John G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
John Turner’s new book about Mormons resembles his previous in some ways. There, as here, he tilts a familiar subject like a prism, slightly on an angle, and in so doing casts light on areas of Mormonism previously neglected. Turner’s book about Brigham Young probed deeply into the private life of the figure normally described as Mormonism’s great organizer and administrator, and so we came to know more about the slow formalization of polygamy, and the hectic landscapes of early Mormon religiosity, and the traumatic, rough and violent nineteenth century American frontier.
Here, in The Mormon Jesus, Turner delves into a topic as similarly contentious and argued over (though mostly among practitioners rather than students of American religion) as Brigham Young: Mormonism’s ideas about Jesus. In so doing, he has produced a book that, essentially, uses Jesus to explore the slow evolution of Mormon devotionalism. He spends much more time in the nineteenth and early twentieth century than in contemporary Mormonism, which is understandable, given the twin reasons of his own previous areas of expertise and his interest in the ways in which Mormon religious life evolved from the kernel of Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences into a set of institutionalized and normalized religious practices. Turner spends far more time exploring the place of Jesus in Mormon ritual, material and visual products, texts, and sacred history than he does exploring the set of somewhat inchoate theological convictions that make up Mormon Christology; he devotes only a few pages, for instance, to Jesus the Christ, James Talmage’s dense 1915 synthesis and arguably the most important work of Mormon theology ever written.
And yet, those decisions free Turner up to engage in some novel analysis, which narrow focus on theological debate might have obscured. Like two other recent books about Jesus, Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God became A National Icon (FSG, 2003) and Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America: A History (Harper, 2004), he scans the landscape of his subject for books, ritual, film and sermons that offer depictions of Jesus for mining and interpretation. While Fox’s book focuses a great deal on theology, using Jesus to explore ideas about human nature, atonement, and the relationship between God and humanity, Prothero’s more closely resembles Turner’s approach: Both books focus on the people on the margins as well as on the central figures of a religious tradition, and Turner’s net is capacious enough to snare the fundamentalist Ogden Kraut and Primary songbooks as well as James Talmage and Joseph Smith.
Rather than a chronological narrative, Turner takes a topical approach, exploring different places in which Jesus has been present in Mormon life. (He here follows Robert Orsi’s definition of religion as a series of relationships between the divine and the human.) He examines, for instance, Mormon ideas about the Second Coming, Jesus in Mormon scripture, the place of Jesus in the ritual worship of Mormon temples, and depictions of Jesus in Mormon art. Many of these chapters are loaded with insight; his observations about Jesus in the Book of Mormon, for instance, are a model of the sort of academic study of the text that scholars have been calling for recently, and Turner finds a great deal of later Mormon distinctiveness seeded in the movement’s primal text. Similarly, his reading of Jesus’s presence in Mormon rituals, in the temple and in the marriage ceremonies of sealing and the second anointing are simultaneously colorful – he has an eye for a telling quotation or anecdote – and thoughtful.
His final chapter, about Jesus in contemporary Mormon art, engages with Harvey and Blum’s recent The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (UNC, 2012). Like that work, Turner finds it telling that, as with so many other American faiths, Mormons have so often depicted Jesus as white – from Joseph Smith’s early visions to the Christus statue and a particularly idiosyncratic Mormon reading of certain reports about the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl which called him “white.” Mormons like the apostle Mark E. Petersen seized upon this idea as proof of the Book of Mormon’s story about Jesus’s visit to the Americas, deducing from the evidence that Jesus had visited America, but taking for granted the notion Jesus is white. Indeed, Mormonism’s notions of the embodiment of God lends a certain devastating power to such assumptions, and Turner teases apart the ramifications with care. While American Mormons tend today to depict Jesus as a strong and masculine servant, caring for the poor and dandling children on his knee while also being firm jawed, tall, and handsome, non-American Mormons have begun depicting a sometimes non-white savior.
In other chapters Turner pulls back from a discussion of Jesus in particular to review larger themes and concepts in Mormon religious life. For instance, he uses Jesus to drill into the ways Mormon belief about the nature of revelation, millennialism, and scripture have changed over time. Here he reviews material gone over before, but his use of the person of Jesus brings focus and sometimes greater nuance. In particular, Turner is strong on context. He draws parallels between the ideas and notions about Jesus that seem idiosyncratic to contemporary American Christians and shows how they are merely one more illustration of the ways in which Christianity in total is now and has never been a single orthodox monolith. “Christianity” for Turner is not defined by doctrinal homogeneity, but rather as a welter of competing ideas and practices orbiting around the figure of Jesus Christ.
Therefore Turner closes with the assertion that the Mormon Jesus is both “utterly Christian and distinctively Mormon” – a neat formulation which sidesteps the theological and apologetic debates that often bog down discussion of the topic. His book is as much a study of Mormonism as it is of the Mormon Jesus, and, through that lens, a study of arguments about what it has meant to be “Christian” anyway.