Category: Book Reviews

Whom say ye that I am? A review of John Turner’s Mormon Jesus

mormon jesus

This is the first in a series on John Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. John Turner’s latest book — The Mormon Jesus: A Biography — is wonderful. The book opens with Jesus’ question to his apostles, as recorded in Mark 8:29, “But whom say ye that I am?” Over the succeeding nine chapters, Turner explores how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have answered that question over time. By themes, Turner constructs a rich historical narrative of the evolution of Mormon belief. Along the way, he places Mormon views in the context of broader Christianity: Joseph Smith revised the Bible? So did Thomas Jefferson and others, but in very different ways. This anchoring of Latter-day Saint views in their time and place doesn’t make Mormonism’s brand of Christianity the same as other groups; rather, it serves to highlight what is actually distinctive. Furthermore, Turner illustrates each theme with well-told illustrations, such as ordinary members of…

‘A Reason For Faith’: A Review

During the lesson in Elders Quorum this past Sunday, we discussed ways to enhance our study of the scriptures. As usual, I raised my hand and recommended that we study the scriptures within their historical and cultural context so that our “likening” of them does not turn into “making stuff up.” I said that this should also include a study of Church history in order to understand our own doctrines, revelations, and controversies. And to top it all off, I suggested we work on developing religious literacy in order to have fruitful conversations with those outside our faith tradition. This class discussion also featured a number of stories about gospel conversations with co-workers. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a manager a couple years ago.

Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

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Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and…

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the…

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

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(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had…

Transformation and Flourishing: A Secular Age, Round 2

(Link to Round 1) This post revisits the theme of fullness from Taylor’s introduction that I mentioned briefly in the last post. In the universal quest for the “good life”—the telos that determines what makes life valuable and what is the normative way to live— Taylor distinguishes the believer and the unbeliever by where they locate this fullness (the transcendent or the immanent frame), and what fullness entails (transformation or flourishing). What does Taylor mean by “transformation” and “flourishing”? In short, flourishing is the perfection or fulfillment of our “human material” (i.e. sexual fulfillment, security and success, health and prosperity, etc.), while transformation entails a “radical change in identity” that “takes us beyond merely human perfection”—or requires its very renunciation– in the name of a higher good. More specifically, “the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case…to the point of the extinction of self in one case [Buddhism],…

Conditions of Belief in A Secular Age: Secular Age Round 1

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I finished Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age last summer, and it was one of those books that you finish reading and the world feels like an entirely different place. In this book, Taylor examines not only the emergence of Western secularism, but the experience of living in it. His project is phenomenological as much as it is genealogical; tracing the winding paths and new terrain that deposited us in this creedally pluralistic society, while also examining the pathos, the uncertainty, the limitations and fruits of navigating our way through the midst of many plausible alternatives of how to believe and how to live.  For this reason, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening, but spiritually awakening. In this series of blog posts, I hope to sketch some of his insights and observations on the history of our secular condition and the “cross-pressures” we experience within it. I will interweave some musings on some of the implications for or intersections with [my…

Review: First Principles and Ordinances

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I’m going to say some nice things about Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, published in 2014 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. But first some background. This short book (153 pages of text) is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series, which also includes Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. What I like about both books is that they take a relentlessly positive approach to the LDS doctrines and principles they discuss but avoid the oversimplified discussion that has become the norm for the LDS curriculum and mainstream LDS books. These are books directed at the intelligent Mormon reader.

Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding

You have probably heard about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015; publisher’s page) by Brian C. and Laura H. Hales. It has been getting a lot of attention, coming as it does in the wake of the recently released polygamy essays at LDS.org. Furthermore, the book follows the three-volume treatment of the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, authored by Brian C. Hales and (for volumes 1 and 2) Don Bradley and also published by Kofford. Not having read the three volumes, I assume the 100 pages of narrative text in this shorter volume, along with the 75 pages of biographical sketches of the 35 women who were, in one sense or another, plural wives of Joseph Smith, are something like a summary of the material discussed at greater length in the three longer volumes. An abridgement, if you will.

