Evaluating the Blueprint: The Review
I've just finished a very quick read-through of Tad Callister's “The Blueprint of Christ's Church” and figured it might be nice to do a sort of mini-review of my impressions of the book as a whole before beginning to discuss pieces of the book. The verdict? About what would be expected, though with some unexpected highlights.
I was surprised to find that I was not nearly as aggravated by errors and smugness as I thought I would be (damning by faint praise, I suppose, right?). Let's be honest: everything I was expecting to find was there. The book presents a false picture of the unassailable strength of Callister's position (I'd say the position of the LDS Church, but he was very clear in his foreword that the book is his own). There is a constant use of the weakest opposing arguments combined with the best supporting arguments. Often a list of supporting arguments ends abruptly and gives the reader the impression that the author could have continued to give examples supporting their position, but my impression knowing what I do is that the list is actually complete without betraying itself as such. Similarly, lists of opposing arguments end before the author runs out of the poorest arguments to dissect.
But the book surprised me, too, by it's careful approach to ecumenicalism in some areas. Chapter 7, which contains an extremely brief overview of the Nicaean Council and Creed did not actually run into blatantly false areas as other LDS authors and speakers do on the subject. Callister is careful to include language indicating that Trinitarianism as a theological idea might have existed before the Council convened and never comes right out to claim that Trinitarianism was invented by political expediency, which I've found to be the somewhat usual approach to a LDS interpreting the Council and Creed. It is unfortunate that Callister never read much of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” discussion of the debates of the Council, otherwise I'd imagine that his book would contain more of the scripture-based arguments of the Arianist position.
From this omission and several others I'm led to believe that while Callister may indeed own a copy of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” library, he's never actually sat down to read them through but instead has picked them up and perused them when he had spare moments. Or it may be that he does not want to associate himself with the other “heretical” early Christianities who agree with him in some aspects but who also hold other positions that Callister would find disturbing. So when discussing baptisms for the dead we hear no mention of Tertullian's mockery of the Marcionite version of the practice, or when discussing the word ὁμοούσιος we don't get into the use of the word by Valentinian Gnostics or it's uncomfortable close association to Sabellianism among early Trinitarianists. I'm guessing that Callister doesn't want to present a picture of a fractured early Christianity. Perhaps he didn't want to draw too close an association between a Christian movement that fractured and a Latter Day Saint movement that has also fractured along doctrinal, political, and geographic lines (and continues to fracture).
Which brings me to what I think is the main problem of the book: the audience. Callister claims that he is writing to an audience composed of both Mormons and even non-Mormons. He thanks a handful of non-Mormons for their helpful critiques of his early drafts (what I wouldn't give to see what those critiques actually were!) and is careful to address at time orthodox Christian readers, Mormon Readers, doubting Mormons, former Mormons, and even secular humanists (though not by such an accommodating name, preferring to just use the word “secularists). It's quite the presumed audience, but in the end I found myself increasingly creating a mental cast of characters and wondering how each of them would be responding to Callister's words. I admit, I was getting a little bored so I had more fun with this than I should have.
Callister's audience is supposed to be a wide variety of people, but in the end I think the only real audience he is seeking to satisfy is an audience of one. And I can't really blame him too much for that. The process of writing is often solitary. But the process of editing and rewriting does not have to be. I wonder how Callister's book would have emerged had he given it to my mental cast of characters for their thoughts on it before publication:
Astrid, the young single mother living in Norway raising her son. She is Lutheran as most Norwegians are, but also extremely secular as most Norwegians also are (they make it work, don't ask me how).
John, a historian and member of the Community of Christ, which formed around a large group of original followers of Joseph Smith living in the Midwest who were opposed to Brigham Young and polygamy. (Yeah, this guy isn't made up, I know. He's too cool to not leap to mind when thinking of modern RLDS people!)
Matthew, the Catholic father from Central America who isn't just Catholic because his father was Catholic, but has spent many years of his adult life reading Catholic books and listening to Catholic sermons very similar to your average Mormon father in Utah
Kumiko, the Japanese atheist who knows more about Shinto and the Buddha than Jesus
Michael, the retired professor of Meso-American history from Yale (again, this guy is real because it's too cool to have it otherwise)
Danielle, the follower of Denver Snuffer (who has no followers, I know, I've heard it, but let's be honest here, people follow him even if he doesn't want them to)
Raul, the black Baptist pastor from Georgia
Tammy, the female Anglican paster from California
Let's be honest: if even one of these mostly-hypothetical people (or a similar real-world counterpart) had been asked to provide input and that input was responded to we would have a very different book on our hands. I'll probably be referring to this cast list as I continue in my more focus critiques over the coming weeks. Each of these people would have a lot to find fault with or at least to question.
Another surprise was just how little of the book covered the same bases as Callister's 2014 CES fireside. Instead, this book is a consolidation of everything he's previously had published both in book form and in the Ensign. Even my (least) favorite graphical analogy of the line defined by two points being the line of truth between the Bible and the Book of Mormon makes an appearance! Large chunks of the book have been moved, occasionally just cut and pasted, from previous books and talks. If you've ever looked at the shelves of Deseret Book under Callister's name and wondered which book to buy (haven't we all been there?) now you don't have to: this book seems to be the end result of Callister's church writings over the past decade or so. Those familiar with his Ininite Atonement or Inevitable Apostacy are going to be feeling a lot of de ja vu reading this book.
The only notable absence or revision would be his discussion of modesty, which pretty much ends up a nothing more than a long paragraph that seems to avoid gendered distinctions of any kind. This leads me to think that Callister was very much aware of the frustration his BYU-I sermon had caused and it seems to be that it bothered him a lot. If so, I feel a little bad for him as I know he didn't mean anything hurtful by his comments and I imagine it would be a painful shock to be made to realize just how dangerous his words (and perspective) were. It really does feel to me that he retreated from those words and their absence in what seems to be the magnum opus of his life's written LDS work indicates that he'd rather not be remembered for those comments. Which I can respect: people always continue to change over time and it's a sign of a healthy mind that can re-evaluate things on the basis of new evidence.
But, in the end, my final overall impressions were what I was expecting. He quotes the infamously unsubstantiated Catholic priest who claimed, “You Mormons don't know the strength of your position.” Similarly, I would state, Tad Callister you also don't know the strength of your position, or, to be more accurate, the lack of strength. His wording is often bold, overbearing, and even sometimes demeaning in his assumptions that all sources of knowledge point to what he himself believes. He seems to be unfamiliar with the real arguments against his positions, which is odd as he presents himself as very well-read among many authors who would present challenges (being the only GA I know of who quotes Dr. Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, for instance). His position is not unassailable, and indeed his arguments often are unknowingly attacking themselves. All of this I'm sure will come up as I start to respond to this book.
Tad Callister has been gunning for one of the top seats for a while. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it one of these days with the top 15 being as old and sick, physically and mentally, as they are due to their age. If that happens, this book will probably gain even more popularity which would be fortunate or unfortunate depending on your point of view. Testimonies founded on this book and its arguments are going to be founded on a deceivingly weak foundation of ice that will melt and shatter under any close examination and fail to uphold anything with the strength they claim to have.