Did Jesus only become God at Easter?

ARTHUR ASKS:

Christians observe that the Son of God died to atone for human sins. But St. Paul says (Romans 1:4) that Jesus was “declared … to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” So apparently Jesus wasn’t divine when he died (or before). How then does atonement work?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

A timely inquiry as Christians reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and also due to the clash between two new scholarly books, “How Jesus Became God” by skeptic Bart Ehrman, answered simultaneously (!!!) by an international team of conservatives in “How God Became Jesus.”

Arthur cites a sentence Paul wrote only a couple decades or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, and “form critics” think the apostle was quoting from a previous creed so these words date back to Christianity’s earliest days.

Thanks to www.biblegateway.com, The Guy compared 46 English translations and found “declared” is the typical wording. Other versions say that by the resurrection Jesus’ divine Sonshop was “openly designated,” “publicly identified,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” “marked out” and “shown,” while Bible commentaries add “displayed,” “proclaimed” and “manifested.”

So the expert consensus agrees with the 8th Century theologian John of Damascus that Paul meant that by the resurrection “it was made plain and certain to the world that Christ was the Son of God.”

Note that all the translators say “by” the resurrection, not “at” or “with” or “upon,” which could indicate Jesus’ divinity originated only at Easter. All this agrees with the early belief found elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus was divine in his earthly life and beforehand (for instance Matthew 27:54, John 1:1-3, I Corinthians 2:8, Philippians 2:6).

But get this: A favorite conservative translation of the Bible could be read as suggesting Jesus only became God at Easter. The 2011 edition of the New International Version says Jesus was “appointed the Son of God” by the resurrection, vs. “declared” in earlier N.I.V. editions. Similarly, the first edition of U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible (1970) said Jesus was “made” the Son of God by Easter. The 1986 N.A.B. revision changed that to the ambiguous “established,” which to average English readers could mean either newly established or established for everyone to see.

Then, how does atonement “work”? What does it mean that “Jesus saves” or “Jesus died for our sins”?

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AFP gives Maalula its due

It was my intention today to look at religion news coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And I hope to still do that. But I didn’t come across anything particularly winsome or substantial. I’m sure there must be some good (or bad!) stuff out there. Please do pass it along.

During my search, I came across a story that I do want to commend. Mostly for just being written.

This weekend I met someone who had journeyed to Maalula and had experienced great joy there. He was telling a group of us about encountering an icon in the deepest reaches of a church there. As he told the story, someone said that they thought Maalula had been taken by Syrian rebel forces that day. Reports coming out of Maalula are horrible. Absolutely horrible. And AFP has one that begins:

Jihadists who overran Syria’s ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.

“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.

She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week’s fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.

“Maalula is the wound of Christ,” mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital’s ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honour of the dead.

There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.

With a caveat that we could do without the Alanis Morissette-style use of “irony,” a few thoughts. First, thank you for covering and featuring this prominently. I am shocked at how little news editors realize these stories are of interest and significance to many global readers. Also, thank you for the sourcing. Was someone forcibly converted at threat of being shot? Well, it’s unlikely that any reporter could say for sure. It’s appropriate to source it to “residents,” although I would like reporters to attempt to confirm the report as much as possible. We don’t get a name of the victim but we do get eyewitness accounts.

The story goes on to discuss the significance of Maalula to Christianity. It’s one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria. Its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The story isn’t just about religion. We learn a little bit about why rebels find it strategically important.

We hear from a man who returned to Syria from the United States, where he’d run a restaurant in Washington State for 42 years. He says the worst part of what happened to Maalula was the reaction from Muslim neighbors who greeted the rebels. That is a powerful aspect to have in the story but, of course, it would be much better to hear from those same Muslim neighbors about their perspective. Were they happy? If so, why?

The piece ends with an anecdote:

The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town’s militia, and brutally murdered him.

“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.

“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”

The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.

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Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on

As a famous religious figure once said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Sometimes even we media critics get what we ask for. Last month I asked for more – and deeper – coverage of hipster churches, and then this week veteran Godbeat reporter Michelle Boorstein fulfills my request (at least partially).

