Saturday, 19 April 2008

We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet?

Thomas S Monson is the new president of the Mormon Church. After the death of Gordon B Hinckley on January 27th 2008, Monson’s appointment was announced on 4 February to a world overwhelmingly indifferent to all things Mormon; although the church prefers to think of us as all waiting with baited breathe. He was announced as “the new world leader of the church” on that date and more recently sustained as “prophet, seer and revelator” at the 178th Annual General Conference in April and now heads the, nominally 13 million strong church. He has issued the traditional invitation to “the less active, the offended, the critical, the transgressor” to come back and “feast at the table of the Lord and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.”

The response has been the traditional stampede of indifference as people who have once walked in the light of the Son prove reluctant to return to the shadows of Mormonism, while those with grievances, from liberal-minded progressives to frustrated fundamentalists, along with a large number of the cold and indifferent see nothing to attract them back to a religion that epitomises conservatism, and micro-management.

Thomas S Monson has the distinction of being the first Mormon president to have been born after the war – the First World War that is. The Mormon Church has the distinction of being probably the best established gerontocracy in the world, making even the leadership of China look increasingly youthful by comparison. The previous five presidents were all born within 20 years of each other, before or around the turn of the twentieth century, from Harold B Lee (b.1899) through Spencer W Kimball (b.1895); Ezra Taft Benson (b.1899); Howard W Hunter (b.1907) and Gordon B Hinckley (b.1910).

This last president, Gordon B Hinckley, was the man who, in his dotage, guided the Mormon Church into the 21st century, but he is only following in the footsteps of the man who effectively guided the Mormons into the 20th century, Joseph F Smith (b.1838). If you have ever wondered why those nice young missionaries seem so steady, carrying themselves as though they enjoyed wisdom beyond their years (which of course they really don’t have) you need only look to the leaders they strive to emulate. That is not gravitas they are copying, its arthritis and the cautious gait of old age.

So what sort of leader will the new man be? One word that has been used a lot to describe him is ‘folksy’. He is said to have a speaking style that favours anecdotes and down-home story-telling that has a lesson for life. A look at his inaugural “First Presidency Message” as president in the April Ensign magazine gives a good flavour of the man. Under the heading “Treasures of Eternal Value” he offers us an insight into what he calls a “three part treasure map to guide you to your eternal happiness”. In a rambling and “folksy” message he takes us from the radio programme he used to listen to as a boy – Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (those were the days), through a “romantic and fanciful ballad from years ago”, his naval training towards the end of the Second World War and the Christmas cards he and his wife exchanged for fifty five years with their good friends Bob and Grace.

The proverbs are there in abundance: “Fear is the enemy of progress”; “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal”; “you pile up enough tomorrows, and you will find you’ve collected a lot of empty yesterdays” (this from The Music Man); “never put off ‘till tomorrow what you can do today”; “the bitterest tears shed over graves are the words left unsaid and the deeds left undone”. Yes, the proverbs are there and he cites sources as varied as the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man, R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a 1930’s radio drama, a popular ballad by Buddy DeSylva (who wrote for Al Johnson), and the (19th c.) author Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as personal anecdotes.

He mentions Jesus twice, cites the Bible once and says nothing, absolutely nothing about the Christian gospel. Nothing about the purposes of God in Christ; nothing about the inherent sinfulness of man; nothing about the effectual nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; nothing about the need for us to turn to God for mercy; nothing about grace; nothing about the sure hope of the gospel and nothing about the sure promises of God to those who love him. His three pieces of the map to guide you to your eternal happiness are:

1. Learn from the past
2. Prepare for the future
3. Live in the present

It is a self-help message of which Samuel Smiles, Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale would have been proud. I have a similar message on my study wall on a “precious” poster my wife gave me years ago. It reminds me:

1. Learn from yesterday
2. Live for today
3. Look to tomorrow
4. Rest this afternoon

I prefer the Snoopy version. I don’t think we can look to this man for any substantial doctrine, prophetic outlook or insightful teaching, indeed I think The Gospel According to Snoopy will probably prove more challenging.


Too cool blog said...

I thought your readers should understand a little more context about the article you are referring to. This article is not new, but rather a reprint of the message he shared with the Church during the 173rd Annual General Conference on April 2003.

