2007: Interview of Robert Millet at Benchmark Books / Juvenile Instructor

Juvenile Instructor has posted in March 2008 the transcript of a recorded interview of Dr. Robert Millet at a book signing at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City in October 2007. The complete interview, including questions and answers, can be found there at this link.

This post consists of some excerpts from the interview that will be most interesting to Latter-day Saints and Christians interested in the Church’s attempt to position itself closer to Christianity.

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair
Curt Bench: Bob has written over fifty books, and I don’t know any author that’s had three new books come out in one month. “What Happened to The Cross”, this is from Deseret Book. “The Vision of Mormonism”, Paragon House, a national press, and I’m going to let him talk, I don’t know if he wants to focus on any of these books or not. “Claiming Christ, a Mormon, Evangelical Debate”, and next month, I happen to get an Advance Reading Copy of “Bridging The Divide, The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical”, written with Greg Johnson; so now we have it in print. Part of the fun of going to hear Bob and Greg, is to hear the question, answer session. I hoping we’re going to have a real good one here tonight too; because people ask hard questions, they don’t just lob softballs.

Robert Millet: Lyndon Cook said it well once: “I love being an author, I just hate being a writer”. I can really identify with that, because it’s hard work. And my problem now (and it’s a great source of frustration for me) is that next month, in December, I turn 60. That is so frustrating to me because I want to be 35 again, because my mind just races with things to do, and my body doesn’t race like it used to,. So I find myself winding down in the body, but the brain keeps working. I’ll wake up at 3 in the morning thinking something just has to be done.

So I’ve had some fun in the last several years as, Curt indicated. Much of what I’ve done for the last five years, by the way of writing has been if not directly, at least indirectly related to my work in interfaith relations. Even the other book I did for Deseret Book, “Getting at the Truth,” was really a response to many of the questions that either come in anti-mormon writings or that people, honestly and earnestly ask of us.

Sperry Symposium Article on Joseph Smith and Calvinism
Robert Millet: So the interfaith area has spawned a whole host of things. I’ll give you an example. We have a Sperry Symposium coming up in 2008, and I forget what the theme is, but it’s something along the lines of the groundwork of the restoration, or something like that. So I decided that I wanted to do something different. I’ve spent much time with my Evangelical friends, most of whom are very, very seriously Calvinistic. So I decided to do a paper that I’ve entitled “Tiptoeing through the Tulip: Joseph Smith Confronts Calvinism.” And it has been such a delight to go back and read, and search, and read again, things that I have come across before to try to better understand my reformed friends.

The problem I face now is that it was due on October 1st. So I let the editor know, because I wasn’t done writing. When I finally finished, it was fifty pages long, and he said “Bob it can’t be any more than twenty-five.” Finally I sent him something with thirty pages. But that’s my next book project because I can see that little 50 page project is easily a 200-250 page book.

Future Book by Bob on Doubt
Robert Millet: Much of what I’m doing now seems to be pointed toward our relationship with other churches, so I continue to do that. I’m also working now, and this is hard, it may be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m working on a little book, that will deal with doubt, the whole matter of how I deal with doubt, and how other people have dealt with doubt; how we come through even in spite of our doubts. I think it was Hugh B. Brown who said we have to serve our apprentice with doubt, before we’re qualified to say “we know.”

Bob’s Involvement in Interfaith Activities

Robert Millet: I’ve been at BYU 25 years, and I love teaching, but I would say the last ten years have been the most spiritually, professionally, personally enriching, and rewarding of anything I have ever done. I have come to gain a broadened perspective on life, on God, and especially my brothers and sisters of other faiths.

I have tremendous respect for people of other faiths, and am seeing them with whole new eyes; because I see in them people who love God, and want to please him. So for me to denounce them, or for me to dismiss them, or marginalize them seems so out of line. I’m as committed, if not more so a Latter-day Saint as I’ve ever been, but that doesn’t make me into a bigot. So I’ve had some fun watching my mind grow as I’ve read, and read, and read, and read, and read, and read, and read traditional Christian writings for the last ten years.

