Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Women in Eternity, Women of Zion by Sorensen and Cassler

Imagine, if you will, that a stalwart member of the Church approached you with some concerns about the theological underpinnings of the Word of Wisdom. What might you do? Castigate him as a rebellious secularizer? Remind her that questioning was the fast road to apostasy?

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Dawning of a Brighter Day by Alexander Morrison

Elder Morrison, a General Authority, has spent time in Africa both as a Church representative and as a physician for the WHO. This short and slightly outdated book has some interesting stories, but seems to be victim of something Morrison himself derides near the end: talking about Africa and Africans using the tired cliches of the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Bruce R. McConkie Story by Joseph Fielding McConkie

As is usually the case, reading the biography of a Church leader has helped dispel some negative feelings that I had previously held. Specifically, I have always been irked by Elder McConkie's complete disdain for all academic approaches to scripture study. But his biography has helped me put his feelings into perspective: a formative experience for him, and in many ways his introduction to the general leadership of the Church, occured when he commented negatively on the Sunday School manual. But he was right in his critique: the manual represented the worst kind of LDS toadying to secular trends. No wonder he held a life-long disregard for such things. But I'd like to believe that were he alive today, his attitude would be different in some respects.

That said, there's still a lot about this man that I have a hard time with. When his son (the author) approached him with concern that the personal stories he had shared with a class he was teaching hadn't had the desired effect, Elder McConkie replied, "Did it ever occur to you that you don't teach Gospel principles with stories?"

I imagine Jesus of Nazareth, who did little else, might be surprised to hear that.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food by Michelle Stacey

This was an interesting little book. On the one hand, it was terribly out of date (mid 1990's, eons ago in nutrition-fad time). It was a hoot to read about American's obsession with low-fat foods and compare that with the current low-carb craze. That said, the book, although filled with interesting data points (chefs note that people who order sauce on the side end up consuming much, much more than people who don't), read more like disjointed essays than an effort to prove a thesis. She never really did explain why we love, hate, and fear food--only that we do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Latter-day Saint Experience in America by Terryl L. Givens

Perhaps you can forgive me for taking one look at the supersized price tag on Terryl L. Givens’ new book The Latter-day Saint Experience in America and assuming that the intended audience was luckless university students operating at the behest of their profligate professors.

I approached the book with a simple question: Would this be a good resource for a college class on American religion? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ But I was amazed to find even more than that: there’s quite a bit here for Church members to chew on. It is worth buying (even at $55).

Givens’ first chapter covers the history of the Church. It is a model of what Mormon history should be: no whitewashing, no feigned objectivity, great details, consideration of the big picture. Although this is basic Mormon history for nonmembers, there are enough little gems in here to warrant the attention of the Saints, even the ones already well-versed in our history. For example, we all know about Governor Boggs’ extermination order, but I think we’ve forgotten that Boggs was responding to Sidney Rigdon, who promised that “it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.” Kind of puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? Similarly, I can’t say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about the Mormon raiders who “torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise imped[ed] the progress” of the federal army as they marched toward Utah territory. Givens also shines at providing context: it doesn’t mean much to note that there were 5,000 men in the Nauvoo Legion unless you also know that the standing federal army was under 10,000 at this time. But Givens is at his best in the analysis of history:

“Physical plates with real heft confirmed by a dozen witnesses, seerstones and oracular spectacles, temples of stone rather than flesh, a Zion that could be located on a map, and a gathering that entailed wagons and later handcarts rather than a figurative unity of belief–in these and other ways Mormonism collapsed the historical, psychological, and ontological distance that became integral to so much of the Christian tradition. As such, Mormonism invited accusations of both banality and blasphemy.”

The second chapter explores doctrine. He has several gem-like one-liners, including this important idea lost on Saints and evangelicals alike: “Theology, simply stated from the Mormon perspective, is what happens when revelation is absent.” And: “Mormonism is better understood as enacting its central doctrines rather than systematically articulating them.” And, again, while he does an eminently competent job of sketching out the basics, he also gives the lifer something to think about: in the context of human incarnation, he notes, “it is not clear what advantages a physical body offers over a spiritual body.” There are also great ideas in his discussion of the LDS take on the Fall. He includes data not commonly available (Did you know that only about one third of eligible young men serve missions, or that the PEF took in about 100M in its first two years?).

