There are several questions I like to ask the missionaries when they come calling, not necessarily because I think they will break through the unassailable logic of the fundamentalist mindset but simply because I am interested in seeing how much (and to what depth) they understand their own doctrine (and its evolution), and how much they know about the prophets of their church (particularly Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; though I’m resigned to the fact that it’s a rare missionary who knows anything about Mormonism after Young).
Whenever I speak to missionaries for the first time, one of the first things they try to tell me is that their church has a prophet of God. So naturally I have to ask something to the effect of:
- What is a specific doctrine or teaching from God that the current Prophet has spoken that you liked?
The only answer I get is some variation of how everything the Prophet says is inspiring in general. Apparently the days are long gone when the LDS Prophet received profound insights from God. Now it sounds like the LDS Prophet is no different from a regular pastor/motivational speaker.
The missionaries tell me that the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles guide the church and are given revelation from God, yet it seems like the past LDS Prophets and Apostles are simply thrown under the bus because they taught things that are regularly rejected by the contemporary church leadership and laity. So in that spirit I like to ask this question:
- How do you tell that what a Prophet says is truly revelation from God and not just his own personal opinions? For instance, Brigham Young taught the Adam-God doctrine -that Adam was God- and he declared it as having been revealed to him by God, yet it was later rejected by the Church.
Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine is my favorite example of this, though many of the things that the past LDS Prophets and Apostles get thrown under the bus for could be argued to be relatively trivial (such as the belief that the hill Cumorah is in New York). Yet the point remains: seemingly nothing the LDS Prophets and Apostles say can really be trustworthy. What they teach today may very well be tomorrow’s heresy (or at least toilet paper).
By the way, only one missionary I’ve encountered had any idea of what I was talking about when I brought up Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching, though he was actually a returned missionary that the missionaries had brought along to answer some of my “tough questions” (and his answer was essentially, “well not everything the Prophets say is revelation,” which of course neglects the fact that Brigham Young said it was revelation). Other than that returned missionary, I don’t think I’ve ever had a missionary know what the hell I’m talking about. [For the interested reader see this link for some of what Brigham Young said concerning Adam-God]
This isn’t uncommon as there are many other issues which the missionaries never know what I am talking about, e.g. the Kinderhook Plate fiasco, the problem of deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young’s teaching of Blood Atonement.
Another question that I like to ask is:
- So which apologetic theory do you subscribe to in order to explain how the Book of Abraham was translated from some Egyptian papyri that were not a document written by Abraham as Joseph Smith claimed, but are rather run-of-the-mill ancient Egyptian funerary documents?
Surprisingly, there was actually one missionary who knew what I was talking about. He held to the “well we don’t have all the papyri and so the Book of Abraham came from those missing papyri” apologetic. Though he had no answer to the follow up question of, “So how do you explain that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the three vignettes from the papyri that he included in the Book of Abraham are demonstrably incorrect?”
On a related note, the LDS Church recently released an essay (found here) on the historicity and translation of the Book of Abraham. Interestingly, it gives the thumbs up for the idea that Joseph Smith was not actually translating the Egyptian papryi but that they served as a “catalyst.” In the words of the essay: “[The papyri] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.”
Ultimately, while I enjoy talking with Mormon missionaries (and they are always very polite chaps and much more personable than the Jehovah Witnesses), it’s pretty much impossible to have a real discussion about their religion with them (such as discussing its difficulties, contradictions, evolution, and so forth). This is simply due to their lack of knowledge. But what they lack in knowledge they do make up for in their earnestness to bear their testimony about how they know the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church is true. Their bearing of their testimony is also a common response to questions they don’t know how to answer, although the last missionary pair that I met with (a few weeks ago) just up and left when it became evident that I wasn’t going to be an easy convert and knew more about their church history than they did (they said that they had an appointment to get to. Yeah, right).
Of course, it goes without saying that not all Mormons are fundamentalists. Not by a long shot. From my talks with Mormons in real life and from reading a copious amount of literature (both in print and online), it is manifestly evident that Mormonism is just like any other religious tradition in that its adherents occupy a vast range of perspectives, from the uber-conservative fundamentalist to the disagree-with-standard-Mormon-doctrine-on-everything liberal. But why, O why, do all the missionaries that come to my door have to be of the fundamentalist variety who have no depth of knowledge of their own religion!