Last Sunday the Church at Clarendon, a self-professed “diverse urban church” in Washington, D.C. held an “experimental service called Church Remixed, which featured music by a DJ rather than live musicians” and Boorstein was on hand to report for the Washington Post. The superb story begins with a wonderfully obscure, hipster-friendly headline: Deuteronomy meets Deadmau5 as church DJs seek exaltation*

When you’re DJing a Baptist church service, is it more appropriate to mix electronic music by Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim as congregants are being ushered in or as they exit?

Such were the choreographic and theological questions at play Sunday at the 104-year-old high-steepled Church at Clarendon, which for the day replaced its usual eight-piece band and singers on the pulpit with an Atlanta wedding DJ who has hipster glasses, a table of music-mixing technology and a tendency to fist-pump while playing.

“Okay, let’s get going!” said Hans Daniels (whose DJ handle is Hans Solo) after being introduced at the start of the service, cranking up the beat — and volume — and eliciting a whoop that filled the bright, airy sanctuary. “Blessed Be Your Name” quickly became “B-B-Blessed Be Your Name,” and congregants started cha-cha dancing in their seats.

Boorstein does an excellent job of finding sources that help put this “experiment” in historical context. For example,

Tony Lee, pastor at the 3,000-member Community of Hope, noted that what we now call classic gospel — practically the soundtrack of contemporary black Christianity — came out of jazz and originally was seen as “too worldly” for church. Thirty years ago, drums were seen as outrageous, and then liturgical dance. Of course, there are still some faith communities that forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing.

I’d have preferred to hear which faith communities “forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing” but that’s a minor quibble.

In providing the counter-perspective, Boorstein sought out a source that helpfully frames the concerns many Christians might have about a church DJ:

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Media, Mormonism and meaning

I think it’s fair to say that while Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy has forced the media to do more and better coverage of Mormonism, the religion is still treated as a cultural and theological oddity. Much of the coverage is still sensational — as I type this, The Daily Beast is hyping an interview with “a direct descendant of Brigham Young, Sue Emmett [who] left the church because of the very values she says would make Romney a frightening president.” I hate to break it to The Daily Beast, but Brigham Young had 55 wives and 57 children. A gathering of his third generation descendents would look like Calcutta on Free Malaria Shot Day. Finding one of them who would disavow Mitt Romney and their great-great grandfather’s legacy is a matter of simple probability, and it’s neither novel or illuminating.

Tabloids aside, I wish I could say that the coverage from respectable outlets was automatically better. But it was with dread that I learned that The New Yorker had published a sweeping essay about “Mormonism and its meanings.” While The New Yorker is largely an outlet for criticism and opinion, the magazine carries with it a totemic status among my fellow reporters — even those I know who largely disagree with its center-left politics — and often sets the tone for any future coverage by the rest of the media establishment once it’s weighed in on a given issue.

Making matters worse, the essay in question is written by Adam Gopnik. Gopnik is a very witty and perceptive writer; however, if anyone on the masthead perfectly embodies cocooned Manhattan liberalism, it’s Gopnik. I suppose the fact that Gopnik’s fellow Manhattan literary stereotypes feel comfortable inveighing against him as “tone-poet of post-9/11 Manhattan, drizzling pixie dust across a cityscape that no longer bears the hearty flavor of ‘smoked mozzarella,’ as he notoriously described the downtown death smell,” that should tell you something. Indeed, take a gander at this nugget from Gopnik’s essay on Mormons. I think it is supposed to deemed amusing:

Walk by the Latter-day Saints church on the Upper East Side of New York, and you will see only images of Jesus and scenes from the Gospels, even if the Mormon Jesus looks more corn-fed and burly than the gaunt, ascetic one in the Protestant church around the corner. The continuing Mormon suspicion of Evangelicals, and the Evangelical hostility toward Mormons, could be politically significant only if the guy on the other side is a credible Evangelical, at least in emotional style. When the other guy is at best an intellectual and at worst an Arab, political solidarity is bound to trump inter-sectarian mistrust.