There are hundreds of other addresses and articles President Monson has prepared which focus on the Savior of the world. The following quote is from a message President Monson shared with the world during the General Conference which took place in April of 2008:

"I know without question, my brothers and sisters, that God lives. I testify to you that this is His work. I testify as well that our Savior Jesus Christ is at the head of this Church, which bears His name. I know that the sweetest experience in all this life is to feel His promptings as He directs us in the furtherance of His work. I felt those promptings as a young bishop, guided to the homes where there was spiritual—or perhaps temporal—want. I felt them again as a mission president in Toronto, Canada, working with wonderful missionaries who were a living witness and testimony to the world that this work is divine and that we are led by a prophet. I have felt them throughout my service in the Twelve and in the First Presidency and now as President of the Church. I testify that each one of us can feel the Lord’s inspiration as we live worthily and strive to serve Him.",5232,23-1-851-29,00.html



Mike's 4 Tea said...


Thanks for calling by. Timing is so important, don't you think? That and substance. I know that Mormon prophets occassionally give an acknowledging nod to the Saviour of the world. After all, he is "part" of the Mormon plan. However, self-help is the Mormon creed and Monson wasted no time in hanging out his shingle as the champion of "can-do" philosophy.

I read his Conference address and, yes, he does use the words you have shared. However, his message is still one of reaching our potential, passing the test, using the tools we are given to carve out a place for ourselves in God's plan and that, George, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Ro.3:21-26).

There was nothing in the address that you reference about the purposes of God in the Cross of Calvary; of the futility of man's efforts to fight sin; of the wonderful news that God has stepped in and paid the price for sin through his Son. Nothing about repentance and the sure hope of the gospel; the new life that can be had in Christ and him alone. These are biblical themes, indeed they constitute THE themes of the Christian message. What better time to share them than now, when so many eyes are on him?

But, of course, he doesn't subscribe to them, preferring traditional self-help Mormonism (Acts 16:30)

Too cool blog said...

And you believe there is a problem in encouraging people to not only believe in Jesus Christ but also believe him? To teach people to live the way Jesus taught us to live? To teach us to follow his example? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that moves a true convert to action.
Here you have chosen to take a couple of messages and characterize the prophet's life and teachings by them.

President Monson's entire body of work is a testament of his belief in Jesus Christ. No, we don't believe he is infallible. He is a man called of God, as Moses and Abraham were. Yes, his teaching style is one that uses stories and other analogies. When Jesus taught this way, we called them parables.

Of course you criticize anyone who preaches James' message, yet it's perfectly fine to preach Paul's message to the Romans. Maybe you pick and choose the doctrine you wish to preach, but it is important to teach all truth. Indeed even Paul (Romans 2:13) alludes to the need to not only hear but to do also. The thing that I find humorous is watching the anti-Mormon Christians criticize member of the LDS Church for teaching and living the principles of faith AND works, while they, as good Christians should, also PRACTICE both faith and works. Of course I don't find any fault in living this true principle, just in the hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another.


Mike's 4 Tea said...

The problem George is not whether Christians teach obedience - we clearly do. You find humour in the Christian insistence on a gospel of grace on the basis that the Bible clearly teaches works. Well of course it does!

The problem is in the fact that, while Christians are perfectly able to reconcile James and Paul, believing in a gospel of grace while living a life of works, Mormons appear to see conflict between the two, constantly and quite incorrectly pressing James into service to preach a gospel of grace and works.

The plain fact is that the gospel is a gospel of grace and "the just shall live by faith" (Ro.1:17) but the Christian life is a life of obedience and salvation by grace is no excuse to live as you please (Ro.6:14-18).

There is nothing wrong with teaching obedience but there is fundamental error in teaching obedience as part of a formula for salvation. Jesus is not simply our example to follow; he is our Saviour to trust.

It seems so right to the unregenerate man to follow a "can do" religion but the truth is that Christianity is a "can't do" religion; that is why you need a Saviour. I recall president Hinckley saying often, "We help bad men to be good and good men to be better". That is not the gospel but that is the message that Monson has picked up and taken forward.

Jesus didn't come to set an example, to teach us how to be better people, to make bad men good and good men better. There are no good men and bad men are dead men; dead in their sins. Jesus came to make dead men live and it is in that new life, achieved by God's grace and appropriated by faith, that Christians live lives of service and obedience.

If you don't have the gift of new life you can talk all day about principles and works but if you don't have God's free gift of new life in Jesus you are trusting yourself and not Jesus. That is the message of Monson however, can do Mormonism.