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Book Review: Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism

By Richard Abanes

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Though it was written a decade ago, there is much in this book written by apologist Richard Abanes that is well worth the purchase. It appears to have been produced as a sequel to his well-researched work One Nation Under Gods, providing “a closer look at 21st-century Mormonism.” And overall, he is successful, dealing with such issues as Joseph Smith, God, and polygamy. Abanes provides abundant documentation to show that this material is more than just his personal opinion.

In his introductory chapter titled “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” Abanes talks about what constitutes official doctrine versus what should be considered as nothing less than mere speculation given by LDS leaders. Describing the 26-volume Journal of Discourses on page 15, he writes,

Many of the statements found in this multi-volume set are not only highly controversial, but also very damaging to some Mormon claims. In fact, a few of the comments made in it by LDS prophets and apostles are downright embarrassing to modern Mormons.

He’s right, as the series’ teachings on such issues as blacks and the priesthood, plural marriage, and Adam being God have caused great consternation over the years for LDS apologists. Abanes continues,

In response, today’s LDS apologists have begun arguing that the discourses were never meant to be taken as doctrine—and that they are merely the flawed transcripts of opinion-laden speeches and lectures made by Mormon leaders of the past. Thus, they certainly are not at all on par with any of the Standard Works of the Church.

Abanes provides a good rebuttal to this argument:

However, this is not how Mormons of the 1800s viewed the Journal of Discourses, as evidenced by the preface that appears in volume 8 (published in 1861, when Brigham Young was Mormonism’s president). It reads, “The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every right-minded Saint will certainly welcome with joy every Number as it comes forth from the press as an additional reflector of ‘the light that shines from Zion’s hill.’”

MRM did a podcast series along with articles on this very topic. See “Journal of Discourses: Mere Opinions or Eternal Truth.”  We also invite you to check out “Journal of Discourses Gems.”

Referring to the frustration of determining just what is official versus what is personal opinion, Abanes makes a great point on pages 74 and 75 when he asks the following questions:

Who defines Mormon beliefs—Joseph Smith, living prophets, or modern BYU professors and LDS apologists? If it is BYU professors, then why is there a need for LDS prophets?

What other teachings espoused by Smith might future LDS apologists, BYU professors, or both dismiss in an effort to make Mormonism compatible with scientific findings?

Who speaks for Mormonism? Why should Mormons believe the unofficial opinions of modern LDS apologists over the teachings of Joseph Smith?

Throughout the book, Abanes provides great explanations describing how Mormonism is in disagreement with biblical Christianity. For example, on page 195, I like how Abanes described the tension between James and Paul on the topic of grace versus works. Referring to James 2:22-24, he writes,

This passage says that Abraham was justified by works. But to understand the verses, one must read them in context and in light of Romans 4:2-5. James, first of all, is speaking of justification before men: “I will show you my faith by my works” (emphasis added). Paul, on the other hand, in the Romans passage, is discussing justification “before God.” In context, then, our justification before God (Romans 4:2) is by grace alone through faith alone, while our justification before men (James 2:22-24) must be demonstrated by our good works.

In his first appendix, Abanes included a rejoinder against Michael W. Fordham, the author of “one of the most aggressive pro-polygamous works . . . ‘Mormonism 201: 3 Pitches, 3 Strikes, and McKeever and Johnson Are Out’ (2003).” (p. 285) Fordham’s piece was written in response to the plural marriage chapter in Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2000) written by Bill McKeever and me and, according to Abanes,“is full of far too many inaccuracies to be addressed here.” Abanes did a good job showing how the types of arguments introduced by Fordham were filled with errors. (Abanes wrote an article on this topic that can be found here.)

In the next appendix (B), Abanes answers common questions that Mormons might ask. Meanwhile, in Appendix D, Abanes includes a two-page letter written to him by LDS apologist Daniel Peterson titled “Why I am a Mormon.” I am surprised Dr. Peterson would agree to allow such a short piece to be put into a 460-page book. Anybody reading the parts before the appendix would certainly not be convinced by Peterson’s limited words dealing with his personal testimony about how Mormonism is good, especially given the abundant problems with Mormonism that Abanes introduced.

Although Mormons will not like Abanes’s analysis, there is no arguing with his research. He did a thorough job reporting the differences, making it very clear what Mormonism teaches and showing “Evangelical Thoughts” (in subtitles) to counter the doctrine(s). My only complaint is that the endnotes are copious–in fact, maybe too detailed, taking up a full quarter of the entire book (125+ pages!). Some of the material, I felt, would have been better placed in the regular text.

I also wish publishers would get over their apparent fear of frightening readers away by forcing endnotes rather than allowing footnotes. I think the majority of readers would like to have easy access to the additional information; having them in the back of the book requires a lot of work on the reader’s part. Practically every paragraph in this book has an endnote, and I too often would lose my place, either with the regular text or the endnotes. Even endnotes at the end of the chapter would have been better. There is no doubt that Abanes gets information from a wide variety of sources and has provided valuable nuggets that should not be hidden somewhere in the back.

Despite my complaints, Becoming Gods is worthwhile and ought to be considered by those wanting to better understand the LDS religion.

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