So, uh, that’s what we’re dealing with — a guy who’s personal experience with Mormonism doesn’t involve going below 59th street and who otherwise thinks huge swaths of religious America mistrust intellectuals. The fact this latter assertion is simultaneously condescending and grossly simplistic would seem to belie the soundness of Gopnik’s judgement here, let alone his status as an intellectual. To paraphrase an apocryphal Martin Luther line, I’m sure a lot of evangelicals and Mormons would gladly vote for a wise Turk who can get unemployment below 8 percent.

Now having said all that, I can’t easily dismiss Gopnik’s essay. That’s because Gopnik understands some nuances about Mormonism that I’ve seen repeatedly trip up other reporters. Here’s how he handles some of the church’s more controversial doctrines:

Mormonism had other assets. Smith held (especially in the sermons he preached toward the end of his life) that God and angels and men were all members of the same species. “God that sits enthroned is a man like one of you” and “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” were two of his most emphatic aphorisms on the subject. …

This doctrine led in turn to various theological niceties, which seem to have risen and receded in the faith’s theology over the years: one is that the birth of Jesus had to have been the consequence of a “natural action”—i.e., that God the Father knew Mary in a carnal way, in order to produce the Messiah. (This doctrine is currently in disfavor, but it had a long life.) Another is that God, being an exalted man, must have a wife, or several wives, as men do; she is known as the Heavenly Mother, and is a being distinct from Mary. (Smith’s belief in exaltation evolved into the belief that other planets were inhabited by men even more exalted than we are; Smith taught that the truly exalted will get not just entry into Heaven but a planet of their own to run. This is now taken, or taught, metaphorically, the way conventional Christians often think of Hell, but it was part of the story.)

Again, LDS members might disagree with the tone here — but Gopnik at least grasps that there’s some tension here between the logical extension of some of the church’s doctrines and whether or not Mormons believe these things to literally be true. I’ve seen many writers just assume that Mormons believe a great many “rococo cosmologies” — as Gopnik calls them — said to be implied by Smith’s teachings without doing much to factor in the metaphorical and the mystical.

Gopnik also picks up on some odd cultural details that I found fascinating.  I didn’t know that artist Arnold Friberg, who did many of the iconic Book of Mormon illustrations, was the set designer for “The Ten Commandments.” And I’ll be darned, Gopnik’s right that Friberg’s depiction of Nephi — see the picture above — does look a lot like Romney. But Gopnik’s impressive powers of observation are constantly undercut by a breezy tone that’s entirely unwarranted. He treats weighty subjects so glibly that it borders on infuriating:

One could presumably make a case that beleaguered faiths always shy from admitting errancy in public. Dominant faiths can afford tales of failure and redemption, with sinners becoming saints and saints dropping in and out of the calendar like blue-plate specials; beleaguered ones have to put on a good face in public and never lose it. Donny Osmond talks about the anxieties that arose from a need to appear perfect, and the impossibility of admitting in public to flaws or errors. Better to have a new revelation about, say, health-care mandates that renders the previous one instantly inoperable than spend time apologizing for the old ways. When, in 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the rule prohibiting blacks from serving as priests, one church leader, Bruce McConkie, explained, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978.” You could find, or think you’ve found, a similar logic behind Romney’s blithe amnesia when it comes to the things he used to think and say.

Yet class surely tells more than creed when it comes to American manners, and Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer. Most of what is distinct about him seems specific to the rich managerial class of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and is best explained so—just as you would grasp more about Jack Kennedy from F. Scott Fitzgerald (an Irish and a Catholic ascending to Wasp manners) than from St. Augustine. In another way, though, this is precisely where faith really does walk in, since commerce and belief seem complementary in Romney’s tradition. It’s just that this tradition is not merely Mormon. Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce. It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition. He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.

There’s actually much about these two paragraphs I think is very perceptive. But Gopnik whistles past so many issues here from sin to politics to commercialism that it’s hard to see where Mormonism is the common thread running through them. Gopnik may observe that Mormons believing in God as Man creates some problematic theological niceties, but he doesn’t seem bothered by the fact his unearned authorial omniscience on complex theological matters raises more questions than it answers.  I give Gopnik a lot of credit for devising an elegant launching pad for discussing “Mormonism and its meanings,” but ultimately he’s unable elevate the subject matter to a place of real understanding.

