Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens

So imagine that you get to know one of your co-workers and eventually find out that she was raised LDS, but left the church because she moved to a new ward with an epically terrible organist, which resulted in a major faith crisis for her, because how could a church possibly be true if it had an organist that bad?

It is no exaggeration to say that expectations and assumptions can matter more than facts. None of us would leave the church over a bad organist because we were not raised with the expectation that a decent organist was a requirement of the true church. But a lot of Mormons were raised under other assumptions which are now causing a world of hurt. One could ask for no better guides through the thicket of re-examination than Terryl and Fiona Givens. Their new book, The Crucible of Doubt, gently and eruditely explores these bedrock assumptions and suggests alternatives. To give you a feel for the book:
The question may remain, how does one lock onto the propositional assertions of a restored gospel that is also laden with claims about gold plates and the Book of Abraham and a male priesthood and a polygamous past and a thousand other details we may find difficult? Perhaps . . . one might focus on the message rather than the messenger. One might consider that the contingencies of history and culture and the human element will always constitute the garment in which God's word and will are clothed. And one might refuse to allow our desire for the perfect to be the enemy of the present good. (page 140)
Notice two things: first, unlike most LDS devotional, apologetic, academic, or otherwise “serious” writing, the Givens' prose is poetic and sometimes lovely. They model what they advocate: seeking not just for logical truth but goodness and beauty. Second, they are not shy about taboo Mormon topics. I will now yank a bunch of quotes completely out of context to give you a feel for some of the book's edgy content—content that I am equally surprised and thrilled came through Deseret Book:

“ . . . [B. H.] Roberts never found an answer to that question, and it troubled him the rest of his life.” (p7)

“But perhaps providing conclusive answers to all our questions is not the point of true religion.” (p27)

“Biblical inconsistencies, common sense, the Book of Mormon's own words, and Joseph Smith's remarks on the subject make it difficult for Mormons to be strict scriptural literalists.” (p56)

“When [Joseph Smith was] not speaking with prophetic authority . . . he claimed no authority at all—which is why his pronouncements on subjects from Lehi's New World landfall to the prospects of the Kirtland Bank were as liable to error as other men's.” (p69)

“Airbrushing our leaders . . . is . . . a form of idolatry.” (p70)

“ . . . faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban). Practices, in other words, that challenge and try one's faith.” (p74)

“Our history, as portrayed in manuals and curricular materials, has historically been edited to portray Mormons at their best and the world at its worst.” (p80)

I don't wish to create the impression, however, that the bulk of the book consists of engagement with the specifics of troublesome issues like polygamy; it does not. Instead, the Givens' project is to create a deep structure (perhaps we could call it “deep apologetics”) that supports a world where the above issues are problems for some people.

Let me explain: it is not infrequent to hear in Mormon circles something like this: “Either Joseph Smith was a prophet or he wasn't. Either the Book of Mormon was from God or it wasn't. Either this is the true church or it isn't. You either accept it or you don't.” Well, if your ultimate goal is less competition for parking when you are running late for sacrament meeting, this is a profitable tack to take. But if your goal is to find a way for people who struggle with these issues to remain in in the church, please don't ever say anything like this ever again. Because if you present these binary oppositions as the operating assumptions of Mormonism, people who see any flaw in Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon or the church will be free on Sunday mornings. 

What the Givens do instead is to present underlying assumptions that can accommodate the tricky bits of our past and present; they “reexamine a number of paradigms that may make the quest for faith and the path of discipleship more painful and tortuous than it need be” (p10). 

So, for example, one chapter covers our approach to scripture and gently debunks expectations of perfection, replacing them with a link between a human author and a human product. Which may not sound all that revolutionary, except that it is so beautifully and faithfully and intelligently done that, even if you didn't need any convincing on this point, you will enjoy the explication (“God may have written with His finger on Mt. Sinai, but it is Paul who writes a formal epistle to the saints in Corinth . . . all [writers] partake in varying degrees of heavenly inspiration; all bear the human traces of those who felt the Spirit . . . all are filtered through an individual's mind and cultural environment” [p57].).

The one note that fell flat for me was their chapter on responding to situations where “God's anointed leader propounds what is an error” (p74). If I am reading them correctly—and perhaps I am not, for one disadvantage of their poetic and evocative style is that it doesn't exactly read like one of Elder Oaks' legal-brief style talks—they argue that when God delegates authority to certain individuals, they then enjoy “God's sanction for a decision made in error" (p76). In other words, a leader may err, but God still “honors the words and actions of His servants” (p76).