The chapter entitled “Temple, Church, and Family” provides important nuts, bolts, and organizational details for the study of Mormonism. But there are enough wink-and-a-nods to make the chapter sufferable, nay, even enjoyable, for longterm members. Without comment, he writes, “A basketball gym (called a “cultural hall") is typically adjacent . . etc.,” notes that Sunday meetings would tax “anyone’s post-Puritan capacity for endurance,” and refers to the “marathon” of sermons comprising General Conference. We really are a peculiar people.

His chapter on controversial issues covers all of the usual suspects: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, etc. Perhaps the best praise that I can give here is to note that I think a very conservative and a very liberal Mormon could read this chapter without feeling betrayed. One odd omission: in an otherwise able discussion of the Church’s position on homosexuality, there’s no mention of same-sex marriage legislation and the Church’s efforts to thwart it. But, overall, he does a stellar job of covering the basics while engaging the jaded pew warmer (not an easy task). Even I hadn’t ever considered the Church’s teachings on a Mother in Heaven as “the most radically feminist gesture in Christian theology.” I was a little uneasy with his section on environmentalism, because while he makes an excellent case that the scriptures and modern prophets have called us to responsible stewardship of the Earth’s resources, he doesn’t mention that environmentalism is completely off the radar of talks, books, and lessons. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.)

I’ll guiltily admit that I found myself scoffing a little in anticipation of the chapter subtitled “Intellectual and Cultural Life of the Latter-day Saints,” but Givens does a fine job with theological underpinnings and everything else from MoTab to road shows. I suppose it isn’t as bad as we think . . .

I do think the final chapter was something of a misstep: the discussion of splinter groups would perhaps have fit better in the history chapter, since the major groups have 19th century origins. Appendices include brief biographies of the prophets and other notables and, once again, are useful for the nonmember but still interesting for the rest of us. I never knew that then-Elder Hunter broke three ribs tripping against a podium or that Parley P. Pratt was murdered.

I had assumed the dust jacket’s claim (with a typographical error–eek!) that the book would examine all aspects of how Mormons “live, work, and worship” would be grossly optomistic, but Givens really does cover all bases: historical, doctrinal, cultural, and organizational. His only lacuna is CES: seminary gets a few sentences in the text, institute barely a sentence in the appendix. It isn’t just Givens, however, who underestimates the effect that CES has on community building, retention of young people, and (perhaps a double-edged sword) the shaping of doctrine and pedagogy throughout the rest of the Church. But given what he set out to do, Givens has done it remarkable well. This is the best introduction to the Church (I didn’t cringe once), and there’s plenty here to keep the lifelong member engaged. I’m pleased to have something to recommend to nonmembers, new members, and everyone else.

Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Counseling with Our Councils by M. Russell Ballard

I don't normally read this type of book; I'm not a big Church government person and I never seem to have leadership callings (which is fine by me). But I picked this up on the recommendation of Kristine H-H and I thought it was fabulous.

He begins by situating the role of councils as nothing less than one of the keys to helping families achieve exaltation. He then states that one of the main goals of this book is to encourage priesthood leaders to take women seriously as council members. Virtually every chapter hits this note again and again. He encourages women to speak out, to be "bold" and "assertive" and gives an example of a Primary President who tells the Bishop (in a ward council meeting) that he is the main impediment to reverence in the chapel. (Now that's cheek, especially the way she did it.)

(Of course, after pages and pages of text describing how essential the contribution of women is to councils in the Church, you can't help but wonder why women aren't on a few councils he mentions, including disciplinary councils . . . but that may be the topic for another post.)

The chapter on family councils was good, as well, and contributed to my sense of guilt that I am not the kind of person who would seek my kids' input on what color car to get . . . unrighteous dominion or the right of the person paying? You decide.

