomination" in God's eyes, with all other ministers being "corrupt", "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men", "having a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof".

Joseph Smith's opinion of ALL other religions has always struck me as - how do you put it, Jeff? - a "mischaracterization" of the theology, history, beauty, significance, and power of ALL other religious faiths and traditions.

James Talmage's "The Great Apostasy" is of this same straw man ilk of uninspired, condemning, mischaracterizations of Christian Churches that have been around ten times longer than the little upstart LDS Church.

So, before you give us more "Mormonism 101," trying to earn some Mormon-apologetic-good-will with your poor arguments, consider how infortunate, misinformed, and abominable are LDS criticisms (official and unofficial) of ALL other religions!

You insist that those who look into Mormonism ignore the "mischaracterizations" and instead recognize:

"...that 'Mormonism' is about creating a living, joyous faith in Christ that can transform our lives into a daily walk with God."

"...that it brings joy and meaning to the hearts and minds of its followers. There is spiritual peace and joy coupled with much more intellectual satisfaction and meaning than one would ever infer from hearing the rants of the anti-cult professionals."

Why can't you see that the official position of the LDS Church as regards ALL other Churches (see Joseph Smith History, and all teachings about "The Great Apostasy") COMPLETELY MISSES these positive, beautiful, uplifting, inspiring truths and "intellectual satisfaction" in ALL these other Churches?

Why can't you see that the official position of the LDS Church makes YOU and the members of your Church into "ranting anti-cult professionals" yourselves?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Why can't you see that the official position of the LDS Church makes YOU and the members of your Church into "ranting anti-cult professionals" yourselves?

Professionals? Naw, really, we're still just amateurs. I'm not paid a penny for this.

We certainly see and acknowledge the good other religions do and the joy they bring people. We work in cooperation with other religions in many instances. We do not protest when they wish to build a building or harass them at their meetings. We do not work with governments to try to limit the ability of their missionaries to preach or constrain their religious liberties. We do not call them cultists or evil for having a different faith. Having strong differences religiously over issues of doctrine and authority is quite different than the anti-antics that we and many others deal with. I think you mischaracterize quite a few things in your rant.