ringing book recommendation – Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, by Grant Hardy

an analysis that takes the Book of Mormon on its own terms

I loved this book!  Grant Hardy steps away from the ways of reading generally adopted by non-Mormon scholars (trying to show what it tells us about Joseph Smith), Mormon scholars (trying to prove its truth through identification of literary techniques unique to Hebrew literature), or lay Mormon readers (seeking verse by verse for inspiration) and instead suggests “that the Book of Mormon can be read as literature – a genre that encompasses history, fiction, and scripture – by anyone trying to understand this odd but fascinating book.”  In doing so, he examines the book as the work of three principal narrators – Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni – each very distinctive in circumstances, style, and sense of audience. 

What I loved about this book:

  • Hardy analyzes not only what IS there but what ISN’T there but perhaps should be.  For one example, Nephi recounts his father Lehi’s blessings to each of his children, except his blessing to Nephi!  Why might that have been excluded?  (Admitted speculation – albeit textually suggested – ensues.)  For another, Hardy points out that with one major exception, the Jaredite record (Book of Ether) seems to be almost entirely non-Christian.  
  • Hardy is a believer – as of a fabulous interview I heard in April 2011 on the Mormon Stories podcast he was serving in a Stake Presidency – but does not shy away from the difficult elements of the Book of Mormon.  How does Nephi quote from elements of Isaiah that the best Biblical scholarship suggests were written long after Nephi et al left Jerusalem?  What about the passages that rely heavily on New Testament prose?  Hardy explores potential explanations, and which are more likely to be faith-based rather than evidence-based. As Hardy says, “As believers, we should read it as carefully as possible, and we should bring to our study the best biblical and historical scholarship available, but there is enough theological flexibility to accommodate whatever we might find” [1].
  • In his analysis of the Book of Mormon as literature, he draws on other scripture traditions, from Zen classics to Tibetan tests to Hindu sacred poetry.  He also draws on literature, from Gulliver’s Travels to Nabokov’s Pale File to Don Quixote.
  • The footnotes are fabulous: They provide all the additional information and source material that you could want.

I hope to come back to this text again and again, and – more importantly – use it launch my own much more careful reading of the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts.

If you don’t want to trust me, here are a few other reviews worth reading:

  1. Steven Walker, BYU Studies, 50(3), 2011 – link
  2. Julie Smith, Times & Seasons Blog, 15 August 2011 (adapted from her Dialogue review) – link
  3. 12 Questions with Grant Hardy at the Times & Seasons Blog, 7 September 2011 (part 1, part 2)
  4. For a non-Mormon perspective, see Alan Wolfe, “Chloroform in Print: Does the Book of Mormon Get a Bad Rap?” Slate, 17 May 2010 – link

[1] 12 Questions with Grant Hardy, Part 2, Times & Seasons Blog, 7 September 2011.

Mormons in literature: My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Fuchs’s story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.

Chapter 4

reading chart & schedule for the WHOLE Old Testament

In my faith, we will be studying the Old Testament over the course of 2010.  For those who want to plan and track your reading, here are a couple of resources:

Charts (so you can check off each day’s reading, for people like me who that helps):  Page 2 of this PDF has the whole Old Testament.  So does a chart here.

This calculator helps you figure out exactly what to read each day if you want to read the Old Testament in a year (or in two years).  Here is what it looks like for one year.

(audio) book review: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (read by Geoffrey Howard)

wonderful behavioral insights; less convincing on the philosophy

I will likely listen to this book again.  I listened to it because (a) I loved Lewis’s Narnia chronicles at various points in my life and was interested in more, and (2) leaders of my church have often quoted this particular book, so I figured I’d see what all the hubbub was about.  Essentially C.S. Lewis here outlines Christian doctrine as he sees it and then discusses virtues which are essential to Christianity (not – to be clear – claiming that Christianity has a corner on them).  I’m far from a philosopher (and so – as he admits in the book – is Lewis), but I found the first part not entirely convincing.  While I enjoyed some of his doctrinal elucidations, I found some of his reasoning unclear, and he occasionally used the terrible “obviously” (using that rather than good reasoning when a point was not obvious, at least to this muddled reader). I got a little bit bored.

