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_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.”

That’s Robinson’s preface. And let it be ours, too. We’ll get seriously to work starting with chapter one in my next post.

(Oh, and by the way: Robinson’s original BYU devotional can be read here, and his subsequent Ensign article can be read here.)

27 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 1 – The Preface”

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  3. rameumptom said

    Joe, nice intro to the book. I agree that what makes this book so compelling are Robinson’s style and the view of helping members understand the core of the doctrine. Sadly, we still do not quite get it as a Church, but we’re getting there. When BYU religion professors are still teaching out dated concepts to the mass media, we know we still have a problem teaching true religion to the BYU students of today. Sadly, there are those who still open up their 60 year old copies of GA books to teach as doctrine, and there are those who think the core doctrine involves a close study of the signs of the times, the Beast and 666.

    Burn out is a serious problem still in the Church. I know many members who still think they must earn their own salvation by working frenetically (like Robinson’s wife). A more serious problem is that each primary child can tell you that tithing is one dime out of a dollar, but many high priests cannot explain the spiritual ramifications of tithing in regards to consecration and exaltation.

    We know the glow of the gospel, but not what is under the veneer. We’re skipping rocks across the top of the ocean, but not diving deep into its doctrinal waters to understand issues of faith, repentance, ordinances, Holy Ghost, etc. I look forward to your continued discussion here.

    • YvonneS said

      If this “We know the glow of the gospel, but not what is under the veneer. We’re skipping rocks across the top of the ocean, but not diving deep into its doctrinal waters to understand issues of faith, repentance, ordinances, Holy Ghost, etc.,” is true then I can’t help but think it is because of studying books by various commentators rather than delving into the scriptures themselves. To rely upon what is taught in church classes and books by religion teachers is to settle for a snack when a feast is available.

  4. joespencer said

    Yvonne, I agree, but I have a little worry as I do so. Let me clear, I couldn’t agree more. But my worry is that most Latter-day Saints (in the U.S. at least) have already been mistaught how to read the scriptures, so just pointing them to the scriptures means that they’ll just write in their own heads the very books they could be buying from Deseret Book and reading. One doesn’t come to the scriptures themselves until one pierces the veil that covers them over. (I’m thinking here of 2 Corinthians 3….)

  5. Rameumptom said

    Yvonne, I agree with Joe. We’ve spent a couple generations reading books that have told us what to think, rather than being told how to think for ourselves. Joseph Smith said he taught correct principles and let the Saints govern themselves. Our current Handbook of Instructions follows this pattern. However, as a Church, we’re still digging out from the long years of being told what to think and study. Today’s LDS scholars do not tell us what to think, but show us what the text reveals to them, and then invite us to find more. As Salt Press notes in their books, they don’t establish theology, they DO theology. We need to teach members the various ways we can to find their own inspired answers, by showing them how to study the text critically and how to apply it deeply into their lives.

  6. CEF said

    I believe Robinson tried to correct his parable of the bicycle in the book he co-wrote with Blomberg, “How Wide The Divide.” If I remember correctly, not sure if I do, he said, he wrote “Believing Christ” for members of the Church, and tried to make it something they could/would understand.

    I used to try and promote grace in my ward and stake, but long ago gave it up. I am happier now. Robert Millet gave me some good advice ,maybe ten years ago. He said, “it does not pay to get out ahead of the brethren.” We are not a bottom-up church. Until the President starts to teach something different, I do not expect things to change. So good luck Joe, heaven knows we need help, just be careful how hard you push this.

    • joespencer said

      CEF,

      Yes, Robinson offers some clarifications in How Wide the Divide?, and I’m planning on drawing on them when we come to that part of the book. I’ll also offer some other points of caution we need to use in reading the parable.

      As for “promoting grace,” I don’t know that I’ve ever done it—and I won’t be doing it in this series. I take as my task, here as elsewhere in my work in the Church, to clarify scripture. I don’t hear any authoritative message coming from Salt Lake City announcing that grace is non-scriptural, so I would guess I’m safe. The aim is never to push, but to open up.

      • CEF said

        As I have said before about you Joe, you are wise beyond your years. Good luck with the opening up. I wish I had done things differently years ago.