The model for Church government is fairly simple: the leader presents a problem/situation to the council, actively encourages their open and honest input, and then seeks inspiration for the final decision. But that is so radically different (not a democracy, not a dictatorship, etc.) from how secular leaders act, that I wonder how many Church councils actually follow this model.

Every person who serves on a Church council should read this book.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Lilibet by Carolly Erickson

I know, I know, I keep saying that I'm not going to read any more Erickson and then I give in.

But this time, I'm glad I did. It was interesting to watch Erickson take on a modern, living royal. The end result is something that would probably have been impossible for someone who didn't already have a dozen royal biographies under her belt: a take on Princes Phillip and Charles and Princesses Diana and Fergie that didn't look as if it had wandered over from a tabloid (but wasn't hagiography, either).

This was a great book, perhaps further confirming my theory that almost any life that spans the 20th centure makes for good reading. Recommended.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley edited by Virginia Pearce

Did you know that President Hinckley sometimes leaves his towels on the floor? I admit a deep pleasure in finding out such things. But there are other, more normal, reasons to like this book. To be a prophet's wife is to be equally yoked with a prophet of God. That's heady stuff. Sister Hinckley was an amazing woman, and while I would have preferred a traditionally-formatted biography, I'll take what I can get. These 'glimpses' flesh out her life. I especially enjoyed the texts of talks that she had given at the end. I have long thought that biographies of all Church leaders should end with one of their 'classic' texts.

By the way, Deseret Book, please never use lavender ink again. What an annoying format for an otherwise sweet book.

Black and Mormon edited by Brighurst and Smith

Until Black and Mormon was released last year, the only scholarly treatment of the topic of African American Latter-day Saints was Embry’s Black Saints in a White Church, which was written a decade ago. So while there is perhaps a need for more academic (and personal, and theological) inquiry, this book is an uneven and awkward contribution. While some of the essays were informative and interesting, the work as a whole suffered from some poor choices by the editors.

The Introduction, which is credited to both Bringhurst and Smith, is sloppy and slippery. For example, as evidence that the Church considers any reference to its past on this issue “embarrassing,” they quote the Ostlings stating that the CES seminary student book contains just “ten words about the revelation” buried in a “laundry list” of events during President Kimball’s tenure. But a quick check at www.ldsces.org reveals that the Declaration extending the priesthood is its own entry, with about a page of text, and it also given several paragraphs (more than any other single event, in fact) in the section on the life of President Kimball. (My suspicion is that the Ostlings were using the old CES seminary book, and Bringhurst and Smith followed them without checking their sources because the evidence fit their theory.)

When I read a book about a topic that I don’t know a lot about, I need to trust the authors/editors. But when they slip up on such an easily (un)verifiable bit of data on page four, it is hard for me to trust them on the facts that I can’t verify. It is even harder for me to trust their judgement.

Similarly, they cite in the Introduction the famous passage in Mormon Doctrine (no link as not to aid or abet) where Elder McConkie states that African Americans did not hold the priesthood because they were not equal to other races. They present this as Latter-day Saint belief without citing Elder McConkie’s (almost) equally famous follow up after the 1978 revelation: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” (All Are Alike Unto God,p. 1, which I copy from a secondary source, as I don’t have the original, but I believe this to be accurate). Neither does their simplistic Book of Mormon exegesis of Nephites=white=good and Lamanites=dark=bad inspire confidence in their ability to guide me through the murky history and theology of African Americans in the Church.

Perhaps my biggest beef with the Introduction, however, is that they set out “the reasons for Mormonism’s limited appeal among African Americans” as a “key issue” for the book, yet not a single disaffected member or disinterested investigator is given voice in this book. I realize these people may be harder to find than active African Americans Saints, but I also don’t trust the ability of active Church members (of whatever race) to articulate why the Church doesn’t appeal more to nonmembers.

Tighter editing would have improved the book in other ways as well. Virtually every essay reminds us of the basic history of the ban and that the Church doesn’t record the race of its membership (making research difficult), but then noting that Church records aren’t available to researchers in any case.

