Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.


Concise Dictionary of Mormonism: O

November 25, 2014

Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood: A covenant between God and men promising sanctification and renewing of their bodies if they attend enough leadership training broadcasts and do their hometeaching.

Oaths: Promises or covenants made to God. Secret oaths are wicked, unless they are made in the temple.

Obedience: Doing God’s will. You can know it’s God’s will through your conscience, or the Light of Christ. When God’s will conflicts with your conscience, you will be blessed for obedience, anyway.

Occupational Status: God is no respecter of persons, so one’s chosen profession is unrelated to spiritual standing. God often prompts members to  enter into professions that will enhance their ability to help build the kingdom. Such professions typically require a professional degree or a large inheritance. Women are encouraged to enter into the profession that is most suited to their talents and desires, that of being a wife and mother.

Official Declaration 1: Known also as “The Manifesto,” the official announcement in 1890 that the LDS church had ceased performing and endorsing plural marriages. This cessation took effect immediately, after an implementation period of some 15 years. Not to be confused with the 1904 declaration, “We Really Mean It This Time.”

Official Declaration 2: The announcement in 1978 that all worthy male members may be ordained to the priesthood. Prior to this date, members of sub-Saharan African descent were barred from holding the priesthood (hereafter referred to as a “blip and fleck of history”). All past justifications for the blip and fleck were merely uninformed speculation, and no official reasons for the practice were ever stated by prophets, especially not Brigham Young, or outlined by the First Presidency of the Church, specifically not in 1949.

Ohio: Church headquarters moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s, where the Saints constructed a temple of God. Highlights of this time period include the visit of the Savior and Old Testament prophets to the temple, the establishment of the School of the Prophets, and the commencement of plural marriage with Fanny Alger in the Smith family barn. A failed bank, which church leader Joseph Smith declared had been established by “the word of the Lord,” was unrelated to Mormonism or its leaders.

Oil,  Consecrated: Olive oil that has been blessed for the healing of the sick. Men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood typically carry a small amount of oil in a special vial, which can be purchased from your local Deseret Book.

Old Testament: A collection of writings from prophets of God from the time of Adam until a few centuries before the birth of Christ. The Old Testament outlines the laws given to the ancient Israelites regarding worship and daily life, collectively known as the Law of Moses. These laws were fulfilled, or superseded, by the Atonement of Christ, except for those laws regarding homosexuality.

Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience: According to scripture, God is all powerful, present everywhere, and all knowing. Latter-day scripture clarifies that God cannot violate the laws of the universe or create something out of nothing; that He is only physically present where His body is; and He is continually progressing in knowledge and glory. In that sense, He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

Onan: The second son of Judah, Onan was killed by the Lord for practicing coitus interuptus to avoid impregnating his brother’s widow. As the Gospel Doctrine lesson manual indicates, Onan was slain for “failure to honor one’s commitments.” This lesson was reinforced in modern times by the appearance of an angel with a drawn sword instructing Joseph Smith to sleep with multiple women or be slain. The prophet faithfully honored his commitments in this regard.

Only Begotten Son of God: Jesus is the only Son begotten (or conceived) in mortal life by God our Father. Prophets have taught that the conception was natural and accomplished “by an immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers,” but this in no way suggests that sexual intercourse was involved. That is a devlish lie believed only by anti-Mormons and Bruce McConkie.

Opposition: We have been created to learn how to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, and truth and error. We should always adhere to truth, except for truths that are not very uplifting.

Ordinances: Outward acts that have spiritual meaning. Saving ordinances are those ordinances by which members of the church are saved from their sins. Critics mistakenly call these ordinances works, insinuating that Mormons believe we are saved by our own works. This is not true, as we are saved by grace by performing the saving ordinances.

Ordination to the Priesthood: An ordinance done by laying on of hands by which worthy men are given the right to act in the name of God. Often refers to the time at which a boy reaches the age of 12 and is given the right to distribute bread and water to the congregation and go door to door collecting money.  God has given this gift to men to make up for their inability to give birth to children.

