New Mormon Church Essay Disputes Caricatures, Affirms Doctrine
by Kevin James Bywater
OXFORDSHIRE, U.K. – Recently it was reported that some very strange teachings were wrongly ascribed to Mormons. On February 27, 2014, Brady McCombs (Associated Press Supervisory Correspondent for Utah) published a piece entitled, “MORMON CHURCH PUSHES BACK ON PLANET MISCONCEPTIONS.” The alleged misconceptions centered around the teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church, Mormon Church) that Mormons would be exalted, become gods, and rule over planets.
McCombs reported that the Mormon Church “pushes back” in a new essay at one of the church’s official websites, LDS.org: “Becoming Like God.” The essay notes that the “Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often…reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets.” It observed that “few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet.”
The essay asserts that Mormons conceive of “the seeds of godhood in the joy of bearing and nurturing children and the intense love they feel for those children,” as well as in terms of compassion, the beauty of creation, and in faithfulness to commitments. “Church members imagine exaltation less through images of what they will get,” the essay continues, “and more through relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated.” (See the screenshot near the end of this post.)
The church is not denying its teaching that exalted Mormons will rule over planets as gods. It is objecting to “cartoonish” visions and “caricatures.”
As McCombs reported, Mormon scholar Terryl Givens (whose work was referenced approvingly in the essay at footnotes #20 and #26) describes the Mormon doctrine as “outrageous or unique,” much as some see the horses and buggies of the Amish. Givens also noted how such teachings “can be unsettling to members who have grown up with a typically manicured narrative, but it’s a necessary part of the maturation for the church membership.” In short, Givens affirms the doctrine, notes that some might be unsettled by it, and acknowledges that it is a Mormon teaching more comfortable to the mature.
It is true that Christians might see as “unique” or “outrageous” the Mormon Church’s teaching that faithful members become gods and rule over planets. However, such objections would be on a very different scale from bemused dismissals of apparently quaint or seemingly antiquated modes of transport. Christians could not be faulted for seeing the Mormon teaching of exaltation as well outside the bounds of a biblical Christian faith. The church’s essay is not bashful in noting how its teachings differ from the historic Christian faith.
What the LDS Church objects to in the essay are caricatures and “cartoonish” renditions. Unfortunately, the essay did not specify sources for such caricatures, leaving it difficult for readers to know precisely who or what is being targeted. McCombs points to the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. In the song “I Believe” Elder Price proclaims that he believes the Mormon Church’s “plan of salvation” “involves me getting my own planet.” But as comedic as this is, it would be difficult to describe it as “cartoonish.”
While not mentioned by McCombs, another possible target might be the 1982 exposé, The God Makers, produced by Jeremiah Films. (The corresponding book, The God Makers, co-authored by Ed Decker and Dave Hunt was first published in 1984 and became a bestseller.) In the film, viewers are shown a six-minute animation of the Mormon plan of salvation, complete with pre-earth births of spirit children and heavenly warfare, earthly testing and temple marriages, and post-earth exaltation to godhood where faithful Mormons become heavenly parents and are said to “rule over other planets.”
Given the primitive animation technology of the early 1980s, the scenes undoubtedly are “cartoonish.” It might not surprise if the Mormon Church were to “push back” against this film. However, it would be surprising if the Mormon Church raised objections to this film now, after three decades after its publication. The film is not as widely watched or known in Christian churches and homes as it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The clip of the animation on Jeremiah Films’ page on YouTube has garnered fewer than 400,000 views since May 2011.
Regardless, the Mormon Church has not made clear which “popular culture” or “media” sources it is seeking to rebuke or rebut. Perhaps this is to avoid drawing attention to alternative and distorting sources. Even so, the church’s essay, “Becoming Like God,” reaffirms the cosmological aspects of the animation in The God Makers film, while qualifying one: that Mormon gods would “rule over other planets.” The essay stated that “few” Mormons would envision exaltation with such “cartoonish” images and caricatures, and that Mormons would see exaltation “less” in terms of what they receive. The teaching that Mormon gods would rule over planets is retained by the church.
Of Parents and Planets
From the days of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder and first prophet and president, the Mormon Church has offered some very unusual teachings. As the new essay affirms, the church teaches that faithful Mormons may become exalted humans, become gods, be heavenly parents, and perpetually produce spirit children. The essay clarifies that the Mormon Church’s teaching stands in marked contrast with traditional Christian doctrine.
The Mormon Church holds that all humans originally are spirit children born of “Heavenly Father” and “Heavenly Mother,” and that faithful Mormons may be exalted, become gods, and even become “equal with” God. As explained in “Becoming Like God”:
Naturally, if Mormonism holds to both a “Heavenly Father” and a “Heavenly Mother,” holds that humans first were born as their spirit children, and asserts that faithful Mormons may be exalted, becoming like their heavenly parents, then this might entail both parenting and planetary real estate for their embodied offspring. While a variety of sources could be pointed up that Mormon leaders have taught that faithful Mormons will rule over other worlds, a handful of more recent ones should suffice. (Each is hyperlinked to sources at LDS.org. Note that “worlds” or “world” are more commonly used than “planet” or “planets.”)