    • Robert C. said

      I think the “we are not a bottom-up Church” is an over simplified statement—after all, this week’s RS/MP lesson has lots of content focusing on precisely how each member has access to the Spirit in a way that is at least not top-down.

      Also, I wonder how much things have changed over the past two decades, with the rise of the internet, etc.

      And, I would argue that wards and scripture are the fundamental units of the Church. The Prophet and General Authorities are wonderful in helping with issues of administration, organization, coordination, and leadership, but inasmuch as Brother Millet’s comment implies more than that, I’m very suspicious of it….

  7. CEF said

    Hello Robert, I am hesitant to get into a discussion about grace, I used to go out of my way to discuss it all of the time. I decided it had become a hobby horse for me, and even tho I enjoyed riding it, I was going no where fast.

    I could be wrong, ( I am a lot) but the fact that Joe feels a need to discuss “Believing Christ” tells me (after all of these years) that nothing has really changed in the Church as far as grace goes. And in my opinion, until the leadership decides to change the way they teach grace (always couched in 2Nephi 25:23) nothing will change. To me, Joe is preaching to the choir here. Nothing wrong with that, but it will not change anything. Of course it could be, Joe does not see a need for change like I do. I got tired of getting verbally beat-up by the other churches in town because we believe that we have to earn our way to heaven. But, I do not have any kids left at home, so I just don’t care anymore.

    As for the statement by Millet, I had told him about how I got into trouble in the Church by pushing for a change in the way we teach grace, and it was within that context that he said what he did.

    Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. You have always been a pleasure to talk to.

  8. joespencer said

    CEF,

    One brief point of clarification: I don’t at all believe that “nothing has really changed in the Church as far as grace goes.” Indeed, if I believed that, I wouldn’t bother with these posts at all! The reason I think these posts worth doing is because (1) Believing Christ had a profound impact on teaching in the Church, but (2) I don’t think Robinson gets the specifically Mormon doctrine of grace right.

    In other words, if people find it difficult to teach grace in the Church, it’s ultimately because efforts like those of Millet and Robinson don’t pay close enough attention to scripture, and because they therefore end up with unconvincing (and, I think, importantly wrong) interpretations of the doctrine of grace. That’s what I’ll be trying to spell out in this series.

    • CEF said

      Joe, I have the greatest respect for you, so please take anything I say with that in mind. I was simply trying to offer some friendly advise from one that tends to learn things the hard way. But it looks like my advise was not needed. And that is a good thing.

      I obviously have a fundamental misunderstanding of grace and will look forward to your future posts about it. I just wish I had discovered something like this years ago. Perhaps I would have never made so many mistakes and my wife would still be going to church.

    • chrislambe said

      Joespencer, you said, “I don’t think Robinson gets the specifically Mormon doctrine of grace right.”

      Being a member of the LDS church and attending school in a baptist univeristy studying religion, I have to say Robinson does have the doctrine of justification and grace right. It all points to the doctrine which the church does teach in Romans and in 2 Nephi 10:24, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” Only the grace of God is one saved not by any other means, especially through goodworks (Ephesians 2:9).

      Also in D&C 45:3-5 “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.” Only through Christ and believing him can one be saved. Do people in the LDS church really understand justification and grace? I doubt it. It’s not talked or tought in the church that much. We teach the atonement not the wrath of God or the justice which God holds over our heads on a daily basis because we are human and sin (Romans 3: 9-20).

      The doctrine of justification has been the key topic in the history of the church for centuries. Martin Luther stated this doctrine was the “article of a standing or falling of the church.” John Calvin said something similar as Luther declaring it was “the main hinge on which religion turns.” Is this true with the LDS teaching of justification and grace? I believe it is. ONLY through the grace of Christ can one make it back to God. That is the point Robinson makes with the book. The Gospel of Christ is that through HIS GRACE we are saved. Grace is what Christ does which we cannot ever do for ourselves. He advocates our cause before God cleansing us because He met the demans of justice.

      Robinson does a really good job of the topic of grace as well as justification. His perspective of the subject is right and doesnt deviate from the LDS doctrine of grace and justification.

