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Book Review: Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints

By: J Stuart - January 31, 2014

Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints. By Stephen H. Webb. Oxford University Press, 2013. 203 pages (with appendices). $27.95

Stephen Webb, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian, attempts to introduce non-Mormons to Mormon metaphysics and theology with a “rosy” outlook onto his subject (42). Although Mormon Christianity is published by Oxford University Press, its tone and Webb’s frank admission that he is a practicing Catholic may help Mormon Christianity to gain wide distribution from Christian bookstores, as well as Deseret Book (the LDS Church owned bookstore-which does carry the book). Webb’s means of understanding Mormonism are derived from his argument that Mormonism is a positive, Christian amalgamation of Catholicism and Protestantism. He employs each religious tradition to explain Mormonism to a non-specialized audience (15).

Webb addresses Mormon metaphysics from the vantage point of a question: “What if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today? (9)” Webb cogently addresses and gives an intellectually open examination of the Mormon belief in an embodied God, and perhaps too cautiously, discusses Mormonism’s philosophical and theological rationale for an embodied God (see his last book on heavenly flesh theology). Webb also suggests the possibility of using Neo-Platonism to understand Mormonism (66). Joseph Smith’s dalliances with folk magic are explained by what may be termed Smith’s “Magic World View,” and Smith’s love of the Old Testament, down to his use of a “Urim and Thummim” to translate the Book of Mormon (65). Webb argues, along with Richard Bushman, that “Smith’s roots in magic [have] little to do with his mature theology” and that Smith’s magical roots were not employed for secular gain, but rather for sacred purposes (68). Webb also brilliantly, if somewhat incompletely, tells the stories of Mormon “Theo-democracy” and polygamy through the life stories of Brigham Young and Parley Pratt, and how their religious energy and life experiences contributed to their absolutist worldviews and how their experiences and personalities are observed in Mormonism.

Webb addresses whether Mormons are Christian–and tells his readers that he believes Mormons are Christian. This pronouncement will be received well in LDS communities— but his explanation that Mormons are Christian because of their (and the Book of Mormon’s) utter “obsession” with Christ and self-identification as Christians may not be entirely satisfactory to non-Mormons (118). Still, Webb’s openness to categorize Mormons as a branch of Christianity is worth noting—it’s an important pronouncement in Mormon/Christian relations. Webb’s keen insight that Mormonism is uniquely geared to change, due to the belief in modern revelation, will significantly help non-Mormons understand the fluid nature of Mormon culture and canon—and may help to explain the importance of Mormonism’s  prophetic office and the role of revelation in Mormonism.

Webb switches between philosophy and theology to explain Mormonism, using each subject’s strengths to elucidate understanding from non-Mormon readers. Webb addresses readers unfamiliar with Mormonism as a fellow Christian, rather than in a more traditional, academic non-partisan tone that might be expected from a book bearing a university press’s imprint. In doing so, Webb places himself among the likes of Richard Mouw, Craig Blomberg, Robert Millett, David Paulsen, and Stephen E. Robinson, Mormons and non-Mormons who attempt to understand each other’s religious traditions through open discussion and conversation, rather than through religious studies or similar methodologies. Webb’s generous tone and easy to understand rhetoric ensure that Mormon Christianity will be accessible to both Mormons and Christians—he represents some of the very best of the Robert Millett/Richard Mouw type of Mormon/Christian dialogue in printed word.

Mormon Christianity has many strengths, but like all books, it is not perfect. Webb somewhat puzzlingly employs Orson Pratt’s theological excursions to explain Mormon metaphysics, although admitting that Mormons never grasped, much less used, Pratt’s theological musings (99). Webb also finds plenty of time to address Calvinists, (this has been addressed elsewhere by John Turner) spending a considerable portion of his final chapter chastising Mouw and other Calvinists for being theologically closed (57, 152, 174-182). These characterizations strike the reader as a bit odd, since Webb is writing on Mormonism rather than Calvinism. This overarching theme opens the possibility that Webb is using Mormonism to start conversations within Catholicism and Protestantism rather than with Mormonism.  Lastly, the tone and style do not match what I expected from a book with a UP insignia—Webb’s prose is warm (this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself!), but its informality and the lack of an impartial voice may leave a reader wondering why a book was not published by a trade press. Webb effusively praises Mormonism for its expansive views, theological imagination, and cultural accomplishments, but he refrains from critiquing Mormonism too harshly.

