_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 1 – The Preface
Posted by joespencer on June 4, 2012
“Since coming to Brigham Young University a few years ago,” Robinson’s preface begins, “I have noticed a peculiar and unexpected thing” (p. ix). It’s peculiar and unexpected also that Robinson begins with this peculiar and unexpected thing. Let me see if I can explain.
In my last post, I said a few things about the twin problems of nominal Mormonism and effective burnout. Books on grace that appeared in 1989, three years before Believing Christ, began with prefaces identifying specifically these two problems, with a stronger emphasis on burnout (especially in Hafen and Millet). If there was a single most important problem the fledgling Mormon discussion of grace was meant to address, it was burnout. In 1990, Believing Christ had its birth in the form of a BYU devotional (more about that later in this post), and in that presentation, burnout was the principal focus as well. As we’ll see later in the book, Believing Christ also deals—and poignantly—with burnout. But here’s the strange thing: the preface doesn’t address burnout at all. A much different tack is taken. The problem of burnout is in some sense displaced. That’s peculiar, and rather unexpected.
So what does Robinson say in the preface to frame the book? What, as he presents it, does motivate the book, if it’s not burnout? It’s this “peculiar and unexpected thing” he details in the first two paragraphs of the preface. Here they are in their entirety:
Since coming to Brigham Young University a few years ago, I have noticed a peculiar and unexpected thing. New freshmen arrive at BYU from wards and branches all over the Church. The majority have been in the Church for a relatively long time, even, I suspect, most of their lives, and they are generally well trained in the peripherals of the gospel. They know a surprising amount about tithing, the Word of Wisdom, genealogy, LDS dating, food storage, and so forth. Of course all of these are important principles for the Latter-day Saints and make up part of the fullness of the gospel in the latter days. But these are not the central doctrines of the gospel as taught in all dispensations from the beginning of the world to its end.
What I noticed about my students was that, as we moved in class from peripheral doctrines and practices of the Church to the central doctrines of the gospel, many of them became less and less sure of themselves—they were soft in the middle. Some were even more comfortable defining themselves in terms of what they didn’t believe (predestination, original sin, and so forth) than in terms of what they did believe. A significant minority did not understand scriptural doctrines such as salvation by grace, justification through faith in Christ, sanctification, atonement, and the meaning and terms of the gospel covenant. They were well taught in the peripherals but not in the vitals of the restored gospel. (pp. ix-x)
This is what motivates Believing Christ. It isn’t simply the problem of burnout, though that too will be on the table. What worries Robinson from the very beginning is that we don’t know our doctrine. (Note that Hafen has a bit to say about this as well in the preface to his book.) This I find fascinating. Where others take a largely pastoral tone, beginning with stories about being bishops and stake presidents, Robinson begins by talking about his work as an educator. This is, frankly, refreshing. In what sense? Gone are the stories in which a very confident bishop sits a young woman lost in sexual sin down and instructs her about what she’s completely misunderstood in her youthful naivete. The problem doesn’t need to be exemplified by a wayward young woman (I can’t help but wonder whether so many stories about unchaste young women crop up because of the affective nature of the image in our culture), but becomes a systemic, widespread matter—and a question of young Latter-day Saint people not having been taught the center of the gospel, whether by their parents, their church leaders, their seminary teachers, or the scriptures themselves. Believing Christ doesn’t so much aim to bandage a wound as identify—and provide a solution to—what caused the wounds in the first place.
That, at any rate, is what I hear in Robinson’s opening words. But notice that he tries to soften the blow a bit. He talks about “a significant minority,” and says “some” rather than “all” of his students had these problems. Moreover, he goes on to say that he’s “sure most of this is a function of age and maturity rather than of intelligence and training” (p. x), but I think he’s being a bit too easy on us, as the many stories he goes on to tell in the book make clear. The problem is real, widespread, and it needs attention. Robinson, thankfully, decides to tackle it quite directly.