  9. rameumptom said

    I find it as no problem to teach grace in my stake. In fact, my stake president also teaches concerning it. In my blogging and teaching, I often bring up what the scriptures teach regarding grace. I especially use Alma 36 as an example of Alma apologizing and pleading for mercy, and instantly receives it. He tells us he has been born of God and is saved in Christ, without any work beyond faith and repentance.

    I think the Church has moved in the direction of better understanding grace over the last few decades. That Deseret Book has finally retired Mormon Doctrine means that we may finally be able to get a more scriptural description of it.

    As with Joe, I do not seek to impose a view upon the Brethren, but I do seek to have a discussion, so that members can learn to read the scriptures beyond one perspective.

    • CEF said

      Hi Rameumptom, I am very glad that your experiences have been different than mine. Again, I take responsibility for what happened to me. Just poor judgement on my part.

  10. aquinas said

    Joe, I look forward to your series. Years ago I listed some of the literature in response to How Wide the Divide. In particular, Craig Blomberg gave a fascinating lecture back in 2008 where he reflected on the 11 years after How Wide the Divide. There, he talks about his conversations with Robinson about the parable of the bicycle that I haven’t seen in print. I’d be very interested in seeing how you might incorporate that material when you discuss the parable.

  11. joespencer said

    Aquinas,

    Many, many thanks for these links. I was familiar with some, and entirely unfamiliar with others. These will be helpful for me.

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  14. JKC said

    Maybe this comment fits better on one of the other threads, or maybe you’ll be addressing this issue in a later post, but since CEF mentioned an overreliance on 2 Ne. 25:23, I’ll just not that any discussion of 2 Ne. 25:23 (“all we can do”) should note that the Book of Mormon at least arguably treats “all we can do” as a term of art with a specific meaning that is very different from the vague and ambiguous “wear yourself out trying to keep all the commandments” that it is sometimes treated as.

    Lamoni (or, perhaps, Moroni, speaking through Lamoni), implicitly addressing Nephi’s “all we can do” statement, defines “all we can do” as “to repent of all our sins . . ., and to get God to take them away from our hearts.” Alma 24:11. Doing “all we can do” in other words, is not a lifetime of obedient drudgery with the distant hope of some far off future reward; doing “all we can do” is shifting our attitude, turning away from sin to accept salvation, to get God to take our sins away from our hearts. Doing “all we can do” is being born again.

    • joespencer said

      JKC,

      Yes, definitely. I’ll be looking at all this when I come to Robinson’s discussion of 2 Nephi 25:23.

    • rameumptom said

      JKC,
      technically, it was king Anti-Nephi-Lehi (brother of Lamoni, originally king of Middoni, and now king of all the Lamanites) who establishes that all we can do is repent. But the context you place it in is correct.

      Also of note is that John Taylor’s German Translation of the BoM states of 2Ne25:23 that we are saved “in spite” of all we can do.

    • chrislambe said

      JKC… Brad Wilcox’s book The Continuous Atonement talks about the “all we can do.” What is different from it is that the word “we’ also implies Christ’s duty is what He does for us. Emphasizing the word “can” destroys this important truth. We do what we can, repent of our sins, reconcile ourselves back to God, obey his word, fall back into temptations and the cycle repeats itself. We in ourselves will never be able to do all that we CAN in order to be saved. Only through including Christ is the word “we” do we have the abiltiy to be saved because he is the Son of Man, one of us, “We” includes Jesus Christ.

  15. mjberkey said

    When Robinson talks about students being “well trained in the peripherals of the gospel,” I wonder if he might borrowing this analysis from Elder Oaks’ 1988 talk, “What Think Ye of Christ.” Elder Oaks says:

    “For many years I was a teacher of law. A frequent teaching method in that discipline is to concentrate classroom instruction on the difficult questions—the obscure and debatable matters that lie at the fringes of learning. Some law teachers believe that the simple general rules that answer most legal questions are so obvious that students can learn them by independent study. As a result, these teachers devote little time to teaching the basics.

    I believe some of us sometimes do the same thing in gospel teaching. We neglect to teach and testify to some simple, basic truths of paramount importance. This omission permits some members and nonmembers to get wrong ideas about our faith and belief.”

    He then goes on to spend the rest of his talk clarifying that we believe in salvation by grace and not by works.

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