How Latter-day Saints Experience the Book of Mormon

Last summer I wrote a series of blog posts for Koinonia, a blog featuring biblical and theological conversations for the Christian community. I posted the links, but in case you did not take the time to go over to the Koinonia site, I am re-posting those articles here.

Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the keystone of the Mormon religion. It is certainly not the keystone of Mormon theology, beyond its basic portrayal of Jesus and a few other points. Most of the significant doctrines that define contemporary Mormonism are not found in the Book of Mormon – the plurality of gods, the deification of worthy men and women, the eternity of matter, the pre-existence of human souls, and so forth. But this does not render the Book of Mormon irrelevant. The book’s enduring relevance is found primarily in the place the book holds in Latter-day Saint experience. My premise is that evangelical Christians most wisely address the Book of Mormon when they understand not only how to respond to its claim to be an ancient scripture, but also when they grasp the multi-faceted relationship Latter-day Saints have to the Book of Mormon.

I approach Mormonism from two defining perspectives. The first is my experience growing up in an active Latter-day Saint home, which gives me both first-hand knowledge and empathy. The second is my training in missiology. (Long ago in seminary I studied to be a cross-cultural missionary. I see my ministry in Utah in that light.) This perspective encourages me to pay attention to two key components. One is the biblical message itself, which transcends culture and never changes. The other is the audience to which that message is addressed. We must get the gospel right and do biblical theology well. We must also understand the Mormon people well, in the context of their culture.

Thus, in our communication of the good news to Latter-day Saints (as to anyone), we must ask basic questions like: In this culture, how do these people communicate? How do they make spiritual decisions? What do you value? How do they view themselves and others? What is their epistemology? What forces shape their religious identity? And how are the answers to those questions different in LDS culture compared to my own cultural norms, and compared to biblical norms?

Latter-day Saints, like any people, hold to their beliefs and commitments for a wide variety of reasons. Many of these reasons have nothing to do with considerations of truth and falsehood, and thus do not respond merely to cognitive arguments. People follow their beliefs in response to formative cultural forces and events, and in reaction to emotional experiences. Thus effectively sharing the good news of God’s grace to Latter-day Saints involves an appeal to the emotions and to the will as well as to the mind, all in the context of their cultural understanding and response.

I affirm that evaluating LDS beliefs in light of biblical truth is vitally important. But I do not believe apologetics or comparative doctrine approaches are sufficient. Like the apostle Paul, in addressing the diverse audiences of Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and Athens, our witness must also take into account the world view and life experience of the Mormon people. To that end, my purpose in writing about the Book of Mormon is not offer another refutation of its claims. I do provide an overview of those arguments in my book, Understanding the Book of Mormon. But what I hope to contribute is some insight into how Latter-day Saints experience the Book of Mormon in their daily lives, and its formative role in shaping their understanding of the world and of themselves.

For example, in his landmark book, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scriptures that Launched a New World Religion, Terryl L. Givens identifies four ways the Book of Mormon is typically read by its various audiences (pp. 6-7):
1. As evidence of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.

“As a sacred sign, or divine testament to the last days and Joseph’s authorized role as modern day prophet and revelator.”

2. As an actual history.

“As ancient history, or a factual account of the pre-Columbian peopling of the Western hemisphere.”

3. As a 19th century writing.

“As a cultural production, the imaginative ravings of a rustic religion- maker more inspired by the winds of culture than the breath of God.”

4. As a new Scripture.

“As a new American Bible or Fifth Gospel, displacing, supporting, or perverting the canonical word of God, according to the disposition of the reader.”

Traditional Christians will typically read the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text. Some Latter-day Saints accept a 19th century provenance for the book, and thus read as a sacred sign and as scripture, but not as an ancient history. Yet most faithful Latter-day Saints read it in all three ways.

In my next post, I will address the first of five functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS religious experience.

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