His behavioral expositions, on the other hand, were deeply insightful.  He both made points that I had never considered before and will review and also reframed behaviors I believe in with novel perspectives.  Either way, I highly recommend the book on that point.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Geoffrey Howard, who did a solid job.  Also, the entire book is available on-line.

Below, I quote a few passages I really enjoyed.

Continue reading “(audio) book review: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (read by Geoffrey Howard)”

Orson Scott Card’s summer reading list

I have read a few Orson Scott Card books and enjoyed them (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and the two that followed).  Anyway, for Mormon Times, he wrote a column with 3 summer reading recommendations for Mormons.  None look like page-turners, so I might wait until I get through Stephen King’s recommendations, but…

  • By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl L. Givens, is the single most effective defense and explanation of the Book of Mormon ever written. …
  • Somewhere along the way, Christianity got lost, and Richard R. Hopkins shows exactly when and where it happened in his vital book How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God. …
  • Whether the Christianity that came to dominate the Roman Empire was authentic or not, the fact remains that it did, and Rodney Stark does an excellent job of charting the process in Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.”

“All three of these books prove that good writing can make deep and important information accessible to the general reader.

Reading any of these books is also likely to raise your standards of what to expect from scholars, both in the church and the outside world. Once you know what good scholarship looks like, it’s harder to get taken in by nonsense.”

book review – The Peacegiver: How Christ Offers to Heal Hearts and Homes, by James Ferrell

This was recommended by a friend.  My thoughts:

profound and practical insights about relationship to Jesus Christ, couched in an unfortunately mediocre “story”

The short: I recommend this book. I learned a great deal about those things that matter most. The writing isn’t great.

The story: Rick has an unhappy marriage. He is thinking of giving up. His deceased grandfather appears to him in vision and takes him to the scene of several Bible stories, teaching Rick how the Savior’s atonement applies to his marriage. Rick tries to implement the lessons.

The good: Ferrell highlights several elements of the atonement that I had not previously considered and others that I needed reminding of. He uses the story of Abigail in the Old Testament (I know: Who? But she’s really in there) as a metaphor for Christ suffering not only for our sins but for the sins of those who have offended us, leaving us with little recourse but to forgive (Chapters 3-7). He deepens the metaphor with the story of the prophet Jonah and his withholding of charity towards Nineveh even as the Lord had already forgiven (Chapters 9-14). He movingly fleshes out the Savior’s sacrifice in Gethsemane (Chapters 22-25). These are well worth the read.

The bad: A tiny fraction of the book is dedicated to the actual story, the rest is conversation between Rick and Grandpa and – mostly – monologues from Grandpa. Take the absurdly long speech from John Galt in Atlas Shrugged and multiply it by ten. The book is either too long (it should have been a series of essays, skipping the slim story altogether) or too short (it should have had a more developed story). Given that Ferrell’s writing is not exceptional, I vote for the former.

But since we cannot dictate terms to the author, I am left to recommend the book as it is. The insights outweigh the annoyances. In particular, I recommend Parts 1, 2, and 4.

book review – On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary

This was a great, slim (I want to say little but I found it quite powerful) read.

excellent insights on many levels

When Richard Bushman sent the final proofs of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to the publisher, he started an author’s diary which he kept regularly for the following year, through publishing, reviews, book signings, lectures, and more. This slim book is that diary, and in just 130 pages it delivers the insights of several books. I think the book will be interesting to biographers who will see kindred struggles, to writers seeking to reach diverse audiences, and to Mormons who seek orthodoxy without sacrificing intellect. (It will be most interesting, however, if you have read Rough Stone Rolling.)