It is also curious that Webb blunts Mormonism’s peculiarity by providing context from theological, philosophical, and historical traditions to show how Mormonism is not as odd as outsiders may think Mormonism is. Webb (or OUP) seems to be openly courting Mormon readership—not that courting Mormons is problematic, but it may undermine the intent of his book (What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints). Refreshingly, he avoids what could be termed the “Chick-tract,” or polemical approach to Mormonism is avoided (proof-texting, inclusion of shocking sound-bites from Mormon leaders), but Webb is precariously close to the edge of singularly praising Mormonism without questioning many of the issues that he is explaining to Christians. Webb includes some advice for Mormons about how to stay close to their Christological focus in their metaphysics (as well as some inconsistencies in Mormon metaphysics) (199-203). Webb’s light critiques may serve the book’s subtitle: to help Christians see what they can learn from Mormonism—and leave his fellow Christians to scrutinize and critique for themselves.

All in all, Mormon Christianity is an excellent introduction to Mormon theology, and will be useful to teach undergraduates as well as lay Christians (and Mormons) about Mormon beliefs. It will only be helpful so long as an instructor is able to address questions that arise around Mormonism that aren’t fully parsed out in the book. Alongside Richard Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction,  Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life and Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith will help undergraduates and interested readers and teachers learn the culture and history of Mormonism in order to grasp and teach its essential beliefs and peculiarities—without wading through the mire of polemics, apologetics, and scholarship regarding Mormonism’s doctrines. Webb has written a very good, comfortable, safe, short book fit for consumption for Christians and Mormons alike.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Joey.

    “Webb’s openness to categorize Mormons as a branch of Christianity is worth noting—it’s an important pronouncement in Mormon/Christian relations.”

    Can you clarify whether he identifies Mormons as Christians, or Mormon as “a branch of Christianity?” It appears the latter, but I want to be sure. If so, that significant, and not just for ongoing Mormon interfaith dialogue, but also for Mormons (and historians of Mormonism) who insist that Mormonism represents not a branch of Christianity, but rather a distinct and new world religious tradition.

    Comment by Christopher — January 31, 2014 @ 9:19 am

  2. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by Saskia — January 31, 2014 @ 11:25 am

  3. Thanks, Joey. I thought the book was a valiant attempt by a keen observer to explain the Mormon faith–an incredibly difficult task, given issues like the Orson Pratt problem (is that doctrine? does it matter?) you discuss. Also, I agree that audience was a slight problem in the book.

    Comment by Ben P — January 31, 2014 @ 11:51 am

  4. I’m not by my copy of the book currently, Christopher, but I believe that he says both. He repeatedly says that Mormonism is a branch, but also goes into a discussion of “if you love Jesus, how can you deny others that love him as well?” To which a friend of mine said, “well, what if they don’t love or understand him correctly?”

    Comment by J Stuart — January 31, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

  5. Great review!

    This overarching theme opens the possibility that Webb is using Mormonism to start conversations within Catholicism and Protestantism rather than with Mormonism.

    Excellent line in this review, and the subtitle suggests he wants the book to perform that way. I agree with you that the execution is a bit uneven overall.

    You’re right to note that he spends little time critiquing Mormon theology itself. But the actual points of critique, though briefly stated and mostly in a closing appendix of sorts, are quite important and weighty themselves regardless of the space dedicated to them.

    Definitely an odd duck of a book from a University press, but one I really enjoyed reading.

    Comment by BHodges — January 31, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

  6. BHodges: Thank you! I refrained from reading your review until I had written mind, but I really enjoyed yours over at BCC. I likewise enjoyed yours.

    You are wise to mention the appendix in the back, with more academic, pointed questions about Mormon metaphysics!

    Comment by J Stuart — January 31, 2014 @ 4:38 pm