Mormon elders just keep getting younger. Are they aging backwards?
These two seemed like such youthful sprites. Let's call them Elder Smith and Elder Jones. I had to ask them about their age: one was about five feet two, with blond hair and freckles perhaps. One was from Idaho Falls, the other from a town in Utah a couple hours south.
They camped outside my fence as I was washing the garbage can before dinner, and introduced themselves in the usual Mormon way.
We began with the usual dance about names. No matter how young, Mormon missionaries are trained to demand that total strangers call them "elder." I never accept this, because for a man in his 50s to call a child "elder" is self-debasing, and a debasement of the English language. I ask for their first names. (Note to self: next time, insist that they call me "Dr. Marshall." But I still won't call them "elder." :- ))
Still, they seemed like nice enough kids, and I am always friendly to Mormon missionaries. As usual, I asked questions about their schedules, their missions, and so forth, to get to know them as human beings, first.
Here are some snippets of our conversation about religion:
"So, what do you know about the Mormon Church?"
"Let's see. Begun by Joseph Smith, then Brigham Young. Started in Upper New York, moved to Illinois, then on the Utah. The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants -- you guys usually start with the Book of Mormon, not quite as, uh, extreme . . . What, twelve million followers now?"
We went over a few more basics, and they gave me a grade of 90% on my knowledge of Mormonism. But of course, I was eager to learn more:
"So here we have Joseph Smith, and behind him the Angel Moroni, and behind him God, going to all the trouble to send a new revelation to Planet Earth. I'm curious. What important new moral teaching did God give the world in the Book of Mormon? What is lacking in the teachings of Jesus, that Mormonism supplements?"
"You misunderstand. Mormonism doesn't contradict Christian morals . . ."
"But what I mean is, Jesus adds something new to what the Old Testament tells us. Look at the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. And I think Muslims would say that the Islamic community holds to a higher standard of morality than Christians, from their point of view. So what important new moral teaching did God send the world through Joseph Smith?"
"Well, there's authority. We believe that God has given authority to the Church."
"That's a dogma, not a moral teaching."
"We also believe that babies are morally innocent, that they don't need to be baptized to be forgiven of their sins."
"Baptism was quite an issue in the 19th Century -- Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists -- that was in the air at the time. There's nothing new about saying babies don't need to be baptized, lots of Christians believed that already."
Of course these were just kids. But I found their inability to tell me what moral teaching Mormonism could offer beyond Christianity interesting, because from my dippings in the Book of Mormon, I'd never noticed any innovative and worthwhile moral teachings. Young as they were, they had read their holy scripture far more than I had, and it was fascinating to hear that implicit confession from the horses' mouths.
When backed into a corner, these kids are trained to appeal to power of self-delusion:
"How do you know what is true? We believe that if someone wants to know what is true, they . . . "
"Yeah, they pray to God, and He gives them a 'burning in the bosom.' I've heard the same story from a high official in the Unification Church who sat next to me on a flight to Seoul. I heard the same thing from a follower of the guru Muktananda, who's a complete scoundrel. I've even heard it from some Christians. Seems a little subjective . . .
"So how can you know the truth?"
"I think God gave us brains, for one thing."
"So how do you figure out what is true?"
"Read the Quran and the New Testament, for one thing. You read the Quran, and you find Mohammed starting wars, raping, and telling the women in his harem that they need to accept the beautiful new girl, the wife he stole from his foster nephew. It's pretty obvious that God would not affirm that sort of morality or the person who represents it. I personally don't know how anyone can read the Quran without seeing it. . . . Then read the gospels. As Jesus said, 'By their fruits you will know them.'"
"What kind of fruits do you think Joseph Smith had?"
"Do you really want me to say?"
I looked at them, and they didn't say 'No," and seemed to expect an answer, so I went on.
"Well, to his credit he didn't go around killing a lot of innocent people like Mohammed. But when it comes to abusing women, and when it comes to telling the truth -- to be honest, I don't have a very high opinion of Joseph Smith."
They wound up asking me about my books, and I introduced "Jesus is No Myth" and some of my other writings. I honestly didn't feel like poking holes in Mormonism that day. So they listened, and I gave them an outline of my argument for the historicity of the gospels.
The two young men seemed to want to continue the conversation, though most Mormon missionaries realize by about this time that their seed was falling on stony ground. Maybe they thought a Christian historian would be a big catch. But I did have a garbage can to clean (they kindly volunteered to help, but it was a one-man job), hands to wash, and dinner to eat. So they left me with a piece of propaganda, which I took to make them feel better, and went on their ways.
I don't mind if they come back, but I will insist on their putting their religious masks off and talk to me with "their real faces," as C. S. Lewis put it, as much as their training will allow.