The thing I’ve noticed the most is a deepened, and a broadened friendship, with fewer people prone to throw stones at us, and more people that are prepared to say, “I don’t know that the Mormons believe that, I don’t believe you should say that.” And I hope the same is true for me and my colleagues.

Twice-Yearly Mormon / Evangelical Scholars Meetings
Robert Millet: We’ve had a running dialogue now for eight years with a group of Evangelical scholars, and a group of Latter-day Saints that meet twice a year. We’ll meet at Fuller Seminary, or BYU, then we rotate; and for the mid-year sessen we meet at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings, wherever those are. In the summer meetings, they are 2 and 3 days, of just long days, addressing a particular topic. We will have read an Evangelical document or book, and an LDS document or book on that topic, and we have had marvelous conversations.

The first topics we talked about were the source of truth, the scriptures; the atonement (three whole days on grace and works); and a fascinating two days on the Trinity or Godhead. We then built up to our discussions of authority, and the first vision (we knew that would take some time to be ready for), and that was magnificent. These discussions are broadening, and the size of group is growing, and the influence is spreading; and some wonderful friendships have grown.

The most significant thing that has happened is illustrated by this: we were sitting at our meeting at Fuller two years ago, and we were about to split up; we had finished our discussions, and there was just such love, and trust, and goodwill in that group that had come to know each other, and love each other. Finally I said “before we split lets decide our topic for next time.” Richard Mouw, is the president of the Fuller Seminary, and Rich and I are good friends. So I said, “Rich and I will work out a reading list,” and Rich interrupted and said, “I don’t want to talk about a reading list; I want to talk about location.” I said, “Are you against coming to BYU now?” He said “Oh no, I love BYU.” I said “Then what do you want to do?” He said “I want to meet in Nauvoo!” I said “what?” He said “Yes, we want to meet in Nauvoo. Don’t we want to meet in Nauvoo?” and he turned to his group, and they all said “Yeah, we want to meet in Nauvoo.” So the following May, twenty of us met in Nauvoo for four days, I’ve got to tell you it’s one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. I think we all know this, there’s something about the spirit of the place that touches anybody that’s an honest truth seeker, and these people stood up in a kind-of testimony like way with tears, these are important scholars with tears running down their faces, saying “This has been a spiritual experience for me, thank you. “

We held our most recent meeting last June at Fuller, and I asked the same question. Rich said, “I don’t want to meet at BYU.” I said “you really don’t like BYU do you?” He said, “No, it’s not that, I want to meet in Palmyra!” So this summer we’ll meet in Palmyra. That’s the way the relationships have grown.

In other words, there are more people out there, there’s a growing number of people out there with whom we’re making friends, and are much less prone to believe the first thing they hear from a critic.

Some Mormons become Evangelical and Vice-Versa
Robert Millet: Have I seen people join the church? Yes. I attended a baptism last Saturday, and you’d be interested in knowing what tipped the scales for her. She sat in my office at BYU, and I said, “What was it?” she was Evangelical, she met a boy, got to know him, they went to college together, then they both went to Law School at Pepperdine, both graduated from Law School, and have moved back this area. So I said, “What was the clincher for you?” She said, “I believed the Book of Mormon to be true; that was the first testimony I gained, after I prayed about it,” she said. But, the straw that broke the camels back was the anti-mormonism. She said the bitterness of it drove her away. I obviously let my colleagues know that, though they are not the ones that write that stuff anyway.

The other is equally as true. Is it possible that a Latter-day Saint will go the other direction? That’s one of the risks you face, when you do this kind of thing. I have seen one or two that have chosen to go the other way.

Beginning of Interactions from Stephen Robinson’s Book “Are Mormons Christian?”
Robert Millet: How did this relationship start? It was just really a strange thing. I was Dean of the college of religion. Stephen Robinson had written his book called “Are Mormons Christians?” The book had sold fairly well in the LDS market, but it had also made its way into the market out there. A group of scholars at Denver Seminary had reviewed it, and they invited Stephen to come, and he felt like he was being invited to a massacre, so he didn’t go.

