The Big Deal

CJ had a question meaty enough to prompt a whole new series of thoughts on my last post:

My ultimate question is, why does the literal truth of history seem to matter so much more to Mormons than to other Christians? Belief in Christianity, as a whole, doesn’t hinge (for most Christians, anyway) on, say, the literal truth about whether Noah built the Ark. Although obviously, for some, it does–but outside of Mormonism, we generally recognize them as, well, a fringe element. Within Mormonism, this absolutism seems to be mainstream. Why?

I think I’ve been able to pinpoint what the big deal is. Here’s how it works in mainstream Christianity:

Belief that Jesus died for humanity’s sins = Salvation

That’s it. There are a few minor details in some sects, such as requiring baptism, but most Christian faiths recognise the Christian baptisms of other sects as valid because really all that matters is faith in Jesus. There can be downsides such as people who are “saved” and also real arseholes, or the stupidly unfair idea that unbaptised babies and people who were never introduced to Christianity go to Hell. (Mormonism is a lot more fair by writing in a bonus round for people in this category.)

Mormonism is a little different:

Belief or non-belief in Christ = Basic Telestial Salvation. Payment (cash and labor) for premium access = Terrestrial or Celestial Salvation and/or Exaltation

It’s a bit more complicated, but one plus is that it’s a lot harder to qualify for Hell than in mainstream Christianity. Really hard, in fact. Mormons believe that the Atonement of Christ covers every human being who isn’t a Son of Perdition. That definition is roughly someone who has a full understanding of God’s plan through the priesthood. (That makes a pretty good case for the idea that there will be no women in Mormon Hell.) Every qualifying human being, from Hitler to Mother Theresa, will be resurrected and at least qualified for the Telestial Kingdom. Though I don’t believe in Mormonism any more, this does make sense to me. I cannot actually conceive of any person, not even a genocidal megalomaniac, whose actions deserve to be punished for all eternity. If people are immortal, there has to be a point where bygones are bygones. Humans are far too stupid to have the consequences for their actions as serious as forever.

So whereas in mainstream Christianity faith in Christ = the same salvation for all believers, in Mormonism the Atonement is akin to gaining admission to a nice dance club. Everyone gets inside and is guaranteed to have a very nice time. However, there are VIP lounges in this massive dance club on two higher levels for those with premium access memberships. There is only one place where you can purchase memberships, and you had to know about it before you got into the club. (If you missed your second chance at the Spirit Prison Information Booth on your way in, tough. You’ll have to enjoy the main dance floor.) Super Elite members flash their Calling and Election Made Sure card and get to go to the über VIP Lounge, where they are taught how to build their own dance clubs on real estate given to them by the club owner. Those in the VIP lounges can descend to party with those with Basic Salvation Access, but the bottom-dwellers can’t get past the bouncers at the stairs because they didn’t pay for a premium membership and don’t know the secret handshakes.

In mainstream Christianity, almost everything is background information — Noah’s Ark, the conquest of Canaan, the Ten Plagues, all of Paul’s epistles — all you have to know is that God loves humanity, Jesus died for humanity’s sins, and if you profess your belief in those things you get into Heaven. Mainstream Christianity is contingent on no fallible, mortal man. So if bits and pieces of the Bible aren’t literal history, it doesn’t matter.

Not so with Mormonism. Joseph Smith was the one who established the rituals necessary for Salvation Plus. He’s the originator and therefore the key. His credibility is vitally important to LDS Church claims regarding the Book of Mormon and temple rituals. If Joseph Smith wasn’t telling the truth, and the historical claims of Mormonism are false, this means lots of Mormons are paying 10% of their income and forty hours a week for access to a VIP lounge that doesn’t exist. They could have been having coffee and pastries after an easygoing one hour meeting per week at a nice Lutheran church and gotten precisely the same deal as every other Christian. If Joseph Smith is lying, then Mormons are wasting a lot of time and energy on what Christians would call the blasphemous notion that God would create something as elitist as VIP lounges in Heaven. Mormon heaven is a capitalist meritocracy. Christian heaven is a bit more socialist.

The doctrinal correctness of polygamy as established by Joseph Smith matters because he did all of the following:

Joseph Smith did all of those things. If he wasn’t being commanded by God, then that makes him a pretty unreliable messenger in terms of a spiritual and religious guide. If he could lie and rape (statutory rape is rape), how can we believe what he said about the Book of Mormon? Someone who did these things today would not be respected as a religious leader; they would be in prison for bigamy and statutory rape. Think of Roman Polanski; an older, charismatic leader tells a young teen that if she grants him sexual favours she’ll be rewarded beyond her wildest expectations. Unless polygamy was ordered by God, Joseph Smith was no different than Polanski. Considering that polygamy was what landed him in Carthage Jail, it would seem that the citizens of Illinois in the 1840’s felt the same.

This is why Mormons spend more time publicly affirming that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and the Book of Mormon is true than they spend on showing gratitude to Jesus. That’s why, unlike Christians, they must defend the historical accuracy of their sacred books — all of them — and pay for access to exclusive information that gains them access to exclusive clubs. If Joseph Smith made it up, that’s quite a rip-off.

3 thoughts on “The Big Deal

  1. oh, good article, must respond!

    *reads on*

    Hmm…I didn’t anticipate the question that CJ actually asked, and I don’t agree a whole lot with the answer. (To explain, I would’ve expected her [sudden realization: I utterly have no idea about CJ’s gender…] to ask something like, “Why does the literal truth or history matter so much to *ex-Mormons*?” After all, many members who STAY (even after confronting things like history/archeology) do so because the literal truth or history, or the common expectations about literal truth or history, are easily discarded.

    But, if we go w/ the question that actually was asked…

    I think the issue is that there is a perception that we are comparing unlike things. The Old Testament is not perceived as being a history, and the value of the Old Testament is not normally primarily valued from its assumed historical nature.

    But you better believe that most Christians would view the NT in a literal, historical sense. The Christians who view the Crucifixion as allegorical, for example, are NOT the majority.

    So, the issue is: is the BoM more like the OT or the NT? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s so farfetched for Mormons to believe it’s like the NT. In fact, when people (member or otherwise) try to make the BoM feel like any other piece of ancient literature (like the OT), it sounds off. (see Jonathan Green’s posts at Times and Seasons about a post-columbian setting for the BoM and looking for historicity in all the wrong places.)

    In the same way the Crucifixion itself is the cornerstone for any series Christian, and so must be a literal, historical event…the Crucifixion AND Christ’s reappearance to the Americas should be for Mormons.

  2. “So, the issue is: is the BoM more like the OT or the NT?”

    I think that the comparison could be made as follows — Joseph Smith is to Mormonism what the Atonement is to Mainstream Christianity. For your comparison, the Book of Mormon is more like the New Testament because it’s more essential to the basic truth claims of the religion. Compared to Jesus, Joseph Smith is at a serious disadvantage because he’s mortal as opposed to divine and lived only 150 years ago, making it easier to document the validity of his claims.

  3. Pingback: Is there a way out? « Molly Muses . . .

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