Title: Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet
Author: Jane Barnes
Price: $25.95 (or $10 on Amazon)
In this quirky autobiographical biography of Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet, writer Jane Barnes offers an overview of Smith’s life intertwined with her own life experiences of love, loss and death.
Barnes became acquainted with Mormonism largely through her work on the PBS documentary, The Mormons. Hearing stories about Joseph Smith, researching the works of Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman, meeting with the LDS missionaries, all of these things drew out Barnes’s deeply felt religious need (261). She interweaves her interpretation of Smith with her own life experiences—leaving her family to pursue a lesbian relationship gives her a different view of Smith’s socially deviant polygamy, for example. She is struck to discover her own Mormon roots, ancestors who were present at key turning points in the Mormon story. She is touched by the fervent but pragmatic faith of modern Mormon polygamists as well as the homespun scriptural interpretations of LDS missionaries. She may be in love with Joseph Smith, but she can’t make the leap to full commitment. And she’s maddeningly aware of her indecision.
She recalls a friend telling her that her “problem” was that she “wanted the meaning of life for breakfast” (39). In fact, the book recounts not one, but multiple of her own conversions. The one she had on the way to a Church meeting in Virginia (I’m pretty sure, given her description, she was going to Terryl Givens’s ward, pp. 13-17), the one she had with the Book of Mormon when she realized her dissatisfaction with its depiction of Jesus was rooted in her feelings about her own father (115), the “ker-thunk!” that fell upon her when she discovered, through family history research, that she had several Mormon ancestors (129-130), the one where she attended sacrament meeting on the day of the Primary program (“They sang hymns about ‘sharing families through all eternity’ with such tender sweetness I had to lash myself to the mast,” 217-8). She depicts herself as being trapped between PBS producers who think the documentary isn’t critical enough and missionaries who believe she just hasn’t prayed enough (126, 223, 257-8). Speaking of the missionaries, “They radiated Mormon goodness, a warmth so thick it seemed like they’d swallowed sweaters” (232).
As lines like that indicate, Barnes’s punchy prose sparkles and twists, somewhat compensating for her errors in historical recollection or uncritical use of various materials. (I think some footnotes are missing, too, such as in the first half of chapter seven and elsewhere. The publisher went with the annoying “popular” style of endnotes keyed by italicized excerpts from quoted phrases.) She rehearses a number of canards apologists have long declared debunked (impugning Book of Mormon witness testimonies, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc.). But despite accepting them, she remains entirely unimpressed by them. For the most part she offers sympathetic readings of aspects of Joseph’s history, such as the conversation Joseph had with his friends on the night he almost fled Nauvoo for good:
These were dramatic moments when Joseph decided whether he would or would not step up. When he spoke, it was not the ironic Joseph [like the one who met with Josiah Quincy]. It was the affectionate Joseph, the familial Joseph, the antiauthoritarian, first-among-equals Joseph, a man who did not want to die, but turned his fate over to the will of the group. He had shaped these followers, now he acquiesced to whatever shape they felt his fate should take. He turned to his brother and said, “I will go with you, but we shall be butchered.” Hyrum replied: “No, no; let us go back and put our trust in God, and we shall not be harmed. The Lord is in it. If we live or have to die, we will be reconciled to our fate” (208-9).
Above all, Barnes loves the playful and ironic elements of religious faith. Her favorite element of Joseph’s experience is his translating much of the Book of Mormon by use of a stone in a hat. Was Joseph conversant with phrases like “old hat,” “talking through one’s hat,” “at the drop of a hat” (“to signal a fight was going to start”), “throw your hat into the ring,” or “pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” She adds, “If you feel God needs to update at least part of his image–the part that is pretty humorless–as I do, you will delight in this connection, too” (7). She swerves from recounting actual witness accounts of the Book of Mormon translation into her own fictional reconstruction of Joseph’s early years. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are injected directly into the account alongside Joseph (51-58, 264-5, a massively charming feat):
The boys [Joseph, Tom, and Huck] came to a lovely dimpled slope of Hill Cumorah. They sat down in a row in the moonlight…[and] Joseph got started on his own story…”I put everything on the table when I went into the grove and prayed, asking God to tell me what church was true. I was practically murdered by some demon before I got an answer. This was no dream. I really thought I’d be dead if I didn’t fight for my life. Next thing I knew, God’s shining down on me and Christ’s with him. That’s when he told me all the churches were wrong. I was going to have to start a new one.”
“Well,” said Tom, blowing smoke rings, “he gave you a break there. If you make up your own church, you could keep the service to a minimum” (52-3).
If such excerpts aren’t enough to pique your interest, you can check out a version of the first chapter, originally published in Dialogue at the behest of Levi Peterson, giving impetus to the rest of the book, here. Or a bit of the fifth chapter here.
By mixing imaginative reconstructions, self-psychoanalysis, and an array of historical accounts together, Barnes’s book is bound to baffle any and all comers in some way. She’s not fully satisfied with Fawn Brodie’s or Richard Bushman’s Joseph, but admires elements of each. Hers is a Joseph who could never have produced the Book of Mormon but who did in fact produce it using a stone in a hat, of all things, whose polygamy was revelatory but not actually connected to ancient patriarchs like Abraham. “Under the intense pressure we associate with budding artists, improvising recklessly and freely, Joseph parlayed a real but evolving experience of God into an original act of religious performance art” (98). God is a form of realism that has been undermined by creeping modernism, Joseph is the artist seeking to repurpose him. Joseph’s complexity gives Barnes hope for her own salvation.
The book concludes on a rather serious note, considering Barnes’s characteristic playfulness. (Perhaps this can be seen as consistent with her overall admiration for deadly serious comedy.) Her main obstacle to converting to the LDS Church was Jesus, not Joseph; she couldn’t make sense of Jesus. After so many attempts, the baffled LDS missionaries thanked her sincerely for trying. In the meantime, she’d reconnected with an old friend who’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Her fear of death looming large, she ended up seeking counsel from an Episcopal minister—a return to the church culture of her youth. With the decline of her friend’s health, she worried above all about the command to “love thy neighbor.” Being a caregiver of a dying man who refused to speak with her about death—that which she wanted to speak about above all—was too much for her. She realized the minister could have easily pointed out that she “wanted ‘love thy neighbor’ to feel good. It didn’t” (263). I suppose her religious quest continues beyond these pages, where she identifies herself as a “drifter” and a “pseudo-pilgrim,” still haunted by her encounter with the Mormon prophet:
What I took away from Joseph was love of Joseph. I’d been through the wars with him, the craziness of life, and he’d affirmed for me that God was part of it all: the upside-down and backward surrealism of our illusions, desires, losses, misfortunes, horrors, joys (259).
This is the strangest biography of Joseph Smith you’ll ever read.