The scene: A comfortable suburban ranch house. Two missionaries are present, with a callow priest tagging along, and they’re excited because they have finally met the non-member husband of the less-active sister they’ve been visiting.
HUSBAND: I know you’ve got your lesson you want to teach me, and I want to listen, but before you get going would you mind answering some questions I have about the Mormons?
MISSIONARY 1: Absolutely. Just fire away.
HUSBAND: Why do you believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?
WIFE: (nervous glance)
MISSIONARY 2: (deep breath)
HUSBAND: …and that is what it says and either the Bible or Joe Smith is a liar-
MISSIONARY 2: …same thing. They’re the same thing, read it again in your Bible…
MISSIONARY 1: Calm down, guys, calm down, the question was…
WIFE: (sips coffee)
MISSIONARY 2: (incoherent rage babbling)
MISSIONARY 1: He is sorry, we are really sorry-
HUSBAND: You’re just like the last set.
WIFE: Sorry, boys, I think he just needs a little more time-
The bible bash is a mystery. Why is it so easy to get sucked in? Why don’t our points ever seem to make a dent? How can they move on so blithely from point to point, another anti-Mormon factoid up their sleeve for when you pull out a verse that proves the last one inconsequential?
The easy answer is: you didn’t testify and you brought the spirit of the Devil. This is true, but I think we can dive a little deeper into this subject, and draw on some examples from scripture to guide the tone and direction of our discourse and ministry.
What is conversation for?
The worst takeaway a member or missionary or member missionary can bring from a bash is the urge to store up better scriptures to bring out the next time someone has those questions. This is because the questions an experienced non-Mormon bible-basher has are not actually what we would call “questions.”
What’s the point of a question? To get an answer, right? That’s what conversation is, we talk to each other, we trade information, we might disagree on some things but we see where each other is coming from and we walk away with something to think about. This is attractive for the Latter-day Saints, as we believe in all truth, no matter the source, and so you might just learn something from whatever encounter.
This is not what your interlocutor is asking the questions for. He intends to shame you. He wants you to feel stupid for believing, and I want to make one thing absolutely clear: that is a completely legitimate use of questions.
The problem, and what makes a bash far more painful than it needs to be, is when there’s a mismatch between your expectations of the conversation. Verbal sparring is a time-honored tradition, but when you walk into a spar expecting an exchange of knowledge that works toward a consensus nobody’s coming out happy.
Bear down in pure testimony (but keep those pearls out of the pigpen)
The astute missionary will sidestep the bash – will see it coming, will get out of the way, will defuse the situation, will leave with a testimony and a prayer. Sometimes that works – but sometimes they’re not ready to hear the still, small voice. Sometimes there are people around them that desperately need to see them cut down a peg. Sometimes they need to be humbled before they’ll open their ears.
There are places for polite rebuttals. There are places for mockery and scorn. 1 Kings 18 is one of those places. Can you imagine Elijah treating that like a friendly chat? “So you can plainly see that their, the priests of Ba’al’s, rituals failed to bring the fire from Heaven that was promised, which means that for whatever reason Ba’al has no power here. The logical course of action is to return to the worship of YHWH…”
It wasn’t time for reasoned arguments. It was time for slaughter. Sometimes that happens too.
Always testify – but weave your testimony in with context-meaningful communication. Elijah’s testimony wasn’t polite, but you can’t deny its effectiveness. The gentle, sweet declaration of belief is best saved for those who can hear it.
Bible-bashing without the Bible
The stereotype we’ve been discussing in this article is a mainstream Christian of some sort, most likely a Protestant of a non-denominational or Baptist sect. He is ubiquitous, found most often in the southern United States but drawn by some sort of basher clairvoyance to missionaries all over the world, and all over the world missionaries keep stroking his wolf-skin to try to pull out the sheep they’re sure is underneath.
There’s another kind of basher out there, all the way on the other side of the spectrum, with the sheep on the outside and the wolf on the inside. This kind will still use conversation as a weapon, use words as a bludgeon, but they’ll try to be more Mormon than you are. They want to reach an understanding, they want you to ask questions, and they’re even harder to deal with because when you take them at face value absolutely everything that works on them makes you feel like a jerk.
Of course wolves in sheepskin are polite. That’s the entire point of the wool. They’ll try to use the Gospel to teach their own twisted truths, which they frame as common decency, just the sort of thing all moral people should believe. They don’t even have the decency to try to back it up with scripture. And this weekend they are trying to change Church policy through demonstrations. All in the name of, you know, what’s right. What Jesus would probably do, assuming His moral standards, as they always do, perfectly match up with those found in Western nations in the early 21st century.
Don’t accept their framing
When you try to prove the Church is true from (or at least isn’t disproved by) the Bible, you are accepting the Bible as a source of legitimacy, setting aside the role of the Spirit in conversion, and have lost the debate.
The same thing can happen when you try to answer the gentle, polite, bright-eyed contentions of those people who just can’t wrap their heads around a God who would risk being called sexist; if you try to prove that, as a matter of fact, God as Mormonism teaches isn’t sexist, you’ve bought into lack of sexism as a source of legitimacy and have lost the debate.
It doesn’t feel like you’re letting them set the pace. Not at first. Then it’s an hour and a half into a half-hour lesson and you haven’t even got past God is our Heavenly Father yet. Don’t let them do that. Stick to what you know – that God’s law is eternal, that your testimony is rooted in a witness of the Spirit, that Russell M. Nelson is an inspired prophet – and make them come to you.
When they say the Bible says God is a spirit don’t pull out a verse that says He isn’t, testify that Joseph Smith saw Heavenly Father in the flesh. When they try to “start a conversation” about when we can expect gay temple marriage don’t nitpick the legitimacy of OD2 and the Proclamation, mock them out loud. Call everyone over to look at this ridiculous wolf in that shabby sheep coat. Ask if their god is asleep, or on a journey. Let them prance and shout and cut themselves.
Maybe all they need is one sharp shock.