But he did manage to start a conversation with Craig Blomberg at Denver, out of which came the book, “How Wide The Divide”, which was a very important groundbreaking work, as far as the conversation between a Mormon, and an Evangelical about doctrinal things. After that in 1997 we invited another professor from Denver to come to BYU to give a presentation, and he did, and he shared with us his doctoral work, much of which was on Melchizedek. He had studied under F.F. Bruce, the great New Testament scholar in England. I was trying to hear as much as I could, but the secretary kept saying “there’s somebody that needs to see you.” I was so frustrated, so I was just catching things here and there.

Pastor Greg Johnson and the Millet / Johnson Dialogs
Robert Millet: In that meeting happened to be two other pastors, one an Assemblies of God Pastor, and one a Baptist Pastor, Greg Johnson. I made a comment, and one of the times I was there he heard me, and came up afterwards, and we chatted. To make a long story short, we got to know each other, became good friends, began going to lunch together about once a month. I would honestly say that he’s probably, other than my wife, he’s probably my best friend. (My wife says, “he ought to be, you spend way more time with him than you do anybody else.”) Greg and I have been all over the world together, and I have to tell you what an enriching thing this is, it has been just phenomenal.

I do have regular job; I don’t have to go out and seek new things to do; BYU for some reason wants me to be there occasionally. But, people are calling all the time. “Would you be willing to come to Dallas?” “Would you be willing to come to Colorado Springs, those are hotbeds for Evangelicalism?” and “would you put on a presentation?” The people have just been absolutely delightful, they’ve been warm, accommodating, it’s not that we agree on everything, but the spirit of collegiality that has existed in these exchanges have just been, I think have changed us all.

Growth of Christianity in Southern Hemisphere and as Pentacostal / Charismatics, and Associated Growth of Mormonism

Robert Millet: Philip Jenkins is a very fine scholar at Penn State. The whole message of his books in the last few years the growth of Christianity is has been in the southern hemisphere, the growth of Christianity has come in South America, and Africa, and mainly among pentacostals. I went to a Pentecostal church, just a while back, and a preacher who was from Africa preached. He was a delightful man, and a great preacher. In describing his ministry, he said: “A Year and a half ago, my friend and I started with six members, and we now have five thousand.” He said, “We anticipate that within a year and a half, we’ll have thirty thousand.” That’s the way Christianity is growing in Africa.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could grow almost as fast, if not faster, if, if we had leadership; we grow a little differently you see, we’re supposed to grow really from centers of strength, and so we’re going to grow a little more slowly there.

Catholics and Other Religions
I’ll tell you what I’m asked all the time, back in Christianity, I’m asked by Catholics constantly; “Why aren’t you doing this with Roman Catholics?” And, my response is, “I would love to, I only have so much energy.”

I think for a lot of people, this is a kind of a work that is odd. This isn’t about the head at all, cause I ain’t very bright, but I have a heart for this, and if you have a heart for it, that makes up for a lot of dumbness,

In New York City, I was visiting with Richard John Newhouse. Father Newhouse is a very respected Catholic voice, and he said to me, “I know the work you’ve been doing with Evangelicals, I applaud it, you got to keep it up. When are you going to start doing it with us?” So the interest is there.

I’ve had the same thing expressed to me by Jewish Rabbi’s, I’ve had the same thing expressed to me by Muslims, so the interest is there.

Problems of Latter-day Saint Attitudes

Robert Millet: The problem is we’re new at this, as a people. It’s even a challenge getting college students at BYU when we host; we host about six different groups during the year, Evangelical groups who come to BYU for an experience. Among the first things I say to both the LDS, and the others, is this: “Let’s start with something that’s going to jar you a bit; this is not about conversion.” Both groups take the great commission very seriously, to go into all the world and make disciples. I say, “This is not about conversion, this is not about making that person one of you; it is about helping that person to see where you’re coming from, and vice versa.”