As for the essays, Bringhurst presents an interesting history of the Missouri thesis (that is, that the Church limited the rights of people of African descent in order to ease persecution in slave-holding Missouri). However, he points out that we can’t find any instance of Joseph Smith limiting the priesthood, which works against the Missouri thesis. I appreciated his inclusion of Elder Ballard’s statement (from 2002) about the priesthood restriction: “we don’t know . . . It’s difficult to know why all things happen.” Bringhurst then ends his essay with a bombshell (at least, it was news to me):

“Making the situation of Elijah Abel even more ambiguous is that this black priesthood holder served three missions for the Mormon church, the last one in 1883, shortly before his death on December 25, 1884. Even more paradoxical is the fact that Elijah Abel’s son, Enoch, also a Latter-day Saint, was ordained an elder on November 10, 1900, even though Mormon black priesthood denial had been enforced as a widely accepted practice since 1852. Still later, Abel’s grandson, Elijah Abel Jr., was ordained a priest on July 5, 1934, and an elder on September 29, 1935. Such historical information is acknowledged on the momument erected for Elijah Abel and dedicated by Elder Ballard.”

Maybe this is common knowledge, but I had never heard of this. It seems the topic of an essay itself (perhaps addressing the larger issue of doctrine and practice and the sometimes imperfect alignment between the two) rather than a concluding paragraph.

In the next essay, (and it pains me that such a thing might be necessary), Alma Allred offers a solid exploration of the scriptures used by ignorant people to justify limitations on African Americans. (Question: Can exegesis correct folk doctrine?)

Ronald G. Coleman and Darius Gray present the personal history of two Saints, Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Len Hope Sr. These histories are inspiring in the best sense and deserve a wide audience. I cannot really fathom the kind of faith shown by people like Len Hope. When he was made unwelcome in his Ohio ward (this is after WWI), he still continued to pay tithing and opened his home to a monthly devotional meeting with the Branch President.

While Jessie L. Embry’s essay strives for a more sociological approach, presenting the case studies of two multigenerational African American families, I found the personal aspects of the story most interesting and, again, an amazing testament to the faith of early African American Saints. After Katherine May attended a ward in New Orleans for three years in the 1960s without anyone speaking to her (can you imagine?), she wrote a letter to President Kimball (!) asking what she needed to do to become a member of the Church. He forwarded her letter to the ward, who sent missionaries, who baptized her.

Armand Mauss’ essay sketching “the extent and limits of progress since 1978″ begins with an important idea (perhaps worthy of its own post):

“One of the great popular myths in traditional Mormonism, quite apart from racial questions, is that people can find in this religion all the ‘answers’ they need. A consequence of this myth is people’s manifest discomfort with quandries that seem to have no ready explanations. Producing those explanations had always been a growth industry among the Mormon folk. . .”

As for limitations on progress, he points out that the rationalizations and justifactions for the ban were not repudiated explicitly in 1978 or since then, and therefore survive as folk doctrine. This is an interesting topic; one wonders what motivates the decision of the Brethren not to address this issue, and what the advantages and disadvantages are of this approach. As an example of progress, Mauss tells of Saints in the Los Angeles area responding to the aftermath of the Rodney King riots and generating such goodwill that AME pastor Reverend Cecil Murray publicly encouraged people to meet with the LDS missionaries(!). I was relieved to see (although I never completely trust) empirical data showing that Church members have lower levels of racism than the national average (which is the theme of the next essay, by Cardell Jacobson). One would certainly hope so. Mauss’ history of the Genesis Group is also useful. I’m not sure that many Church members even know that Genesis exists.

Ken Drigg’s essay, “‘How Do Things Look on the Ground?’: The LDS African American Community in Atlanta, Georgia” was a heartening example of what a multiracial, inclusive ward (complete with African Americans in key leadership positions) can look like. But the article reaches its full impact only in comparison with the unfortunate concluding essay by editor Darron Smith, “Unpacking Whiteness in Zion.” Smith’s perspective is best explained by considering the anecdote with which he begins his essay. His wife (who is white) was teaching a Relief Society lesson on following the prophets when she asked (hypothetically) if “all the teachings of Mormon prophets [should] be obeyed–even teachings manifesting such racist thinking as the condemnation of interracial marriage?” Unsurprisingly, the Relief Society President ("embrac[ing] her own whiteness as authoritative") shut down that line of thought and later released his wife. Smith interprets this as the “tyranny of bourgeois decorum,” “humiliating,” and “the repudiation” of “the acceptability of our family [which included two biracial children],” especially since the Stake RS President was later asked to re-teach the lesson.