On Not Reading the Book of Mormon

Having heard nice things about the odd little book by Pierre Bayard How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (ht: someone out there), I finally found it. And read it. Summary: You read a very, very small slice of all published books. You forget most of what you read, so you retain only a small part of the few books you actually read. Worse yet, you bend and twist what you do remember to fit your own personal matrix of ideas and experiences. So what is in your head after reading a book, even more so for a book you read years ago, likely bears little or no similarity to the actual text of the book. Maybe we should forget books, forget any claim to link to some text that we supposedly read and remember, and just talk creatively and imaginatively about our own ideas and experiences. The author draws a lot out of that simple set of claims.…

A Conversation About Letters to a Young Mormon

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This is a discussion T&S permabloggers Julie and Dave had last week about the new book Letters to a Young Mormon (Maxwell Institute, 2014) by Adam Miller (also a T&S permablogger). Dave: Three things a reader should know about Letters to a Young Mormon: It is short, 78 pages if you count the title page. It is published by the Maxwell Institute, part of their Living Faith series (each volume in the series is an “example of faith in search of understanding” by “a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart …”). And it is written by a philosopher, which is always a plus. But I wonder how young a Mormon needs to be to be part of the intended audience. My sense is that anyone from twelve to a hundred would enjoy the book and profit from reading it. Julie: Good question. An interesting bit of reception history here: I’ve seen reviewers mocked for assuming that the book was actually…

Review: The Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

2013-05-20 Fading Flower And Swallow the Sun

Mahonri Stewart recently released two of his plays–The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun–together in a single volume. I found both of them to be so compelling, that I’m truly sad that no productions have been put on or are scheduled within 1,000 miles of where I live on the East Coast. More than just enjoyable, however, I found that they presented a strong and compellingly Mormon artistic perspective. While there is no doubt that the subject matter of both plays is Mormon, what really struck me was less the viewed and more the viewpoint. The Fading Flower centers around the faith struggles of Joseph Smith’s youngest son David, who was born after his father’s death. As he grows older, he is  caught between the rival factions of the RLDS Church (with whom he was raised and with his brother serving as President) and the Brighamites (the objects of his missionary endeavors). So the setting is clearly Mormon, but what…

How a concussion made me think of Stephenie Meyer and Francis Hutcheson

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Last semester, my first semester studying Greek, I sustained a mild concussion. I have mostly recovered now. I still have problems with bright lights that makes nighttime driving intolerable, but for the most part, I’m functioning normally. But for a few weeks there, I couldn’t think straight. It hurt to concentrate. Reading even a light novel was difficult, and translating Greek was nigh impossible. Just looking at Greek letters caused me pain. But my handwriting was spectacular. Any notes I took about lectures I attended during that time are the most clearly written, beautifully precise notes I have ever taken. Sketching was fine too, so the concentration required to look and draw was painlessly available to me. It was strange to experience this involuntary shift in my capacities. I tend to think that what I think, how I think, is what I am. But if my cognitive functions are subject to physical manipulations, some of which are outside of my…

Book of Mormon Comics

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I love stories. A narrative strikes me as the most fundamental way of ideas with other people. And by ideas, I mean not only the bare events of the narrative, but also abstract concepts, morals, and emotional truths. It makes sense to me that our basic scriptural texts have strong narratives. The Old Testament is a collection of stories, with the consequences of one generation’s choices setting the stage for the actions of the next. The Book of Mormon also has very strong narratives. Other classic stories that we are familiar with, we feel free to reimagine. We update fairy tales, retell myths in modern settings. Even the stories of Genesis are recognized as archetypes that we re-present and reinterpret. But too often Mormons tend to shy away from this type of creative engagement with the text and narratives of the Book of Mormon, perhaps from a kind of self-censorship that fears corrupting in some way the most true book…

The Rifts of Rime

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Finally, a book by Steve Peck that I can read with my children! At first my husband thought that would be A Short Stay in Hell; it is only 70 pages, but I had to disabuse him of that notion. As much as children enjoy thinking about infinity (How can anything go on forever? But if there is a limit, what is on the other side?), I thought the main character was brutally murdered far too many times to be appropriate bedtime reading material for small children. And I would like to save that little volume for them to read later on, as adults, when they can be well and truly terrified by that particular contemplation of the afterlife. And The Scholar of Moab would be a bit tricky to read aloud. I think too much of the novel would pass over their heads. As much as they would like the story of Hyrum Thayne stealing the dictionary from the…