So what I would say is, it’s been a wonderful ten years.

Opposition to Bob among LDS

Robert Millet: it hasn’t been all joy ride. I’ve had a few slaps on the hand, some heavier, with heavier hands than others. Just before I retire, we’ll tell that story.

There are just some people this makes nervous, because, it rings of ecumenism. That is not what I’m about; this is called “conversation,” this is called “building friendships.” People think, “What doctrine are you going to trade? Ok, you get rid of the Trinity, I’ll get rid of Baptism for the Dead.” No, it’s not about that. When you say interfaith, that’s what people think, and by the way they think about that on both sides, and so when they come to our dialogues, you feel at the beginning there’s a little bit of tension; “what’s going to happen here?” By the time we leave, I think most of that is dissipated.

General Authority Involvement
Robert Millet: I’ve been with General Authorities, I’ve been with Apostles, as we have met with large groups of Pastors, and as we flew away from California, that member of the twelve turned, and said: “We’ve got work to do my friend; we’ve got a lot of work to do. We are not understood.” I said, “You are saying we’re not understood!”

This work doesn’t lessen your faith, in fact if anything I’m stronger now than I was ten years ago. I have a deeper appreciation, I’ll tell you, for some views they have. There are some things they write, that I just eat up. When so, and so writes a book, I’m the first one to read it.

Bob’s Appeciation of, But Not Complete Acceptance of, Calvinism
Robert Millet: I’m listening now for example to a friend of mine in California, who is a very prominent Evangelical thinker. I just finished listening to two CD’s of his that were sent to me on Calvinism. And I find myself saying, “John my man I have great respect for you; I just can’t buy it, it’s too depressing; it’s just too closed for me.”
But, I think I understand it better, I know where he’s coming from, and I respect him for believing that way. The sovereignty of God is everything to him. And it certainly does not make you more arrogant, it makes you less arrogant.
Latter-Day Saint Parochialism
Robert Millet: And you’re right, you only have to get away from this valley for a little bit, and think in little broader terms.

In my case it was kind of an eye opener, when I discovered, I remember asking my friend, “how many Evangelicals are there,” and he said there are about 700 million. To know that we have broken great ground and we’ve moved up to about 0.2 percent, 2 tenths of 1 percent of the world’s population; that puts things in perspective. We’re growing yes, but, my goodness, there’s a big world out there.

The other thing I’d say this isn’t just a Mormon phenomenon. Where ever you have a majority culture, you’re going to fight against parochialism, and narrow mindedness; and that’s part of what Greg and I have tried to go out and do, in this valley in particular, is to say don’t be so uptight, Unfortunately too many Latter-day Saints, when that persons not of their faith moves in next door, we make friends with them, we bring them goodies, and then we ask them the great question, and when the answer is no, we’re just not interested. But we love being here, we don’t know what to do with ourselves, and we certainly don’t know what to do with them. You know if we can’t baptize them, we don’t know what to do with them, and so the answer is, my goodness, maybe we could be…friends, you know.

Elder Holland’s Conference Talk on the Trinity / Godhead
Robert Millet: What do I think Elder Holland’s agenda was in his talk (on LDS differences on the trinity)? He talked to me about it, before he gave it. He was talking to the Christian world, to try to make clear what our stance on the Godhead, and the Trinity is, and why we do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, and yet, why we believe we’re Christian, that was the purpose of the talk. In fact he called me to tell me about it, and said “Call Greg, and tell him what this is going to be on.” So Greg was watching conference that day, called me right afterward. I said “Are you offended?” He said “No, no I wasn’t offended, I thought it was great, in fact I just wrote him an email.”

I know the intention was to speak out, and to show that you can speak out in a kindly manner; stand for what you believe; express appreciation for your friends of other faiths, but say, “this is why I’m convinced I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in the Trinity.” So that was his purpose.

