Hi, I’m Zelph and I’m a Modernist

Posted: December 27, 2015 in Martin Jacobs, Modernism, Mormon Studies

modernism_header-EDITEDIntroduction When the “I’m A Mormon” ad campaign hit the shores of Australia in 2011, frequent Mormon Expression board commentator Martin Jacobs was prompted to consider it’s message in light of trends he saw emerging in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at that time.  What’s striking is how fresh and relevant his analysis still is today. — Editor

Hi, I’m Zelph and I’m a Modernist
by Martin Jacobs
The tag line “I’m [insert name here], and I’m a Mormon” superbly clinches the current advertising campaign by the Mormons. However, I suggest that the message that it projects is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s not even the gospel of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith; it’s modernism.

“I’m A Mormon” ads in a New York Subway Car

It’s a smart campaign. It aims at normalizing the religion by overcoming perceived stereotypes through the faces of ordinary, likable Mormons. It’s exactly what well-paid and successful PR companies would advise, with good reason; it’s a tried and tested formula for raising the profile of the brand. Put simply, it works.

My objection is not with the delivery, nor even with its modernist message (which has merits of its own within its own frame of reference). My objection is that the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth and his immediate followers, which Mormonism claims to have restored, was not modernist.

I don’t think I have the definitive angle on modernism, or on the species of modernism presented in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, or even on Christianity, for that matter. However, I do see some profound differences in these competing perspectives, and contrasting them is not simply instructive, it deeply challenges our inherited, modernist sense of self-identity.

In a nutshell, the modernist sees himself as the author of his own story, and it’s a story that starts with his own advent. The ancients, by contrast saw their story as part of a continuum of history stretching back to the creation of the Cosmos, and forward to the end of this age. Both see their lives as a vindication of the respective authors of these stories. To the modernist, that author is himself, but to the ancient Christian, the ultimate author is God.


An “I’m A Mormon” billboard in Colorado Springs, Colorado

To contrast the ancient Christian perspective with the modernism that we are so familiar with, consider a curious part of the gospel that was taught by one of Jesus’ immediate followers;

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2)

My first observation is that if you find the Bible hard to read, it’s probably because you’re a modernist.

Discovering that you’re a modernist might be something of a revelation to you. You didn’t choose modernism, you didn’t convert to modernism, and you didn’t apostatize from anti-modernism (whatever that may be). Yet, you are a modernist, nonetheless.

Another revelation to you might be that modernism has a history. You probably think that people all through the ages think just like you. However, that’s actually not the case, and the fact that you have assumed it is a tell-tale sign that you are a modernist. Professors of the History of Philosophy put the genesis of modernism around the time of the French Revolution. From there, it took a grip on the Western World, and its fruit is found in you, whether you willed it or not.

Modernism is not simply an optimistic view of what lies ahead. It insists that nobody really knew anything until we arrived on the scene (and by “we” I really mean “I”) and started to call things what they really are.

You've read the article, now read the book.

You’ve read the article, now read the book. (click for details)

The downside of presuming that you are the author of your own story is that it gives you license to re-write the book according to your own agenda, without the inconvenience of checking what happened “in the flesh”, as John puts it.

Hence, the winsome characters in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign appeal to us with the sub-text of “I am Mormonism”. Not what others may have seen as those loony “old school”, ignorant polygamists in the Utah desert, nor those simpletons from a by-gone age following those “old school” prophets bearing revelations that have drifted down from heaven, but me, because I get to determine what Mormonism is, and I am the nice, modern, informed, more evolved guy (or girl) from next door who makes up their own mind as to what and what isn’t Mormonism.

This is most evident in the fact that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign has little time for Joseph Smith, the most important character in the Mormon story. Why? Joseph Smith set the agenda for Mormonism, and Mormonism is stuck with it until it becomes something that is not Mormonism. It appears that those who are driving the campaign want to re-write the book according to the nice guy next door, which is a distinctively modernist thing to do.

An excellent primer on modernity can be found in an interview with Thomas Oden in 1990, who described modernism as the “idolatry of the new”. It is reproduced in a Christianity Today on-line article here. I am particularly struck by the second characteristic of modernism that Oden defines; autonomous individualism, which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within.


