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Defending the Faith: Christianity is all about community

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

One day, Jesus taught from Peter's boat on the Sea of Galilee. Afterward He told Peter to take the boat to deep water and let out the nets to catch fish. Peter explained that he and others had been fishing all night without catching anything, but he said he would do as Jesus commanded. Peter and his brother Andrew caught so many fish that their net began to break. James and John came in another boat to help. The fishermen were all amazed. Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow Him and become fishers of men. He also called James and John. They all left their boats and nets and followed Jesus. Artist, Harry Anderson. Pictures of life of Christ for special issue. Monday, Dec.28, 2009, Photo copyright IRI

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In 1974, I read an article in the Georgetown University newspaper about the open house for the newly built Washington D.C. Temple.

I particularly remember the article's mockery of the temple's new president, a retired Singer Corp. executive whose hand the author had shaken during a press reception. It was a hand, the article sneered, that had undoubtedly sold many sewing machines in its time.

Georgetown is a Catholic school, and I wondered whether the article would have been as contemptuous toward Peter — the first pope, in Catholic belief — whose hands had, undoubtedly, mended and cast a great many fishing nets. Or, even, toward Jesus himself, whose youthful hands, we're told, were busy in his father's workshop.

Ironically, such smug elitism would have been quite congenial to those who eventually killed Jesus. In John 7, for example, officers were sent to arrest the Savior, but their plans fail:

Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?

The officers answered, Never man spake like this man.

Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived?

Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?

But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. (John 7:45-49)

Today, some secular critics find American Mormons culturally unfashionable because, among other things, we're overwhelmingly middle class, which simply isn't cool. (By contrast, such critics sometimes romanticize poverty.)

In that light, it's amused me to notice, while rereading Peter Brown's classic "The World of Late Antiquity," how often Brown refers to the "middle class" character and the "middlebrow" culture of Christianity during his period.

"By 200," he writes, "the Christian communities were not recruited from among the 'humble and oppressed'; they were groupings of the lower middle classes and of the respectable artisans of the cities. Far from being deprived, these people had found fresh opportunities and prosperity in the Roman empire."

(It's debatable, by the way, whether even the earliest Christians were truly poor; Peter owned his own fishing boat, and his house in Capernaum is fairly substantial.)

Brown's description recalls 19th-century English Mormon converts, who were primarily craftsmen and industrial laborers, not the desperately poor. Charles Dickens noticed this when, in June 1863, he visited the London docks to watch 800 Latter-day Saints board an emigrant ship for America:

"I should say," he wrote, "that most familiar kinds of handicraft trades were represented here. Farm-labourers, shepherds, and the like, had their full share of representation, but I doubt if they preponderated."

"To the rout and overthrow of all my expectations," he reported, the emigrants were "the pick and flower of England."

Another point of elite criticism focuses on Mormonism's simple teachings, sometimes dismissed as shallow, and the absence of trained theologians among its lay leaders. But listen, again, to Peter Brown on ancient Christianity:

"Already, some writers looked down from the high battlements of their classical culture at the obscure world pressing in upon them." Yet the second-century physician and philosopher Galen "noticed that the Christians were apparently enabled by their brutally simple parables and commands to live according to the highest maxims of ancient ethics. The Christian Apologists boasted of just this achievement. Plato, they said, had served good food with fancy dressings, but the Apostles cooked for the masses in a wholesome soup-kitchen!"

Brown contends, "The appeal of Christianity lay in its radical sense of community: it absorbed people because the individual could drop from a wide impersonal world into a miniature community whose demands and relations were explicit." Converts valued "the sense of belonging to a distinctive group with carefully prescribed habits."

Precisely the same observation is often made with regard to the Latter-day Saints. As, with appropriate adjustments, is this one:

"It was possible to achieve in a small group, 'among the brethren,' relationships that were being achieved in society at large at a heavy cost of conflict and uncertainty. As a member of a church, the Christian could cut some of the more painful Gordian knots of social living. He could, for instance, become a radical cosmopolitan. His literature, his beliefs, his art and his jargon were extraordinarily uniform, whether he lived in Rome, Lyons, Carthage or Smyrna. The Christians were immigrants at heart … separated from their environment by a belief which they knew they shared with little groups all over the empire."

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/.

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