On LDS Belief that Man Can become as God

Robert Millet: To be totally honest with you, even that one, man becoming as God, is less bothersome to them, than God was once a man. Because, frankly, if you give me ten minutes with them, I show them enough New Testament passages that have deification implications, to where they come away saying, “Well, it doesn’t mean what you think it means, but it sort of sounds like that, doesn’t it?”

My whole point, is “folks, we didn’t invent this, if we hadn’t come on the scene, you’d still have hundreds of millions of people who are in the orthodox tradition who take deification very seriously, and so, whether they mean by it this (and they mean something different than we do, of course they mean something different than we do); You wanna stop this?”

Favorite Evangelical Authors

Robert Millet: Depending on what you want to read, some of the best thinkers in the Evangelical world in terms of theology would be people like John Stott and J. I. Packer. I had a beautiful experience this summer, Greg and I went back to Regent College in Vancouver Canada, and this is the 2nd time we’ve done this, we spent two weeks at Regent College, an Evangelical Graduate School, and we took a two week course in, two courses actually, two courses, two weeks, cram course in, one was in the early church fathers, and one was in Puritan theology, and Puritan life, and the one in Puritan theology was from James Packer. Probably one of the most influential Christian theologians in the 21st century, so Packer, Stott, are two of the most critical.

The Christian that I find among the most enjoyable to read, that I think everybody here would just love reading, is Phillip Yancey. Phillip Yancey is remarkable. his book, “The Jesus I Never Knew,” is a classic. The book he just wrote on prayer, oh my goodness, it’s the finest thing I have ever read on prayer. So there are just certain people of whom we’re silly not to read some of their stuff. It isn’t because, I’m reading so I can set them straight, it’s, I’m reading them because I’m learning; “He’s showing me things, oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about that!” So I think there are some great thinkers.

The other person that’s very influential right now on both a popular, and a very scholarly level is a man by the name of N.T. Wright, Tom Wright. He wrote a book very, very much intended, not to replace, but to succeed C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, called “Simply Christian.” It is just excellent. The name is N.T. Wright, Tom Wright, and he is the Bishop of Durham, now this is a very interesting thing, he’s Bishop of Durham, which means he’s the third most influential, the fourth most influential man in Anglicanism. But, he also happens to be one of the finest New Testament scholars among the top two, or three in the world. So he writes, both very highly technical theological things, but he also writes very enjoyable popular things. Wright is an excellent one to read. He did one, too, that’s his theodicy (you know what I mean by that? How to deal with the problems of God and human suffering), that’s called something like “God and Justice”, or something like that. But I read that, it’s just been out within the last year, it’s excellent. But those are names of people.

Phillip Yancey is worth it; he’s worth getting into.

I was going to say, you’ll get a different reading from (Marcus) Borg (liberal Episcopalian author of many books).

Yancey’s “Sole Survivor” is for somebody who does serious thinking about church. Why hang onto the church, that’s what he addresses. The subtitle is “How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive The Church.” He picks out people whose writings influenced him enough to keep him in the church.

Let me give you an example of his kind of writing;. This is what he says in, “The Jesus I Never Knew”, he says, “What was it about Jesus that caused the most despicable elements of society to be attracted to him? The prostitutes, the sinners in general, the tax collectors, the shepherds.” And then he said, “And why is it those same people feel so very uncomfortable around us?” He said, that “I fear that in the church, in the Christian church we have created an atmosphere of respectability, a climate, a culture of respectability.” That just sent chills down my spine as I read that, because I see it, and you see it.

Well, that’s the kind of writer he is; Yancey is beloved by his people, but, he occasionally takes a potshot at Evangelicalism, because that’s what he is. He’s a journalist by training, and so he’s kind of a social critic.

Current and Future Interactions with Other Evangelical Scholars

Robert Millet: I’m thinking of Sarah Barringer Gordon at Penn State University. She’s trained in both history and law. She has a pretty darn good understanding of Mormonism. There are others.