Why a book, though? He explains that he produced “several lectures specifically to fill this gap” for his students, and “these lectures have met with some success” (p. x). Here already he begins to show that there’s more to the problem than “a significant minority.” He gave a BYU devotional, as I mentioned above, in 1990. This was reworked slightly (and correlated in interesting ways) so that it could appear in the Ensign in 1992, just before the book was released. The basic doctrines Robinson thought needed more attention turned out to be something many, many more Latter-day Saints than those congregated in his classrooms needed to know about. The book was crucial, and the effect would be systemic.
The next paragraphs offer a word of clarification about Robinson’s wife, who figures in the major (harrowing!) burnout story told early in the book. Here’s what he says:
I need to say a word here about my wife, Janet, since one of the key experiences related hereafter is mostly hers and is intensely personal, and since someone once suggested that relating it put her in a bad light and made her husband look good at her expense. Janet and I normally think in terms of us rather than in terms of her or me, but if we must compare individual statures, I think the following sketch represents the approximately correct proportions.
When Janet approaches the pearly gates, the Lord may say to the angels something like this, “Why, look everybody—here comes Janet Robinson! Janet’s finally here! Let’s all go out to welcome her and bring her in.” But as he greets her on the steps, he will probably stop and add, “Janet, what on earth is that sorry thing you’re dragging behind you?” To which she will respond, “Oh, that? That’s my husband. Can I bring him in too?” Without her I haven’t got a chance, and this can be confirmed by anyone who knows us well. (pp. x-xi)
Notice here that Robinson expresses explicit concern about avoiding a pastoral flavor, about avoiding a paternal tone in his book. It’s worth saying that that kind of a tone appears in the earlier versions of Believing Christ, its instantiation as a BYU devotional and its subsequent instantiation as an Ensign article. Robinson’s wife doesn’t come off as well in those presentations as she does in the book. The couple of years leading from the original devotional to the published book seem to have seen Robinson through a process of realizing the dangers of the overly pastoral and unmistakably paternal approach to talking about grace.
Also important here is the fact that Robinson here becomes himself for the first time in the book. The little story he tells about arriving at the pearly gates is well-told, funny, endearing, and powerfully illustrative. That will be Robinson’s writing style throughout the book, and most especially in the first few chapters. This is something of real importance that Robinson’s predecessors writing about grace also lacked: style. Robinson has it, and plenty of it, and the result is a highly readable book, one that endears the reader to the author very quickly. I think that’s quite important for the effectiveness of the book.
One last comment on the preface. Here are the next two paragraphs, which contain some interesting details as well:
I have long maintained that a book without notes is usually not worth reading, since a lack of documentation indicates that the contents are the author’s own opinions unsupported by outside scholarship. In this case, I plead guilty. Documenting oneself or one’s own experiences, reflections, and views is very hard. Thus readers will either agree with my opinions or disagree, as they choose. Because the material here is personal, I have tried to use the same style I would in the classroom or in conversation, including the colloquial and elliptical, the ironic and the sarcastic. For this I apologize to Miss Wood, my seventh-grade English teacher, who taught me to know better. I claim no outside authority as proof of any of these private opinions, though I have dutifully inserted as many notes as I could manage in a book of this nature, which though ostensibly theological is also unabashedly devotional. And I would like the reader to know that I believe what is said here.
I must also make it clear that I have written this book as a believing Latter-day Saint writing to an audience of other Latter-day Saints. I make no claim of detached scholarly objectivity. If this were a paper for my professional colleagues in the academic field of religion, the methodology and tone would be considerably different. But there is nothing wrong with being bilingual, and in this book I choose to speak the language of faith. (pp. xi-xii)
These are important qualifications. The book is “ostensibly theological,” but it’s not a work of academic theology. It’s devotional, and unmistakably a work of private opinion rather than rational argumentation. We have to be careful about that. At the same time, we’ll see that especially the last couple chapters of the book slide from the more colloquial and conversational to the more theological and more exegetical, and that’s where—in my opinion—what Robinson has to say about grace runs into its most serious troubles. We’ll watch this shift happen as we work through the book. But I think we need to be very careful about reading too much rigor into especially the first chapters of the book—and that includes the “parable of the bicycle.”