In the pages of this diary, we read Bushman’s candid reactions to reviews: “I realize I don’t like to read any kind of review, even the favorable ones. I am annoyed by what the reviewers choose to emphasize in Joseph’s life. Most of them pick up a few fragments and present them as if they were the key elements” (31-32). He also admits to monitoring other indicators of reception: “I look up my Amazon rank a couple of times a day. I tell myself I am curious about how the system works, but it is mostly vanity I know” (55). The play-by-play response to reviews illustrate the frustration of an author in seeking for his work to be understood and seeing reviewers read only part of the book or completely miss the point.

Bushman also provides some of his own doctrinal exposition. He is a practicing Mormon (a patriarch and a temple sealer, both respected positions in the Church) with – as he puts it – an orthodox testimony. “A man…said, I bet your testimony is different from that of people in this room. I said it was, but that I believed in the gold plates” (108). He shares in this very personal book some of his views on our relationship to God (60-61), his view of a potential new public persona for the Church (105-106), and spiritual counsel on how to deal with doubts about Joseph Smith (110-111).

Bushman’s principal dilemma in writing Rough Stone Rolling was trying to speak to both believing Mormons (many of whom have heard only praise for Joseph Smith throughout their lives) and curious non-Mormons (many of whom have never taken Smith seriously despite his accomplishments). As he reads reviews and gives talks, it becomes clear that he has lost some of the Mormons (one unnamed General Authority suggests his book will provide ammunition for anti-Mormons, others are supportive) and many of the non-Mormons (who see him as too sympathetic). He formulates an alternative approach he could have used to help non-Mormons along, and he questions (but ultimately defends) his decision to be explicit in his position as a practicing Mormon. Throughout, and especially in an essay he includes in the last few pages (123-127), he explores the question of how much of oneself to insert into a biography.

Finally, on a personal note, I enjoyed encountering books and people I have read. He talks about Greg Prince’s recent (excellent) David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and about having interactions with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know). He talks about interactions with Church leaders – Elder Holland, Elder Packer. These made the book feel a little more like family.

Fascinating, quick read, with parts to be enjoyed more than once. Highly recommended.

book review: Joseph Smith the Prophet, by Truman Madsen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book aimed at the believer.  My thoughts below, followed by notes on a number of portions of the book that struck me particularly.

a loving witness to the Prophet Joseph Smith

Truman Madsen here draws on a deep well of primary (and other) sources to bring the reader to know the prophet Joseph. Madsen writes, “If my elementary shifting of documents and sharing of impressions moves others to look not simply at Joseph Smith but through him to the Master – and, with those efforts, to take a searching look at themselves – my efforts will have been more than worthwhile” (p5).

This book is the written adaptation of Madsen’s famous Joseph Smith tapes, recorded from a series of lectures at BYU’s Education Week. I heard these tapes when I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1994 or 1995 and was deeply inspired. A few years ago, I borrowed a copy of the tapes from my brother and had a very different reaction: I found Madsen’s wildly dramatic delivery of the lectures distracting and annoying. But the stories were still powerful, so I obtained a copy of the book. I’m very glad that I did.

The book could be subtitled, “Marvelous and powerful stories you don’t know about the prophet Joseph Smith and his friends,” for ultimately – beyond the structure Madsen places on them – that is what the book entails. Much of the deliciousness appears in the footnotes, where Madsen gives his sources (again, most of them primary) and tells stories that don’t fit in the lectures.

The book starts from the assumption that Joseph Smith is a prophet and a good man. For a more historical and thorough treatment of Joseph Smith (also by a member of the Church), try Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

I found it very inspiring. It indeed led me to look beyond Joseph and the other early members to the Savior: their love for Him and for His work inspires me to seek to do and to be better.

Notes on my favorite parts below

Continue reading “book review: Joseph Smith the Prophet, by Truman Madsen”

book review: To Draw Closer To God, by Henry Eyring

My mother-in-law gave me this sweet book for my birthday.  I must have marked up two-thirds of the pages.  Highly recommended.  My thoughts:

exceptional collection of thought and counsel

In this selective collection of discourses, Brother Eyring teaches us how to hear the Lord, how to heed, and how to help others. In almost every chapter, I found myself making abundant marginal notes, sometimes to remind myself to implement a piece of counsel in my life, sometimes to emphasize how true a point felt, and other times to make sure that I remember a point for when the opportunity to apply to arises. The counsel I read in this book has affected how I read the scriptures, how I pray, how I listen to lessons and talks in church, and how I will approach friends struggling with their faith. These aren’t changes because of what seem like good ideas (although they are) but rather because the teachings feel true.

