By David Rowe
Baker Books, 2005
David Rowe has pooled his experiences into a “how to” manual for Christians interested in sharing their faith with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon).
There are positive aspects to this book as it describes Mormons having “their own culture, lingo, and worldview.” Unfortunately, the catchy title may prove to be a stumbling block, at least for some readers. After all, not only do many Latter-day Saints not like to be called “Mormon”—they often complain that this term is only a nickname—but they think they already have Christ as the centerpiece of their religion.
As far as those Christians who have been witnessing to Mormons before I ♥ Mormons was published, it is puzzling what Rowe means by a “new way” of sharing Christ. After all, Rowe’s style centers on creating relationships with Mormons, which appears to be an offshoot of the “friendship evangelism” model popularized several decades ago. Did he mean to infer that this method has not been used previously by Christians? Do those who use other tactics hate Mormons? By doing so, have they not “learn(ed) and respect(ed) LDS culture,” as the back cover puts it?
The book’s main point is that the “traditional way” of evangelism, which utilizes a “warrior saint” approach that uses “jousting games,” should be avoided because it results in the three-part sequence of “’discussion,’ recoil, and shutdown.” Tying published tracts and other materials with “taunting”—a word he uses to describe “a more extreme, negative, in-your-face version of preachery”—Rowe seems to mainly jab at the few vocal Christian fundamentalist preachers who frequent Temple Square in Salt Lake City, especially during the twice a year during the church’s general conferences. These evangelists are known for their large pictorial banners while they shout “damnation” sermons on the street corners. On page 129, he wonders if these “wannabe zealots” may be exhibiting “unharnessed anger hurling imagined God-bombs at people with a smug pride.” He adds on page 154: “Generally, ‘Bible bash’ evangelism with its heresy-hunting rationalism simply squashes the life out of relationships and builds walls, not bridges.”
However, the impression Rowe gives is that anyone using tracts or any other “confrontational” methods does not evangelize utilizing a “wiser, gentler” tactic. If Rowe was merely trying to highlight the fact that Christians can show insensitivity by cramming Bible verses down a Mormon’s throat and using loaded words, we would be in full agreement. Being overbearing and condemning rarely leads to a desired outcome. But Rowe does a disservice to many Christians who practice evangelistic methods with a sweeter spirit than those to whom he specifically refers.
While he says that theological discussions generally should not be initiated by the Christian, Rowe does not imply that doctrines should never be discussed. In fact, he wants to “hammer home” the idea that we “need to prayerfully seek and sensitively seize the doors of opportunity God grants us in which our theological knowledge truly counts” (p.68). No argument here. But there are times—from sitting next to someone on a plane to talking to a clerk in a store—when there is not enough time to develop long-lasting relationships. Do we set aside our sense of urgency to share important biblical truths merely because we do not have a relationship with the person? The message Rowe conveys—whether intentionally or unintentionally—is that success in evangelism only takes place after years of friendship.
Cult vs. Culture
One of the more controversial aspects of I ♥ Mormons is the emphasis that Mormonism is a culture rather than a cult. On page 29 Rowe practically apologizes for having his book listed under the category of “cults” that is printed above the barcode on the back cover. He writes, “As an author I have no control over this practice and the institutional bias that drives it. I’m arguing it’s high time we rethink this bias.”
This is where we have our sharpest disagreement. While there is no problem viewing Mormonism through a cultural lens (since it certainly is a culture), this does not diminish the characteristics of Mormonism that have historically categorized it as a cult. This word has been given to groups whose leaders insist they truly represent Christianity while denying or distorting the basic tenets that define historical Christianity. While we should not go out of our way to use the word as a pejorative, does it not describe modern-day Mormonism?
It may surprise some to know that LDS leaders have not been afraid to use this label to describe other groups. For instance, tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith used it to refer to the Independence, Missouri-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (later changed to the Community of Christ). (See Doctrines of Salvation 1:284.) Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball described fundamentalist polygamists as cultists. Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie even went so far as to say that all Trinitarian Christians had a “false system of worship” with “a false Christ” and were therefore “a false church” and “a false cult” (The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man, p.48).
For years the word “cult” has clearly marked the boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It has been a useful tool to help those who may not always understand the whys and wherefores of certain groups and their ideologies. Does it really serve the general public, or the Christian church for that matter, to redefine the LDS Church just because the designation may offend someone
Is Mormonism Changing?
On page 166 Rowe believes that the LDS Church is moving “away from the unorthodox, radically Mormon claims we do not find in the Bible.” He believes that the “subject matter of these changes is not just trivial but deals with central, crucial teachings of the LDS Church.” To bolster his point, he compares the 1978 edition of the LDS Church manual Gospel Principles with the more current 1992 and 1997 editions. Rowe correctly notes that the rhetoric on doctrines such as the potential for men to become gods has been toned down. [This review was written prior to 2009 and the newest Gospel Principles manual was released.]
As much as we would like to share Rowe’s enthusiasm, we cannot overlook the fact that Gospel Principles is one of the few manuals posted on the official LDS Church web site, a heavily advertised site for the general public. Oftentimes this manual is printed in a foreign language even before the complete set of the LDS standard works has been translated in that particular language. For this reason we should not be surprised to see a de-emphasis or even the omission of possible doctrines that might unnecessarily alarm potential converts. The manuals, on the other hand, are meant for LDS membership, yet we don’t see a departure of any kind from Mormonism’s heretical norm.
There are many examples, including the idea that men may become gods found in the Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual Religion 430 and 431 (which carries a copyright date of 2004). On page 52 President Spencer Kimball is cited: “Man can transform himself and he must. Man has in himself the seeds of godhood, which can germinate and grow and develop. As the acorn becomes the oak, the mortal man becomes a god. It is within his power to lift himself by his very bootstraps from the plane on which he finds himself to the plane on which he should be. It may be a long, hard lift with many obstacles, but it is a real possibility” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.28).
While we would love to see the church’s leadership cease promoting heretical teachings, the evidence from LDS conference speeches and church manuals is not encouraging. Just because a doctrine is not being fully emphasized does not mean it is being denounced.
Despite our disagreements with I ♥ Mormons, we do believe that David Rowe has a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the LDS people. His understanding of the Mormon mindset and the LDS belief system is incredibly accurate; because of this, readers who plan to move to Utah or have LDS friends or relatives will certainly benefit from his personal experience living among the LDS people. Unfortunately, the book comes across as being the only legitimate way to evangelize the Mormon people. Yet we have seen many Latter-day Saints who, after being confronted with the errors of Mormonism, become Christians because someone who barely knew them took the time and effort to share the Truth in love. Different people and different circumstances sometimes dictate different methods of sharing God’s love with the lost.