Download or listen to the mp3 audio version here: I am a Mormon.
The following dialog is, one might say, an historical fiction. But only in one sense. It is a conversation combined from three different, independent events, with three different Mormon friends or acquaintances. While it is a fictional composite, not a single element is fabricated, not even the concluding sentence.
What I offer below are some faithful recollections. I’ve been here before. Perhaps you have too. But some meals are worth re-heating.
A while back I was having a conversation with a Mormon friend. (Yes, I have Mormon friends! Many, in fact. And some relatives too.) We were chatting about politics and religion. (Is there anything else?) We were preparing to eat together when our conversation veered into the subject of my departure from the Mormon Church back in the late-1980s. This brought us into the riddle of whether Mormons are Christians.
Naturally, my friend was puzzled by the mere thought of anyone questioning his Christian credentials. “But the name of Jesus Christ is in the name of our church,” he energetically noted. “The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ,” he observed. Then he confessed in a pleading tone: “Jesus Christ is my Savior.”
Now, it is no secret that I am a former fifth-generation Mormon, born and raised in Brigham City, Utah. The vast majority of my relatives are Mormons; most of my high school friends are as well. I hold no animosity toward Mormons. Indeed, many are upstanding individuals, intelligent, talented, upright, successful. Some are even enjoyable, with stupendous senses of humor.
It also is no secret that I believe Mormonism is not Christian, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not actually a Christian church, and that despite its name. Yet this does not keep me from appreciating Mormons, from looking upon the LDS Church with a degree of appreciation, from working hand-in-hand with Mormons in pro-life endeavors, and much more. (I’m even hoping that the U.S. President in 2013 is a Mormon. Oh, did I just say that out loud?) However, despite our commonalities, I believe there yet remain some essential differences.
So, my friend was perplexed that anyone would question his Christian credentials. I was not at all interested in doubting his sincerity. Indeed, I am impressed by his devotion to his faith, by his intellect, by his affability. I appreciate his friendship. Nevertheless, at this juncture in our conversation (a juncture I’ve encountered numerous times), I felt that the only way to cultivate clarity was to turn the tables just a bit. We were both anxious to understand each other.
Again, it does no good to deny or demean a Mormon’s faith. Indeed, I don’t see that as an option. Most Mormons I know are sincere individuals. In fact, you’d want them as your neighbors. They are generous with their time and their talents, especially when they see others in need. (I could tell such stories!) But these virtues are no surrogates for Jesus.
As I turned the tables just a bit, this is what I offered.
“Look,” I asserted, “I am a Mormon.” I paused, hoping he would not respond just yet.
“I don’t know why people keep thinking I’m not,” I pleaded. “I mean, I believe in Joseph Smith and everything. Why would people question or deny the sincerity of my faith?!”
My friend looked at me with a half-grin, almost wondering if I had reverted to Mormonism or if I had just gone mad (to be redundant). Of course, I was teasing him a bit. But there was a point to it. You’ll see the point in a minute.
“No, you are not a Mormon,” he finally retorted. “You don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, the prophet of the Restoration. You don’t believe in the Book of Mormon.” His face morphed from a half-grin to something just shy of a sneer.
I wasn’t about to back down. No one was going to bully me into unbelief, not even my friend. “Stop it!,” I protested. “Yes, I…am…a…Mormon,” I spat with staccato tones. “I believe Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration. She was born in 1923, in western Missouri. No one has the right to question my convictions. No matter what they say, I know what I believe. I…am…a…Mormon.”
My friend raised one eyebrow . . . then another . . . then furled his brow and forced a grin. He wasn’t buying it. He was skeptical, perhaps even a bit judgmental.
“Look,” I demanded, “I believe in Joseph Smith. She was born in western Missouri in 1923. No one has the right to question my faith. I — am — a — Mormon.”
At that my friend’s face became gnarled and growling laughter of affirmative disbelief erupted from his diaphragm. ”Yeah, right!” He sat back in a posture of vindication. “That’s not Joseph Smith.” Then glee emerged on his face: “That’s not Joseph Smith — maybe Josephine Smith, but not Joseph Smith!”
We both laughed . . . “Josephine,” what a hoot.
But I truncated my laughter, steeled myself, and leaned forward. “How dare you judge me,” I objected. “Who are you to judge me?”
Now he was downright discombobulated by having to swallow his laughter. (I have that effect at times.)
Not to be deterred, I pressed my case. ”You know, I’ve long been hurt by people going around, saying I’m not a Mormon, asserting that I don’t believe in Joseph Smith. But I do believe in her. I do. And no one — not even you — has the right to tell me otherwise.”
He just glared at me, unsure of which gesture or posture would be apropos.
