The Christian story and the Mormon story

There is the Christian story, and there is the Mormon story; and we understand them to make up a single story. But which story is primary and which secondary? Which is the whole of which the other is a part?

Logically and theologically, it seems, the Christian story ought to be primary. The Mormon story presupposes and depends on the Christian story.  Put it this way: You can set aside or bracket or reject the Mormon story and still embrace the Christian story. Lots of people do that. It doesn’t work the other way around. Take the Christianity out of Mormon thought and culture, and what of real value would be left?

True, not everyone agrees with this point. I’ve known an occasional member who, if I understood correctly, would hold to and emphasize the distinctively Mormon elements (the material from the King Follett discourse, maybe) while deemphasizing or backgrounding the more standard Christian elements. The idea is that Mormonism will eventually stand to Christianity as Christianity stands to Judaism– an idea I associate with the historian Jan Shipps.

But this seems an untenable position. What would Mormonism be if you take away our beliefs in the Atonement and the Resurrection? Maybe some project of elevating ourselves through ongoing self-perfecting into some sort of Nietzschean supermen? Except that without the Atonement and Resurrection, how and when would we manage to do this? It looks pretty grotesque.

So logically (or if you prefer theologically, or doctrinally), Christianity has to be primary. But psychologically, the relations may be– and, I suspect, often are– reversed. People’s allegiance or loyalty may run to Mormonism; their commitment to Christianity may be an offshoot from that primary allegiance. Why do they believe in Christian truths and doctrines? Because “the Church” teaches those truths and doctrines. In terms of their self-identity or self-conception, they may think of themselves first as Mormons, and only secondarily as Christians. I suspect that this may be especially true of people who “grew up in the Church,” as we say, and perhaps especially of people who grew up in the Church in the 1950s and 1960s, when it could occasionally happen that the Sacrament Meeting talks on Easter Sunday might be about tithing or food storage or whatever with scarcely an allusion to the Resurrection.

Well, so what? As long as we recognize that both stories are important and that they ultimately comprise a single story, what’s the point of asking which story is primary and which secondary? Does the question even make sense? And yet I suspect that the ordering makes a subtle but important difference in our lives. More than one difference, maybe.

How so? Well, here’s one thing. What prompted this post was a conversation I had earlier this week with someone I met at a university I visited for a day. After dinner we talked for maybe close to an hour. My new friend told me about a close relative who had seemed to be a stalwart member but who recently found himself unable to accept some church teachings– we didn’t get into the specifics– and who quite suddenly left the Church, along with his wife. And the disturbing thing, my friend told me, is that this man is now . . . nothing. Not any sort of religious believer. He evidently now describes himself as an atheist.

How could this happen? we asked. Why would someone throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak? Okay, the man finds himself in irreconcilable opposition to some distinctively Mormon teaching: why wouldn’t he then turn to some non-Mormon form of Christianity?

And yet this sort of transition is probably neither unprecedented nor especially surprising. If your reason for believing in Christianity is that the Church teaches Christianity, and if you’ve been taught all your life that the other Christian churches are all lesser variations– perhaps corrupt versions, or at least lacking in the fullness of the Gospel– then I suppose that if you decide to abandon Mormonism it will be natural just to chuck the whole thing. Why would you embrace the second- or third-best when you’ve rejected what was supposed to be the first-best?

Hopefully such cases are still relatively uncommon. And yet even for those who remain committed members, the Christian/Mormon ordering may still make a difference. It may affect our attitudes towards the leaders and followers of other faiths. It may affect what we study, or where we turn for insight and inspiration. If you think of yourself as essentially a Mormon and as a Christian derivatively, then you are likely to read almost exclusively Mormon materials. Conversely, if you think of yourself primarily as a Christian, albeit someone who lives your Christianity in a Mormon context, you may feel more authorized or impelled to draw on the whole Christian tradition.

If you are one of these “primary Christians,” I predict you will feel some tension in many church situations. You may feel that you lack– or that others will feel that you lack– the unqualified particularistic allegiance that many of your fellows have. At the same time– and this may seem paradoxical– being a “primary Christian” may actually make it easier in some respects to live happily and faithfully in a Mormon setting. That at least is my observation.

