By Dan Wotherspoon
Dan Wotherspoon is the host of the Mormon Matters podcast and a former editor of Sunstone.
Compared with many of the other new Gospel Topics essays that have been released during the past two years, “Are Mormons Christian?” has generally flown under the radar.
In fairness, I suppose it does accomplish what the authors’ primary goals probably were: addressing charges from external sources that Mormonism shouldn’t be considered part of the Christian tradition. But as a document that reflects the best of Mormon Christianity, or as a document that is shaping our Christianity, it’s a huge failure.
How is it that the members of the committee that wrote and approved this essay couldn’t recognize that being “Christian” is only minimally about beliefs? That the only worthwhile indicators of a Christian or a Christian tradition are the fruits they bear—lives transformed through encounters with Jesus of Nazareth?
The essay fails to even mention the Atonement, let alone how it is to feel “at one” with God. There is no mention of grace, no talk of God’s love as manifest through Christ. In total, I found one line that suggests the core of Christianity: “The fruits of the gospel are evident in the lives of its faithful members.” That’s it.
In the essay, the Church declares to the world that we’re Christian, but isn’t it better to just let the world notice—notice that we Latter-day Saints live out of a strong identification with Jesus and his teachings?
Mosiah 4 suggests that those who are centered in their spiritual lives would never allow the beggar to put up his petition in vain. But in saying this, King Benjamin is not suggesting that being kinder to beggars and others in need should be some kind of “goal”; if we see the context of this comment, he is saying that this kind of response will flow naturally from someone centered in Christ. In Galatians, Paul speaks of virtues such as kindness, patience, and love as “fruits” of the Spirit, as qualities exhibited by those living in close touch with divine energies. Why don’t we argue for our Christianity by showing the transformations in our lives, by what flows from us into the world? Shouldn’t that be the testament to our Christian status?
This last Christmas season, a lyric from “O, Holy Night” came to me again and again in my meditations: “He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” I can testify that my life was transformed through encounters with Jesus. Through Jesus, I got the message: “I am God, and this is how much I love you.” As we grasp this message, we gain “faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15); we gain faith and trust in God; we begin to understand who we are and how we can change and live as new persons. Because of the Atonement, we can put off the “natural man” (Mosiah 3:19) and bring it to the cross to be crucified so that our new selves can emerge. That’s the message of the gospel.
But this Gospel Topics essay doesn’t preach that, it doesn’t teach it—it doesn’t do anything but defend us on grounds and charges that other people have set. For me, it’s another big reminder of how far our tradition has to go to really be prophetic, to really grow into adulthood. And it makes me sad.
But despite this sadness, I refuse to sit around and wait for better press conferences, for better Gospel Topics essays. In my sphere, I can preach Christ. I can preach about a life transformed through encounters with God’s love. I can still choose to preach the beauty, depth, and richness of Mormon understandings about Christ and how they can change lives.
It sounds like a long, uphill battle, but I’ve been moved recently by Parker Palmer’s model for activism. He says that if we’re going to be activists, we can’t use “results” to measure success, because if we do, we’ll burn out. We can’t control results; they’re in others’ hands. Instead, we must measure our activism by “faithfulness.” Faithfulness to our gifts; faithfulness to our truths; faithfulness to the things we know. And when we act in faithfulness to these, when we refuse to let others determine our success by how they respond, we find renewal. Through such renewal, we can be can be voices crying in the wilderness for thirty or forty years and never wear out.
So, even in my depression and my sadness over a church and community that so often fail to capture what I see as the essential gospel, I’m going to continue to testify that my life was transformed by my experience of God’s love through Christ. And though missed chances like the Gospel Topics essay can sap my energy, they won’t overtake me.
While preparing this essay, lyrics from a favorite Jackson Browne song have played again and again in my mind and heart:
Rock me on the water.
Sister, will you soothe my fevered brow?
Rock me on the water, maybe I’ll remember
Maybe I’ll remember how.
Rock me on the water.
The wind is with me now.
So rock me on the water;
I’ll get down to the sea somehow.
From age eleven to twenty, I lived in San Diego, and when you live in a beach town, even when you’re inland, you somehow always know where the ocean is. Your life is oriented around it. The ocean was a powerful presence for me then, but now it’s even more powerful as a metaphor for always knowing where Spirit is, where I can find renewal of my own spirit. Like the ocean, I can always feel it, always know where I can go to once more receive its nourishment. May it always be so for each of us.