Organic Evolution: An evil doctrine inspired by the devil that all life evolved from simpler forms, which is “in direct conflict” with the plan of salvation. According to current lesson manuals, “You cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other.” Therefore, the church has no official position on evolution

Organization of the Church: We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, Public Affairs Coordinators, and the Strengthening the Church Membership Committee.

Original Sin: The heretical belief that all God’s children bear the guilt of Adam’s transgression and will thus be sent to hell unless they repent. Latter-day Saints believe we are responsible for our own sins, except for those born into a specific race or lineage.

Orthodoxy: Whatever the church teaches at the moment.

Outer Darkness: Eternal torment where spirits live without any divine influence or light. Reserved for murderers, apostates, and Democrats.


Decision been made for you, LDS feminists

June 26, 2014

My good friend Bridget Jack Jeffries has a thoughtful and important piece in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Decision been made for you, LDS feminists

In case you don’t know her, Bridget is an Evangelical Christian who graduated from LDS-owned Brigham Young University and is currently studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I have always appreciated her insight and perspective into LDS issues.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a lot of ad hoc rationalizations of why LDS women cannot have priesthood authority, from “men get the priesthood because women have to endure the pain of childbirth” (I’m not making that up) to “that’s just how it is.” Bridget’s piece asks a telling question: If not being able to exercise priesthood authority doesn’t make women inferior, why is it a punishment for men not to be able exercise priesthood authority?


Preaching Grace in Utah

June 18, 2013

Looks like Utah is being invaded again by religious people going door to door preaching their message.

Christian missionaries going door to door in Mormon capital

I thought this part of their brochure was interesting:

“You have recently been told at [LDS] General Conference that if you love God, trust him, believe him and follow him, that you will feel his love and approval,” it says in the brochure. “But what if you are doing all that and still don’t feel God’s love or approval?”

Whoever these people are, they are clearly familiar with Mormon teachings and culture, and frankly, I think this is an effective message. Many people in the LDS church feel unworthy and inadequate, and “don’t feel God’s love or approval.”

The LDS church teaches the concept of worthiness. If you are keeping the commandments, you are worthy to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and receive blessings (which are predicated on obedience). But if you’re like me, you never felt worthy because there was always something else you could be doing but weren’t.

Mainstream Christians talk about worthiness but in a different way. You aren’t “worthy” because you earned it, but because God forgives you. (Jeez, I sound like a commercial for mainstream Christianity.)

I would imagine at least some Mormons out there would find that message appealing because they carry around that burden of unworthiness and guilt. I know I did.


How Not to Talk to Mormons

June 5, 2013

It’s been a while, and for that I apologize. I was laid off from my job in February, and when I landed a job, it was in Northern Virginia. Needless to say, it’s hard to find time to write when you’re moving a household 2000 miles east. Just before we moved, my father had triple-bypass surgery, so I took a week off from packing and went to California to help my parents after the surgery.

I feel like I’m settling in well, so maybe it’s time to write again. I’ve told myself I don’t want to stay focused on Mormonism, so naturally my first post-move piece will be about Mormonism–well, not Mormonism so much, but how people interact with Mormons.

A friend pointed out a piece on Townhall.com (I am not a regular reader there) that was ostensibly an apology by the author, Mike Adams, for asserting in a previous piece that Mormons are “non-Christian.” Here’s the original quote in context:

People often try to call something a marriage when it isn’t. Calling a union between two men or between two women a marriage doesn’t make it one. It’s like embedding the name “Jesus Christ” in the official title of the LDS church and thinking that makes Mormonism somehow Christian. Call a square a triangle if you like but it’s still a square. Your hardheadedness won’t make it become a triangle. It will only make you appear obtuse.

You can guess from the tone of this statement that the apology was anything but an apology.

