Sunday, July 29, 2007

Taylor vs. Cowan

A brief comparison between two non-Mormon books on Mormonism.

Tale of Two Cities: Mormons vs. Catholics by Rev. William Taylor. Second Edition. Little Re Hen, Inc.: 1980. 107 pages. $10.50. ISBN-10: 0933046022, ISBN-13: 978-0933046023.

Mormon Claims Answered by Marvin W. Cowan. Second Revised Edition. Utah Christian Publications (Salt Lake City): 1997. 120 pages. (Read it on-line here.)

It is a risky, even a foolish thing, to begin looking into a religion by seeing what its critics say about it. Since virtually everything I know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints comes from non-Mormon sources, I will need to severely limit my comments on that religion and instead try, with my limited knowledge, to make something resembling intelligent comments on two books by critics of Mormonism, which I have recently read.

Both of these books, it's safe to say, have certain positive aspects and certain shortcomings. These two books are written from two different perspectives, and those perspectives lend certain strengths and weaknesses to each.

Fr. William Taylor, Catholic priest and author of the unwisely titled A Tale of Two Cities, lays out his intentions when he writes, "I will try to state the Mormon viewpoint as honestly as possible, using Mormon sources and with apologies for any distortions. When I turn to the Catholic viewpoint, I will speak as a 'post-Vatican II,' Rocky Mountain Catholic in love with his faith" (p. 2). That's reasonably clear.

Marvin Cowan, by contrast, is more reticent about his own position; he prefers to enter the ring swinging without mentioning the place he's swinging from. With apologies to Cowan if I am incorrect, he is probably a Conservative Baptist and probably a Fundamentalist, as suggested not only by the book's contents but by his biographical blurb on the back, which indicates that, after leaving Mormonism, he obtained a master's degree from Denver Seminary, a Conservative Baptist seminary. Cowan summarizes his book's intentions thus: "The purpose of this book is not to attack, ridicule or persecute Mormons, but rather to show that LDS claims against historic Christianity are flawed. The LDS claim that they alone have the keys to salvation would mean that the LDS Church is a necessary 'mediator' between God and men and that conflicts with I Tim. 2:5 which declares that Jesus Christ is the only mediator!" (p. v).

On merely stylistic matters, Fr. Taylor is by far the superior writer. Although each book seeks in its own way to be respectful of Mormons, Cowan has a fondness for exclamation points that makes Mormon Claims Answered shrill. A Mormon reading the book might be too annoyed by the sloppy writing to be convinced by the arguments.

Cowan's book is vastly superior where it really counts, however. While Taylor is too busy trying to be respectful to make any stinging arguments, Cowan is plowing through Mormon sources and showing contradictions, radical developments in doctrine, and anachronisms in supposedly ancient texts. But Cowan's strength is also his weakness: he cites numerous sources, most of them Mormon and some of them not, but he has no bibliography. Anyone looking to verify his research would have to make a laborious trip through the book to find all the material he uses. Taylor is guilty of the same oversight, but in his case it matters less, for A Tale of Two Cities is disappointingly light on content.

The best section of A Tale of Two Cities is the second to last chapter, which explores some issues with The Book of Mormon. In particular, Taylor points out anachronisms in the texts of 1 and 2 Nephi, supposedly written around 587 B.C., including a developed concept of the Messiah, a reference to crucifixion, a developed concept of a devil, use of the word "Bible," a developed concept of the resurrection, and a Greek distinction between body and soul; Taylor also notes The Book of Mormon's preoccupation with skin color. Add the large sections cribbed from the King James Bible, the imitative style, the use of the word Christian in a pre-Christian context, and the claims about Lost Tribes of Israel in the New World, and The Book of Mormon has all the earmarks of a work composed in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is the only solid refutation of Mormonism Taylor attempts.

One thing Taylor misses is that Smith, in writing The Book of Mormon, did not have Mesoamerica in mind. Smith's ancient American civilizations were North American; specifically, they were the "Mound Builders," who others of Smith's time identified with Lost Tribes of Israel. Identification of these Lost Tribes with Mesoamerica has only happened since archaeology has failed to locate North American cities of the sort Smith describes, but Taylor assumes the modern Mormon identification with Mesoamerica is Smith's original intention.

On the whole, A Tale of Two Cities is not a particularly useful book, and it may even be misleading. Taylor seeks to give a good representation of Mormonism (a laudable goal), but fails to give an adequate representation of Catholicism. Through most of the chapters, Fr. Taylor attempts to explain that Mormons have definite answers to most serious doctrinal issues whereas Catholics have "mystery." In the final chapter, he states this: "In Mormonism and modern Catholicism, we have two explanations of man's deepest truths. I have chosen the word "explanation" because I think there is real freedom in abandoning the apples-vs.-oranges question: 'Which church is right?' in favor of a new question: 'Which religious explanation do I want to live?'" (p. 99).