I don't know about this. If (again the “if”) I am reading this right, they would need to conclude that, say, God did not intend for women of African descent to be denied access to temple blessings, but once church leaders had enacted that policy, God then supported it. (While this gets pretty inside baseball I think a case could be made that an individual church member might do better to act as if all decisions are approved by God, but that is a rather different claim than that all decisions are in actual fact, even if sort of retro-actively, approved by God.) And I'm not sure how this idea would mesh with the previous chapter, “The Perils of Hero Worship,” which is a deeply marvelous criticism of the saints for worshiping their leaders: it seems to me that if there is someone in our midst who can cause God to change his mind about stuff (by retroactively approving of it), we might actually want to consider worshiping him.

But that's my only major objection. Outside of that chapter, the book is truly a marvel. (If you read my review of their last book, The God Who Weeps, you'll probably sense that it left me a little awestruck at their novel approach.) If anyone can talk down someone who is having a faith crisis—or provide the kind of theological foundation that might prevent one in the first place—it is Terryl and Fiona Givens. But this book is not just for doubters. Others who appreciate a thoughtful approach to Mormonism, molded in shared measure by prophets and poets, will benefit from this lovely book. There are no theological Twinkies here.

Review copy provided by publisher.

 Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Women at Church by Neylan McBaine

A full review will be forthcoming later and elsewhere, but for now suffice it to say that I was deeply conflicted about this one. (But you should probably read it.)

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Miracles of Jesus by Eric Huntsman

This book is the third in a series (Good Tidings of Great Joy covers the stories of Jesus’ birth and God So Loved the World his death) by Eric D. Huntsman, who is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
As he did in the other two volumes, Huntsman deftly combines insights from the field of New Testament studies with devotional application. The paper is heavy, the artwork is gorgeous, and the layout is reader-friendly. You can gift this book to people who are not Mormon studies geeks and they will most likely actually read it.

What I most appreciated about this book is that Huntsman did not present the miracles as if they were just one magic trick after another. Instead, he positions Jesus’ miracles as symbolic efforts to, first, suggest Jesus’ relationship to a fallen world full of disease and suffering and, second, to uncloak Jesus’ full identity. These are important points that, I think, can often be lost in the “wow factor” of Jesus’ miracles.

While there is some close reading of the texts, the amount of material here meant that the summary-to-explication ratio was higher than in his other volumes. Still, Huntsman frequently engages the texts granularly, with special attention paid to the Greek text; that the book remains accessible to the non-geek is a testament to his talents. And while I suspect that some readers might have benefited from a glossary, I’m happy to see Deseret Book encourage its audience to reach a little.

I could grouse about some of Huntsman’s choices. For example, I don’t think that the best reading of the Transfiguration (see Mark 9:2-8) is as a miracle that Jesus performed (see Huntsman, pages 32-36); in Mark, the verb is passive (so: Jesus is transfigured [by someone else, presumably God]; he does not do the transfiguring). And Huntsman’s decision to group all of the healing miracles of women under one subheading (“Healing Women”) while treating the healings of men individually must have stemmed from a desire to emphasize the very important observation that Jesus’ interactions with women were culturally transgressive, but it is possible to read this grouping as overplaying the gender of those healed while flattening their individual (i.e., non-gender-related) circumstances. And his efforts to relate the miracles in chronological order are, I think, misdirected. (This is inside baseball stuff, but: since Mark is the earliest gospel and since ample evidence suggests that Mark was not written in chronological order, any effort to order the events of Jesus’ ministry is doomed by a lack of evidence.) But these are minor issues.

The strength of the book is in its clear explication of the miracles and brief theological and devotional conclusions. I was particularly touched by his discussion of Jesus as a model for grieving in the moments before Lazarus is raised: when Martha couches her grief in a doctrinal discussion, Jesus does the same. But when Mary meets Jesus with tears, Jesus cries as well (see page 117).

For an LDS writer, Huntsman shows an unusual level of sensitivity to the differences between the gospel accounts and this is definitely a welcome development in LDS biblical studies. At the same time, I am concerned at how the unsuspecting reader will respond to the idea that, for example, Matthew doubled the number of possessed men (compare Mark 5:1-20 with Matthew 8:28-34) and blind men (compare Mark 10:46-52 with Matthew 20:29-34) due to his penchant for doubling (perhaps to conform to the law of witnesses). These first encounters can be troubling (“If Matthew could invent a possessed man and a blind man, what else might he have invented?”). Historicity is addressed in terms of how historical criticism can undergird historicity in an appendix (which also does an admirable job of commenting on form and narrative criticism), but specific guidance in thinking through the discrepancies between the gospels might be helpful as well.

I love genre-bending books and category killers. I don’t know anyone else who writes this kind of thing–a coffee table book full of defensible scholarship. Huntsman’s approach of combining legitimate biblical studies with LDS devotional application is a healthy model for a sometimes-embattled field, not to mention a welcome read for both Mormon studies geeks and normal people.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book.

Cross-posted from Times and Seasons.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

This may be the best romantic comedy ever.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Oh my, this was so funny. So funny.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline

Way Below
Craig Harline, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary
This may be the most painful book I have ever read.