A little background: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) had always been a fringe movement based in America. After the church abandoned polygamy in 1890 and particularly after the 1903-07 Smoot hearings, Mormonism became much more “mainstream” in its image. Still, it was a relatively small religion until, in the 1960s and 1970s, the church greatly expanded their missionary efforts. The church experienced rapid growth, particularly in developing countries, but also in the United States and Europe. Church membership reached 1 million in 1947 (117 years after the church’s founding) but reached 2 million only 16 years later in 1963. The next million took only 8 years (1971).

The rapid growth seems to have provoked other religious groups to realize that they had some competition. Some of these groups, particularly Evangelical Christians, made a concerted effort to cast the LDS church as a dangerous cult, and polemical anti-Mormon books and films began to appear, such as Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s “Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?” (1963) and Walter Martin’s “Kingdom of the Cults” (1965). Perhaps the most effective attack was the assertion that Mormons were not Christians. By this the anti-Mormons generally meant that Mormons didn’t believe in orthodox, creedal Christianity, which is true, but the intention, as far as I can tell, was to suggest that Mormons rejected Christ entirely. This was an effective strategy, as the accusation stuck. Many times when I was a believing Mormon, people expressed shock that I believed that Jesus was my Savior. The LDS church responded by changing the missionary discussions so that our beliefs about Jesus came at the beginning of the first discussion (previously it had been in the third); a few years later, the church changed its official logo, putting JESUS CHRIST in the center in a larger font than the rest of the logo.

I know, that was more than a little background, but the “non-Christian” accusation is a sensitive subject with Mormons because they believe in Jesus and have faith that He suffered and died to save them from sin. So Mike Adams offended a lot of Mormon readers when he excluded them from the ranks of Christian believers. While I understand his point of view, his “apology” is, well, arrogant and counterproductive.

As I read through his two-page, sarcastic littany of what he considers stupid and evil Mormon beliefs and practices, I wondered why I was so put off by the essay. After all, pretty much everything he listed was more or less true, though presented polemically and without any context. He is right that DNA and archaeological evidence do not square with Mormon claims–I’d say his assertion that such claims have been “refuted” is a bit of an overstatement. The Book of Mormon is clearly textually dependent on the 1769 King James Bible (he uses the word “plagiarism”). He spends a lot of time on Joseph Smith’s plural wives, and he’s right that Smith’s actions were coercive, deceptive, and appalling.

But what does any of this have to do with whether Mormonism is a Christian religion? The list makes it clear that Mike Adams believes Mormonism has been shown to be false. I hate to break it to him, but who is a Christian is not defined by what Mike Adams believes is true or false.

Not until the last four paragraphs does Adams present anything that approaches defining Mormonism as non-Christian. He presents a quote from the King Follett Discourse to show that Joseph believed he would take God’s exalted place. This is either lazy or dishonest because Smith was actually talking about Jesus in that passage to explain what Jesus meant by “glorifying” the Father:

What did Jesus do? Why, I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out His kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to My Father, so that He may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt Him in glory.

From this quote, Adams condemns Mormonism as polytheistic:

I am sorry that Smith’s polytheism is not consistent with John 14:6. I am also sorry that since these are the words of Christ, polytheism cannot be Christian. Moreover, I am sorry, my Mormon friends, but the the words of Christ trump the words of Joseph Smith who will never be God.

Next he says

I am sorry that Mormonism teaches that Christ was not there in the beginning, that god was just a man who became God by following a moral code he did not create, and that we may all become gods by following the same moral code that predates the existence of Jesus. I am sorry that the theological mess caused by Joseph Smith is irreconcilable with the teachings of the Holy Bible.

The problem here is that Mormonism does indeed teach that Christ was “there in the beginning,” so I’m not sure where that’s coming from. The second part of that sentence is more or less true: Mormonism teaches that there are certain “laws” in the universe, and God adheres to them; strictly speaking, it offers no opinion as to whether God created those laws and “moral code” or how God came to be in the first place. So, in his haste to damn Mormonism, Adams is the one causing the “theological mess.”

