Book review: “The Mormon Jesus” by John G. Turner

I have to be up front: this book wasn’t what I expected it to be. I had anticipated a book mostly concerned with the Latter-Day Saint conception of/relationship with Jesus Christ. In this regard, I thought it would include some subjective elements to it, at least in the form of personal experiences, as well as some theological comparisons with different faiths surrounding the figure of Christ. And these it did have. But it was often woven into the greater narrative of the Latter-Day Saint tradition. In fact, the first chapter is mostly a quick overview of the restoration and the Book of Mormon. “But,” you might ask, “isn’t any attempt at explaining Christ in Mormonism incomplete without context?” Well, yes. You’ve got me there. But for a book that purports to describe the “Mormon Jesus”, it seems to spend most of its time on tangential topics. You get in-depth descriptions of Freemasonry, blood atonement, etc. I enjoyed these discussions too, but I felt a little disappointed at the same time.

I also felt that the author really took a scalpel to Mormon history. I understand the need of the historian to attempt to be objective. And I enjoy historical work that makes this a high priority. I like the works of Gregory Prince and Leonard Arrington. But there were some elements of the book that rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, his consistent use of the term “Mormon hierarchs” to describe leaders in the Church. It isn’t a term that our Church uses to describe our leaders, nor any other Church, and it has a noticeably negative connotation to it, that the Church is run as an authoritarian theocracy. I have my quibbles with Church leadership, but this seemed petty to me. I also blanched at his entire chapter dedicated to making clear that the Mormon Jesus is white and male, making Mormonism seem like the greatest enemy when it comes to identity politics. Take this passage:

The Mormon God is male, as is Jesus Christ, who possessed a male body before mortality. The Latter-Day Saints also believe in a Heavenly Mother, but Mormon leaders rarely speak of her and discourage Church members from praying to or worshiping her. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are the most important divine figures for Latter-Day Saints. Two white men. A white savior.

I hated this decidedly political tone he decided to take with his history. Just looking at the topics he chose to structure his narrative around seemed poised to call out negatives about Mormons’ conception of Christ rather than the positives. The Great White God is dedicated to the image of Christ in Mormonism, documenting how Christ is white and male to Mormons, and that recent efforts at emphasizing Christ in the Church is a big publicity stunt. The Great Bridegroom details how Mormons once believed Christ was a polygamist, but have since distanced themselves from such a belief. Turner details the Adam-God theory and blood atonement in all its glory in The Jehovah of the Temple. It wasn’t until the conclusion that I thought I saw I Christ I knew, when he documented Bruce R. McConkie’s moving final testimony.

Yes, he is a historian. I like history, objectivity and all. I liked the new church history Saints. I enjoyed Gregory Prince’s implied critiques of the bureaucratization of the Church in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. I liked Terryl Givens’ wrestling with complex topics in Mormonism in Wrestling with the Angel. But each of these works, while openly acknowledging our complex past, still left me feeling inspired. This work, instead, often left me feeling ashamed.

There were a lot of touchpoints throughout the book that got me excited. Turner mentions Orthodox Christianity when talking about the Mormon concept of deification. Orthodoxy, too, maintains a doctrine of theosis, that man can become divine in some sense. Turner quotes Athanasius who states He was made man that we might be made God. Turner dedicates a chapter to the early Mormon expectation, since faded, of having a personal visitation from Christ. I couldn’t help but think of Denver Snuffer’s The Second Comforter, which Turner later mentions. Whether you like Snuffer or no, I found his book on encountering Christ absolutely compelling, and I was excited to finally find someone referencing Snuffer’s work. My first mission city, Munster, was mentioned in a discussion of the Second Coming when referencing the Anabaptists who believed Munster was their Zion and New Jerusalem.

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