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For week ended November 28, 1999 Posted 24 Feb 2001

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'A Pecular People'

Summarized by Kent Larsen

'A Pecular People'
Los Angeles Times 28Nov99 A4
By Kenneth Anderson

While legal scholar Kenneth Anderson's article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times purports to review Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling's book "Mormon America," it ends up as more of a personal reaction to LDS teachings and the LDS Church, but in doing so, Anderson gives a intellectual and thought-provoking description of the state of the LDS Church and the challenges that intellectuals in the Church face.

Anderson, who says he is a 'lapsed, inactive Mormon' who was raised in the LDS Church and served a two-year mission, says that the Ostlings have done a commendable job avoiding the two extremes of books about Mormonism, those that emphasize the lurid and scandalous and those that emphasize the goodness of its adherents. He says that the Ostlings have succeeded in their aim to produce a "candid but non-polemical overview written for non-Mormons and Mormons alike, focusing on what is distinctive and culturally significant about this growing American movement."

Anderson then says that the theological claims of Mormonism are no more extraordinary or perposterous than those of other Churches. It is no more surprising that Joseph Smith would have a vision than that the Virgin Mary would appear to catholic school children in Portugal. Where Mormonism is different, says Anderson, is that its claims are so tied to historical facts, the Book of Mormon purports to be a historical record of what actually occurred in the Americas.

This connection to history, says Anderson, makes history its most threatening subject. And keeps Mormons from the defense used by other religions, i.e., retreating into an un-provable mysticism. This is made more difficult by the fact that Mormonism's theology is practical. Even when speaking about theology, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young used practical, common-sense language, instead of the mystical retoric used in previous religious movements.

But, Anderson observes, the LDS Church does have the ability to change in a way that other religions do not, because it relies on living prophets. Unfortunately, this ability also leaves it open to history, because the statements of past prophets, because of their retoric, can easily contradict the teachings of a living prophet.

Anderson says that the Ostling's book clearly describes these conflicts, and describes the dissenters that resulted from the Church's changes, Mormon fundamentalists, polygamists and others seeking to keep older teachings that living prophets have discontinued and intellectuals, who are seeking to make further and faster changes in the Church. To its credit, says Anderson, Mormon intellectuals have generally stayed with the Church, In fact, he says, "it is an indication of the growing intellectual and moral confidence of Mormonism that its intellectuals do not simply drift away . . . rather than remaining to dissent."

But Anderson doesn't say that these groups will themselves change the Church. Instead, he says that Mormons will remain what they have always been, "a peculiar people."

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information