If he had the time he’d do it; Nathan Hatch wrote his wonderful book, back in the 80’s, called “The Democratization of Christianity in America.” I hosted him when he came to speak at the forum at BYU, he’s a delightful man, he’s Evangelical, but was the Provost at Notre Dame for ten years. This is a wonderful American religious historian who really feels like we just haven’t taken as people, as a world, he says we haven’t taken Joseph Smith, Mormonism, and especially the Book of Mormon seriously enough.

I think there are more and more people coming: I’ll tell you who will be (it’s something as simple as this) Randall Balmer, who is at Columbia University, at Barnard College at Columbia. Randy’s become a dear friend.

What I do is, I think that what happened to me once I got into this, God blessed me, and I just lost all fear (probably all propriety too). But I would read a book, and it was SO GOOD, I’d get on the phone and call the author. “I just loved your book, when are you in town? I want to come see you.” “Well sure.” (I have never had anyone say, “oh no”) “I would love to meet you.” Then I’d invite them back to BYU, and they’d present there for three or four days, and so we’d begin. Randy Balmer, and I built up a relationship like that, and and here’s one of the results of what we were talking about.

Not long ago a young man called, and said “Professor Millet?” “yes?”, “my name is so and so, I’m at Columbia, I’m working on a doctoral dissertation, and one aspect of it deals with the Mormon movement, and, I went to my professor, Randy Balmer, and he said, he could help me a little bit, but he suggested I call you to get information on this.”

Well, the more we can have that happening. the better; and that grew out of us becoming friends. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not saying “me,” but “friendships.”

Claremont Chair of Mormon Studies
Robert Millet: I think there are more and more people who are ready to take Mormonism seriously. I think the Claremont situation will prove very interesting, Dick Bushman will be there at least a few years.

About four or five years ago, President Bateman asked me if I would travel to Claremont to meet with the Provost of the Claremont Graduate University. I said “fine, but why?” And he said “they’re talking about some very interesting things about Mormon Studies; go ask her what she’s interested in, and what she wants to do.” So I went out and met with her, she happened to be what she called a lapsed LDS; she had taught at the U of U, she had been administrator at the U. I can’t even now think of her name, but she now is the president of New Hampshire, University of New Hampshire. But before she left she said “there’s an idea afloat in the School of Religion by Karen Torjesen, the Dean. They’re talking about the possibility of a program in Mormon Studies. They want major religions to be featured, they want a chair with each of those.” To make the story short, there’s been established the Howard W. Hunter, Chair at Claremont Graduate University.

Richard Bushman will be the first holder of that chair. It’s not that a person will go major in Mormonism; it would be a little tough to get a job after that. But rather, they might major in comparative religion in America and U.S. History, with an emphasis in Mormon Studies. My friend Greg Johnson has already been offered, if you come here and do your doctorate, we’ll let you write your dissertation on what you and Bob have been doing for the last ten years. I mean it’s that kind of thing, they’re eager for Mormon students to come there, so that’ll open up this fall.

Successors to Robert Millet
Curt Bench: My little two cents worth here, I think that one of the main reasons that a lot of this has not happened before, is because there’s only one Bob Millet.
Robert Millet: Yeah, but, you can take that either way. Like my wife would say: God be praised!

Curt Bench: Not everybody agrees with what he’s doing or everything that he’s doing, but my sense is that he has opened some very important doors, and those doors are going to continue to open, and I think he’s a pioneer, and I think it’s the Genesis of a great thing that’s going to continue to enfold, I really do believe that, and um, and it’s kudos to him for doing it, and having the courage to do it, and I hope there are other Bob Millets actually.

Robert Millet: We’re raising up some young scholars, and they are so impressive. That’s one of the things that the leaders of the church, and the leaders of the University have asked me; “Who will take your place?” So, we’ve got some young persons at the University now in training, and they are fabulous. They come with a disposition to want to do this.


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