Having said all that, I can heartily recommend another piece that covers some similar territory — Jesse Walker has a primer on Mormonism and its accompanying political tensions in the latest Reason magazine. Reason is a political magazine, but its libertarian bent often assures that it doesn’t view culture and politics in a predictable fashion. Walker’s piece is a straightforward tour through some esoteric political history. It manages to be remarkably evenhanded — no easy feat — by noting the widespread and irrational anti-Mormon prejudice and less flattering aspects of the early church. For instance, here’s Walker explaining an interesting historical tidbit:

In 1884 the Idaho territory made it illegal for Latter-day Saints to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury. Legislators invoked the standard anti-Mormon conspiracy theories, but lurking behind those exotic charges were more ordinary resentments: opposition to plural marriage, jealousy of the Mormon co-ops’ economic clout, and, above all, Republicans’ eagerness to disenfranchise a group that in Idaho voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats.

Walker’s piece is mostly historical, but his goal is to flesh out your understanding of some of the contemporary religious friction surrounding Romney’s candidacy. He succeeds admirably, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Gray Lady’s brave Mormon doctrine story

It takes a certain amount of courage to write a news story about the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

First of all, the beliefs of almost all religions are so complex that, in order to explain them, a reporter is forced to confront the highly technical language that will be used both by its leaders and its critics. To make matters worse, various camps of believers on both sides of these debates will use this doctrinal language in subtly different ways. It’s picky stuff.

The New York Times waded into these troubled waters the other day with a piece by religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein. According to the headline — “The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease With Romney” — the goal was to explain why those nasty evangelicals have so much trouble coming to grips with the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney.

In a way, this assumption that there are big, important theological differences is progress in and of itself. Most of the time, mainstream reporters simply assume that evangelicals are a bunch of bigots and move right on. It is a credit to Goodstein’s reporting that what she delivers is a story with more depth than what is described in the headline. This story, you see, is bigger than ongoing tensions between candid, highly-informed evangelicals and candid, highly-informed Mormons.

She begins with the Rev. R. Philip Roberts, the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is introduced as “an evangelist with a particular goal: countering Mormon beliefs.”

Actually, there’s a lot more to Roberts than that. It appears that he is a specialist in Christian apologetics in a variety of cultures, with the kind of intellectual range that one gets while earning a doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam, followed with a dose of studies at Oxford University. The story simply adds that he has “traveled throughout the United States, and to some countries abroad, preaching that Mormonism is heretical to Christianity.”

Anyway, this is a man prepared to debate about the fine points of theology.

“I don’t have any concerns about Mitt Romney using his position as either a candidate or as president of the United States to push Mormonism,” said Mr. Roberts, an author of “Mormonism Unmasked” and president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said he had no plans to travel to South Carolina before the voting. “The concern among evangelicals is that the Mormon Church will use his position around the world as a calling card for legitimizing their church and proselytizing people.”

Alas, that is that. In other words, Roberts is an evangelist — not a scholar — who objects to the evangelistic efforts of Mormons. If this guy wrote a book on this topic, let’s ask about his actual concerns when it comes to faith and doctrine. However, he vanishes at this point and never gets to make a point of substance. Moving on.

The Times does find other voices, however, and what they have to say is quite interesting. Here’s the heart of the matter:

Mormons consider themselves Christians — as denoted in the church’s name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are so fundamental, experts in both say, that they encompass the very understanding of God and Jesus, what counts as Scripture and what happens when people die. …

On the most fundamental issue, traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one. Mormons reject this as a non-biblical creed that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. They believe that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, and that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother.

You can see how that might upset evangelical Protestants. However, Goodstein immediately offers another important point of view, resulting in an angle rarely found in mainstream stories on this topic.

It is not only evangelical Christians who object to these ideas.

“That’s just not Christian,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Protestant seminary in New York City. “God and Jesus are not separate physical beings. That would be anathema. At the end of the day, all the other stuff doesn’t matter except the divinity of Jesus.”

It would have helped if The Times had noted that many of the defining elements of Mormon theology are also rejected by the two largest and oldest branches of Christianity, as in the Catholic Church (click here for a key document) and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Why not add that additional sentence to give readers the wider picture?

