Revisiting Joseph Smith’s Novel History | Joseph F. Martin | Catholic World Report
The underestimation of the divide between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity
It is safe to say that when the Mormons built a fantastic, six-spired, gleaming Mormon Temple outside of Washington, DC in 1974, not too many East Coasters were familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) story. I recall gawking at the temple during a drive, as my brother’s Catholic friend knowingly intoned that the gold figure topping the tallest spire represented the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet at the end of the world. To my then-Methodist ears that sounded appealingly Evangelical. And of course it was entirely wrong. But it was typical of how most people approached Mormonism, interpreting their encounters with LDS believers with the assumption that they shared a common Christian vocabulary and frame of reference with the group, which, while maybe a bit separatist, had to be essentially like all the other “denominations.”
In the years since, thanks to Mormonism’s exponential growth and our accelerated media culture, the LDS church has become far less of a mystery in many ways. Stories of Joseph Smith’s vision and his digging up golden plates from which he translated The Book of Mormon—essentially an Incan reimagining of the New Testament—as well as Brigham Young’s trek across the Rockies have become just another chapter in American lore. Mormons tend to be outstanding people, salt of the earth—and with Western culture rapidly secularizing, many Christians now are advocating that the LDS are actually separated, albeit peculiarly so, brethren.
This seems to be the take of Stephen Webb. In a fascinating piece for First Things (Feb. 2012), titled “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ,” he says that for a large part of his teaching career, he did not try to hide his condescension towards Mormonism. But, Webb writes, “I have come to repent of this view, and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else’s faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is.” Concerning The Book of Mormon, he says that while it is “lackluster,”
it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. There are many characters in this book, but they change as little as the plot. Nobody stands out but him. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). … Every page of the book prepares the way for its stunning climax, which is a literal appearance of Jesus to the ancient peoples of America.
He concludes: “The Book of Mormon raises a question for Christians. Can you believe too much about Jesus? Can you go too far in conceiving his glory? Let me answer that question by posing another. Isn’t the whole point of affirming his divinity the idea that one can never say enough about him? And if Smith’s stories are not true, aren’t they more like exaggerations or embellishments than outright slander and deceit?”