October 20, 2010

Review: Reid L. Neilson, "Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924"

Title: Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924
Author: Reid L. Neilson
Publisher: University of Utah Press
Genre: Mormon Studies
Year: 2010
Pages: 214
ISBN13: 9780874809893
Binding: Paperback

Heber J. Grant, Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had disappointing news to share at the Church’s October 1903 General Conference. “I know that the Latter-day Saints have been greatly interested in the mission I was called to preside over, and I regret I am not able to tell you that we have done something wonderful over in Japan,” Grant lamented. The Japanese mission had opened with great excitement in 1901 but progress did not match expectations. “To be perfectly frank with you,” Grant added, “ I acknowledge I have accomplished very little indeed, as the president of that mission; and very little has been accomplished—so far as conversions are concerned” (120). Grant held out hope that “there will yet be a great and important labor accomplished in that land.” But it wouldn’t come in his lifetime, as Grant himself directed the “temporary closing of the mission and withdrawal of the missionaries” in 1924, shortly before World War II (120). Eighty-eight missionaries over twenty-three years claimed only 166 baptized converts, only around a dozen remaining active at the time the mission closed (146).  

Historian Reid L. Neilson’s Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a concise history of that seemingly-failed missionary effort. The book’s careful organization and openness—perhaps its very existence—is evidence of the author’s own love for the subject (Reid served an LDS mission to Sapporo, Japan in the early 90s) and love of history (Reid is the current managing director of the LDS Church History Department). Reid argues that the very LDS theology, practices, and traditions that led them to open the Japan mission “were paradoxically also responsible for its eventual demise in 1924” (xi).

Reid’s book situates Mormon missionary efforts within the broader and increasingly popular scholarship on Christian missiology. Reid notes that practically all prior treatments of Mormon missiology consist of hagiographic accounts which suffer from a crucial flaw:  “they usually lack historical perspective and a relationship with the larger Christian missionary community…As a result, the existing histories of the LDS experience in Asia continue to float outside of the larger historical and academic world” (x-xi). Focusing particularly on Japan, Reid’s hopes the book will help Mormon and non-Mormon religious scholars better understand the Mormon missionary experience in light of broader American religious history and missiology.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Nineteenth Century Explorations in Asia” describes how Mormons have “mapped” various cultures onto their conception of the world. Early Mormons were intensely focused on the House of Israel and the search for the “elect” whom they would gather into their fold before the millennial return of Jesus Christ. He discusses Mormon interactions with Asia during the nineteenth century and explains how Mormons accounted for aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture which resonated with their beliefs—the “spirit of Christ” which is thought to inspire people regardless of creed or culture, and “diffusionism,” which holds that the gospel of Christ was revealed to Adam, later to go through cycles of apostasy and restoration.

Reid describes what he calls the “Euro-American Mormon Missionary Model” and compares it with general American Protestant missionary models (35-58). The model describes how missionaries are trained, financed, and the methods they employ. In part two of the book, “Twentieth-Century Challenges in Japan,” Reid reasons that the Mormon model’s failure to adapt to circumstances on the ground in Japan account for its failure compared to the larger successes of other American Protestant faiths. Reid’s critique of Mormon missionary work is frank and forthright in grappling with the difficulties Mormon missionaries faced (or brought with them) in Japan before withdrawing before World War II. He argues against the hypothesis that President Grant received a revelation to bring missionaries out prior to the war. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is distinguishing an imposing versus an integrating approach of missionary work: “The Mormons, who basically imposed or translated their message, struggled to make headway in Japan, while the American Protestants converted tens of thousands of Japanese, due in large part to their greater willingness to adapt their missionary approach to the needs of East Asia” (119).  

Throughout the book Reid is conscious of a broad audience. For instance, he spends more ink on LDS details often glossed over in other works such as the practice of dedicatory prayers,  briefly touching on their origins and significance for Latter-day Saints (77-80).

Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a crucial contribution to Mormon Studies, broadening the scope from the typically-discussed western United States to the wider world of Mormonism. Broader missiology scholars will welcome its bringing Mormon missionary work into the fold. Former LDS missionaries, especially those who served in different cultures and learned new languages, will be interested in the inner-workings of an early twentieth-century mission. Reid discusses literature and translation, tracting and street meetings, convert baptism and retention problems, jingoism and nationalism, polygamy, magic lantern shows, sporting activities, finances, and many other aspects of missionary life. It is a well-documented and well-argued comparison of LDS missionary efforts to the broader Christian desire to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).

October 17, 2010

Review: Terry Eagleton, "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate"

Title: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate 
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Yale University Press  
Genre: Religion  
Year: 2009  
Pages: 185  
ISBN13: 9780300164534  
Binding: Soft cover (2010)  
Price: 16.00

“Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics” (xi).
So Terry Eagleton begins his critique of the so-called New Atheist movement. Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, clearly is not advocating an uncritical acceptance of religion. In fact, his stinging analysis of the “Polyanna-ish” faith in human progress manifested by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (whom he humorously lumps together as “Ditchkins”) is balanced by his just-as-stinging indictment of a Christianity he feels has largely betrayed its initial ideal of social justice and human transformation.