The bottom line: The Times was in a position to clearly state that the essential doctrinal differences behind the political scenes are between Trinitarian Christians — left and right, Catholic and Orthodox — and Mormons. While missing one or two key facts, the most important thing this particular story does is to undercut its own headline. There is, in other words, more to these tensions than narrow evangelical beliefs.

One more issue: GetReligion readers may want to know if this story deals with the explosive term “exaltation” and Mormon teachings about eternal life? Well, kind of.

Another big sticking point concerns the afterlife. Early Mormon apostles gave talks asserting that human beings would become like gods and inherit their own planets — language now regularly held up to ridicule by critics of Mormonism.

But Kathleen Flake, a Mormon who is a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School, explained that the planets notion had been de-emphasized in modern times in favor of a less concrete explanation: people who die embark on an “eternal progression” that allows them “to partake in God’s glory.”

“Mormons think of God as a parent,” she said. “God makes the world in order to give that world to his children. It’s like sending your child to Harvard — God gives his children every possible opportunity to progress towards this higher life that God possesses. When Mormons say ‘Heavenly Father,’ they mean it. It’s not a metaphor.”

I’m not so sure about the emphasis here on “early Mormons,” since I heard very literal references to these doctrines during the 1985 funeral of LDS President Spencer W. Kimball and in interviews with other high church officials about that time.

The key is that this section of the story contains numerous doctrinal landmines that would inspire tremendous debates between LDS apologists and their critics, both secular and religious. For example, is it accurate to say that faithful Mormons were said to become “like gods” and then inherit their own creations, worlds or planets? Does that mean that the creator of this planet, Planet Earth, is “like” a god? The Times states as fact what is actually a subject that many would Mormon leaders and their critics would say is worthy of fierce debate.

But let’s say that this Times statement is totally accurate. Is saying that a controversial Mormon revelation has been “de-emphasized” the same as saying that it has been changed or overturned? Has this change ever been publicly reported? You see, this would be a major news story in its own right. It is possible that Mormonism is evolving and moving closer — on a few issues — to the forms of Christianity that it has historically called heretical. But what are the facts?

Despite my criticisms, this Times story has put some crucial information into print about the hot-button issues that cause tensions between Mormons and Trinitarian Christians — evangelicals, the Orthodox, Catholics and liberal Christians of various kinds. These tensions will affect some votes, but probably not as many as some journalists may hope. Either way, the story will continue. The differences between these believers are sincere, important and newsworthy.

NOTE: It goes without saying that comments arguing pro or con on Trinitarian or Mormon doctrines will be spiked with great haste. The goal here is to discuss this attempt by The Times to cover some of these subjects.

‘Conservative Prots’ vs. LDS baptisms?

Guess what?

Mitt Romney remains a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Meanwhile, he also remains the odds-on favorite to be the GOP candidate to run against President Barack Obama.

Thus, news consumers should brace themselves for waves of stories focusing on Romney and the millions of traditional, Trinitarian Christians who disagree with him on the nature of the Godhead and a host of other theological subjects. Some of these people will decide not to vote for him, for reasons both religious and political.

At the same time, it is highly unlikely that we will see waves of coverage of the millions of voters — religious, non-religious, whatever — who disagree with Romney on a host of subjects linked to marriage, family and related issues in moral theology. Many, if not most, of these voters will decide not to vote for Romney, for reasons both religious and political.

Here’s my journalistic question: Why is a big story when people reject Romney because of his religious views on the Trinity, but not a major story when people reject his religious views on, let’s say, the sanctity of unborn human life?

Just asking. In other words, are there religious/political tests on both sides of our elections?

This raises more questions for journalists trying to plan campaign coverage: How many GOP voters will reject this Mormon man because of religious issues? How many Democratic voters will reject him because of issues that are linked to his faith? Of these two camps, which will be larger than the other. Just asking.

I do know one thing for sure. Lots of journalists are laboring under the false impression that the whole “are Mormons really Christians” debate is limited to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant sanctuaries.

Consider this passage at the top of a recent Associated Press sidebar on this issue, as seen in The Washington Post:

Like traditional Christians, Mormons consider the Bible sacred and view Jesus as savior.