Think of it this way. If Christianity is the main thing, then it is possible to look over the amazing, inspiring, sometimes appalling history of the Christian faith and perceive God working in a whole variety of ways and places to bring the Gospel into people’s lives. The wind or the spirit bloweth where it listeth, as Jesus told Nicodemus; we hear its sound but know not whence it comes or whither it goes. Always the people through whom God has worked to preserve and present the Gospel have been exquisitely imperfect; God has blessed them nonetheless, and has used them to further His work. And so when we perceive that God is at work in a particular institution or movement or person, we can be grateful for that presence and operation without needing to understand exactly how and why God chose to work there or in that way, and without becoming inordinately concerned or disappointed when we perceive the inevitable and sometimes even egregious imperfections.

Or look at it from the other direction: If you are a Mormon first and a Christian derivatively, then it will be natural to be concerned about– even obsessed with– matters that might cast doubt on the received version of the Mormon story. Because if that story defines who you are, and if it is your reason for embracing the larger Christian story, and if it then turns out that you can’t wholly rely on that story, what do you have left?

Conversely, if you consider yourself to be first and foremost a Christian, then it becomes possible to appreciate all of the Christian truth and service and fellowship that abound in the Mormon context without worrying overmuch about whether all of the specifics of the Mormon story remain intact. Those are details anyway, not the essentials.

18 comments for “The Christian story and the Mormon story

  1. PoNyman
    March 6, 2020 at 11:16 am

    I like the joke: Why did God create Mormons? To show Christians what Jews feel like.

  2. DeAnnS
    March 6, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    From my personal experience, all the people I know who have left the church are now atheists – for the very reason that you write about. Take the “Mormon” away and there is nothing left. This is so sad. I have urged my friends to consider finding another church that fits better but they are all happier without religion.

  3. p
    March 6, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    In my ward probably less than 1% have any idea who Augustine was much less Bonhoeffer. For all practical intents & purposes it is a Christian wasteland. We concentrate on those purely derivative Nephites/Lamanites and completely ignore 2000 years of actual history.

  4. PoNyman
    March 6, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    I think there might be a disconnect here on why some people leave Christianity all together when they leave Mormonism (this does not apply to all who leave Mormonism and leave Christianity.) There are many who use a certain tool set when they begin to reevaluate Mormonism. If they find that Mormonism no longer is compelling to them they then have a tendency to use that same tool set to evaluate Christianity itself and if they find it wanting then they may leave it all together.

  5. rcf
    March 6, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    Steven Smith uses the phrase ” … the larger Christian story …” near the end of his post. Standing back a little, the Latter-day Saint view of religion is often seen as larger than the traditional Christian view that, for individuals, begins at conception/birth and ends on an ethereal cloud where the simple blessing of being in the presence of the Father/Son will be sufficient for eternal happiness. The “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become” view held by perhaps most active LDS gives an eternal view with a backstory and future purpose—the promise of an afterlife that is even more interesting and challenging than mortality. Without the LDS perspective of eternity, the remaining mainstream Christian story seems lacking.

  6. Not a Cougar
    March 6, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Mormonism trains us to expect certain things of a church, explicit authority to act in the name of God among them. We’ve been trained from infancy to believe that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t have it. If one decides the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also doesn’t have it, the well of Christianity has already been well and fully poisoned by years of such teachings. The pre-1990 temple endowment exemplifies this phenomenon in Mormonism better than anything else I can think of but McConkie’s take on Catholicism as the great and abominable church runs a close second.

  7. Brandon
    March 6, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    I’m not quite sure Mormonism will ever stand to Christianity as Christianity stood to Judaism. Christianity eventually found alliance with political power, and after that, the rest was history. Judaism may have elevated itself into a position of importance through political power (Kingdom of Israel/Judah), which was sacked and broken apart by Babylon, and until the creation of the state of Israel, lived in fragmented communities through Asia and Europe. I don’t see Mormonism allying itself with political power. And even if you had a Mormon president of the US, it is not like we would expect Mormonism to become a state religion.

