Sunday, April 30, 2017

'The Mormon Jesus' -- a history of Christ within the LDS faith


Several years ago, John Turner, who holds a Ph.D. in American History and Masters of Divinity, wrote “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” a candid, warts-and-all biography of Joseph Smith’s successor, who moved the Latter-day Saints across America and oversaw its growth in the western United States.
His interest in Mormonism has not waned, and this month Turner published “The Mormon Jesus: A Biography,” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). It provides an overview of Christ’s role in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Besides that, it also compares how Christ has been perceived since Joseph Smith and what influence that has had on the LDS faith. Most who walk into a Mormon chapel view Christ as a handsome, clean, bearded man, one with compassion but strength. How that scenario evolved is an interesting read.
Turner provides the cultural history of these portrayals of Christ and even mentions the era of Arnold Friberg, whose art still influences how Mormons view Book of Mormon personalities. Apparently, Friberg’s depiction of macho Christ (The Risen Lord) was a bit to much for LDS Church leaders, who sought a less-muscled savior. 
The move for a muscular Christ was an era of Christianity in which Protestant pews were not filled with many males. There were outside influences to Mormonism, despite its Christ who is considered our literal elder brother, distinct from Heavenly Father, and composed of a body of flesh and bone.
While the Mormon Christ has remained white and tall, there have been some inroads toward a more delicate Christ. Minerva Teichert, and her Christ in a Red Robe, is an example. 
Turner begins the book by guiding readers through the church’s annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, and its portrayal of Christ. He rejects claims from some evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians with many examples, the easiest is The Book of Mormon’s central message, which is a belief in Christ. Turner is not a Mormon, a trait which provided necessary objectivity in his Young biography.
The same applies with “The Mormon Jesus.” Turner guides readers through Young’s attempt to instill the Adam-God doctrine to 19th century members, an idea that never really caught on and was eventually downplayed, if never repudiated, by a frustrated prophet.
Also, the racist belief that blacks and native Americans were inferior to whites is discussed. Turner recounts influential church teaching, not scriptural, which advanced these ideas, such as blacks being less valiant in the pre-existence. This racist theory expounded from interpretations of Noah’s son, Ham, in many non-Mormon interpretations.
Turner also includes the much-believed idea of generations past that Native Americans would see their skin color change if they embraced the Gospel. It’s jarring to learn that many Latter-day Saints assumed this to the point of church leaders pointing to Native Americans, claiming their skin had whitened.
This is our history, for better or worse, and it plays a role in how beliefs evolve. But there is much to favor, as well. Turner clearly is impressed by Mormonism’s belief that man can aspire to be like God, that Christ’s perfection is a goal for mankind. The Mormon conception of Jesus is personal, with a deity that stands for us not only as the means to our atonement, but as a source of strength. 
Interestingly, even this perception of Christ has been shaped through decades of competing ideas. Near the end of the book, Turner contrasts the beliefs of the late LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who viewed Christ as a more formal deity, one who provided a path toward exaltation so long as obedience and formal rites were followed.
This is contrasted with the more-recent popularity of Stephen Robinson’s “Believing Christ,” which describes the atonement with a parable of a young child having less than a dollar to buy a sought-after bicycle. Her father gives her the rest of the money because she already gave all that she had. As Turner notes, Robinson’s ideas that mortals, despite their liabilities, can enter exaltation with Christ’s unlimited power is closer in spirit to the idea of salvation by grace.
While McConkie’s grasp of exaltation remains doctrine — and anyone who watches his last conference talk, delivered shortly before his death, wouldn’t doubt his belief in Christ — in recent years the rhetoric of Robinson has gained traction. An example is this month’s LDS general conference, where LDS apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf told listeners, “If you cannot muster faith right now, begin with hope.
“The Mormon Jesus” is an example of excellent Mormon scholarship that can be found from authors outside the faith. Turner’s devotion to his subject and his passion for LDS people and history are strong. It stands with members Terryl and Fiona Givens’ “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life” as a worthy look at the LDS faith.
-- Doug Gibson
This review was first published at StandardNET.

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