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
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."