However, Mormons do not share the concept of a unified Trinity that is part of historical Christianity. They believe that God has called new apostles and prophets and that revelation continues as it did in ancient times, which does not conform to mainstream Christianity. The LDS church also teaches that God has a physical body and that human beings can eventually become like God.

But for conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy. They do not recognize baptisms by the Mormon church and decry the secrecy surrounding some of its sacraments. Only church members in good standing can enter Mormon temples, where families are sealed, or united, so their relationships can continue in the afterlife.

Stop that wagon right there.

As is the case with any report on Mormon theology, there are all kinds of fine points to debate in these lines. Take, for example, the statement that Mormons believe that “human beings can eventually become like God.” Based on statements in LDS scriptures, many Trinitarian Christians would insist that Mormons have — at least in the past — taught that believers can literally “become gods.” That’s the kind of fine point that causes endless debates. For Mormon critics, “exaltation” is a key word.

That debate will continue, whether journalists want it to or not. However, as I described earlier, that theological debate may affect a surprisingly small number of Romney votes (compared with, say, gay rights).

No, the clear error in that Associated Press passage is found in the statement that for “conservative Protestants” the “innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy,” leading them, for example, not to “recognize baptisms by the Mormon church.”

You know, there they go again, all of these pesky evangelical/fundamentalists folks.

Truth is, the Vatican also rejects non-Trinitarian baptisms and, thus, Mormon baptisms — Mormon baptisms of both the living and (by proxy) the dead. The oh-so-blunt document is right here.

Question: Whether the baptism conferred by the community The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons in the vernacular, is valid.

Response: Negative.

The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Response, decided in the Sessione Ordinaria of this Congregation, and ordered it published.

From the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5 June 2001.

+ Joseph Cardinal RATZINGER

Prefect

Catholics and conservative Protestants are not alone in making this judgment. In a recent poll (click here), a surprising 48 percent of clergy in the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations shared this view.

This does not make this point of view right or wrong. It does mean that journalists must realize that it’s wrong to imply that only “conservative Protestants” have problems with core doctrines in the Mormon faith — to the point that they believe people baptized as Mormons must be baptized again in order to become traditional, Trinitarian Christians.

Editor’s note: Yes, yes. I am aware that many Episcopal clergy do not require Mormons to be re-baptized. Let’s not veer off into discussions of this fact in the comments pages, OK?

IMAGE: Baptism font in a Mormon temple.

Helpful talk on that ‘cult’ word

Presidential primary season is approaching, of course, which means that it’s time for reporters to start dancing around the Mormon issues that will be swirling around Mitt Romney.

Again.

At some point, a Romney critic or two will use the “cult” word or, just as likely, someone on the Religious Right will ask questions about Romney and then will be accused by the press of flirting with the “cult” word. At that point, the “cult” word will be in play, which was the whole point in the first place.

Some of the verbal warfare will be totally hollow. Some of it will be easy to trace back to real doctrinal differences — the word “exaltation” is sure to show up — between Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians (the nature of God is at the top of the list) and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The odds are very good that, at some point, journalists will be quoting apologists from the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. They will say highly nuanced things that will be hard for reporters to paraphrase, including statements that may or may not contain the word “cult.” Some reporters will oversimplify and ink will be slung around.

Now, before all of this starts, it’s important for reporters to find some serious, accurate, representative voices in three or four crucial camps — even if they disagree with one another.

The “On Faith” team at the Washington Post ran an essay the other day that represents an excellent start for a research file. Find the corresponding Southern Baptist materials and you’re about 2 percent down a long, interesting road.

The piece was written by Michael Otterson, head of the public affairs office for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a news piece, of course, but it should be of interest to those who follow the Godbeat closely. Here is an important slice, near the top of the essay, which ran under the headline, “The Mormon church and the media’s ‘cult’ box.”

Where to start?

The Economist’s Los Angeles-based reporter wrote this in the print edition of May 3 this year: “Mainstream Protestants, and especially evangelicals, have traditionally considered Mormons a devious cult.”

The point was repeated on June 9: “Many Americans see Mormonism as a cult: in polls over the years a steady one in four say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon as president.”

