The debate between Mormons and Evangelical Christians has long been rancorous, fraught with conflict and mutual recriminations. And for good reason.

Mormons believe that historic Christianity lost hold of Christ's truths soon after the death of Jesus' apostles. Joseph Smith established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, claiming it was a restoration of pure Christianity and that all Christian creeds were "an abomination."

Some evangelicals have painted Smith as a con man and described the church he founded as little more than a cult, not even worthy of being called "Christian."

In recent years, there have been a few attempts at a kinder, gentler approach to interfaith dialogue between the two faiths.

Now comes a new book that purports to continue that civil dialogue -- The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, published by Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But already Mormon critics are saying it only exacerbates the antagonism.

The book was edited by three evangelical scholars--Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen--and critiques LDS doctrines on God, Jesus, creation, the nature of the physical universe, the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

It will be the subject of a two-day conference Jan. 18-19 in Salt Lake City, co-sponsored by Salt Lake Seminary, a non-denominational Christian theological school, and "Standing Together," a group founded by the Rev. Greg Johnson of Salt Lake City to unite evangelicals in their approach to Mormonism.

Johnson has tried to persuade his colleagues that "interacting with our Mormon friends is a good thing to do. We don't have to resort to polemics and confrontations."

Johnson will join Stephen Robinson, a Brigham Young University religion professor, and Robert Millet, former dean of BYU's religion department, on a national speaking tour called "An Evangelical and Mormon in Conversation."

The tour is an outgrowth of a book Robinson co-authored in 1997 with Craig Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, called How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation.

The new book attempts to carry on that conversation. In the past, exchanges between evangelicals and Mormons amounted to little more than "trading insults," the book's editors write.

In recent years, Mormon scholars have developed more sophisticated defenses of the LDS faith, drawing on a variety of fields--philosophy, ancient languages and biblical studies.

But many eEvangelical critics of Mormonism continue to harp on issues such as blood atonement and polygamy--beliefs and practices that are no longer taught by the LDS Church. These critics, they write, treat Mormon thought as monolithic, rather than multi-layered.

Some evangelicals continue to operate in a "God Makers" mode, using the caricature and simplistic reasoning employed in the anti-Mormon films. Such tactics will no longer work, they write.

"Successful Christian missionaries to the Latter-day Saint will be the ones who understand the depth and breadth of the new Mormon apologistic endeavor and the historical context from which their apologetic emerges."

Johnson says that if evangelicals "speak ill of our Mormon friends and speak down to them and ask how they can believe such ridiculous things, do we think they are going to say, 'Gosh, thanks for telling me about my evil ways.'"

But that's exactly what Robinson believes the new book does--in academic language.


Mormon Challenge is "clearly polemical and proselytizing," he says. "The title betrays its goal, which is to confront Latter-day Saints rather than to understand Latter-day Saints."

The motivation is to "sharpen their defensive weapons," Robinson says. "This is an arms race and this is an attempt to match their ballistic missiles with ours."

The war imagery is appropriate.

The LDS Church is adding 310,000 new converts a year--as many as 80 percent of whom come from Protestant backgrounds, according to the book. "If allowed to progress unchecked, Mormonism's growth will have a significantly adverse affect on evangelical growth."

The authors see their mission as ultimately a matter of saving souls.

"If we believe that the message of traditional Mormonism is not the same saving message that we find in the New Testament, then we have a moral responsibility to our fellow human beings, including Latter-day Saints," they write.

Robinson applauds the United Methodist Church's position, which holds the LDS Church has a right to define itself as Christian but believes its teachings are outside historic Christianity.

But for evangelicals to say that "because we don't believe in Jesus 'correctly,' that we don't believe in him at all seems to me egocentric," he says. "We don't need their permission to believe in Jesus. If they think we do, then to hell with them."

When Robinson and Blomberg wrote How Wide the Divide, they agreed to set aside the question of who was right and wrong and just try to understand each other's position.

Mormon Challenge is a step backward from that, Robinson says. "If I am asked to bless this baby as a result of our interfaith dialogue, I'm going to have to call it a bastard and throw it out."

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