An “I’m A Mormon” Billboard in London

It describes “us” more accurately than we’d like to think. How many Disney movies have taught our kids to “trust their heart”? What does contemporary Mormonism teach (along with a plethora of other religions)? If I read John rightly, this make-it-up-according-to-the-dictates-of-your-own-prejudices grates against his warning to base your sense of reality according to what has happened “in the flesh” in history, and it leads us into dangerous territory.

Please hear me carefully here. I’m not arguing that a person’s individual experiences and agenda are unimportant, uninteresting or irrelevant. It would be the height of churlishness and ignorance to dismiss the real stories behind the “I’m a Mormon” campaign as meaningless. They are not, thank God. (No, really, thank God that no human life is worthless and meaningless, even the ones that you and I might not particularly admire).

The problem I have is that the modernist-believer looks inward for signs of God. These signs are consigned to, and validated in the internal world of the believer’s internal psyche. There, they can be manipulated, unlike the signs “in the flesh” of John’s enigmatic diagnostic.

John’s strange comment is not the only Biblical text that tells us to look beyond our own lives and into the “flesh” of God’s public, historic and auditable acts. The Ten Commandments open with a statement of God’s redemption of Israel (Exodus 20:2). Jesus constantly validated what he was doing by appealing to “what was written” (Matthew 4:4 etc). Paul, who was probably the most didactic of New Testament authors, never got round to telling us how we should live our lives without framing it in the context of the history of the Old Testament, and the observed life of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11, for example).

“The Stoning of Stephen” by Gustave Dore’ (1832-1883)

Consider Stephen’s testimony in Acts Chapter 7. He’s on trial, and the words he chooses next will determine if he lives or dies. Does he say something like “I asked Jesus to come into my life, and he made me into a better person”? No. Stephen gives a history lecture to the people holding the rocks. It’s only when the stones are going to fly that Stephen finally tells them what it means to him.

Stephen, like the first Christians and authors of the New Testament, did not evaluate the Gospel of Christ by what it meant to him, but by what God had already done “in the flesh”. It only meant something to him on a personal level because he saw himself as a small, but important component of that history. It was this history that called both him and his interrogators to account.

They didn’t feel comfortable with Stephen’s message of accountability, like modern modernists, and they had more freedom to express their emotional perturbation than us, which they did by killing him. Their moral authority was based firmly on what they saw within themselves, and not on what God had done “in the flesh”, as Stephen forcefully testified.

Contrast this scenario with the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, and it’s focus on the believer. The message of the New Testament, which reliably sets out the important and distinctive ethos and teachings of the first Christians, consistently looks beyond the self of the believer to Jesus Christ, and what he did “in the flesh”. It even does so to the detriment of the believers, who made up its authors and most of its principal players.

If we were serious about “restoring” the ancient Christian Faith, we ought to be mindful of the dominant voices of modernism in our environment that could derail our venture. We ought to be very wary of our (modernist) tendency to validate our chosen religion by the feelings that we experience within our hearts.

Screen shot from the

Screen shot from the “I’m A Mormon” website

The ancient Christian Faith had an entirely different frame of reference. The first Christians validated themselves by what they saw God doing “in the flesh”. Central to their vision was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they regarded above all else as the tangible, definitive expression of God (see John 1:14, Colossians 1:10, Hebrews 1:1-4).

This expression of God in Christ then set the agenda for their lives (see Philippians 2:5-11) in a way that revolutionized the world. The rest, as they say, is history, and it’s well worth exploring if we want to understand why we are where we are today.

If we were to restore this ancient Christian faith, we would come to a place where we can no longer say “I believe in an [imaginary] Jesus because he has appeared in my heart”, but a place where we affirm that he has appeared “in the flesh”, as John says. Crucially, Christianity looks beyond the self of the believer and this is Good News because Christians have a redeemer who is not dependent on their efforts to make Him “true”.

Nothing you or I will do, say or feel will change this Jesus of the Flesh, contrary to the ‘gospel’ of modernism. God forgive us for ever believing otherwise.

(As originally published on the Mormon Expression Blogs website on November 14, 2011)


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