Archive for the ‘Martin Jacobs’ Category

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)


by Martin Jacobs

Good news for those who are conflicted, and bad news for those who aren’t.
(But not in the way you might think)
Some time back, a friend of mine at church observed that I was quite internally conflicted. She was right, of course, but she seemed to think that I shouldn’t be.

[Author’s note: I had included some words here about a personal situation. Sitting in Church, I realized that they might cause some unnecessary aggravation, so I left, came home and removed them. Hopefully, I’m acting in line with Paul’s admonition below.] 

I have heard these sentiments before, particularly among the friends in my previous charismatic churches. I am writing about them because I feel that they might be well intentioned, but they are ultimately misguided. They are misguided because the idea behind them is not supported in the Bible.

The troubling aspect is not that my friends are concerned with my welfare. They are, and I am grateful.

The troubling aspect is the underlying idea. The underlying idea is that the Spirit-filled person would experience a kind of Zen-like internal calm (in polar contrast to my internal conflicts, for example). This is typically expressed in terms of stilling your mind until it becomes a millpond, so that the image of God can be reflected in you, or so that you can detect the slightest hints of the Spirit’s movements.

Sounds spiritual, doesn’t it?

Though these metaphors sound at home in a typical Christian greeting-card, bookmark or button, they have no equivalent in scripture. Indeed, the more I read the scriptures, the more I see them contending with this kind of thinking.

My concern is that sooner or later, the Christian who holds to the Zen ethic is going to have to decide whether they believe it’s true because it feels right, or because it’s supported in scripture. I can claim some experience in this regard. In short, I tried the former strategy, but it didn’t work, so now, God willing, I’m trying to head down the latter way.

This has led me to revise much of my earlier thinking, and this revising has yielded much internal conflict. If I had avoided the internal conflict, I would not have allowed the Word of God to shape my thinking. See how skewed things become if we evaluate them by how internally conflicted we feel about them?

So, lets take a look at what scripture actually says on the topic. The following is a brief survey, based on the kind of language used by the Zen promoters in Christian circles.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10, KJV)
Incidentally, it’s the title of one of my favorite choruses.

Consider what it actually says. The NASB renders “be still” as “cease striving”, but the Hebrew simply states “cease”, “drop” or “abandon” (הרפו / harpu, see!bible/Psalms+46).

The translators did not miss the boat here, because the meaning of the Hebrew word for “cease” comes out of its context; the Psalmist observes the restlessness of the heathen, and the turmoil of life, and points the believer to the sure refuge of God. As we all know, a castle on a hill cannot be moved (unlike, say, a tent), so, according to the Psalm, what we need to do for our security is to stay in it. The heathen, by contrast, were always trying this or trying that, running around restlessly looking for safe ground.

The metaphors and typology of the Psalm are exquisite, and the message is profound; you will find refuge and our rest in God, so don’t try to find it somewhere else. He, not our internal state of mind, is the fixed point, the rock on which we stand. So, be still and know that (however you might feel about it, or whatever your internal experience of it might be) the God of Jacob is your refuge.

The still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12, KJV )
The story goes that, after defeating the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah runs away and hides in a cave. Elijah, evidently, is your quintessential anti-hero. God comes to Elijah and asks him what’s going on. Elijah, despite the overwhelming vindication of God at Carmel, is depressed because he thinks he’s the only one of his generation who sees God. God needs to teach him something.

First, God sent a wind, but God was not in the wind.

Then God sent an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.

Then God sent a fire, but God was not in the fire.

Then came a still, small voice, and Elijah was ashamed because God had spoken to him.

It’s a beautiful story and it tells us that God does indeed speak to us.

What I find remarkable is that after hearing the still small voice, Elijah expresses exactly the same anxiety as he did before (1 Kings 19:14 is a verbatim repeat of 1 Kings 19:10, the only difference being the substitution of “because” for “for” in the King James Version, but the Hebrew is identical). The difference is that after hearing the voice, Elijah has an answer, or a plan of action, which he then executes.

Consider Elijah’s state of mind when the still small voice came to him. I would not call it “calm”. It looks obvious to me that Elijah is being torn by internal anger, conflict and anxiety, which is why he goes and hides in a cave. My point is that this is the state of mind in which God comes and speaks to him. It is good news for us, because it means that we don’t have to foster an internal Zen-like calm before God speaks to us.

Let this cup pass from me (Matthew 26:39)
This is not a favorite of the Zen promoters. I strongly suggest they spend more time thinking about this than their favorite slogans.