But I’m not convinced that this event had anything to do with race. It has been explained to me that one of the insidious facets of racism is that one never knows, for example, if lousy service is because the waitress is incompetent–or because you are black. I can appreciate how difficult it might be to make the distinction, but had a teacher in a lesson on following the prophets asked whether we should follow all the teachings of the prophets, even the ones displaying [insert any negative word here], such as [insert any counsel here], she almost certainly would have been shut down just as quickly. Because Smith doesn’t even entertain the idea that this incident might not have been racially motivated, but simply a consequence of his wife’s inflammatory approach, it becomes hard to take him seriously, especially when he views the event as a repudiation of his family. Making the situation even murkier, I don’t know that the Church has ever condemned interracial marriage (it certainly doesn’t now), but rather counseled against it at a time when it would have inarguably brought extreme hardship on the spouses and their children (although I’m still unsure, personally, if it should have been discouraged; perhaps the fact that, when it was discouraged, interracial Temple marriage would not have been impossible is the deciding factor).

Given Smith’s curious interpretation of events and his apparent love affair with the graduate-school jargon of oppression, it is more surprising that he had a discussion with a General Authority about teaching a Black Studies class at BYU than it is that his request was turned down. It becomes even harder to situate his thought in the LDS mainstream when he calls for an “affirmative action program” (his words) for Church leadership. He claims that the subjective method of assigning callings (i.e., inspiration) allows for unconscious racism. While I am sure that it does on rare occasions, affirmative action for callings is hardly a reasonable solution if one believes that callings come by revelation. Working with leaders (and members in general) to be sure that they realize that racism is incompatible with the Gospel seems a much more logical solution.

He concludes, “whether whites admit it or not . . . they harbor racist thoughts.” Again, Drigg’s essay about the Church in Atlanta becomes a vivid backdrop to Smith’s shrill essay.

I don’t claim to have many good theories about the history of race in the Church. Despite its weaknesses, this book did spur my thinking about it (especially the information about black priesthood ordiantions between the 1850s and 1978), as well as some larger issues concerning folk doctrine and obedience. It is a deeply flawed but nonetheless worthwhile read for those interested in Mormon Studies.

(cross-posted to www.TimesandSeasons.org)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Boyd K. Packer by Lucille Tate

I enjoyed reading this book as I enjoy almost all biogaphies of Church leaders. Regardless of their individual accomplishments, the lives of people who were born in the arly 20th century, survived depression and war, and witnessed the amazing technological and cultural changes of the 20th century are generally interesting in their own right.

I don't have much to say about it, just two minor note, which shouldn't be confused as major points:

(1) While a GA, Pres. Packer was asked by a mission president in Denver to come speak to the missionaries on Christmas Eve. Another GA said that he would answer that request for Elder Packer, and wrote stating that Elder P. had a previous commitment: to his family. I liked this story. As I've mentioned in other reviews, some of these biographies leave one feeling that the GAs never see their families. So I liked the explicit permission to put family first.

(2) An entire chapter was devoted to refuting the charge that Elder Packer is 'anti-intellect,' with a quote from Sunstone and everything. I was surprised this got so much airtime, and further surprised by Tate's poor defense of Elder Packer. But I am tempted to cut her some clack because she was in her 80s when she wrote this book. (I was alternately charmed and irritated by her quaint style.) I am still thinking about Elder Packer's controversial take on Church history is "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect" and may post on it at T & S. I am sympathetic to him, but . . .

I appreciated the many photos, especially the color photos of his artwork. He has amazing talents for sculpture and painting. A recommended book as part of the collection of leaders' biographies.

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