But I don’t really have any interest in arguing whether Mormons are Christians or not. For the record, I believe that whoever affirms belief in Jesus as the Son of God who died for the sins of humankind is a Christian. Last I checked, Christians believe that people are saved through the atoning blood of Christ, yet folks like Mr. Adams seem to think that there’s also a written exam, and if you don’t check the right doctrines off, you’re on your way south. In short, this grousing about who is a true Christian is about as productive as defining a true Scotsman.

As I thought about it, what was so off-putting was the bare contempt Adams has for Mormonism and for Mormons. I know a lot of conservative Mormons who have hitched their political wagons to the conservative Evangelical movement, considering them to be allies in the fight for freedom and right. But as Adams shows, these “allies” despise Mormons and Mormonism as much as, perhaps even more than they do liberals and atheists. Adams is probably congratulating himself on his bluntness in standing up for truth, but all he has accomplished is promoted rigid dogmatism and alienated people who should be on his side. He reminds me of Joseph Fielding Smith, the LDS apostle who for many years dispensed his opinions as dogmatic “answers to gospel questions”; when I was younger, I thought how marvelous it was that he was so unafraid to speak the truth. But as I got older I realized that there was nothing brave or righteous about spouting opinions as facts.

So, Mike Adams wasted an opportunity and instead sowed division in his own ranks. Hell, even South Park did a better job of building bridges with Mormons than he did. The best way to destroy a political movement is to encourage infighting and litmus tests. Pretty soon you’re left with a few Mike Adamses and no one else.

And for my LDS readers: Rather than get huffy about Adams (that’s my job), maybe you could treat this as a chance to increase understanding and build on common ground. Just a suggestion.

 


How Romney Will Recover

November 8, 2012

After a long and exhausting–and ultimately unsuccessful–campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney has made the following to-do list.

10. Catch up on “Pretty Little Liars.” He’s been dying to know if Aria will end up with Jason or Ezra.

9. Commission paintings for his car elevators.

8. Kick Todd Akin’s ass.

7. Find new uses for Ann’s riding crop.

6. Fulfill his dream of opening for Taylor Swift.

5. Do a guest spot on Sesame Street.

4. Lift weights with Paul Ryan.

3. Start a charity for depressed Republicans.

2. Ponder the wisdom of the “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” essay.

1. Challenge the results of the election using “unskewed” results.


Todd’s Triple Favor?

August 1, 2012

More on our buddy, “Dr” Todd Coontz. In case you don’t know who this guy is, he’s a shameless huckster from South Carolina who preys on the gullible to enrich himself. Here, for example, is what he promises in return for a donation of $1000:

As a treasured Partner, you also share in the anointing and financial mantle on Dr. Todd’s life as he agrees to faithfully pray for you, your family, and your finances on a daily basis.

Elsewhere on his web site he tells us that we can achieve “financial freedom” and he will give us “7 keys to success [sic] investing.” You may ask, how’s that working for the good “doctor”?

“Dr” Todd’s full name is William Todd Coontz, and he resides with his wife, Dana, in Aiken, South Carolina. According to Google Maps, Rockwealth Ministries (Todd’s business) is located at 205 Loudoun Dr. Curiously, another business called Ministries Rockwealth is located at 324 Magnolia Lake Ct. It is a rather nice place. A third business, Coontz Investments and Insurance, is located at 3050 Whiskey Dr. A quick search of Aiken County court records finds the following:

2005: A $35,000 judgment against Todd and Dana Coontz.
2006: A debt-collection judgment against Todd Coontz for $4,184.52
2007: A debt-collection judgment against Todd Coontz for $18,945.81.
2007: A debt-collection judgment against Todd Coontz for an unspecified amount.
2008: A debt-collection judgment against Todd Coontz for $10,019.95.

Now, it is possible that the William Todd Coontz named in these suits isn’t “Dr” Todd Coontz, but W. Todd is the only Coontz I could find in the public records. If, by some remote possibility, this isn’t the good “doctor,” I apologize.

But how ironic is it that the guy who asking money from you so you can get wealthy is himself struggling to pay off debts?

Don’t worry, “Dr” Todd.” I’ll be happy to faithfully pray for you, your family, and your finances on a daily basis. Just send me $1000.