The story here is that Jesus is praying on the night before he will die. He knows what is coming. Matthew describes him as “grieved and distressed” (Matthew 26:37). The good news is that Jesus, being fully and wholly human, is reacting to the situation in an absolutely normal human way. He is reacting the same way you would if you knew that in the morning, you would be publicly humiliated, have the skin flogged off your back, and then you would be impaled on a scaffold and left to die of exposure or asphyxiation in public as your tormentors watched to ensure that they would win.

At this point in time, under these circumstances and in his present frame of mind, was Jesus filled with the spirit?

Emphatically, yes.

We need some theology to explain why. Jesus Christ is both fully and wholly human all the time, and fully and wholly God all the time. How could God not be filled with himself? If you try to take the Holy Ghost out of Jesus in Gethsemane, you start down the short, broad road to the classic heresies.

Incidentally, I wonder if the contentions that Athanasius and the other Church Fathers had with the heretics crystallized on this issue; the followers of Arius believed his story because it felt right, whereas Athanasius stuck doggedly to what the scriptures said.

Consider this: Christ was filled with the Holy Ghost whilst experiencing unbearable internal conflict, grief and distress. Why then, do we insist that the sign of the Spirit’s indwelling is an internal calm. Does God operate differently with us than He did with Jesus? Emphatically, no.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15)
At first glance, this appears to support the idea of the millpond mind.

Except, that is not what Paul is writing about. What Paul is writing about is actual or potential conflict between believers in the Christian community. The context is so important, it’s worth repeating in full;

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
Colossians 3:12-17

In this passage, Paul anticipates conflict in the Christian community, and he gives us the perspective and tools to deal with it.

Why is it about conflict? Because Paul writes to a situation where believers need to “bear” one another, and “forgive” one another. They would not need to do so if all they did was sit in a circle and gaze at their navels. These were people who interacted with each other in a human way, and they evidently didn’t always get it right and they didn’t always agree.

The cults make much capital over the apparent disagreements in Christendom. Their mistake, which is repeated too often among Christians who should know better, is that they substitute the unity of Christ’s community with cultural or ideological hegemony. The message of the Gospel, by contrast, is that Christ’s Kingdom is made up of all sorts of people, from every tribe and nation.

In Colossians, Paul gives us the outlook to deal with conflict in the believing community. He lays down the foundation for our relationships; we should take on an attitude that is remarkably Christ-like and highly attractive. It’s based on a whole raft of classic virtues, which are bound together by love. It is in this context that Paul writes about the peace of Christ in our hearts. So, what he is writing about is something that dwells in the space between us as we interact with those with whom we might not ordinarily or voluntarily interact in a way that benefits them.

Then, Paul gives us the tools for the job. His toolkit starts with the word of Christ, and includes teaching, admonishing, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (we’re back to the role of worship music here), which are all applied with a spirit of thankfulness to God.

We ought to be thankful to God because these people, who might have offended or wronged us, are still beautifully made in the image of God. However much the ravages of sin have disfigured the image of God in every human being, they can never erase it, and that gives us cause to rejoice for even the foulest of sinners, including me.

What Paul’s toolkit does not include is my internal impulses; Paul does not list any criteria related to the state of my internal experience. And, it’s for good reason. As I have written previously, the Gospel of the New Testament trumps the Jesus of our imagination with the Jesus of the Flesh.

Finally, though Paul writes about how we should deal with others, can we rightly apply the same strategy to ourselves? Emphatically, yes. Should I treat myself any differently than anybody else? Emphatically, no.

If the Gospel is true for them, it is also true for me, and for everybody. If I can bear and forgive someone else for his or her conflict, why can’t I bear and forgive myself? I should accept that I will not always get it right, and I will not always agree (not even with myself), but it is Christ who reconciles me and gives me room to live, just as He reconciles all in His new creation.

Good News to Those In Conflict
So, the message about the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts is good news to those in conflict. It means that we don’t have to react to situations in ways that are not normally human. You can be internally conflicted, and still be filled with the Holy Spirit, and still hear the voice of God.

The bad news for those who don’t experience conflict internally or externally is that it is not normally human. This is a real problem because Christ inhabits a space that is populated by normal humans, the first of which is Himself.

For a better and more comprehensive exploration of this issue, I highly recommend Professor Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do (because they are not in the Bible)

May Jesus Christ draw our vision away from an unhealthy preoccupation with our own internal state of mind, and may we fix our eyes on Him, who is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

(Originally posted on the “MartinOf Brisbane” website. Reprinted with permission.)