So Taylor ends his book by insulting his reader's intelligence. I feel like Harry Potter: here I am seeking truth while those around me are telling me to choose what to believe. And here's a fact: Taylor's first sentence I quoted in the last paragraph is gibberish. Mormonism and Catholicism are not "two explanations of man's deepest truths" (whatever those are), but two mutually exclusive truth claims, at least one of which must be false. It does not matter which one you would prefer to live under; to live a false truth claim is to live a lie. Taylor is wasting paper giving "real freedom" when he should be defending his beliefs as the only correct ones or else seeking correct beliefs if he finds his own are inadequate. Here's Jesus on the subject of "real freedom": "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8.32). I see nothing there about choosing what you'd prefer to believe. Add to that Taylor's implicit denial of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (or at least downplaying of it) and his suggestion that women can be priests and A Tale of Two Cities does indeed leave us with an important question: How did this book get an imprimatur?

Throwing that aside, let's spend a little time with Cowan. Cowan obviously comes from a perspective I disagree with, but he has his head screwed on straight. I cannot verify most of his charges against Mormonism (and it would take years of reading before I could), but assuming his presentation is accurate, his dismantling of the LDS religion is reasonably thorough. His book does suffer a few serious problems, however, most of which Mormons could probably point out.

Cowan appears blissfully unaware of a little historical event called "the Reformation." More than once, he tries to set Mormonism at odds with what he calls "historic Christianity," though he never explains what he means by historic. In particular, he rejects the Mormon claim that the Christian Church underwent a complete and utter apostasy soon after its formation (pp. 75-77); Cowan is apparently unaware that Protestantism has a similar doctrine, without which the Reformation would make little sense. Different Protestants date the occurrence of this apostasy to different times: in the famous Halley's Bible Handbook, a great apostasy is associated with the legalization and acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, whereas in his book Faith Alone, for reasons he doesn't explain, R. C. Sproul chooses the High Middle Ages as the time when "the light of the Gospel went out." Whenever it is placed, a universal apostasy is necessary to Protestantism, so Cowan's denial of it is strange.

At any rate, Cowan's religious myopia mortally wounds his book. He presents historic Christianity as universally agreed on certain doctrines on which Christians are simply not agreed. In particular, he presents the Baptist view of baptism as one held by everybody and sets it against the Mormon view, which, ironically, is much closer to the historic viewpoint than Cowan's own:

Christians do not always agree on the details of water baptism, but they do agree that 'by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body' (I Cor. 12:13). That is the 'one baptism' mentioned in Eph. 4:5 without which water baptism has no meaning. That baptism is the spiritual birth experienced by every believer the moment he trusts Christ (Rom. 8:9). [p. 94]

This separation of water baptism and spiritual baptism is certainly not one on which Christians are agreed, and it has no biblical precedent. Catholics and many Protestants hold baptism to be water baptism. To make his point, Cowan distorts some scriptural passages: for example, he says, "Peter declared in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism is a figure, or symbol" (p. 93). Here is the actual text of 1 Peter 3.21 (AV): "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." In case that's unclear, here it is in the NRSV: "And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience." The figure refers to the preceding verse 20, which describes Noah and his family being saved through water in the ark; so the figure of the passage is Noah's Flood, whereas baptism is the actual thing the Flood prefigures. If Cowan has this much trouble understanding his Bible, I wonder how well he understands his Book of Mormon.

On the whole, Cowan's book is a good try. Assuming he usually reads his sources correctly and gives his information accurately, he succeeds at thoroughly critiquing Mormonism, though he is hindered by his own religious stance, his occasional confused reading, and his slovenly presentation. If he really wishes to direct Mormons away from the LDS church and into the Conservative Baptist communion or another Evangelical organization, he must wage his war on two fronts: rather than show that Mormonism is wrong and "historic Christianity" is right, he must show that both Mormonism and historic Christianity are wrong and only modern Evangelicalism is right, a task far more difficult. But Cowan at least has the right idea about how to engage in religious polemics. Taylor could learn from him.

I fear Mormons would be unconvinced by either of these books. Mormonism gives definite answers, for which Taylor offers the poor substitute of theological vagueness. Cowan recognizes that matters of absolute truth are on the line, but he presents an historic Christianity that is anything but historic. As I learn more about Mormonism, I come increasingly to the impression that the aftermath of the Reformation drove Joseph Smith to create his religion in the first place, seeking to build a final, true, authoritative church that would at last end the confusion of the multitudinous Christian sects, all of which claim to be the most correct representation of the Church Christ founded. Fr. Taylor, you've imbibed too much relativism and pluralism to help him or those like him. And Cowan, you are a Protestant: it is your spiritual forefathers who made this mess in the first place, so how are you going to clean it up?
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