Perhaps this book is better than the average “Teachings” volume because of its selectiveness. With only 15 talks, each talk in this slim volume exhibits insights and inspiration.

I recommend this book highly, as one of the two most spiritual (non-scriptural) volumes I have ever read; the other is Yearning for the Living God: Reflections from the Life of F. Enzio Busche. I intend to gift this book liberally.

Many of the talks are also available on-line. I list the talks and where they were given, with an asterisk by those I found particularly helpful during this reading. I’m sure that next time I will be inspired by different passages. 
Continue reading “book review: To Draw Closer To God, by Henry Eyring”

book review, saints without halos: the human side of mormon history, by Leonard Arrington & Davis Bitton

My wife gave me this interesting volume of history for our anniversary in 2006, and I’ve read it bit by bit over the last several months.  My thoughts:

worthwhile peek into the lives of ordinary saints

The best known characters of Mormon history are the presidents of the Church* (from Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson), Joseph Smith’s immediate relatives (such as Emma or Joseph Smith, Sr.), and a handful of other people included in the canonized works (such as the three witnesses of The Book of Mormon). Of course, the Church’s current membership of 13 million has been built by a much broader group of people. Arrington and Bitton draw on diaries, oral histories, and other sources to construct character sketches (most of them under ten pages) of 17 people who for the most part don’t fit into those categories; I’d only heard of a few of them. The subjects range from the founding of the Church in the mid-19th century to the people who grew up in the early 20th century (the book was published in 1981, after all).

Arrington and Bitton haven’t managed to write a page-turner (Don’t expect The Da Vinci Code or even Prince and Wright’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism), but the accounts contain enough choice experiences and insights into the evolving Church to make this volume well worth the reading.

I wish the book had included more women (only five of the 17), but to the authors’ credit, the subjects are diverse in other ways: one isn’t a member of the Church (Kane), one left the Church (Wight), one held firmly heterodox doctrinal beliefs (Ericksen), one grew up among Hopi traditionalists (Sekaquaptewa). The authors try not to pass judgment but rather to present the stories as the individuals or their families recorded them. The examples of these hardworking rank-and-file members inspired me in their imperfections as much as their diligence and faithfulness.

[I even encountered an ancestor of mine by surprise: Oscar Kirkham makes an appearance in the life of Edna Ericksen (p132).]

Here is a list of the book’s chapters, with the (sometimes approximate) vital dates as available in the book, to give a sense of the time spanned:

1. Joseph Knight: Friend to the Prophet (1773-1847)
2. Jonathan Hale: Preaching the Restored Gospel (1800-1846)
3. Lyman Wight: Wild Ram of the Mountains (?-1858)
4. Colonel Thomas L. Kane: A Friend in Need (?-1883)
5. Jean Baker: Gathering to Zion (?-1880)
6. Edwin Woolley: Bishop of the Thirteenth Ward (1807-1881)
7. Charles L. Walker: Sage of Saint George (?-1904)
8. Lucy White Flake: Pioneering Utah and Arizona (1842-?)
9. Edward Bunker: Living the United Order (1822-1901)
10. Lemuel H. Redd: Down the Chute to San Juan (1836-?)
11. Chauncey West: Nineteenth Century Teenager (1877-?)
12. George F. Richards: A Link in the Chain (1861-1950)
13. Helen Sekaquaptewa: Traditions of the Fathers (1898-?)
14. Ephraim and Edna Ericksen: The Philosopher and the Trail Builder (1882-1967, ?-?)
15. Margrit Feh Lohner: Swiss Immigrant (1914-?)
16. T. Edgar Lyon: Missionary, Educator, Historian (1903-1978)

* The Church refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.