Which kind of painful, you ask? Well, it's a little hard to describe, but let's call it a tender, commiserative sort of a pain, stemming from Harline's ability to do something that we almost never see done: to illustrate the immense internal burdens that not-all-that-apocalyptic-when-you-really-think-about-it external circumstances can create.
Seriously: this is not a book about genocide, child abuse, starvation, or POW camps. It's a book about a middle-class American kid who went on a mission to Belgium in the 1970s with too-high expectations and had to figure out how to trudge through days filled with difficult companions, rain, and no baptisms. But I think it is the very banality of the external experience weighed against the crisis of the internal one that I found so compelling. After all, you can read an (excellent) book like Unbroken and think: that was amazing, and it has nothing to do with my life. But you read Way Below the Angels and think: this is me--a kicked-over anthill on the inside, even when things are really not all that bad on the outside. I haven't served a mission, but the internal struggles that Harline describes are an all-too-real reflection of the extreme angst that most people (most people, right? It isn't just me, right?) wrestle with internally. And until Mormons develop a mental casserole, mental priesthood blessing, and mental visiting teaching visit, the problem is that you are all alone in there when you face this kind of struggle.
Harline provides an unusual kind of balm in the form of an epically raw and genuine account of his mission. This isn't a tell-all expose (pretty much the worst sin a missionary commits in this book is writing a letter on a not-P day). This isn't, obviously, a missionary hagiography, either. Instead, it is real life, lived in the mundane middle. We get very few missionary narratives like this. Which is precisely why the young Elder Harline was able to begin his mission with such an absurdly optimistic expectation for what his mission would be like. (At the risk of thread-jacking my own post: this is the problem we have with a lot of rhetoric in Mormon culture. We only hear the glory stories from happy RMs, happy mothers, happy marriages, etc. We don't usually hear the hard stories, and so if it is hard for us, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that we think we are alone and must be doing something wrong.) Throughout the book, he describes immense (internal) struggles along with a scant, precious few rays of light that end up revealing an awful lot about God and, I think, ultimately make this a faith-promoting book. (Faith-promoting in the real world of real life. Not faith-promoting in the sense of perpetuating a faith-promoting-but-ultimately-unsustainable view of life.)
And he's funny, so that helps. When you can't get past the front matter without laughing, you suspect that he (and you) will be OK in the end. The book can be a little over-written, a little trying-too-hard-to-write-cleverly and be funny. But sometimes it is brilliant, like when he compares the examination of his motives to the public dissections in old Dutch paintings. And when he recounts personal inspiration that, fittingly, comes in the most mundane of ways. And the fact that, nearly forty years later, he still felt somewhat traumatized by his mission made me feel . . . less lame about the minor problems that I fret about today. The real battles in life (for some of us anyway) are huge, if small, and Harline's book is a welcome exploration of them.

Review copy provided by publisher.

 Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Life Below Stairs by Alison Maloney

The rational part of my brain recognizes that this book is simplistic and derivative. The rest of my brain enjoyed it, because I am still nursing an obsession with Edwardian England (that well pre-dates Downton Abbey, thankyouverymuch).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

Possibly the most dysfunctional family ever. Maybe the weirdest plot twists ever. But somehow, this worked for me. I actually liked it.

Review copy provided by publisher.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

How much did I like this book? So much that I do not regret the night of sleep that I lost to my inability to put it down. (That has literally never happened to me before. I always hate myself in the morning.)

Meet Bishop Bradley, the obediac. His wife Claire, who is not so much. His children, each with their own challenges. The character depiction and development is top-notch. The plot, in turns, hilarious and heartbreaking. The family's Mormonism doesn't just permeate every scene, but every line, every thought.  And every bit of Mormonism is here: our agony over our past and present, our faith and foibles, our cultural quirks and so much more.

The author's info announces that she has left the church and while your book group may have trouble with the one moderately graphic sex scene and f-bombs, I felt this was an ultimately faith- and culture-affirming book.

I'm not going to say much more about it, although there is so much to discuss here--from how polygamy impacts women's lives today, to how we balance church and family and obedience and autonomy, to how we deal with tragedy, to thinking about the inevitable dramas of marriage, to what we do to our young women, to how we think about miracles.

This one's a winner.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I'm somewhat embarrassed by how much I liked this book. (But I really, really enjoyed it.)

Friday, August 08, 2014

Mark 1-8:26 by Robert Guelich

In some ways this is quite dated with its emphasis on form and source criticism, so I would not recommend it if it were going to be the only commentary one reads on Mark. But there are some interesting insights here--I found myself quoting him a fair bit--so there is some value in it as an additional source.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Shopaholic and Baby by Sophie Kinsella

I wanted pure fluff, but this wasn't up to her usual standard.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney

I really liked this book. Excellent character development, interesting plot. Not perfect, but very good.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

So lame.

Friday, August 01, 2014

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