In low tones, almost whispering, I leaned in, “Why are you persecuting me?”
My friend’s face alternated between disbelief, frustration, laughter, and perplexity. I expected that kaleidoscopic response. I half expected him to verbalize a mea culpa. I waited. I waited for him to speak. It took a few moments, though it felt like the silence had lingered much longer.
With his composure regained, he countered, “Look, you might say that you believe in Joseph Smith, but he was not a woman and was not born in Missouri in 1923. That is not…Joseph…Smith.” (Now my friend was mimicking my staccato cadence.)
I didn’t respond. I waited, relishing the pregnancy of the pause. The seconds passed. I wanted the point to stew a bit longer. The flavors needed to meld. We needed time for the aroma to fill the room. Our banquet was not quite ready.
And then it was.
Slowly, softly, I spoke. “So, just won’t let me believe in Joseph Smith, will you? You have to question my sincerity and the authenticity of my faith?”
I added some spices — a pinch of this, a dash of that. And I poured out a bit more for him”I find that offensive . . . even contentious.”
He sat back at the near-accusation. I leaned in further.
“Are you suggesting that I have to believe in Joseph Smith . . . in the same way you do?” I asked, pausing just long enough to vocalize an inhale, and an exhale.
“Are you saying that I don’t really believe in Joseph Smith?” Again I breathed deeply.
“Are you saying that I don’t believe in the real Joseph Smith?” I stirred the cuisine yet again.
“Are you suggesting that I have to believe in your view of Joseph Smith, that you believe in the real Joseph Smith, that I need to believe in Joseph Smith just like you do in order to be a real Mormon?”
He shifted in his chair, and again, and then cautiously but firmly leaned forward. “Well, if you believe in some other Joseph Smith,” he said, “or Josephine Smith,” he smirked, “then . . . sure, you are not believing in the Joseph Smith that I believe in, the prophet that restored the church.”
I pursed my lips, nodding my head in slow arcs of agreement. “So, let me get this straight: I need to believe in the right Joseph Smith in order to be a Mormon?”
He was the one nodding agreement now.
“And if I believe Joseph Smith was a woman born in western Missouri in 1923, then I’ve got the wrong Joseph Smith, right?” A deep breath. “Is that what you mean?”
He cautiously but firmly agreed, “Yes, that’s right.”
I asked one final time: “So, I’ve got to believe in the right Joseph Smith in order to be a Mormon?”
“Yes,” he answered, almost impatiently. “That’s right.”
I sat back, letting the aroma of the meal hang in the air between us. I breathed slowly, deliberately. Then, as if I needed to, I clarified my thoughts.
“So, to your mind, I’m not a Mormon because I don’t believe in Joseph Smith the same way you do. Therefore, I don’t believe in the same Joseph Smith you do.” Again I paused. He was nodding, but cautiously, wondering if I had some trick up my sleeve. But I didn’t.
All I said was, “I see your point and I think I completely agree with you.”
It only took a moment for my friend also to fully understood. In fact, it was clear that he had begun to appreciate the flavor of the conversation rather early on. It was something to chew on, even if it was hard to swallow.
He nodded his head again. “Ah . . . yes, right,” he affirmed. “Clever, very clever,” he admitted. “Different Joseph,” he said, pointing at at me. Then, pointing at himself, “Different Jesus.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Sure seems like that to me too.” A corner of my mouth curled. “Same names, different meanings, different descriptions, perhaps different people.”
We had both simmered down our personas as debate opponents.
“So,” he began to conclude, “you see Mormons as not being Christians because of what we say about Jesus and about the Godhead. We believe there are many Gods. We believe that Jesus progressed to godhood in the Preexistence. We believe he literally is our elder brother from the Preexistence. We believe that we are of the same species as God.”
I nodded in agreement. “Yes, that is what the Mormon Church teaches. That is what you have told me you believe.”
He continued. “And that stuff isn’t in the Bible. And you think it is contrary to the Bible.”
“Well, I’m afraid so. I just can’t see it otherwise,” I said with some resignation.
“Okay,” he conceded, his posture relaxing. “Where do we go from here?”
I just smiled at my friend, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Perhaps we should enjoy our meal. We can return to these thoughts over dessert.”
He agreed. We prayed, then lifted our glasses together. I sipped my wine as he sipped his Diet Coke. (Oh, was I not supposed to mention that?)
For further information on the differences between Mormonism and the Christian faith, see: Kevin James Bywater, Mormonism: A Survey and Biblical Critique. See also the other blog posts on the subject of Mormonism. Cheers!
Update: To see how the LDS Church argues for its own identity and the use of the label “Mormon,” witness this lesson from the LDS Newsroom.