Church Exchange, Part 1Posted: November 28, 2011
Last Sunday my friend Brad and I visited the El Camino YSA Sacrament Meeting–in other words, Mormon church. Highlights included:
*Listening to a talk on kindness in which the prime example of the virtue was a lady who “used to sell Bibles” inviting the speaker, a former door-to-door saleswoman, into her house for a glass of water on a hot, discouraging day. Yes–score one for the Christians! ; )
*Earning a spot in the “Gospel Doctrine” Sunday school class. Normally first-time visitors (and new converts) get sent to “Gospel Principles,” a more basic class. Alex–our friend from Institute–confirmed that we knew enough to handle the big-time lesson. Legit.
*In said class the lesson was on false doctrine, taking material from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. One of the passages we looked at talks about silencing false teachers. I briefly considered following this mandate by standing up and denouncing the teacher as a heretic, but decided that’s probably not what Paul had in mind. Or maybe it was. Oops.
On a more serious note…
On the drive home I mused aloud that I had found the service “surprisingly Christian.” “Really?” Brad replied. “It seemed pretty Mormon to me.” [This isn’t the time to get into whether those two categories are mutually exclusive.] I started to explain what specific aspects of the service gave me this impression, but I came up with some pretty lame and shallow examples. I kept thinking about my observation the rest of the day and eventually realized that the Mormon church service hadn’t been surprisingly Christian; it had been surprisingly “normal.”
Here’s the thing about my job: I have a lot of free time. So I spend a fair amount of time browsing the ‘net. A couple weeks ago I discovered–and spent hours reading–exmormon.org, which offers itself as a resource for people who have left the LDS church. A large part of the website is devoted to a discussion board, organized topically, on which former members can vent their frustrations and seek solidarity with their fellow unbelievers. Of course, I’ve never been Mormon, but it was fascinating to read people’s stories of their experiences within the Mormon faith.
Not surprisingly, however, the overwhelming majority of these posts treat the LDS church with bitterness and contempt. Apparently it’s pretty typical for ex-Mormons to leave the church disillusioned and angry, partly with the church for having “deceived” them, and partly with themselves for having been deceived. The exmormon.org discussion board is full of exaggerated rants and personal attacks on Mormon leaders and lay members, some of which seem justified, and some of which really don’t. I sympathize with the single woman in her thirties who was mercilessly pressured into marriage, but I just get irritated by the guy who delivers a drawn-out complaint about being “called” to serve in his local ward. Yes, because church should be a completely passive activity to which we don’t contribute at all (I hope you can hear the sarcasm, here). And then there are the conspiracy theorists, nervously anticipating the establishment of a Mormon theocracy (don’t vote for Mitt!).
But even though I think a lot of the posts are unfair, I have found myself all too eager to “side” with their authors against the LDS church. Mormon-Christian relations, especially as regards theology, are often ambiguous, and sometimes it’s just easier to draw lines and condemn instead of remaining in that tension-filled middle space where our similarities overlap. I’m all for maintaining distinctives (hopefully I’ll write more on this soon, because I’m often frustrated by my Mormon friends’ hesitancy to acknowledge them), but saying, “Amen!” to gratuitous attacks on this faith community probably isn’t the best way to do that, even if it does feel safer than defending a belief system I think is at least partly wrong.
All that to say, since I had never before been to a Mormon church service, my expectations were colored by what I read at exmormon.org. I expected to hear talks on marriage and gender roles and hymns like “Praise to the Man” (about JS, not JC) and “Oh My Father” (in which Heavenly Mother is also addressed). I half expected to meet judgmental housewives and other congregants who would really rather not be there.
But instead what I got were fairly Pelagian teachings supported by large amounts of prooftexting: definitely not what I think the Church should be doing, but not “weird” in the sense that the ExMormons had prepared me to expect. You can find this kind of teaching at many liberal Protestant churches (or even–gasp!–Evangelical ones). And the congregation was mostly made up of people I recognized (and like) from Institute, and they seemed pretty happy to be at church (or at least happy that their non-member friends were there!).
I think it’s clear that I need to alter how I think of “weirdness.” Mormonism increasingly looks more like mainstream America: hard-working, friendly, busy, patriotic, optimistic. Anyone following the church’s recent PR campaign knows they are really into promoting that all-American image.
And why do I instinctively think of Christianity as “not-weird”? Many of the angry posters on exmormon.org weren’t just ex-Mormon, but ex-religious, or even ex-theist. Today I came across a posting titled “Mainstream Christianity and their [sic] strange beliefs,” part of an ongoing battle on the board over whether traditional Christianity is just as bad as the “cultic” Mormon church. The author listed everything he finds “weird” about Christianity, including: “[Christians believe] that Christ is God incarnate, that he died and was resurrected, and that this action was necessary for the salvation of all humans.”
Yup, we do. A few weekends ago at church I was talking with one of my pastors about my interfaith dialogue experiences, and he recalled one of his kids talking about how “weird” Hinduism was. “You think that’s weird?” Jon replied. “We believe in the Trinity, and the incarnation, and the resurrection. Christianity is much weirder.” And I think that’s how it should be. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Lessons from the day:
#1: Don’t judge a religion based on rants from disgruntled former members (I sure wouldn’t want my faith represented by, say, an ex-Fundamentalist atheist).
#2: Don’t pretend Christianity’s normal. I don’t believe America is God’s country, or that evolution is a scientific conspiracy theory, or that the righteous will soon be raptured while the earth burns. I don’t fall into the common stereotype of the weird Christian, but I believe something far stranger: the story of God’s redemptive mission as told in and through His people and Himself.