Eagleton was invited to deliver the 2008 Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University. His initial delight in the invitation was tempered when he discovered the lectures “are traditionally devoted to two subjects I know embarrassingly little about, namely science and religion” (2). His lectures were compiled and edited—retaining the conversational format—into the new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The author is a strange brew—part Marxist, part liberal Catholic, all rolled into a British literary theorist.

Eagleton’s four lectures are divided into the book’s four chapters: “The Scum of the Earth,” “The Revolution Betrayed,” Faith and Reason,” and “Culture and Barbarism.” Throughout each lecture he is outspoken in regards to money, politics and capitalism, post-modern foundationless self-congratulation, faith in the cult of science which some believe, if followed, guarantees a bright future for all, and perhaps above all, he damns the way certain critics of religion “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap” (xi). What does he mean by this? Essentially, such critics are taking the low road in their treatment of religion:

“A huge number of the charges that Ditchkins levels against actually existing religion are thoroughly justified…Indeed, it is hard to imagine how any polemic against, say, the clerical abuse of children or the religious degradation of women could be too severe or exaggerated. Yet it is scarcely a novel point to claim that for the most part Ditchkins holds forth on religion in truly shocking ignorance of many of its tenets” (49).

Indeed, while exalting science and condemning faith (a dichotomy Eagleton finds problematic to begin with) critics like Dawkins “castigate the Inquisition, for example, but not Hiroshima” (133). What many New Atheist writers put together is usually “a worthless caricature of the real thing” (xi). But Eagleton doesn’t say he particularly blames them for such lapses. For one thing, he notes they view religion as silly from the start, so of course they won’t spend due time becoming properly familiar with it. “What profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?” (51). For another thing, many Christians have, in his view, “squalidly betrayed” their own “revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive” (55). Eagleton recognizes, however, that his own critique of Christianity would be impossible without the “Judeo-Christian legacy itself,” something most New Atheists seem pleasantly unaware of (58).

In the end, Eagleton explores the problems of Christian faith in a liberal (Western) society. There seems to be, he says, a “certain creative indifference to what people actually believe” as long as the economics work out. Taken to an extreme, “Liberal society’s summum bonum is to leave believers to get on with it unmolested—rather as the English would walk by if you were bleeding at the roadside, not because they are hard-hearted, but because they would be loathe to interfere with your privacy” (144).

Though Eagleton focuses mainly on Christianity for the “Religion” parts of the book, he occasionally includes Islam in the discussion. For instance, the peaceful integration of Muslims in the West, Eagleton argues, need not require their wholesale conversion or destruction or the west's wholesale indifference. Instead, “if the British or American way of life really were to take on board the critique of materialism, hedonism, and individualism of many devout Muslims…Western civilization would most certainly be altered for the good” (154). Not that Eagleton is really holding his breath. He is painfully aware of a “liberal paradox that there must be something close-minded about open-mindedness.” Liberalism (in the traditional sense) fears being overly-liberal when it comes to its own founding principles. The irony is made explicit in comments like that of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Our tolerance is what makes Britain Britain. So conform to it, or don’t come here” (127).

Eagleton would counter what he sees as the liberal humanism of Ditchkins with his own sort of “tragic humanism” with a religious twist (168). “Tragic humanism,” he concludes, “holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals did not continue to stand in its way” (169). Eagleton’s book is a brisk and welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about the place of religion in the world today. Readers will find plenty to challenge them in this brief snapshot of today’s “God Debate.” The lectures are available for viewing here.

What might stick out to Mormons in Eagleton's book?

  • Eagleton takes for granted several traditional Christian doctrines that run counter to LDS belief. These include creation ex nihilo and a concept of God that excludes embodiment (aside from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that is). These matters arise only peripherally.
  • Eagleton takes exception to American exceptionalism, criticizing those who worship a "clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessive God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and north of Mexico" (55-56). His criticism of some US foreign policy decisions may seem unpatriotic to some Mormons.
  • Eagleton makes no bones about the problems he sees as inherent in capitalism.
  • Eagleton's tone often contrasts sharply with the sort of homiletic and reverent tone of many LDS authors. For instance, his way of emphasizing the counter-intuitively shocking nature of the Christian view of God is tersely summed up: "Jesus is a sick joke of a savior. Messiahs are not born in stables" (19).
  • The only specific mention Eagleton makes of Mormonism is negative. While discussing "ideological versions of the Gospel" he criticizes the BYU facial hair policy. "But perhaps I have overlooked some vital antishaving verse in Luke or Matthew here," he quips (59).