Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Mormon trio on the Mormon moment

Jana Reiss converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints as an adult, has written a lot about it and would generally be considered fairly knowledgeable about the faith.

But she said she was brought up short after addressing a group of Protestants who asked her about the "white horse prophecy." This is something attributed to Mormon founder Joseph Smith about his followers who would come from the Rocky Mountains on a white horse to save the U.S. Constitution as it hung by a thread. Whether Smith ever said it is in doubt, but it has gone into circulation around the prospect of Mitt Romney being the first Mormon president of the U.S.

That's one example from a panel of Mormons today talking about how their faith has gotten a lot more attention in the past few years, whether because of the Romney campaign or the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.

There has been a lot of interest in what is unusual or exotic about the faith, said Terryl Givens, a Mormon scholar at the University of Virginia. "So the Mormon sense of self has been challenged," he told folks attending the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Bethesda, Md.

Darius Gray, an author and film producer, said that in the past when controversy around his faith arose, the leaders would run for cover or issue inflammatory responses. Now they are telling their story in very human terms, which he appreciates.

Yet Mormons still deal with accusations that they are not truly Christians, even though the name of their faith is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Givens said Mormons are "bewildered" by the claim that they are not Christians. He said the evangelical Christians have a theology derived from Christians of centuries past and are not willing to consider other understandings of how one follows Jesus.

That prompted Reiss to say that for her, it's been "a very painful year to be a Mormon."

She told of watching the Republican convention on the night a series of Mormon speakers talked about the way Mitt Romney had lived out his faith, using easily accessible language instead of insider talk. "I had a sense of Mormons being welcomed in the public square," she said.

The next day, she received word from the Academy of Christian Editors that her invitation for membership was being rescinded because she was a Mormon - a notification that hurt her deeply.

Gray, who is an African American, noted that he is about to celebrate his 48th year as a Latter-Day Saint and talked about the change in attitudes in the church that once barred blacks from the priesthood. He helped tell those stories in a movie called Nobody Knows: The Untold Stories of Black Mormons.

Gray said that overall, he was pleased with the greater understanding of the Mormon faith and of Mormons that he senses is occurring. "The Latter-Day Saints aren't as weird as some may have thought," he said with a chuckle.

But it was Givens, who has a new book coming out on Monday on Mormon beliefs, got into the heart of Mormon theology by outlining what he described as the five core beliefs:

  • Humans have a heavenly father whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts,
  • Humans pre-existed as spirit beings, 
  • Mortality is not a catastrophic fall but an ascent to greater godliness,
  • God has capacity and desire to save entire human family
  • Heaven will see the preservation of relationships most valued on earth (a reference to eternal marriage).

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