I’m not a professional statistician, but I do know that because one in four people say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon, it doesn’t follow that one in four see Mormons as a cult, “devious” or otherwise. Unless the reporter has data that the rest of us have not seen (in which case he should have cited it) the indiscriminate use of the word “cult” is unjustified.

Wikipedia correctly labels “cult” as a pejorative term, and adds: “The popular, derogatory sense of the word has no currency in academic studies of religions, where “cults” are subsumed under the neutral label of the “new religious movement.” …

Lest anyone think I am unduly thin-skinned, it’s the insult implicit in the word “cult” that I am objecting to, not the reasonable point that some Christians are indeed uncomfortable with aspects of Latter-day Saint theology. Of course they are. I am equally uncomfortable with some aspects of traditional, orthodox Christianity, which was the very issue that gave rise to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place. Such differences, however, should be examined thoughtfully, reasonably and respectfully in any national conversation about a particular faith. And they should be examined alongside the enormous doctrinal and practical similarities between these different branches of Christendom. For my part, I plan to keep politics and pejoratives out of it.

The key here is that many journalists struggle to distinguish between people who are using the slur “cult” in a sociological sense from those who are using the term “cult” in the context of debates about radical differences in doctrine. There are Mormon critics who will do both, but I have found that their numbers are shrinking rapidly.

Most evangelicals (Southern Baptist leaders for sure) will, if they use the word “cult” at all, go out of their way to try to explain to reporters that they are using the word in a narrow and highly academic, doctrinal sense. The differences are real, and important. But I have found that talks between Mormon leaders and evangelical leaders operate on a pretty refined and dignified level, these days.

If reporters listen carefully, and respectfully, to leaders on both sides it’s possible to negotiate this minefield without explosions. What will be discussed? Here is a sample of how Otterson describes this terrain:

* Why Latter-day Saints consider themselves New Testament Christians, rather than creedal Christians whose doctrines were formalized in the centuries following the foundation of Christianity. It is perfectly true that Mormons do not embrace many of the orthodoxies of mainstream Christianity, including the nature of the Trinity. It is not true that Mormons do not draw their beliefs from the same Bible.

Otterson will be covering that topic, and others, in the near future at “On Faith.” I assume that an equally candid and appropriate voice or two will speak for Protestants, Catholics, etc. This would be very helpful for reporters.

Clip and file!

The church of O is pantheistic

In Christianity Today, LaTonya Taylor offered the definitive look at “The Church of O” 10 years ago. There are many reasons why I’m not the type of woman to get into Oprah Winfrey, but her religious views always intrigued me.

Earlier this week, Tmatt looked at some of the coverage of Oprah’s goodbye show. He wrote “She led the way in creating what I have long called ‘OprahAmerica,‘ it’s a culture defined by emotion, feelings and stories, not by acts of creeds, doctrines and sacraments that have eternal consequences.” But how many articles got at that issue?

In the New York Times this weekend, Mark Oppenheimer looked at “The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering.” And as you might expect of a religion column, it’s all about the unique religion advanced by Oprah, “at once Christian and pantheistic.” The first part of the article talks about some of the Christian strains in her theology, with interesting quotes from Eva Illouz, a sociologist:

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.

“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.”

And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.

Very interesting. We then get an intriguing discussion of Charles Grandison Finney and the “anxious bench.”

But I also enjoyed the part of the article that looked at the non-Christian aspects of Oprah’s theology:

Yet the Church of Winfrey is at most partly Christian. Her show featured a wide, if drearily similar, cast of New Age gurus. As Karlyn Crowley writes in her contribution to “Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture,” an essay collection published last year, Ms. Winfrey excelled at offering “spiritual alternatives to the mainstream religions” in which many of her followers grew up. Ms. Winfrey presided over something like a “New Age feminist congregation,” Dr. Crowley writes. …

In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

Oppenheimer’s reported column ends with this type of criticism of Winfrey’s religious exuberance and failure to ask tough questions of “psychics and healers and intuitives.” Whether you agree or disagree with Oppenheimer, this is a thoughtful and well argued analysis of Oprah’s theology and its limitations. It’s nice to read something of this nature in the weekend paper.


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