“The problem with the Bible bash,” erupted my Mormon friend, “is that it just doesn’t help people understand each other. Both sides—the Mormon and the non-Mormon—just keep raising their defenses, and often their voices, but no real listening goes on.”
He was right, but I wouldn’t figure that out enough to take it seriously for another fifteen years. Nevertheless, I had become acquainted enough with Mormon expressions to realize “Bible bash” was not a complimentary term. It meant he felt I was using the Bible to bash his faith and, more importantly, him.
I was fresh on the scene in Salt Lake City, all optimistic, armed, and ready to engage. I figured I had the right artillery of arguments and verses, knew the Mormon system cold, and even understood the rules of engagement pretty well. And so I did. I had their religious system fairly mastered—on paper. Only slowly over the years would I come to learn that paper and systems are a lot easier to master than people; only slowly would I come to ask honestly, should I be trying to master Mormon people anyway?
I came to Salt Lake City on a mission as a Christian campus minister at the University of Utah in 1975. My colleagues in the ministry of which I was part dubbed me the “Mormon Slayer” and gave me the ironic title “Elder Rowe.” I had taught seminars at conferences on the history and teachings of the LDS Church, and my colleagues were impressed with my grasp of both the Mormon system and the biblical response to it. I even knew how to quote and urge upon my hearers the Bible’s verses about being loving and gracious in our witness to Mormons.
So here I was “engaged” in conversation with Jason, let’s call him. And I’d just warmed up to the parry-and-thrust of some of my finest arguments—uh, graciously, of course—to get him to doubt Mormonism and trust the Bible and its Christ. It was so natural to me now, this set of combative reflexes, I didn’t even think of it as arguing! We were simply having a discussion, weren’t we? So when Jason called what we were doing a “Bible bash,” I was immediately taken aback.
No, that’s putting it too mildly: truth be told, I felt something stab at me, a nagging something that told me this “discussion” was over. It had become yet another chagrined charade, a missing of the point, a disconnect, a terminal impasse—in short, a painful failure in the relationship. He had just shut down and, what’s more, had shut us down.
By now I was getting familiar with this pattern of contact, “discussion,” recoil, and shutdown, having been at it for about three years. And by this point, that stabbing feeling I got, joined like a Siamese twin to a feeling of despair, had started to intensify beyond what I considered tolerable. Frankly, though, I just did not know what else to do but shake it off, suit up with my spiritual armor, and ready myself for yet another spin at the same jousting game.
So, like most other Utah ministers with whom I compared notes, I took some refuge in putting the best face on it while proceeding full steam ahead, staying the course, making another charge. The best face we put on turned out to be some form of makeover that left us traditional Christian “warrior saints” looking pretty noble at the end of the day. After all, we were just faithfully and honestly “preaching the truth,” right? We were simply called to proclaim the gospel and leave the results to God, amen? We were powerless to keep our Mormon friends from thinking we were somehow attacking them instead of their doctrine, weren’t we? (Uh, by the way, we were their friends, right?) We couldn’t help it if “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4), could we? Ours was not to reason why but simply to keep on keeping on and suffering those battle wounds for the Lord. Wasn’t all this the plain and simple truth of the matter?
Well, a lot was plain and simple back then, but not much of it was truthful. That one could enjoy friendship with Mormons and enjoy the title “Mormon Slayer” at the same time was patently disingenuous. Proceeding as if one could “Bible bash” without raising defenses and coming across as attacking amounted to gross silliness as well as flat-out cluelessness about human communication. Acting like we who evangelized by trafficking in “what’s wrong with Mormonism” and “evidence against Mormonism” were really “just preaching the truth” or “simply proclaiming the gospel” bordered on self-congratulatory delusionalism. To believe our proclamation style truly created no offense but “the offense of the cross” was an offense to the truth! Even if many we met were “blinded” by “the god of this world,” it now seems to me that in order to help them we had to deal with a blindness of our own, a peculiar blindness to the sinewy, pulsating, dust-and-dreams, soulful reality of the Mormon people as first and most of all people.
In those days I was just not ready to recognize, let alone deal with, the blindness in my home court—what Jesus would call “the beam” in my own eye, which was steadily growing from telephone pole to sequoia proportions. I was not ready to face its implications. Why did I do this confrontational, warrior-mode evangelism with LDS people? Yes, for one thing it was all I knew, all I’d seen by way of modeling, and the way I’d been trained by both formal and informal mentors. But it seems to me there was something else lurking in the depths and driving this approach, something we traditional Christians didn’t like to think about, something called fear. Mormons and other religious groups threaten us, in part simply because they are “other” and perhaps odd—“not us.” I’m not sure why this should scare us, but sometimes it does. We revert to fight-or-flight reflexes, quite unlike Jesus, who was secure in the love of the Father for all people so that he was able to embrace with uncanny comfort the whole range of humanity, including Romans, Samaritans, Pharisees, prostitutes, and lepers. We would do well to cultivate that kind of security in the love of God for all people.
And I’m convinced there’s another part of our fear that runs deeper: religions like Mormonism, rooted heavily (though only partially) in New England Protestant Christianity, may stand as an indictment to Protestants because they arose to compensate for some perceived failure in that Christian movement. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., saw disunity among the Christian denominations and started a single “true Church” that he believed would unify all members and spell an end to denominational schism; he saw traditional churches not always caring for the poor and needy, so he started a church with its own welfare system. I’ve often felt that part of our own blindness amounts to fear of the reminder of our own failures, a reminder that stands up in front of us in the form of the other group’s compensations. So rather than confess and fight the fear within us, we too often would rather go on the attack against their aberrant doctrines!