  8. March 6, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Steven, one quibble I have with your analysis is that there is no generic Christianity. If you don’t like lime jello, you don’t switch to unflavored gelatin for all your gelatin-related needs; you have to switch to some other particular flavor. For some dissatisfied members of the church, there’s some other variety of Christianity that’s appealing, but that isn’t always the case. It’s not like all those Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics and Adventists are all generic Christians and we’re the particular flavor. The other varieties too have their own particular issues, and in some cases, they’re massive issues that (depending on the person searching for a Christian home) can far outweigh our own issues right now.

  9. Elisa
    March 6, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    I have personally shifted to where I see myself as a Christian whose denomination (and spiritual heritage) happens to be Mormon. I get much more out of Christian writings from people like Richard Rohr and Gregory Boyle than General Conference, although I also appreciate the work in Mormon thought being done by people like Adam Miller, the Givens, etc. I think it would be great if we could situate ourselves within a much broader context and history of Christian worship and thought, celebrate that history, draw from the rich and varied Christian writings from over the centuries, and then also celebrate what makes us unique without putting other religions down. Based on the cognitive dissonance I feel at church, I think I’m in the minority in terms of my religious orientation. I do think we are *way* more open to content from other religious traditions than we were when I was growing up, but there’s still a lot of one-and-only rhetoric out there.

    If I left Mormonism I’m not sure if I would find another Christian church to join (I have thought a lot about it). I’d probably look around for an LGBT/woman-friendly church. I think most churches have problems, though, so I recognize I would be trading one set of problems for another. That’s part of why I’ve stuck around. Being “Christian first” has actually helped me stick around so far.

    As to whether a Christian-first orientation would encourage people who leave Mormonism to seek other denominations, from my personal observation many who leave are burned on organized religion, period. I don’t know that they’d look for a replacement organized religion or if they would just practice Christianity however they saw fit.

  10. March 6, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    Steve, great post. My one question is what you think the Christian story IS. In the past three years (since graduating college) I’ve really tried to grasp the Bible better, which I’d never really done, and the more I learn about the Old and New Testaments (through different translations, commentaries, books, etc) the more I’ve come to see the broad story that Christianity has been using: God created a good world and placed man and woman inside Eden, to live in His presence; Adam and Eve fell; familial and national violence spiraled into the world, causing suffering and pain; so God called a Mesopotamian man, Abram, and made a promise with Him: to rescue the world from violence, to bring them back to Eden and His presence. From Abraham to Moses to David to Exile, you see God trying to prepare Israel to BE that people. Then the surprise ending in Jesus and the expansion of the Church, which is again, a continuation of God fulfilling His purposes.

    That’s what I understand the Christian story to be, and from reading Pete Enns, N.T. Wright, The Bible Project, etc, I’ve gotten the sense that it’s not uncommon (though I’m no expert in how Christians understand themselves) and is, in some form, shared by all Christian churches. (So I disagree with Jonathan in this; I think most churches use some variation of this story for their self-understanding). For me, it’s a powerful story–much better than the somewhat shallow (and very Proestant) idea of dispensations that our current narrative uses, which among other things skips over all the Jewishness of the Bible and the whole idea of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12. The more I’ve come to grasp the very Jewish and historical and human book that is the Bible, the more exciting and divine the book has become–seeing how God acts in history.

    I see Latter-day Saints as a continuation of the Abrahamic covenant–a surprising revelation of God, calling another people to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant in a new way. It’s also made me see–I hope this isn’t heretical–that the Bible is just as important, if not MORE important, than the Book of Mormon, although the BOM offers an important course correction: helping us read the Bible for both Christ and Covenant. It’s also made me see other Christians and even Jews as, in some strange way, partners in fulfilling that Abrahamic covenant. I have few doctrinal claims to back that up, but that’s the FEEL I’ve come to get, especially as I’ve become more familiar with Christian history. And while I definitely agree that this Christianity-first story (centered on the Abrahamic covenant and Jesus fulfilling that covenant in a surprising way) has made it more possible for me, if I left, to join a Christian faith (I’d probably go Episcopalian or Catholic TBH), it’s also made me a more resilient Latter-day Saint. I’m not sure why, exactly–or I can’t explain without making this comment way longer than it already is.