In October 1975, then President of the church, Spencer W. Kimball, delivered a speech entitled, “The Privileges of Holding the Priesthood.” In that speech he declared the following:
On October 22, 1976, Kimball addressed the Institute of Religion at the University of Utah on “…the Matter of Marriage” in which he clarified:
One of the Mormon Church’s manuals for study, The Doctrine and Covenants, Student Manual (1998, 2001) reveals a bit more, quoting earlier sources:
Well, if you are to “govern such a world,” that naturally is understood as one being a god over that world. The Mormon Church’s manual, Gospel Fundamentals (1992, 2002), in its final chapter, “Chapter 36: Eternal Life,” briefly explains “exaltation” and what it entails.
While perhaps not as explicit as some of the previous quotes, “Becoming Like God” draws forth words from the Mormon Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks, stating that Mormons seek to be like their heavenly parents in all respects. The original article, “Apostasy and Restoration,” was published in the May 1995 edition of Ensign, one of the church’s main magazines.
As the Mormon scholar Terryl Givens noted, such teachings quite naturally would be seen as “outrageous or unique,” if not distinctly non-Christian and notably unbiblical.
From the Mormon Church’s Clarification to Strange Journalistic Denials
McCombs’s article offered an accurate, if slightly sensationalized, headline: “MORMON CHURCH PUSHES BACK ON PLANET MISCONCEPTIONS.” No denials of the doctrine, mind you, just clarifications. But it was picked up by other news sites, at times with a new headline, at other times with modified content. In a bizarre development, either the headline or the content of McCombs’s article morphed from a clarification of the doctrine (rejecting “caricatures” and “cartoonish” images) to an outright denial of it.
The New York Daily News retained the article’s content but headlined it as a denial, “Mormons explain: Believers won’t get their own planets in the afterlife.” The New York Post headlines McCombs’s article with, “Mormons say faithful aren’t taught they get their own planets” (February 27). When ABC News picked up McCombs’s story, a denial also appeared, “No, People Don’t Get Own Planets in Afterlife Like in ‘Book of Mormon’” (February 27). The UK’s Daily Mail posted McCombs’s article with an ALL CAPS denial: “Mormon Church reveals people do NOT get their own planets in the afterlife…despite what The Book of Mormon claims” (February 27).
Some journalists morphed the denial into an episode of myth-busting. At The Christian Post, Morgan Lee posted content similar to McCombs’s (without attribution) under the sensationalistic and misleading headline, “Mormon Church Dispels Myth That Believers Get Their Own Planet After They Die” (March 3). Lee took the denial of the doctrine beyond the headline and into the body of the article. “In an article released from church authorities last week,” Lee wrote, “the LDS church sought to dispel the myth that church members would receive real estate in outer space after death.”
As we saw above, neither the Mormon scholars interviewed by McCombs, nor the new essay published by the Mormon Church denied the doctrine. They only sought to clarify it, dismissing only caricatures or cartoonish renditions. But why would journalists take McCombs’s article and think to modify the headline from a clarification into a denial? We may never know. But the permalink for McCombs’s original article reads as follows: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/mormons-people-dont-get-own-planets-afterlife. Is this the source of the denial?
After completing the substance of the essay above, I came across additional sources of note.
Contrasting the headlines and articles asserting that the Mormon Church denied the doctrine of exalted Mormons ruling over planets, Adelle M. Banks, writing for Religion News Service, provided a relatively careful article, show that the church did not deny the doctrine but aimed to clarify it: “Mormons counter ‘cartoonish’ idea of planets in the afterlife” (March 4). (When picked up by The Washington Post, the hyperlinks in Banks’s article were lost.)
Banks points up one official LDS source that actually does deny the doctrine that exalted Mormon gods will receive or rule over planets. The source is the “Mormonism 101: FAQ” at the church’s official site, Mormon Newsroom.
It is very strange that this explicit denial contrasts so sharply with the declarations of the prophets and official manuals noted above.
The earliest news article I have come across is by Matthew Piper and published in The Salt Lake Tribute: “Essay Explains Mormon teachings on ‘becoming like God’.” In the briefest of terms, Piper’s analysis confirms what I have contended above: the Mormon Church’s new essay disputes cartoonish caricatures and yet affirms the doctrine. Piper interviews LDS historian Richard Bushman and perhaps puts his finger on the locus of confusion.
The LDS Church’s official Mormon Newsroom even gave Piper a shoutout, applauding his work as “Getting It Right.”
For Further Reading
• Mormonism: A Survey and Biblical Assessment — This is a large-scale survey and assessment of Mormonism, complete with witnessing advice.
• The friendly face of the Mormon Church is a public relations campaign. Yet throughout its history the Mormon Church has attacked Christian churches. Even today The Mormon Church Attacks Christian Churches.
• More specifically on the Mormon Church’s teachings about the nature of God, see Joseph Smith and God as a Monster and Mormonism and Lesser Gods. For an exploration of identity, idolatry, and blasphemy, see, Do Muslims, Mormons, and Christian Worship the Same God?
• Mormons often say that they are Christians, despite radically redefining who and what Jesus is (and thus differing radically from what the Bible teaches). Here I engage in a conversation with a Mormon friend about whether I am a Mormon in order to point up the problems with Mormons claiming to be Christians: I Am a Mormon . . . Aren’t Christians Mormons Too? The same sort of reasoning is used by the Mormon Church when they object to other groups who sometimes use the name “Mormon”: Learning a Lesson from the LDS Newsroom.