We simply need to do what I was not ready to do back then. We need to confess, then overcome our fears and blindness by God’s grace and find a better way to touch our LDS friends with the love of God out of our own security in that love.
Let’s see if a second snapshot from Utah culture can paint the picture of a redemptive alternative to the Bible bash. Scott, a friend of mine who pastors a steadily growing evangelical church in the vicinity of Brigham Young University, loves sports. As a hobby and a way of engaging the lives of his neighbors (mostly Mormon folk, of course), he coaches Little League football or other sports teams every year. He’s coached Little League baseball, soccer, girls’ softball, flag football, and high school football. As he reported to me and as others confirmed, in the course of time, parents began clamoring to get their sons or daughters on Scott’s team, not necessarily because his was often a winning team but mainly because of the coaching style they’d heard about and wanted their children to experience.
What they’d heard is that Scott carries a seriously exuberant, positively reinforcing, genuinely caring style that simply stands in stark contrast to what a lot of other coaches in the league exhibit. “This is a tremendously competitive culture, and it’s all about winning at any cost,” said a friend who has observed Scott’s coaching. The expectations to excel run stratospherically high, and for the sake of those expectations, parents put “unbelievable pressures” on the kids. Coaches do the same and simply compound the pressures.
To put a finer point on this analysis, let me revisit an experience I had when my grade-school-aged daughter joined a girls’ soccer team. One brisk morning as I watched the practice, I heard their coach berate the girls rather mercilessly for losing the last game. Among his comments were memorable words something like the following: “Listen! On Sunday morning when you go to Sunday school, you learn you’re supposed to ‘love your neighbor’ and all that stuff. That’s fine for Sunday morning, but this is Saturday. When you come here, forget that Sunday school stuff! This is where you gotta learn to crush, maim, and destroy those girls on the other team!” This memory of my daughter’s foray into Utah “sportsmanship” certainly resonated with the description I was hearing of typical Little League football experience.
But Scott proved different. His presence and his actions displayed a love of the game and a love for the kids, neither love compromising the other, and it became clear that he respected them—and their parents—in a way that was distinctive for the sake of Christ. Berating didn’t happen on his team, but lots of fun and encouragement and good sportsmanship did, not to mention prayer and a remarkable number of wins!
Now comes the rub. Scott remembers one family in particular that was directly impacted in the span of a few seasons: all members of the family ended up leaving the LDS Church and being baptized into his church, and later another whole family of their relatives were likewise baptized. A leader in the congregation told me that he recalls five entire families of former Mormons being baptized into their church during those few seasons. Scott adds, “The number of contacts that were made and the number of people that still visit our church from the community because of that involvement is still being felt. The impact that this has had is more than the direct impact on families. It has said to the community—and to members of our own church—that we are here to make a contribution to the community.”
In large part, all this is simply due to the faithful, sensitive witness of Coach Scott. Did Scott evangelize the families with his arsenal of arguments and confrontational evidence against Mormonism? No, not one bit. Instead they experienced something good on the personal level. It seems the parents just plain got more and more curious about what kind of faith produced folks of such truly Christlike character as they saw in their kids’ coach. So they pursued more and more of what they had first tasted and loved in their experience with the football team. They started hanging around Scott and his friends, then visited the church to taste the vibrant worship, then asked more and more questions, then received the gift of salvation in Christ and became active in the congregation. Impressive attitudes eclipsed impressive arguments. Incarnation eclipsed information.
Perhaps you resonate with some of the experiences above as your life has intersected with the lives of Mormon friends, neighbors, co-workers, or even relatives. Maybe, like me, you’ve done your fair share of bumbling and offending and learned some hard-won lessons. Maybe you’ve sensed something is wrong with the Bible bash, so you’ve chosen to keep your distance from Mormons—to “live and let live”—yet you know something’s wrong with this approach too. And maybe you have, or wish you had, the gift of a “Scott” somewhere in your life to inspire you and point to a better way.
You may not live in Salt Lake City or one of the other cities of the intermountain West where LDS settlers have formed the culture and still form the majority. The cultural stamp or ethos of Mormonism nevertheless will have left its imprint on the Mormon people God has put in your life. And if we traditional Christians sincerely wish to get beyond the stalemating pattern of the Bible bash or the avoidance implied by “live and let live,” if we really wish to particularize for LDS people Paul’s exhortation to “become all things to all men . . . for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:22–23), we must begin by taking that cultural imprint seriously.
1. Relive one or two experiences you’ve had with Mormon friends or relatives by retelling your story. You could do this in a group, class, or private journal.
2. Now looking carefully at what you’ve just relived and retold, see if you can gather lessons from it about how you were taught to relate to LDS people, strengths and weaknesses of what you did, and how your LDS friends or relatives responded.
3. Respond to the positive model of Scott in this chapter, commenting on what went right and why. Is there a downside to this approach? Do you have a “Scott” you’ve observed? If so, tell about what you’ve noticed and would like to emulate.
4. Discuss how the Bible should be used with Mormon people, if not in a “bash.”
5. Consider recording interviews with three to five LDS people on a cassette or notepad. Ask each simply to give their impressions of traditional Christians and tell how they feel these Christians relate to them. If you’re in a group or class, share the responses.