    I’d repeat my question to you, Steven, and to other commenters: what IS the Christian story (or stories)? What is the LDS story (or stories)? I feel like that’s something left assumed and inferred in the OP, but it could use some exploration.

  11. SDS
    March 6, 2020 at 5:58 pm

    It’s true, as Jonathan says, that there is no generic Christianity; other Christian faiths and churches are also particular, and they typically have their own challenges and difficulties. So if you are a “primary Christian” who becomes dissatisfied with Mormonism, what are your options? You might tour the other Christian churches and find one that, although not without its own difficulties, can command your support better than the LDS church does. You might make the tour and discover that, despite its shortcomings, the LDS church is still the best embodiment of Christianity that you can find. I know, well, at least one person who has basically followed this path.

    Or you might opt to become a sort of non-institutional Christian, or even a non-institutional Mormon. A sister in my ward whom I used to work with in the Primary has taken this option, and when I talked with her some years later in connection with a proposed calling, she told me that she still has a testimony but she is happier and more at peace with the Lord now that she doesn’t go to church than she was when she did go. For myself, I believe that service and fellowship with the body of Christ is important, and so I think that there is something missing in this course. But I can respect and sympathize with it; introvert that I am, I can imagine myself settling into such a course, or something close to it.

    The one thing that seems to me truly unfortunate is for someone to leave the church and become an atheist, as in the case I mentioned. I can’t help wondering what sort of faith a person had if it culminates in that outcome.

  12. SDS
    March 6, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    What a great comment, Bryan! I really admire your faith and your effort to work out the meaning of the Christian story.

    I won’t try to answer your question, though (what is the Christian story?), in any definitive way. I’m pretty sure that I lack the competence or the authority to do that. It’s something I’ve been working on, for myself, for decades now. I will say that in my understanding, the table of contents for the basic Christian story lists three main chapters: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. I think all or almost all Christians accept those chapters, even if they interpret the themes somewhat differently. Those are the themes, I believe, that make sense of what life is about. But they’re only the table of contents, not the full story you’re asking about.

    I would also say that, for me, the essential points of the Christian Gospel are most succinctly expressed in what’s called the Apostles’ Creed. Mormons might at first be put off by the reference to “the holy catholic church,” but of course “catholic” here means “universal”; it doesn’t refer to the Roman Catholic Church. In a darkening world, I find some comfort in reciting this creed from time to time– the affirmations of “the communion of saints,” “the forgiveness of sins,” and “the life everlasting” seem truly joyous– and I think we might find common ground with other Christians on the basis of these affirmations. We might even be more comfortable with some of the language (e.g., Jesus ascending into heaven and sitting at “the right hand of the Father”) than some other Christians may be.

    This still isn’t the full story, though. To try to flesh that out, I suspect we’d need to get into matters of how the primitive church was organized, how the promised Spirit continued to work in the church, in what sense there was an apostasy, and so forth. I’m not going to attempt or pretend to take all of that on.

  13. Travis
    March 6, 2020 at 8:30 pm

    The “Mormon” story is the Christian story in apocalyptic context. “Eschatological Christianity” better describes Latter-Day-Saint identity.

    The Zion-motif is unique, and underlies doctrinal divergence from the Reformation sects. If, or when, we lose sight of the Zion motif, our spiritual compass becomes disoriented and existential.

  14. GEOFF -AUS
    March 6, 2020 at 11:23 pm

    I think at the moment the problem for the church is that there is too little christianity, and too much of what I interpret as republicanism.
    What I mean is a whole culture that the restored gospel comes packaged in.

    As far as I can tell, because we don’t discuss anything deeply at church, most good members believe that part of being a member require; homophobia, sexism, wanting abortion made illegal, obedience is the first law of heaven, denying climate change, being adoring toward church leaders, etc.,which I see as the opposite of the gospel of christ, but approaching extreme right politics.

    The only political parties outside America that support these political views, also support racism, white supremacy, hatred of muslims, oppose immigration etc. We are associated with not nice, very extreme people.