O Pioneer! Book Review of Villages on Wheels

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The 4th of July is a week of intense patriotic celebration in Provo.  Freedom Festival is the biggest party of the year here. People go all out with block parties, fireworks, parades, races, and art contests. We end the week exhausted. As a relative newcomer to Utah Valley, I’ve wondered why is Independence Day is such a big deal here. It turns out that Provo is simply upholding pioneer tradition: “Both Mormons and American travelers commemorated July 4th with elaborate patriotic observances. They generally stated at daybreak with gun and cannon salutes, and continued with cheers, speeches, toasts, feasts, parades, dancing, and drinking whatever spirits were available” (Kimball 82). As we come up on the 24th, it is the perfect time to return to a few books about pioneers. My favorite has for years has been Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964), which I never have in my home because my copy is…

In Harm’s Way: Review of Saints of Valor

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A couple of months ago I received a review copy of Saints of Valor: Mormon Medal of Honor Recipients (Greg Kofford Books, 2011; 430 pages in paperback | publisher’s page). I’m going to first discuss two issues related to war and Mormonism: (1) how Mormons serving in the military improve the public perception of Mormonism; and (2) the ambiguous position of Mormonism on participation in war versus pacificism. Then I will provide a short discussion of the book itself. War and Mormonism The willingness of LDS volunteers of the Mormon Battalion to serve in the US Army was largely forgotten by the nation in subsequent decades as Mormons in Utah came into conflict with the federal government. During the Utah War of 1857-58, Mormons took the field against US soldiers, although happily the conflict was resolved without actual combat between the opposing forces. Consequently, the patriotism of Mormons was very much in doubt in the second half of the 19th…

Review: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia

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It is published as a reference work, but you can read it like a book, albeit a book of essays: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2010; publisher’s page), edited by W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall. Listing at $85 ($68 on Kindle), it might not find its way onto your bookshelf until a trade paperback version comes out in a few years, but at the very least it puts a very accessible LDS history reference on the shelves of America’s libraries and newsrooms, featuring 140 entries covering individuals, places, events, and issues. I stumbled across a library copy that was in the stacks and could actually be checked out rather than being secured behind the librarian’s firewall (that is, placed in the reference section). If you are so lucky, do the right thing and take it home for a few weeks.

All History is Local: A Review of Tiki and Temple by Marjorie Newton [minor update]

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Newton, Marjorie. Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958. Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012. Paperback. 343 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58958-1210. $ 29.95. Former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, is well known for saying All politics is local. By that he meant that voters choose who they support based on how it effects them locally, instead of on major national ideological issues. While how true this is may be debatable (don’t here, its off topic), I think it extends to history also. All history is local.

Review: The Book of Mormon Girl

Book of Mormon Girl

Joanna Brooks is the Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She is the author of several books, most recently The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith (2012). The book is available at Amazon and at the author’s website. A short couple of hundred pages, the book is at various turns both enjoyable and troubling, as the author recounts growing up LDS in Southern California, informally leaving the LDS Church then returning to activity, then rather suddenly emerging as a leading voice of what might be termed the progressive Mormon agenda which takes issue with traditional Mormon positions on race and gender. As such, she is on her way to becoming controversial (not generally a compliment in Mormon circles), so I need to start out with a couple of disclaimers.

The Literary, Linguistic and New York City Life of Pratt

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The first Institute class held in our upper Manhattan apartment in 1988 explored Mormon philosophy and intellectual life. The readings included a 1969 Dialogue article by Leonard Arrington, “The Intellectual Tradition of the Latter-day Saints,” (pdf) which mentioned a questionnaire Arrington had sent to 50 Mormon intellectuals asking them to list the five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon History. I was then surprised to find Parley P. Pratt on that list.

12 Questions with Grant Hardy – part I

Grant Hardy

To cap off our roundtable review of Grant Hardy’s new book Understanding the Book of Mormon we’re fortunate to feature an interview with the book’s author. The interview will be posted in two parts. Our thanks to all who have participated, and especially Bro. Hardy.

Grant Hardy and Personal Scripture Study

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Every semester, one of my principal goals in my tax classes is to get my students to engage with the Internal Revenue Code. And it’s harder than you might think: often they don’t read the Code itself, focusing instead on the explanations in their casebook.[fn1] And their aversion to reading the Code is completely understandable: unlike court decisions, the mainstay of law school, there is no narrative flow, no character, no imagery, nothing that we traditionally latch onto in order to immerse ourselves in a text. And frankly, using the casebook isn’t a bad short-term decision. The casebook explains what the Code provisions mean and how they’re applied, at least in simple situations.But in the longer term, relying on the casebook’s explanation does my students a disservice. While it helps them be able to answer my questions in class, and while it likely helps them do decently on my exams, if they rely on the casebook at the expense of…