Review: The Mormon Jesus

Review: The Mormon Jesus June 23, 2016

1682814Perhaps my devotional life’s greatest flaw is that I forget about Jesus. Intellectually, of course, I know that I cannot ignore the Savior when speaking about theology, but much of the time my musings tend to amble away toward questions of divine-human ontology, creation, exaltation, and eternal family relationships instead.

Therefore, I was curious what John Turner would have to say in his The Mormon Jesus, published by Harvard University Press last month. Through his Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet and a handful of personal interactions, I knew Turner to be a careful, charitable observer of Mormonism, sensitive to the latest developments in Mormon historical scholarship and the subtle social tensions over the representation of the LDS faith in academic work.

The Mormon Jesus did not disappoint. Though subtitled “A Biography,” Turner does not try to assemble a harmonized Mormon version of Jesus’s life story (though he does pay especial attention to James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, which attempted just that). Instead, Turner expertly weaves the thread of Jesus Christ through various themes, exploring how Mormons’ visions of Christ differed from their neighbors’ and their predecessors’ and how those visions evolved over the decades.

What is more, the themes are varied and comprehensive enough that I would almost be comfortable recommending this book as a historical–though not chronological–introduction to Mormonism for the theologically inclined. In order, Turner deals with Jesus in the Book of Mormon and Mormon readings of the Bible, visions, records of His words, eschatology, metaphysics, temple rites, concepts of sexuality and marriage, and art, race, and masculinity. Each topic is presented with ample context and, as I have come to expect from Turner, warranted nuance. For instance, Turner notes that early Mormon concepts of Jesus were almost indistinguishable from contemporary Christian ones, a fact that might discomfit some Mormon readers. On the other hand, recognizing the ambiguity in the texts and the proliferation of similar ideologies throughout antebellum America and Europe, he declines to indict LDS scripture as the origin of Mormon racist folklore.

I was most surprised–pleasantly, to be sure!–by Turner’s inclusion of two of my personal hobby horses, masculinity studies and Mormon theology of sexuality. In the latter case, his chapter was excellent enough that I do not feel that I need to independently research the question of Jesus and reproduction for future projects, as to do so would now be somewhat redundant. In the former, he demonstrates well how images of Christ have changed over time to align with developing ideals of manliness, from Arnold Friberg’s muscular Christ appearing to the Nephites in glory to Greg Olson’s Jesus, seated with a young girl and contemplating a butterfly.

Turner’s analysis of Jesus also brings to light the very tension that sometimes allows me to overlook Him: some core aspects of Mormonism are less tightly tethered to Christ than others.  This causes Mormon theology to act more like a binary star system of variable brightness than a single sun. One member of this binary system is, of course, Jesus, with the accompanying themes of baptism, adoption, atonement, and so forth. To Turner, the other star includes “polygamy, theocracy, and the Latter-day Saint self-understanding as God’s new Israel.” In my own view, the wholesale loss of theologies that connected Christ and his atonement inherently to families (for instance, that Christ was married, and that salvation came through the patriarchal order, descending from Christ to men’s wives) means that at present, the relationship between the atonement and eternal families is at best incidental. In the anemic words of Preach My Gospel, Christ’s atonement “blesses families” because it enables each member of the family to take advantage of individual forgiveness and sanctification. This tenuous link is all that holds together the metaphysical vision of families, temples, and theosis on one hand and the christological vision of individuals, the sacrament, and salvation on the other.

Church authorities seem to have gotten wind of this tension. Most visible among their efforts to tie the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Jesus Christ was the 1996 redesign of the logo to focus on those two words, but more subtle shifts in emphases have accompanied it. The recent LDS theological swing back to Christ,  is only one reason Turner says that “Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity, one in which temples, ordinances, and prophet have taken their place alongside a Jesus who is both utterly Christian and distinctively Mormon.” However, this shift also enables people to claim–with reason!–that Christ, in opposition to the family, is the center of the Church. I hope that the second edition of Turner’s book will be able to include a chapter on Mormon efforts to re-integrate Christocentric theology with temple metaphysics.

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