    People with those views get their news from conservative sites, and their view of reality warped, so instead of looking/striving for a zion society, with no poor among us, they are happy to support tax cuts for the rich paid for by reduced services to the poor. They could work for reduction in inequality, but defend increasing it.

    Rather than reducing abortion their ideology increases it.

    Rather than respect peoples agency, and helping them, they suppress them.

    Rather than an example of good and light, we defend and contribute to the immoral.

    The fact that Utah voted for Trump, shows the moral vacume caused by teaching the gospel of obedience rather than the gospel of Christ, which includes love, and morality. Will that happen again in November?

    So much of what christ taught about showing our love for God by loving our neighbour, has been replaced by something offensive to my understanding of God. How many times in last conference did we hear that you show your love for God by obedience to the church?

    The message of Christ is drouned out by other messages that pull in the opposite direction.

    This may sound a bit depressing, it is, it is the view I see when I look at the church.

  15. Ute
    March 7, 2020 at 12:19 am

    Geoff,
    Yep because that’s what being a Republican means…. And that’s what good members are…

    It’s hard to be charitable to such bafoonery. You realize that there are other, even bigger bafoons that would call us theocratic nazis. Maybe they’re right and you’re a bafoon for not believing your brothers and sisters to be bad enough.

    Or maybe you’re a schmuck who can’t separate his politics from his faith and wrongly thinks his brothers and sisters are worse than they truly are.

    It’s possible that you’re right and virtually all the prophets and apostles are biased bafoons. But more likely you can find an example of in every mirror you look in.

  16. Taiwan Missionary
    March 8, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    I made a decision for Christ when I was 21. We tend not to use that kind of language in the Church, because of its Evangelical overtones. But I told God that I wanted to believe in Him, and asked Him to show Himself to me. He did.

    About a year later, I encountered the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith and the BOM, and received a spiritual witness that this was the Christian path I should take, that God had done things through Joseph Smith that He had not done through anyone else. So I became a member of the Church. My evangelical friends were horrified.

    45 years later, I am still here. My testimony has been dinged, nicked, and suffered some fender-benders, but the core is stronger than 45 years ago. I think of the line from Wordsworth s poem “Ulysses:” though much has been taken, there is much that abides. In my case, what has been taken has wound up to be peripheral, and what abides is the centrality of Christ. In the BOM, we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ. My certainty of Christ has been strongly buttressed by a remarkable, non-denominational vision I had nine years ago. The message was intended for me only, and there was no message that I was to pass on to others. But I pretty much keep it to myself, because Simply the fact of a personal message, not competing with the Church, its leaders, Or teachings, makes many members uneasy. I learned, why cause other people distress unnecessarily?

    I am a Latter-day Saint Christian, and believe in the Restoration of priesthood keys through Joseph down to Russell Nelson.

    But While I will not criticize the foundation of any testimony, it is my belief that Christ must be the Rock of any testimony. Then we decide which building is most securely built upon that Rock.

  17. ji
    March 8, 2020 at 11:47 pm

    Geoff – Aus,

    You continue to err in hating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because Utah voted for Trump in 2016 and might again in 2020. Your hatred of Utah voters (the Church, as you seem to think) is uncharitable and unseemly, and it is getting old. I’m not a Utah voter, but Utah voters collectively selected Trump over Clinton by a smaller majority than it many other states. Have you seen a therapist? I recommend it. No one should let his hatred for Mr. Trump become a hatred for people for voted for Mr. Trump, and that should not become a hatred for a church that includes some of those voters. Please drop it. Please get help. We’ve all heard your message ad nauseum.

  18. Basil
    March 9, 2020 at 1:10 am

    It’s ironic that the type (and tone) of comment made by Ute et al is the very issue the article attempts to highlight; the letter vs the Spirit. How sad that the point has been sorely missed. We have Articles of Faith granting all the right to worship how what etc but woe unto the individual who dares to exercise that right (especially if he/she is LDS) by expressing a contrary view on a blog site such as above. Lets be nice to each other…Let’s be more Christ like.

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